If we write novels so, how shall we write History?’ asked Henry James, the masterly American writer of the nineteenth century. The question remains pertinent each time one confronts a historical novel, especially in the context of India where the official narrative rendered by the colonial authority sketched only one side of events. As a counter response, and based on fresh research, silenced voices of the subaltern have surfaced with an insistent probing into what constitutes truth telling.
Navtej Sarna’s brilliant novel Crimson Spring expands the genre of historical fiction by introducing multiple perspectives on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, thirteenth April 1919, through nine characters, some known, some imagined, who were perpetrators and victims in the tragedy that turned Baisakhi into a mass tragedy. It is a well-established fact that Brigadier General REH Dyer ordered soldiers to fire at least 1650 rounds on an unarmed crowd of innocent people hemmed in by high walls. The soldiers fired at random and then targeted those trying to climb the walls or crawl towards safety. No medical aid was allowed in, and curfew prevented families from seeking out the wounded and dying. As Sarna puts it, ‘The sun went down in an ocean of blood, and the night that enveloped Jallianwala Bagh was death itself, visiting each shadow, teasing out and trapping each escaping life’ (p. 153).