Jallianwala bagh... I had not expected to want to visit it.
Just like I do not wear white khadi to show support for Gandhian thought, just like I do not use prayer to reaffirm faith, I do not usually visit martyr-memorials to remind myself of the freedom struggle. Overt nationalism makes me uncomfortable; as if we were trying to prove a point about our self-worth. Besides, patriotism leaves me with strange questions (What is a legitimate nation? Are we a legit nation? Are we the nation we promised ourselves we’d be? If we have failed ourselves, do we have the right to de-nation ourselves? Why/why not?).
But the taxi driver, on the way back to the hotel, pointed out the sign; Jallianwala bagh, he said.
And I asked him to stop the car.
I had not expected to find that particular song float through my head...‘aapki baat, baat phoolo.n ki’…
But I had not expected to find flowers either. Flowers were the first thing I saw in the bagh (it really is a bagh now, though there was no garden at the time of the massacre. What was called Jallianwala Bagh was simply a space, about five and a half feet lower than the surrounding streets, with houses all around and only one narrow entry/exit, and was almost a dump, used occasionally for meetings and public gathering. The land was bought off at least 34 different owners, after 1920, to build the memorial, and later, the landscaped garden).
I went through the same narrow entry/exit, where General Dyer had once led his troops, past the spot where the soldiers knelt to fire, past fading geroo-coloured walls which neither beckoned nor imposed, past a sign mentioning timings – different, for summer and winter – where I noticed that I had only a few minutes to look around.
Rows upon rows of flower-pots. Snap-dragons, daisies, pansies. Yellows, purples, whites, pinks. A rose-patch. Neat hedges.
And constant music. Patriotic filmy songs. As it happened, the one playing right now was apt - ‘is mitti se tilak karo, ye dharti hai balidaan ki; vande matram…’
I had not expected to be moved.
Perhaps, it was not the song. Perhaps, it was the amar-jyoti (eternally burning, courtesy Indian Oil) that stood trembling before me. Or, I before it.
Perhaps, it was the late winter afternoon and the setting sun and the five white-bearded men sitting on a stone bench, all in a row. Perhaps, that was why I had gooseflesh.
Or perhaps, it was because of the now-covered well that I couldn’t see the bottom of, from where 150 corpses were pulled out. One shudders a little near it: the air is cold there; the very smell is cold.
Or maybe, I was moved because of the kites. Almost every tree had a torn kite stuck it its branches. Some dead trees. Many dead kites. Maybe, it was the sad poetry of it.
But I had not expected to struggle with awkward tears.
There is a little museum inside, full of portraits and explanations. Dr Kichlu and Dr Satyapal, already old men both, who were arrested and deported. Their arrests were what sparked off the protests that led to the Jallianwala bagh meeting.
But I spent the most time with Ratan Devi’s portrait.
Ratan Devi, widow of Chhaju Bhagat, who had gone to the meeting at Jallianwala Bagh. When the soldiers opened fire, Ratan Devi began to worry, to cry with fear. Her husband did not come back. She decided to go and look for him, although there was a curfew from 8 pm onwards. Once inside the bagh, she found his body and she asked her sons to bring a charpai, to bring the body home.
But it was already 8 pm. Her family did not show up. One after another, she asked people to help her carry the body home. But nobody was willing to risk their own lives, to bring home the dead.
Ratan Devi decided to wait there, not willing to leave her husband's body lying there alone. She thought herself lucky when she managed to find a bamboo stick, so she could keep stray dogs off the body. Where she sat, there were injured people. Still alive. Writhing in pain. Three men. A buffalo. A twelve-year old boy.
She asked the boy if he was cold. If she could cover him with a shawl or something. The boy asked for water. There was none to give.
All through the night, she sat there, guarding a dead man, listening to the dying. There she sat, until half past five in the morning, when her family showed up with a charpai. And she said - what she went through, that night, only she knew or god did.
Outside, the dying sun allowed itself one last burst, glinting against the silhouette of a woman sitting on the grass. All I could see was a shock of white hair on a faceless old woman and the sounds of screaming, running children.
I had not expected that.