Reader, Dreamer, Man, Martyr: A Remarkable Tribute to Bhagat Singh

Reader, Dreamer, Man, Martyr: A Remarkable Tribute to Bhagat Singh
On a night as dark as the sins that had been committed therein, those were strange lamps that burnt by the waters of the Sutlej. For they flickered, faded out, and then somehow shone again. Their morbid origin inexplicable, till one approached them and witnessed the horror that they truly were.

But that is later. Let us go back. Back to when the irrepressibly idealistic and passionate Bhagat Singh awaited the gallows at the Lahore Central Jail. We are told that many were those who awaited him and his comrades Rajguru and Sukhdev with bated breath; not just dark-cloaked impending death. There were, for instance, ancient trees and the multi-hued birds that resided in them – the Ber tree at Lal Khooh with its red berries, and the Banyan at Hazrat Mian Mir’s tomb.

Silence itself awaited, tight-lipped but whimpering within, and roamed the hushed streets and houses of Lahore with their waiting denizens. It was the kind of gnawing waiting silence that preceded an impending tragedy. Such as when it became a foregone conclusion that Mahiwal, who approached the Chenab, shall drown in it. Or Mirza not finding his quiver at hand was to be riddled with arrows by those who sought to vanquish him. Or when it was inevitable that Heer, lamenting and distraught, shall be taken away by the Khera's.

Such was the tragedy that loomed large over an expectant, febrile, grieving city.

Cover of Mustansar Hussain Tarar's book "Mein Bhannan Dilli De Kingray"

Bhagat Singh and his valiant companions have recently been receiving much deserved and long due scholarly and popular attention. What Mustansar Hussain Tarar has done, however, is write a deeply moving masterpiece that is both an ode of love to them, as well as a scintillating exploration of the grand ideas of selflessness and sacrifice.

The modus is surreal as the twenty-three-year-old who was martyred close to a century ago gets to revisit for a single day the places that figure prominently in his life and death. As the day shall expire, so shall his sojourn.

During this brief time, he recalls much, such as the trip he took with his uncle to the blood-soaked fields of Jallianwala Bagh, where birds whose fragile hearts had stopped by the shock of the din of rifle-fire, kept dropping out of trees, long after the massacre. Where they were forced to crawl across a nearby street in obedience to the ruling race’s orders to humiliate natives.

From these killing fields he had taken a handful of soil, in which had seeped the blood of the innocent. This he had mixed in the soil of the Ber tree that grew in his courtyard, a Ber tree that appeared to tearfully welcome him when he saw it so many years hence.

During his trip to his ancestral village Banga, a deep nostalgia for his idyllic childhood and political awakening grips Tarar’s Bhagat Singh. The special, soothing sound of his mother’s loom, a fondly remembered colorful churning pot and a grinder for grinding grain, the Ber tree, and other such remembrances are what he seeks: moist-eyed and overwhelmed as he visits his abode, which appreciative modern Pakistanis have preserved with singular devotion.

Deftly and masterfully, Tarar provides insights into the making of the man who went on to become one of the most celebrated martyrs in the fight against colonial tyranny in South Asia.

One of the most charming and utterly brilliant features of the book is the introduction of the mottled pie-dog, named 'Dab Kharaba' by Bhagat Singh who rescues him from urchins dragging him through dusty streets with a rope tied around his neck.

A lacerated neck is what he and Bhagat both have in common, and a bond quickly develops as the dog faithfully follows his messiah. Together, the two now head to Lahore which also appears lustrously in the text – Bradley Hall, D.A.V College, Police Lines, Railway Station, Central Jail, and so on.

The dog is quizzical but stoic as he follows Bhagat from one city landmark to another, as he traces his heroic journey from student days to becoming one of the most strident voices against tyranny. Bhagat, in turn, dotes on his companion and remembers why Bulleh Shah spoke of elevated traits in dogs which, if found in men, would make them true followers of the Divine.

The way they both gauge and engage with each other is utterly delightful and heart-warming. It draws out the tenderness and empathy that defined Bhagat Singh, and that reflects in his elegant surviving writings in Urdu and Punjabi, as well as his refined taste in poetry.

It is also the same tenderness and empathy that permeated his friendship with the lower caste Chitta Changhar with whom he makes a memorable trip to the famous fair at Aimanabad; as also the warmth and kindness he extended to the socially ostracized jail charwoman Mai Haneri whom he treats like a mother. Katoora the dog discovers true gentleness but just for a day, as the specter-like figure that lightened up his life dissipates in twilight.

The book is dedicated to our Shahs: Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah and Shah Hussain. How fitting is that. For in the grand poetic and mystical tradition of these extraordinary people, we have a narrative here that is both lyrical as well as steeped in mysticism.

Bhagat Singh’s progression to execution and martyrdom is like the bride setting off on the night journey to her new home or the excited traveler heading out to attend the colorful and boisterous mela or carnival. We also find much mention of those like Dullah Bhatti, Rani Jhansi, Hazrat Mehal, Princess Zeb-ul-Nisa and Mansoor Hallaj, for Bhagat Singh’s journey is that of righteous defiance and dissent.

Mysticism and love, selflessness and sacrifice, sunshine days of youth and the gloom of inevitable death -- these themes have inspired some truly memorable literature. Like all such literature, 'Mein Bhannan Dilli Day Kingray' brilliantly combines the particular and the general; the local and the universal.

While it delicately captures the vibrant moods, birds and trees, waterways, sounds, culture, music, poetry and mysticism of beautiful Punjab, it is at the same time an exploration of fate, choice, and the morality of speaking truth to power; even when it endangers one’s own corporeal existence.

But let me say something about the language: I count myself amongst the many unfortunate urbanized Punjabis who don’t read their language and speak it haltingly. Mercifully for me, the bond never fully broke though, as my periodic forays into the great Punjabi Sufi poetry and folk tales traditions has enriched me beyond measure. Wisely, I decided to read this text out aloud and was rewarded immensely. Both because I found that this allowed me to read with great fluency; but also, because Punjabi is a language that truly entraps you in its heady magic when heard.

Punjabi has an extraordinary reservoir of sonorous and musical words, terms, and phrases that capture a vast range of situations, states and emotions - truly from the sublime to the ridiculous. Combine that with Tarar’s rich imagery and allusions to Punjabi poetry, history and cultural practices, and we have a narrative that offers great texture, colors, wit and pathos. Not only a powerful restatement of Bhagat Singh’s remarkable story and its key events, this novel is a joyful celebration also of the land and language that Bhagat Singh, Tarar sahib and so many of us are blessed to know and love.

Importantly, what this novel highlights is not just the largeness of Bhagat Singh’s heart, but also the vastness of his mind. His impressive scope of reading and thirst for learning, his ideological rigor, and his intellectual curiosity as well as clarity. We, therefore, discover a Bhagat Singh who is a man of many parts. While dealing with and describing episodes of high emotion, drama and tragedy it is easy to fall through the trapdoors of melodrama or hyperbole. Never does this happen here, as Tarar steers us through the narrative, making us laugh and cry, but not wander astray.

However, this is not a book to be assessed purely on its craft; though Mustansar Hussain Tarar assuredly is at the very peak of his writing prowess.

This is a haunting love poem by someone who loves freedom, his land, and one of the beautiful languages of the world, with the same passion as the one whom he memorably commemorates in this remarkable book — one Bhagat Singh. Scholar. Poet. Freedom Fighter. Martyr (1907-1931).

Dr. Osama Siddique writes constitutional history as well as historical fiction. He also advises on legal and institutional reforms. He tweets at @DrOsamaSiddique