The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge, and India's Quest for Independence
It takes a skilled story teller to describe such a monumental place as India in a way that even someone unfamiliar with it will understand the places, events, and participants. James Michener was a good example of that talent. Anita Anand has done it brilliantly with The Patient Assassin.
Anand gets your attention from the very first page by introducing two prison hangmen ordered (in the darkest days of 1940 wartime Britain) to execute the central person in the story, assassin Udham Singh. By the end of the first chapter, ominously titled “The Drop,” you know the hangmen’s personal failings and professional obligations. You also want—no, by this point you absolutely need—to know just who Udham Singh was, and how he ended up at Pentonville Prison.
As the story unfolds, you are taken back to turn of the century India and the two very different worlds who lived there: the British Raj and the Indian people. Anand’s vibrant and compassionate descriptions of each of those cultures reflect her own life, for she is a British-born citizen of an Indian family. The book includes eye opening facts about the Indian Army’s massive, and largely unsung, sacrifices to defend the empire during World War I. India proved her loyalty to Britain. But was Britain as loyal in return?
The moment of ugly truth in this book comes only five months after that war ended, at Amritsar, the holiest city of Sikhism in the Punjab province of northwest India. On the Sunday afternoon of April 13, 1919, several thousand Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus gathered in the Jallianwala Garden to celebrate the festival of Baisakhi, and to peacefully protest the arrests of two Indian leaders who had advocated independence. This assembly was counter to a recent British proclamation, the product of paranoia over possible insurrection, that Indians could not gather in groups. Most of the people in the garden weren’t even aware of the proclamation.
But it didn’t matter. Peaceful or not, the unarmed assembly was too much for the local British army commander, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, who felt he was being defied. He personally marched a company of Indian Army troops to the garden, sealed off the exits, and ordered them to open fire and keep on shooting. The soldiers killed over a thousand men, women, and children, and wounded over a thousand more. They then marched back to their barracks with Dyer at their head.
The lieutenant governor of the Punjab, Michael O’Dwer, backed the general completely. Both were convinced, and for years afterward declared, they had taught the Indian people a much-needed lesson. They had indeed. One of the people who learned that lesson was Udham Singh, who had been in the garden but coincidentally left just prior to the soldiers’ arrival. That day changed his life.
For the next 20 years Anand’s story follows Udham’s life across Asia, Europe, and North America, in which he encounters an incredible array of acquaintances, lovers, friends, dupes, mentors, dreamers, schemers, revolutionaries, bureaucrats, and intelligence operatives. Inexorably moving toward his targets, Udham perseveres over every obstacle and adversary, with his mind never far from the men he will someday, somehow, kill.
Along that path, Anand brings you into the lives and families of those other two men who are forever tied to Jallianwala Garden, the general and the governor. You will get to know them well and against your will, you begin to understand their frailties and fears. Faint tinges of sympathy emerge, only to evaporate when you remember the horror of what they did, and condoned, that Sunday afternoon at the garden. When one of them dies naturally, there is a sense of disappointment, for Udham was cheated.
And finally, in March of 1940, the two men left standing in this drama meet. The story is complete, and the reader understands a bit more about India, Britain, human nature, cultural fears, and national dreams.
The book would have been stronger with maps of India and of Udham’s bizarre life journey around the world.
Throughout this book, Anita Anand has portrayed the people, policies, and events with an even-handed tone, no easy feat but quite valuable for the impression it leaves the reader. By removing bias from the story, the events and people are more relatable, the facts more trusted, and the impact far more profound.
The Patient Assassin is recommended for anyone interested in 20th century world history, India, and the British Empire. You will never look at any of them the same again.