This non-fiction book tells a fairly extraordinary tale of a strange figure, woven up into the colonial history of the British in India. The central story is that a man called Udham Singh was present at the Amritsar Massacre (more accurately the Jallianwala Bagh massacre) and that he was so appalled and outraged that he spent the rest of his days trying to find a way to assassinate the British governor of Punjab at the time, Michael O’Dwyer. Spoiler alert (not really, we find out at the start), he succeeds – more than 20 years after the original events.
There’s so much I love about this book: I learned a huge amount about a period in Indian and British history that I knew little about (one reflection is that this is simply a part of history which is not taught in schools), and about the central act: a truly heinous criminal massacre perpetrated for no good reason on a flimsy premise and blatant racism. Even 100 years on, it’s truly shocking (and shocking that David Cameron, most recently of British prime ministers, failed to adequately apologise just a few years back). The final denouement is also pretty amazing, as a set-piece scene, with women flinging their way in front of the assassin and the wrong bullets firing off in random directions.
However I also found it a frustrating read: it’s such a great tale, but Anand quite often takes us down speculative tangents which are occasionally interesting but rarely diverting and don’t always add much to the story as a whole. This is partly because Udham Singh’s story (i.e. of the 20 years between the massacre, if he was there, and the assassination) is little known and much of it relies on guesswork and estimation, albeit based on research. I just ended up feeling like these were distracting from the main thrust of the narrative, and that a sharper, tighter narrative would have given the book more impact and propelled it forward faster for the reader.
All that said, that is largely a criticism of structure and narrative arc, rather than the content which is mostly informative, fascinating and enlightening. For those reasons alone, it’s worth a read.