Khooni Vaisakhi, a Punjabi poem by a survivor of the Amritsar massacre in 1919


April 13, 1919, marks a dark day in Indian history. Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikh religion, lost 379 unarmed civilians in a massacre orchestrated by British Brigadier General Reginald Dyer.

Thousands had gathered at Jallianwala Bagh, a city park in the center of the city to protest the Rowlatt Act, an oppressive law that denied the right of habeas corpus to individuals detained for certain crimes. The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre marks a key moment in India’s fight for independence from colonial rule and the scars of its violence still run deep.

A young Nanak Singh was present at the massacre – soon to become a famous Punjabi novelist and poet. When the shooting began, Singh fainted and lay underneath other fallen bodies. Deeply disturbed by this experience, Singh wrote Khooni Vaisakhi, an epic poem detailing the political anger before the massacre and what occurred on that infamous day.

Soon after its publication the British banned the poem and burned several copies. Singh continued to participate in a variety of civil disobedience movements that eventually led to his arrest.

100 years later, the poem is reborn. Khooni Vaisakhi: A Poem From The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre 1919 features an English translation of the poem by Nanak Singh’s grandson H.E. Navdeep Singh Suri, Ambassador of India to the UAE, alongside the original Punjabi version. The book was released on April 13, 2019 to mark 100 years since the massacre. The book also features an essay by BBC South Asia Correspondent Justin Rowlatt, great-grandson of Sir Sidney Rowlatt, who authored the infamous Rowlatt Act.

On April 18, the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute will host a discussion with H.E. Navdeep Suri and Justin Rowlatt. The talk will be moderated by Toral Gajarawala, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature, with the Minister for Tolerance in the UAE, H. E. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan as the keynote speaker.

In anticipation of the event and book release, The Gazelle sat down with H.E. Navdeep Suri to discuss the translation process and importance of poetry as a historical source.

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