A story set in pre-partition Amritsar

Kiran Ahuja’s historical novel, set in the Amritsar of 1900-1940, traces the contrasting destinies deriving from two separate but identical acts of two classfellows, Mohan Rai and Prashant Singh. Through painstaking background research Ahuja provides a fairly faithful and realistic social and political context to tell their stories. 

Oct 29, 2014
Book: Freedom, Fear and Fortune
Author: Kiran Ahuja
Publisher: Cinnamon Teal Publishing
Year: 2012
By Ishtiaq Ahmed
Kiran Ahuja’s historical novel, set in the Amritsar of 1900-1940, traces the contrasting destinies deriving from two separate but identical acts of two classfellows, Mohan Rai and Prashant Singh. Through painstaking background research Ahuja provides a fairly faithful and realistic social and political context to tell their stories. 
The main protagonist is Mohan Rai who belongs to a family of Hindu spice merchants. He loathes the family profession and, despite stiff opposition from his father, joins Khalsa College, Amritsar that had originally been founded for upper class families but which admitted, on merit, talented students from humble backgrounds. So, on admission day in 1918, when he comes to the college he meets another beginner, Prashant Singh, who belongs to a peasant family from Badomali in the nearby Sialkot district. They pay no heed to the radical propaganda being conducted by some agitators on the campus to dissuade Indians from joining educational institutions staffed by British teachers. He and Prashant find their English teacher, Mr Thomas Hunter, to be a most caring and kindly individual who goes out of the way to help them shed their rough edges and learn proper English. 

However, a year later, all hell breaks loose for Mohan. In the aftermath of World War I, expectations are high in India that the British Raj would grant greater representation and self-government to the natives. However, nothing of the sort happens. Additionally, the 1.25 million Indian troops who fought for the empire in the Middle East and Europe are demobilised and sent home without any reward. To add insult to injury, the draconian Rowlatt Bills are promulgated that authorise detention without trial of suspected political activists. Gandhi’s call for satyagraha or non-violent protest on April 6, 1919 results in strike actions in Amritsar and Lahore led by two Amritsaris, Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr Satya Pal. Both are arrested. A volatile situation is created when inflamed mobs attack and kill five Englishmen and an English missionary is badly molested. The British response is terribly disproportionate. On April 13, the infamous massacre of innocent people takes place when General Dyer and his Gurkha troops open fire on thousands of people at the Jallianwala Bagh, many of whom were there from the rural areas to celebrate the spring festival of Baisakhi. The official death count has been given as 400 with 1,200 injured, but Indian claims exceed those figures by a wide margin. Ahuja’s graphic portrayal of the utter savagery enacted at Jallianwala Bagh is a most powerful indictment of the British Raj’s most brutal use of force after the uprising of 1857. However, the author also draws attention to dissenting voices among the British to colonialism. 
In any event, when Mohan and Prashant decide to say goodbye to Mr Hunter who is leaving India for good, a mob arrives chanting “death to the British”. Prashant helps the British principal escape the wrath of the rioters but Mohan, who goes looking for Mr Hunter, finds him lying on the floor in his living room. Mr Hunter is dead, apparently having received fatal injuries when he fell. Just at that moment, rioters burst into the room and, upon finding Mr Hunter dead, begin shouting triumphantly that Mohan had killed the Englishman. He is arrested and thus begins one of the worst travesties of judicial procedure. He is dispatched to the dreaded Andaman Islands without trial and being proved guilty. Thus begins an incarceration that, despite several pleas to have his case re-examined, continues till 1937. Mohan borrows books from the library and learns to cook a variety of dishes while serving in the prison kitchen. 
When he finally returns to Amritsar, things are no longer the same. His father is dead. He learns that his father did try his best to find out what had happened to Mohan but had been unsuccessful. His sister, Biba, who had become a child widow and was therefore condemned to live a life of complete deprivation and social isolation, as required by traditional Hinduism, had nevertheless been married to a much older man: a friend of their father, Uttam Singh, a widower. With this and some other examples the author illustrates the changes underway in the early 20th century when tradition is confronted by stark reality and the latter prevails. 
Meanwhile, Prashant who had saved the life of the principal, has been rewarded with an officer’s position in the postal department. That social elevation, however, creates a chasm between him and his uneducated wife, Purnima. They have children together but Prashant maintains liaisons with other women including Nikki who Mohan wants to marry but who prefers to be Prashant’s concubine since the latter has the means to support her. These old friends meet but they have nothing in common. Prashant has become a user and exploiter of vulnerable people.
During a chance visit to an orphanage, Mohan meets Saif, the son of the Muslim attendant at the orphanage. He has dropped out of school because he cannot write with the right hand as was expected of pupils in those days. Mohan teaches him to write with his left hand and that brings great joy to Saif. His book on cookery is also published and some money trickles in. The novel climaxes with Prashant one day arriving with a box containing the books and papers of their deceased teacher Mr Hunter. He says he has no interest in those objects. Mohan accidently finds that Mr Hunter had left a will in which he leaves his estate in the UK to his students as his wife Mary had died even earlier. There is also a bank account given. In the end, Mohan, whose life had been devastated when he was wrongly declared the killer of his teacher, is thus amply rewarded.
Ahuja has subtly balanced her rationalist critique of outmoded Hindu customs and traditions with concessions to Hindu philosophy premised on the assumption that, notwithstanding the tribulations and trials attended upon the lives of individuals, ultimately truth prevails and good deeds are rewarded. By choosing a Muslim boy, Saif, as the recipient of Mohan’s help and favour, she also underscores the Gandhian spirit of inclusion of all humanity into one indivisible family. 
The reviewer is a visiting professor, LUMS, Pakistan, professor emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University, and honorary senior fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Latest publications: Winner of the Best Non-Fiction Book award at the Karachi Literature Festival: The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, Oxford, 2012; and Pakistan: The Garrison State, Origins, Evolution, Consequences (1947-2011), Oxford, 2013. He can be reached
The Daily Times, October 29, 2014

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