Authors: Bali Rai
It is 1919. Amritsar in India is a city on the brink of revolution.
Innocent citizens, trying to escape ghosts from the past, are swept up in violence and tension. They are unaware that, as the fight for Amritsar reaches a terrifying climax, their lives will be changed for ever . . .
A big thank you to everyone at
Random House Children's Books for all their hard
work; and to Penny my agent for being so great.
To everyone who helped me during the writing of
this novel â most of you know who you are. Some
of you may even be in this book . . .
A big thank you to Asian Dub Foundation for their
song âAssasin'; the original spark for this novel and
a wicked tune to boot.
Finally, to the memory of Udham Singh (aka
Ram Mohammed Singh Azad) and all the ghosts
of Jallianwalla Bagh.
Caxton Hall, Westminster, London, 13
Udham Singh (aka Ram Mohammed Singh Azad)
Udham Singh watched the chairman of the meeting, Lord Zetland, gathering up his notes as another member of the panel answered a question. He looked at his watch and saw that it was half past four; the meeting was nearly over. The Tudor Room was packed with guests and other interested parties. Two banks of chairs sat in front of the panel, with channels through the middle and to both sides. The chairs were full, as were the channels, and Udham was standing in the perfect position, to the right of the speakers, by the first seated row. Zetland, who was Secretary of State for India, put his hand to his mouth as he let out a yawn. Two places to his right sat the man Udham had come to see.
Sir Michael O'Dwyer was a distinguished-looking gentleman with silvery-white hair and pale skin. Age had caught up with him and the skin around his jaw line had begun to sag. But his eyes retained the steely determination that had seen him through his time as Governor of the Punjab two decades earlier â or at least that's what he wanted the public to believe. He sat perfectly still, listening with interest to those around him. What a shame, thought Udham, that O'Dwyer hadn't listened to the voices of the people he'd governed all those years ago.
Lord Zetland brought the meeting to a close and the audience gave a small round of polite applause. As he heard the clapping, Udham found himself drifting back to that fateful afternoon in Amritsar in 1919; to the event that had set him on this path and given his life purpose. There he was, stumbling aimlessly through the smoke-filled darkness . . .
For twenty-one years Udham had bided his time, travelling to many countries and planning his revenge. Eventually he'd found himself in England, in the heart of the beast that had taken hold of his motherland. Now here he was, a revolver tucked into his waistband, ready to satisfy the ghosts of Amritsar; to help those restless spirits find their peace.
âSo many you kill,' he whispered, directing his remark at O'Dwyer. Not that anyone could hear him. People had begun to stand up, preparing to leave. This was his chance . . .
He pushed his way through the crowd, past chatting white men and women, until he was in front of the panel. His eyes hardened and his heart raced. He pulled out the gun, looking directly at O'Dwyer. The old man seemed unable to understand what was going on at first. The skin around his eyes began to crease, however, when the truth dawned. His mouth opened and formed a perfect O.
Udham said a silent prayer, and fired.
GURDIAL WATCHED JEEVAN
as he tried to juggle three onions. They were sitting on a low wall within sight of the Golden Temple, watching people go about their business.
do it!' Jeevan insisted.
Gurdial smiled and shook his head. My best friend is a buffoon, he thought to himself. Jeevan had always been the same, ever since they'd been thrown together as children at the orphanage. He was never beaten, never wrong. Once he got an idea in his head, stubbornness and a degree of vanity meant that he had to act it out. However many people told him he was wrong, he would spend the entire day insisting that he was right. Most people considered Jeevan spoiled and irritating, but for Gurdial, who knew him better, it was part of what made him who he was.
Everyone at the orphanage assumed a mask and Jeevan
was no different. It was how they dealt with their past misfortunes. Gurdial knew that beneath the front, Jeevan was warm-hearted, kind and loyal, and whenever his friend played up, Gurdial simply ignored him and talked about something else.
âThe postmaster is having an affair' â Gurdial was repeating two-month-old gossip.
As Jeevan picked up his onions once again, he pulled a face. âTell me something new,
,' he said. âThat old goat has been news for weeks.'
Gurdial yawned. They had been up since dawn, beginning their day with a wash, followed by prayers and lessons. Now, in the warmth of the afternoon sun, his eyelids felt heavy and sleep was on his mind. But there was no way he could head back to the orphanage for a nap. The couple who ran it, Sohan Singh and Mata Devi, would have a hundred and one chores waiting for him, and Mata Devi in particular would beat him for being so lazy.
Instead, Gurdial turned his attention to the busy street. The myriad colours and sounds and smells made him smile. Amritsar was a wonderful city, constantly changing yet always familiar too. A city of tall, inward-leaning buildings and narrow alleyways where the sun never shone; of wide open spaces too, bathed in sunshine and filled with numerous brightly coloured trees and plants and flowers. White marble buildings ringed the pool of
or holy water that in turn surrounded the Golden Temple.
People of all religions lived in the city. Each afternoon, after their chores were done, Gurdial and Jeevan would head down the streets and alleyways, looking for fun. The people they met were Muslim and Sikh, Hindu and Christian. Some were as dark as the night sky; others had yellow skin and hair. There were green eyes and blue eyes and brown eyes. The
were pink â their women were often tall and wore dresses and sun hats, many of them showing off their arms and legs, constantly smoking cigarettes. The men wore far too much clothing and strutted around like peacocks, forever puffing on pipes or cigars, their faces red and their hair and moustaches always perfectly oiled.
Today, the streets were as busy as ever, and across the road from where they sat Gurdial saw two soldiers talking to an old man in a white turban. He was wondering what they were discussing when a hand clapped him on the back. He turned and saw Bissen Singh standing by his side, smiling at him.
âHere you are again, idling away the hours,' Bissen said to them.
Jeevan put the onions in his pocket, hoping to disguise the fact that one of them had begun to rot and smelled.
âBissen-ji â where have you been?' Gurdial asked.
âI went to visit my family,' he told him.
Bissen Singh was in his twenties but had already done more than Gurdial and Jeevan could have imagined in a lifetime. He had fought in the Great War â the one that had just ended â alongside the British. He'd been
injured in a country that Gurdial had never heard of, called France, and been sent to England to get better. He still walked with a slight limp, and on certain days Gurdial had noticed that his gaze grew distant, as though he was dreaming of faraway places and different people. Gurdial often dreamed of fighting alongside Bissen Singh and wondered if he would ever experience even half as much during his own lifetime. As Bissen ruffled Jeevan's hair, Gurdial asked how his family were keeping.
âGood, good,' he said. âAnd what about you two â keeping out of trouble?'
Gurdial nodded as Jeevan spoke up: âWhen you were in the war,' he said, just as he always did whenever he saw the soldier, âdid you have to cut your hair?'
Bissen laughed but his thoughts were elsewhere for a moment: back in England, sitting in front of a mirror as a young nurse cut his locks away.
âNo, no!' he replied, snapping back into the present. âThey let us wear our turbans, although in the trenches it was very difficult to keep them clean.'