Book Review Of City Of Ghosts By Bali Rai

It’s safe to say that I have been a fan of Bali Rai’s works of fiction for many years now, for over a decade in fact! Since the days of (Un)Arranged Marriage (2001) and Rani and Sukh (2004), the Leicester-born fiction author captured my full attention with his writing that provides an insight into the Punjabi culture, aka my culture. However, what I love about Rai is that he does not glorify Punjabis simply because he is one, but he exposes the pros AND cons of the culture, allowing readers from any background to sample his novels. In addition to his widely accessible writing style, I feel as though I can relate to the author on a personal level; having studied for three years in the city in which he grew up, which is constantly referenced in his works and having sometimes felt a generation-gap between myself and my first-generation Indian immigrant parents, another topic that he regularly touches upon in his stories. Rai is also one of the few Punjabi authors (the only others that I’m aware of being Sathnam Sanghera and Jasvinder Sanghera) who have been able to achieve noticeable commercial success by writing fiction, having signed deals with Random House and Pearson Education, leading publishers within the UK book industry.

City of Ghosts (2010) stood out to me as a must-read mainly because of its plot centring on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Now the Jallianwala Bagh masscare is not widely acknowledged by Britons in contemporary society and is largely swept under the rug by British history textbooks…this is because even today it is viewed as a source of embarrassment by the British government. In fact earlier this year, British PM David Cameron referred to it as “a deeply shameful event in British history”, because the massacre involved the murder of over 1,000 Indians at the hands of British Imperialists in Amritsar, India in 1919. Simply because of the fact that so much innocent blood was shed, the Jallianwala bagh massacre is widely regarded as a key historical event in India during the British Raj.

I’d often heard about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre throughout my childhood, either from my parents or during my weekend lunchtimes spent at the local Punjabi School, showing that even though the massacre took place almost a century ago, it is still remembered by Indians all over the globe.  What has always specifically fascinated me about the tragedy is that it occurred on April 13th 1919, precisely 73 years before the day that I was born and also on the day of the Sikh festival Vaisakhi.

Now that I’ve provided a brief historical background to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre… back to City of Ghosts. Rai initiates the build-up to the ill-fated day of April 13th 1919 from the Prologue. In the Prologue we are provided with a narrative flash-forward to March 13th 1940, aka the date that the notorious Indian revolutionary Udham Singh assassinated Michael O’Dwyer. O’Dwyer was the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab who sanctioned the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and referred to it as a ‘correct action’, showing no sign of remorse even after the death-count was revealed. Therefore O’Dwyer’s murder was largely seen as a form of retribution by the Indian population and Udham Singh was deemed a martyr when he was hung thereafter, with many young Sikhs still idolising him as a hero today.

Whilst adhering to the well-known historical facts of the assassination, Rai also puts his own twist on events by turning Udham Singh into one of his fictional characters. The martyr is transformed into an orphan who is described as having grown up in the fictional Khalsa Orphanage, alongside the main character Gurdial and his friend Jeevan. In this way the historical figure of Udham Singh is humanised, allowing the reader to glimpse into his soul and relate to him on a personal level. And this is what I love about Rai’s writing, his ability to let the reader fully identify with his characters. For instance, he details everything about Udham Singh right before he pulls the trigger on O’Dwyer. We are told his exact position within Caxton Hall, ‘to the right of the speakers, by the first seated row’, what he’s thinking, ‘what a shame thought Udham, that O’Dwyer hadn’t listened to the voices of the people he’d governed all those years ago’ and how ‘his heart [races]’ before pulling the trigger. Little intricate details like these allow the reader to feel as if they were sitting in Caxton Hall on that particular day and happened to personally witness the assassination. For this reason I’m glad that Bali Rai decided to re-tell the Jallianwala Bagh story, because I doubt that any other author could have brought such a historical event back to life in the same way that he does. Following the Prologue, we are transported back to 1919 and the clock begins slowly ticking forward until it finally reaches the ill-fated day of April 13th 1919 at the closing of the novel.

Rai’s style of writing also appeals to me owing to his inclusion of vivid and vibrant descriptions throughout the novel. The author’s description of Amritsar is particularly noteworthy. He describes it as a city, ‘bathed in sunshine and filled with numerous brightly coloured trees and plants and flowers’ and his reference to ‘the myriad colours and sounds and smells’ makes me feel as though I have journeyed back to my homeland for the 7th time. It’s safe to say that Rai successfully captures the magical essence of India.

Rai also uses his imagination to construct various other sub-plotlines which occur alongside the build-up to the massacre, consisting of love-stories, magical adventures and the dangerous antics of anti-British, rebel-groups. The love-story between the orphan pauper Gurdial and the rich cloth-merchant’s daughter Sohni is an age-old familiar tale, which reminds me a lot of Disney’s Aladdin film! Sohni, like Princess Jasmine, lacks freedom in her life and is locked away living with her wealthy cloth-merchant father Gulbaru Singh. However, like Cinderella, she has an evil step-mother, Darshana  Kaur, who practises black magic in order to conceive a son for her desperate husband. Gurdial’s best-friend Jeevan is cheeky and self-assured, much like Aladdin’s amusing pet monkey Apu and often lands himself in trouble which, ultimately, not even Gurdial can save him from.

Throughout the novel Rai depicts an eclectic mixture of characters with extremely differing viewpoints and backgrounds, providing the reader with a well-rounded and objective narrative. For example characters like Bissen Singh and Gurdial represent the Indians who did not oppose the British Imperialists but rather learnt to live under their rule and serve them. ‘The clamour for an end to British rule over India grew with each day, and Bissen for one, did not understand it’.  Whilst wealthy merchants such as Gulbaru Singh illustrate the people who benefitted financially from the British rule and the increased taxation which caused prices of goods such as cloth to rise immensely. However, Rai also references those who strongly opposed the Engrezi (British Whites) through his depiction of extremist group leaders and members like Ram Singh (whose father was a Ghadar Party member killed by the British) and the mysterious Hans Raj and Pritam, who is described as having ‘darkness and hatred in his eyes’.  Most important perhaps is the way in which Rai shows that not all Engrezi viewed Indians as their inferiors during the early 1900’s. The front-line nurse Lillian falls in love with Indian soldier Bissen Singh and frantically thinks up ways to hide him in England; and her Uncle Bertie is described as having once lived in India and later refers to it as ‘the most amazing place he’d ever been to’.

Furthermore, I was surprised to find that the violent take-over of Amritsar led by thousands of Indian rebels on April 10th 1919 is also included by Rai in the narrative. I was surprised because this paints Indians in an unflattering light owing to the way in which they collectively killed four innocent goreh (whites) and injured many more, whilst looting and burning buildings in their own city, all in order to show their strong opposition to British rule. Therefore the reader is educated in the barbaric actions of the small minority of extremist Indians, showing that it was not just the Engrezi who took innocent lives in Amritsar in 1919.  And again, this is why I admire Rai as a writer because he presents both sides to the events which took place during this historical time period.

The end of the novel sees the ill-fated day of April 13th 1919 arrive with the massacre at the Jallianwalla Bagh consuming the lives of all of the characters except two. I was particularly disheartened when I read of Bissen Singh’s death and the way in which he dies holding a long-awaited letter from his lover Lillian, detailing that she has given birth to his son. Such a storyline stresses the vast number of innocent lives which were abruptly cut short and fills me with sentiments of sadness to think about the number of families that were unnecessarily torn apart in an instant and deprived of a mother, father or sibling, or maybe even all three.  However, I believe that the mention of new life, that of Bissen Singh’s son, is supposed to be interpreted as a sign of optimism by Rai; the idea that things were going to get better… perhaps with regards to the eventual departure of the British in 1947, when the country finally achieved independence. Moreover, the narrative foreshadowing of Udham Singh’s eventual plan for revenge also implies that those responsible for the massacre would receive their punishment one day. And although I do not believe that an eye for an eye can ever be viewed as an adequate form of retribution, I cannot begin to imagine the intense feelings of  pain and hatred that Udham Singh experienced on seeing his people slaughtered before his eyes and being one of the few left physically unharmed. Therefore I can understand that he felt an immense sense  of obligation to his deceased brothers and sisters and I hope that now, almost a century later, the ghosts of Amritsar have finally been put to rest.

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