Revenge against the Empire: a review of Anita Anand’s The Patient Assassin

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A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge, and India’s Quest for Independence
by Anita Anand
384 pp. Scribner $30.00

Anita Anand’s The Patient Assassin is the dramatic true story of a little known, semi-literate orphan boy born into a low caste in Punjab who spent his life plotting a revenge that would eventually rattle the British Empire to its core and send shock waves throughout the world. 

On April 13, 1919 British troops under the command of General Rex Dyer opened fire on hundreds of unarmed civilians who had gathered inside the walled garden of Jallianwala Bagh in Amristar, Punjab.  A small group were there in peaceful protest over the arrest of two national leaders, but most were families who had gone to celebrate the Sikh festival of Baisakhi. Gen. Dyer, with the tacit approval of Sir Michael O’Dwyer, Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, ordered his men to shoot indiscriminately into the crowd, firing especially toward the few exits where panicked throngs tried to flee. Anand’s own grandfather was at Jallianwala Bagh that day.  By sheer luck, he had left his friends to run an errand shortly before the carnage began. The horror he escaped was unimaginable. The book provides a chilling account of that fateful day from multiple primary sources. Those who weren’t killed in the ten minutes of continuous bullets were left to die alone through the night, as British troops prevented evacuations. 

Anita Anand’s The Patient Assassin
Anita Anand’s The Patient Assassin

Twenty-one years later, a man prophetically named Udham Singh (translates to “the upheaval lion”) made his way into a ticketed conference—without a ticket—and listened patiently to Britain’s Lords and politicians discuss recent developments in Afghanistan and the Soviet Union.  When the conference was over and everyone milled about, Udham calmly walked up to a group of relaxed VIPs, and shot Sir Michael O’Dwyer twice at point blank range, killing him almost instantly. Singh then turned his gun on other officials who had been part of Britain’s colonial rule in India. 

On the surface, this book is the extraordinary biography of an unlikely hero—or mad villain, depending on who’s reading.  But it is more than that. Anand explores the lives of a huge cast of characters whose paths intersected with Udhams.  The book opens with the story of competing hangmen, two men among many individuals—doctors, police chiefs, clerks, lawyers, bureaucrats, spies, politicians, laborers, reporters, merchants, students, revolutionaries, professors, and a brothel owner—whose lives, careers or legacies were shaped by their encounter with Singh.  Even the likes of Fatty Arbuckle, Ian Flemming, and Paul Robeson have cameo appearances in Udham’s story.

Although a meticulously researched audit of history, The Patient Assassin reads with the suspense and intrigue of a crime novel.  The story follows Singh from Punjab to Basra, to Uganda, California, Detroit, Germany, Russia, France, Belgium, Hungary, Poland Switzerland, Italy, Morocco, and more yet unknown places (hundreds of documents remain sealed) as he tries to get in proximity of his target.  Along the way he falls in love and starts a family, holds a good job, comes into huge sums of money and relishes in material excess. He abandons it all in pursuit of his obsession using the same determination he will also muster after he is imprisoned for years of hard labor and terrible abuse, including regular floggings.  

Anand pieces together many bits of a puzzle of a man who emerges vividly from the pages as charismatic, flamboyant, driven by a deep desire for relevance as much as revenge, stopping at nothing to get where he wants to be, cruel at times in his quest, handsome and physically imposing, inspiring true affection and loyalty from his friends (who spanned class, religions, and ethnic backgrounds), beloved by children, blinded by the glitter of material things to the point of recklessness, fearless, adventurous, unsettled, itinerant, vain, valuing “the brotherhood” above all human relationships, lucky, smart, funny, light hearted, and laser focused on the revenge that would calm his soul and make his name reverberate through history.  A once failed soldier and menial laborer whom no one took seriously in the beginning, Udham proved to be immensely resourceful and cunning, employing natural charm and multiple aliases to move around the world. He evaded surveillance on different continents, out-maneuvered the police and even outwitted the head of MI5. Finally, he was a man with deep reserves of strength that would make him take some secrets to the grave despite enduring unfathomable pain of torture during his last interrogation.

Anand also peels back layers in the lives of both Dyer and O’Dwyer, skillfully delving into their humanity and motivations without judgment.  Beyond individuals, there are the stories of nations, wars, and social movements. The reader will get a glimpse of Britain’s brutal colonial rule in India and the hypocrisy of Ghandi—who, on one hand preached non-violence, but on the other went around India shaming his countrymen into fighting for the empire in WWI, and who would later condemn Udham Singh.  Stories encapsulated in shouts of “Long live the Hind-Muslim Brotherhood” are reminders that the anti-colonial revolution was only possible through the cohesion of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus—and how alarming this unity was to the British. 

One of the more jarring aspects is that the details of this history, much of which happened a century ago, are eerily, bitterly contemporary. The random violence of British colonial rule, their orders to limit water supply and electricity to subjugate the natives, their inability or unwillingness to distinguish terrified civilians from militants echo of Israeli colonial rule in Palestine, or U.S. imperial adventures in Iraq.  The condescending language used to explain why Indians cannot govern themselves is almost verbatim what Jared Kushner recently said about Palestinians. The ways in which war criminals were lionized in mainstream British colonial society smacks of modern Israeli and American politicians who are elevated politically despite, or precisely because of, the destruction or subjugation nof whole nations and peoples. Then, there is the smoldering rage and anguish of the survivors.  It is the same now as it was then.

There were inquiries then into the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh, just as there was into the massacre in Jenin in 2002.  Both were rigged, and sanitized reports became the official accounts—today as it was a century ago. Honest journalists who tried to tell the truth in 1919 were sacked from their jobs, deported, arrested or otherwise silenced.  The reader cannot help but think of the fate Julian Assange, Michael de Adder, and Khaled Barakat, among many others whose livelihoods—and indeed, their lives—have been threatened for exposing contemporary machinations of power.  On the other hand, during Udham Singh’s trial, Reuters—the largest independent news agency in the world at the time—collaborated with the British government to ensure international press filings did not connect Udham’s act with India’s national liberation struggle or the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh—think, Rupert Murdock’s media empire, fake news, and embedded journalists.

Readers will meet an Indian student held in one of the “burgeoning new detention facilities springing up on the [Mexican] border” in the 1920s. They will come across rhetoric and laws that sound much the same as Donald Trump’s campaign speeches and executive orders. The Asiatic Exclusion League, which warned of “an Asiatic Invasion” by “brown men” and “Hindoos,” was influential in enacting legislation designed “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity,” such as the National Origins Act (to decrease immigration of of Southern Europeans, Jews, Arabs, East Indians, and Asians); or The California Alien Land Law that stripped Indians, Chinese and Japanese of rights and property; or the Labor Appropriations Act, which established the precursor to ICE border police. 

Wherever Udham went, Anand expertly shows the reader what and how the world was around him, politically and socially. During important moments, like the assassination day, March 13, 1940, we even get a view of the weather and the mood it must have created in London.  Anand also beautifully explains why Udham, upon his arrest, was insistent that he be identified in official documents and in the press by his final alias, Mohammad Singh Azad:

“India would understand.  It was no longer enough to settle his own score; he now had to unite his people in a full-blown revolution.  Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs would come together behind his act. He would avenge the dead. He would inspire the living.”

This is a book for students of history, for lovers of thriller novels, and for anyone interested in contemporary politics, social movements, liberation struggles, biographies, or just a well-told true drama.

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” It is the same now as it was then” Thanks I will get a copy as I had never heard of this and after reading it I will watch Marco Williams “Banished” again, same as it ever was, by “Israelite” I believe Williams means Blacks, it is a usage that I am quite familiar with, I have many Stars of David in ites, gold and green, “Banished: How Edomites Drove Hebrew Israelites Out Of… Read more »

I hadn’t heard this story of this in depth review and am highly looking forward to reading it. Thanks.

“Revenge is a dish best eaten cold.” In the end he struck at the moment of maximum vulnerability, as the British Empire was threatened by WW2. Very interesting

I remember the scene from the film,”Gandhi”, the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar that saw British Indian Army soldiers open fire on a gathering of unarmed men, women and children resulting in hundreds of deaths. The story of Udham Sing, reviewed here, fortells of the possibility of future patient assassins to avenge Jenin, or Sabra and Shatilla, or Deir Yassin, or Gaza, with no way to predict who will be assassinated. Massacres committed by… Read more »