Singh was put on trial at the Old Bailey — he grinned happily throughout — and sentenced to death by hanging. But he was determined to escape the noose by starving himself to death first. A macabre farce ensued with the prison authorities force-feeding Singh to ensure that he was in a fit state to make it to the gallows.
By the time he was executed, he had become a hero in India, hailed as the man who courageously — if rather belatedly — exacted retribution on his colonial oppressors.
In Britain, of course, it was a different story. Far from being a hero, Singh was reviled as the very worst sort of ‘native’ insurgent. But as Anita Anand makes clear in this briskly plotted, scrupulously even-handed and altogether riveting book, the truth was a lot more complicated.
He was hanged at Pentonville prison – a shamefully bungled execution by a nervous hangman, so Anand has discovered from documents released under the Freedom of Information Act. Her book isn’t perfect. There are some jarring Americanisms – “grunt” for army private, for example – and in terms of technique an inclination to go beyond the cautiously speculative (“There is no reason to believe that he would not have helped spread the word …”) into the assertively fictional (“He took the gun from his overcoat to check it one last time”). But all the same it is an involving account of a strange and obsessive life.
Anand has turned her meticulous investigative journalism to tracking the life of the formerly shadowy Singh. Unfazed by the challenge, she industriously substitutes accuracy for phantom historical fictions. Singh trailed the unpunished butchers of Amritsar. Getting near them required limitless reserves of fortitude and ingenuity. With a dispassionate eye for all his foibles and contradictions, Anand lures us into an irresistible narrative...Anand gamely follows Singh’s peripatetic adventures on convoys, trains, steamboats, motorbikes and camels. He criss-crossed continents, reinventing aliases more frequently than he changed the expensive socks no one knew how he afforded. Anand pursues the pursuer with equal tenacity. In her determination to pin him to his rightful place in history, the patient assassin has found his match.
On the day of the massacre Anita Anand’s grandfather could have been at Jallianwala Bagh but for being on errand. She combines interesting details with forensic research and an eye for colour making this little told story into a page turner.
Anita Anand’s The Patient Assassin is primarily the story of Udham Singh, the revolutionary who would assassinate O’Dwyer in 1940 in belated retaliation for Jallianwala Bagh. It is a dramatic, fast-paced narrative, its protagonist’s career bringing together everyone from the Soviets to the Americans. Very little is known about Udham’s early life, and what is known is enveloped in myth...Anand does a meticulous and determined job of tracing his steps and debunking more than one theory about him, though there isn’t as complete a treatment of the Ghadars themselves as one would expect.
[A]s the journalist Anita Anand shows in her colourful, detailed and meticulously researched account, the story of Singh and O’Dwyer is more ambiguous than it might seem. O’Dwyer, the fiercely reactionary British colonial proconsul who loathed Indian nationalism and revelled in his reputation as a “diehard”, was actually a boy from rural Tipperary who loved Persian poetry. Born in 1864 to a Catholic cattle farmer, one of 14 children, he had worked his way up to Balliol College, the Indian Civil Service and the coveted post of lieutenant governor of Punjab. There he took a notably hard line, insisting that only swift repression could stifle India’s growing nationalist movement. By contrast, Singh was a loner, a failure and a petty criminal. Born in intense poverty in 1899, he found a sense of purpose in militant nationalism, but never settled down to anything meaningful... Where the book really shines, though, is in evoking the fevered atmosphere of India in the late 1910s and early 1920s. The Amritsar massacre was self-evidently a dreadful moment, but it came against a context of nationalist agitation, growing violence and imperial paranoia.
Singh’s is a great and riveting story, but Anand hasn’t necessarily delivered it expertly. In her hands, the narrative feels much too often like a rambling yarn, and she has a fondness for the soap operatic in her storytelling. The first third of the book, in which she frames the tale and introduces us to the characters, is sudsy and overwritten... And yet, so compelling is the actual story of Singh, so full of remarkable twists and mysteries, that I never felt I should stop reading. I was glad I persevered; once Anand emerges from her descriptions of people and times for which she has to use her imagination to fill the gaps and begins those parts of her narrative for which archival information exists, her book becomes an altogether better one