On March 13, 1940, an exiled Indian man killed the former Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab to avenge a massacre that took place nearly 21 years earlier. The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge, and India’s Quest for Independence, by biographer and radio presenter Anita Anand, sheds critical light on one of history’s coldest dishes of revenge: Udham Singh’s murder of Sir Michael O’Dwyer.
The two men were fatally linked by the Amritsar Massacre. In April of 1919, O’Dwyer set off a chain of events that led General Reginald Dyer to order his men to fire on a crowd of thousands of unarmed men, women and children in Jallianwala Bagh, a popular garden in the Punjabi city of Amritsar. Estimates of the number of people killed range from the official 379 to over 1,000. Singh, who lived in Amritsar, swore that he would avenge the victims.
Singh and O’Dwyer could not have been less alike. One was an impoverished Punjabi orphan and the other an ambitious Anglo–Irish civil servant who became the second most powerful man in the Raj. Anand expertly weaves their stories together, making their unlikely meeting both inevitable and tragic. She also recognizes that many questions surrounding Singh will remain unanswered. The historical record is murky, and the intelligence files surrounding his case have only recently (and incompletely) been released. Singh himself—at turns a charming rogue, a spinner of tales and a passionate revolutionary—didn’t seem to know if he was a patriot, madman or pawn. This lack of clarity allowed Singh to be labeled either a martyr or a terrorist, depending on the point of view of the person telling his story. Anand, whose family was directly affected by the massacre, rejects these easy labels. Instead, she delves into the historical record with rigor and objectivity, painting a portrait of Singh that goes far beyond his symbolic value.
The Patient Assassin is not a whodunit. We know who the killer is before we finish reading the preface. Nonetheless, it’s a suspenseful work of historical detection. Like a le Carré novel, it has a complex, weblike structure that creates a nuanced and compelling account of the massacre and its fallout. As a result, Anand rescues Singh from his pigeonhole, revealing a flawed man driven by anger, guilt and grief.