Bali Rai, City of Ghosts

I have a post about Bali Rai’s City of Ghosts on the Children’s Literature in Newcastle blog, as a way of commemorating the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Alongside the book (and since I finished it), I’ve also been reading Kim A Wagner’s book on the incident; it’s published as Amritsar 1919 outside India, but here it’s only Jallianwala Bagh, which I think speaks to the sort of mythic resonance that it has within how Indians (at least, Indians from my part of the country) tell our history.

Rai’s book was published in the UK in 2009–I don’t know if it was ever actively linked to the 90th anniversary of the massacre. Nevertheless, I feel that questions of how the empire is remembered have been so much more prominent over the last few years (Brexit, Rhodes Must Fall, multiple rounds of the was-Churchill-bad wars) that reading it now may be quite different from reading it a decade ago. The centenary has taken place amid a number of calls to the British government to issue an official apology for what is now, at least, widely acknowledged as a horrific event (it’d be nice to be able to be shocked that the public at the time did the equivalent of a racist GoFundMe [to steal the term from my friend Vajra] to support Dyer, but then this happened this week and I’m not surprised at all.). I’m unconvinced that an apology is worth much–as I say in the blog post linked above, I’m suspicious of attempts to cordon off particular aspects of imperial violence and mark them as uniquely awful, when doing so serves to render all the other imperial violence (i.e. all of empire) relatively benevolent (on twitter I linked to Tom Bentley’s thoughts on this, which are good). I’m also suspicious of how these arguments constantly quote Churchill and work to suggest that he wasn’t a big fan of large scale violence on nonwhite colonial subjects.

As for the book itself, I think my main feeling was that I wanted it to go further and be the full-on angry indictment that it could have been. Given its audience, I’m not sure how far it could have gone, though. I got curious and read as many online reviews of the book as I could find, some from ten years ago and others more recent, and while they were all complimentary none of them suggested a possibility of deep engagement. Several iterations of “I’d never heard of this awful event!” (fair enough, sorry about the history curriculum); at least one that was uncomfortable with the fact that the book seems to endorse Udham Singh;s doing a murder; one, memorably, that sought to compliment Rai by comparing his presentation of India to Kim, by Rudyard Kipling (who famously called Dyer the “man who saved India” and supported his actions during the massacre. I love Kipling’s prose but if there was ever a time this comparison was inappropriate …). I’m suspicious of narratives of progress, and I don’t know that the relative prominence of imperial history in the public discourse over the last few years has actually led to an increased public understanding of it (most of the time, all it seems to mean is that people say offensive things more often and with more media coverage). Would the dramatic indictment I craved be more likely to be written in the current climate? I’m not sure. I’m currently doing some work on contemporary British children’s books and how they imagine/memorialise/ negotiate the imperial past, and I suspect I’ll be coming back to City of Ghosts to think about it more.

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