The Jallianwala Bagh Journals Sarmistha Dutta Gupta

With this blogpost we inaugurate the guest blog where oral historians and writers are invited to write on aspects of oral history that they wish to reflect on. Sarmistha Dutta presents an excerpt from her book in progress and reflects on her interviews and conversations with V.N. Datta and Kamla Dutta. – Indira Chowdhury

A young VN Datta and Kamla Datta with Harivansh Rai Bachchan.
Photo courtesy: Nonica Datta from the Datta family album..

December 07, 2020

It was almost 1 o’clock in the afternoon when I reached Professor Vishwa Nath Datta’s home in south Delhi on 23rd July 2019. This was part of a research visit in connection with an installation-exhibition I was curating in the 100th year of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

I had no intention of visiting Prof. V N Datta during the lunch hour. Besides, the historian was 93 years old, and had had to be rushed to a hospital a few days ago. But his younger daughter Professor Nonica Datta very warmly asked us – Utsab Chatterjee, my team-member who is an artist and cameraperson, and myself – to have lunch with them when I was working out a time to meet through whatsapp messages.

Her messages went something like this:

If you want to meet my father he is available between 12.30 and 1. Then he has his lunch and rests. So that’s why I suggested 12.30. Let me also add he is not well at the moment and I very much hope he speaks on the subject. …

This morning I’ve been listening to the conversations audio-visually recorded that day both with Prof. V.N. Datta and his daughter Nonica. I got the sad news of Professor Datta’s passing a week ago. His wife Kamla expired last night. Had been thinking about them these last few days.

The recording is rekindling memories of other conversations besides the interview that summer afternoon. The pressure cooker’s whistle and other diverse noises when we sat around their dining table for lunch have been trapped by the recorder. In a flash I can see the exquisite phulkari framed on their living room wall and recall hearing how it was made. It was a wedding gift which Kamla Datta’s aunts had embroidered for her more than 60 years ago as was customary in Punjabi families.

I remember the flowers in the study room, and V.N. Datta’s renowned work Jallianwalla Bagh along with New Light on the Punjab Disturbances in 1919 and some other books on the table. The veteran historian had to be wheeled in from the next room.

“Give us ten minutes,” said Nonica.

While I waited, Nonica’s older sisters Poonam and Anu introduced themselves, and took me to meet their mother, Kamla Datta. Cancer had attacked her frail body, but couldn’t defeat her lively soul. In a moment, she embraced me with a warm, toothless smile, and sat me down beside her. While answering her queries on work and my family, I noticed a photograph on the wall. It was of Mahatma Gandhi and another gentleman whom I didn’t recognise. They seemed to be on their way somewhere. Who could the gentleman be? Turned out, he was Kamla’s father. He was a senior police officer in the undivided Punjab. Seeing that I was curious, Kamla asked her daughters to hand me the photo. With great care, she showed me the picture of Gandhiji and her father in front of a post-Partition refugee camp. By then we had exchanged briefly our families’ mutual history of suffering the blow of Partition in Punjab and Bengal. I shuddered to learn about one of Kamla’s relations, who had jumped into a well to save herself. Scenes from Bhisham Sahni’s and Govind Nihalani’s works flashed before my eyes. But then I was summoned in the study.

“We’ll talk again later,” Kamala said.

Kamla Datta showing the author a photograph of Gandhi with her father. Photo: Utsab Chatterjee.

Professor Vishwa Nath Datta had been seated in his chair. Utsab got his camera ready while Nonica helped her father put on the hearing aid. I switched on the sound recorder, and was excited to talk to the 1926-born historian who grew up in his ancestral home, just ten minutes away from Jallianwala Bagh.

I had many questions for him. But we couldn’t get more than ten minutes due to his fragile health. Within those ten minutes, the few words he uttered, the things he left unsaid, and the wave of emotions he showed shook me to the core.

How did he hear about Jallianwala Bagh? He sobbed as he answered my very first question.

“My sister told me when I was four…when mother heard about the shooting . . . she started wailing and beating her chest … father wasn’t home … mother thought he must have gone there … he wouldn’t return … so she cried “…

His own voice kept choking with tears as he uttered these words. I couldn’t hear him clearly enough. Nonica held his hand and tried to calm him. I was spellbound by this man, who was born seven years after the massacre in Amritsar, lost his mother when he was only one, and who regularly visited that field of death throughout his childhood and adolescence. Converting the place into a garden or a park was unthinkable back then. For a few moments I felt the impact of the massacre that had stunned the entire country a hundred and one years ago through this ninety-three-year-old historian’s intermittent sobs and childhood memories. I had never been able to feel the impact so strongly even while standing before the bullet holes in the walls – the ones which are highlighted by white rectangles in Jallianwala Bagh at present. Perhaps the pain of losing his mother as an infant and the deep wound inflicted on the people of Punjab by the Jallianwala Bagh massacre had merged into a single whole in the mind of Prof. V.N. Datta.

V.N. Datta with his father, the poet Brahmanand Datta (seated), and daughters
Anu and Nonica. Photo courtesy: Nonica Datta from the Datta family album.

December 08, 2020

A photograph of V.N. Datta’s father Brahmanand Datta hung from one of the walls in the dining room. I am wondering if that photo hadn’t been there, would we have had long conversations on Brahmanand that afternoon. He was a renowned poet who wrote in Urdu and Persian, and also had a thriving business in Amritsar. Brahmanand was well-acquainted with some of the people who had gathered at Jallianwala Bagh on April 13. His close friend Ratanchand Kapoor had survived, although he was hit in the leg while fleeing the Bagh. The bullet was removed through surgery, but Ratanchand always had a limp. VN Datta and his family grew up watching this survivor. In the family memory of Nonica and her sisters, Ratanchand’s limp is intimately linked to Jallianwala Bagh. In fact, for this very erudite family, Jallianwala Bagh has less to do with books and much more with family history and unwritten local narratives.

V.N. Datta (middle) meets prime minister Clement Attlee in Cambridge in early 1950s.
Photo courtesy: Nonica Datta from the Datta family album..

I got to know that Brahmanand Datta regularly hosted mehfils with poets and litterateurs at home. Renowned poets like Faiz used to attend those. Brahmanand was a ‘Hussaini Brahmin’. I doubt if I’d have ever come to know of this community had I not visited VN Datta.

Legend has it that their ancestors settled in the Arab country many centuries ago. Men from the Datta lineage had fought next to Hassan and Hussain during the Battle of Karbala. Later on, they migrated to the subcontinent and settled in the Punjab-Sindh area. They had adopted some Islamic customs and rituals in their daily life. The Datta-family history records the custom of taking Imam Hussain’s name during the ‘mundan’ ceremony of young Brahmin boys! For many years, their spontaneous participation in the Muharram processions in parts of Punjab was expected. Nonica has written about this herself and told me that the Tajiya from Amritsar’s Farid Chowk wouldn’t begin before a Hussaini Datta appeared and lent his shoulder.

This was Amritsar’s tradition until 1947 and Brahmanand was at its forefront. But as I learnt that afternoon, riots and the Partition changed everything. Brahmanand had sheltered some of his Muslim friends, which didn’t go down well among the divisive and rioting sections of Hindus. There was already a perception among some people that Hussaini Brahmins weren’t ‘sufficiently’ Hindu. Days after the Partition, it was time to teach them a lesson!

“But that’s another story!” Nonica exclaimed when I kept prodding her to say more. What I learnt then was that her grandfather had gone to the railway station to see off some friends. His house at Katra Sher Singh in Amritsar was burned down that night, during his absence.

It is, indeed, another story. But as I was to find out soon from other interviews, memories of the Partition, that happened almost thirty years after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, would be inextricably linked to memories of the turbulent 1919 in many conversations with Punjabi families.

Kamla Datta with her daughters Poonam, Anu, Nonica and the author.
Photo: Utsab Chatterjee.

Kamla Datta and I talked again at lunch. While savouring the Punjabi dishes, I let slip that their parathas are unmatched. Kamla quickly gauged that I was fond of flatbread, and asked her daughters to make me a paratha, ignoring my protestations. Soon after, a piping hot paratha arrived at my plate.

I couldn’t sleep till late that night, enveloped in the warmth of that extraordinary afternoon with the Dattas. Since then, whenever I’ve tried to grasp the meaning of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Prof. V.N. Datta’s emotional turbulence has returned to haunt me.


Sarmistha Dutta Gupta is an independent researcher, bilingual writer, curator and a feminist activist. She conceptualied and curated an installation-exhibition called ‘Ways of Remembering Jallianwala Bagh and Rabindranath Tagore’s Response to the Massacre’ at the Victoria Memorial Hall in 2020. Her research is primarily on gendered histories of politics, nationalisms in south Asia, the Partition of India, and women’s writing from the sub-continent. Sarmistha’s published works include Identities and Histories: Women’s Writing and Politics in Bengal (2010) and Biponno Somoy. Barnobad, Jatiyobad, Bak-Swadhinata o Ajker Bharat (Casteism, Nationalism and Freedom of Expression in India Today; co-edited with Trina Nileena Banerjee (2016). Sarmistha is also the founder-secretary of Ebong Alap, a Kolkata-based voluntary organization that she co-founded with a few like-minded friends in 2003 to engage with critical pedagogies and gender-sensitive citizenship.

Published by Indira Chowdhury

I am a writer, researcher, teacher and oral historian based in India.

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