Book review: The Patient Assassin

On 13 March 1940, Udham Singh shot and killed Michael O’Dwyer, the former lieutenant governor of the Punjab in India. This was done in revenge of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

Anita Anand’s The Patient Assassin, A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj from 2019 tells the tale of what happened during the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and how it led to Udham Singh’s life mission of taking revenge on the men responsible for the massacre.

Anita Anand not only covers the massacre and the assassination, but also explains the environment that allowed the massacre to happen in the first place, gives us a glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of the men responsible, while walking the tightrope of not dismissing their monstrous actions, but at the same time allowing us to understand how they could have acted the way they did. The majority of the book, however, is dedicated to Udham Singh and his life, both before the massacre, and after the massacre, tracing his movement across the globe, until that fateful day in 1940. It also covers the trial after the assassination.

The book paints a nuanced and as detailed a picture of Udham Singh as is possible. Udham Singh was in many ways a deeply flawed man, who did a lot of harm to a lot of people on his way to his revenge. This is covered, as is his work towards an independent India, and even his interactions with local Indian populations in England and the US. It gives us a glimpse into the man, and not just the assassin that the English saw, nor just the martyr-hero, honored in his home country after his death, and especially after their independence.

I highly recommend this book, as an introduction to how the British Raj treated the Indians, and how the Indian independence movement became a geo-political tool for the different countries (including Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union) in their political maneuvering, as well as a historical account of both the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the life of Udham Singh. It also gives a glimpse into how Indians were treated in England and the US in the twenties and thirties.

I first became aware of the book through the HistoryExtra podcasts episode about the book.