Accessibility statement

Imagining Hope by Leena Dhingra

Reflections on imagining hope in the process of writing my book Exhumation: The Life and Death of Madan Lal Dhingra

Hope matters.

Hope is intrinsic to the creative process. This has been a difficult book to write. After completing it, I let it lie fallow for many years, unsure of the shape it had taken and whether it would be of interest. But after I decided to revisit the manuscript, I met a publisher who saw the manuscript’s potential. We met just before the first lockdown. I had nowhere to go and nothing to do, and so I started my final draft full of hope.

It was an unprecedented time; others too were connected to hope. We were in this together. We put rainbows on our windows. People offered help. Masked and gloved on our constitutional walks, we greeted each other, maintaining social distance with a smile. 

Birdsong filled the air, and shared videos saw goats in Llandudno in the empty streets or feasting on the hedges. Leopards and other wildlife roamed city gardens in India, monkeys swam in deserted swimming pools in posh housing complexes, and we imagined and hoped we might come out of the other side with a better set of priorities.

Despair, the other side of hope, was also there in the daily death toll and suffering taking place everywhere. But from that too we hoped to emerge more inclusive, compassionate and human, aware of our connectedness and interdependence. 

The resurgence of Black Lives Matter globally led to a well-attended celebration in my small market town.

The book has taken a long time to put together, and during that time my hope has evolved. I moved from daring to hope, to actually understanding what I hoped for.

Exhumation is part memoir, part history. At the start I had two traumatic, silenced and suppressed family stories which I was not sure if I was entitled to, and yet I inherited them. At the heart of both stories was violence – is that why they had been silenced? And was it best they remained untold?

In the past, there was the story of my great uncle Madan Lal Dhingra, a young revolutionary who, following his political assassination of Curzon Wyllie, was hanged at Pentonville Prison in 1909. His story was silenced by colonial rule, his ‘loyalist’ family, and even by Independent India with its espousal of non-violence.

My own silenced story was the Partition of India. This cataclysmic event of 1947 took away my parents’ homeland, home, security, place in the world and everything that they had known. They remained marooned in Paris, floating in a bubble of the hope of return. But ill winds, often engineered by family, blew the bubble hither and thither, unable to land. So for me, hope did not feel like a safe place to be.

I inherited traumas, an unsettled life, ten schools in ten years, in four countries with three languages. This meant that I suppressed or lost my voice and sense of agency. So from the beginning, when I first thought of undertaking research, I didn’t dare to hope. Hope was clouded by fear, self-doubt, and the habit of remaining invisible because of the impact of racism.

Did I really want to expose my family’s trauma? Why? What did I hope to achieve?

Since I could not hear my own voice, I would look outside for guidance, validation, or a sign – hoping that hope might flutter through.

When you start to find out about your family history, you start to find out about yourself, I had been told. This resonated with me.

I started my initial research at the Public Record Office and was waiting for documents related to the trial deposition of my great uncle. During that time, I was transported back to a memory of being sixteen years old and sitting an exam about Jean Anouilh’s Antigone. Was this a sign? The incident found its way into my book:

Back home I wondered why I had remembered Antigone. Yes, Antigone and her need to bury her brother’s body. She had needed to put it to rest properly. She needed to pay it respect. She needed to do this. And she did.

And  I wondered about my own search. What was it I needed to do? Was it for him? Was it for me?

I took the photograph [of Madan Lal] from its envelope, propped it on my desk; alongside it, I placed my ‘notebook’ and my applications for funding. Then I lit a candle and I looked at the flames: red, yellow and saffron. My mother would say: Saffron is for fire – the purifier, the colour of renunciation. And mentally I made the request that I should get the funding – if it was something I needed to do.

When I did receive the funding, I started to imagine hope and that it might guide me. Might restoring Madan Lal restore me? Might freeing suppressed stories create healing? Could I steer my parents’ bubble to land? Might this be a return from exile? Might I even discover what my deepest hopes might be?

I started with validation and optimism but soon discovered there was no neat path through. It was all a rather messy business, and alongside hope was often despair.

Madan Lal left Amritsar for London with the blessings and hope of his parents. They hoped that their somewhat wayward and searching son would find his way, become an engineer and take his place in the world, having availed himself of the opportunities open to him. And he did. He was a responsible student, but soon found there were other opportunities, that the time he lived in was a time of change, of dissent. Revolution was in the air and dissenters from all over the world were in London, enjoying freedom of speech and assembly in order to meet fellow travellers, read proscribed books, and share solidarity. He discovered India House, a hostel for Indian students. (In the archives today it says ‘India House: See S for sedition’.) There he met Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who was influenced by the cult of Mazzini which espoused political assassinations and hoped to recruit and groom martyrs to the cause of India’s freedom. Madan Lal was filled with a hope and new meaning of merging into the wider history of his time. 

In court he declared:

I am a patriot working for the emancipation of my Motherland …

I wish the English people should sentence me to death for, in that case, the vengeance of my countrymen will be all the keener. I put forward this statement to show the justice of my cause to the outside world, especially to our sympathisers in America and Germany.

Madan Lal’s hope was his family’s despair and his father died of grief at the loss, as he puts it, of ‘my ill-fated, ill-guided, but firm and determined son’.

Many of the issues and personalities at the forefront of discussions today in India – Gandhi versus Savarkar, violence versus non-violence – were present at that time in India House.

In the book, I imagined a scene between Madan Lal and his brother Bhajan Lal (who would later become a Sufi mystic–saint) around a letter that Tolstoy wrote to the Indian revolutionaries called, ‘A Letter to an Indian’. In this letter, Tolstoy told the revolutionaries that they would need to find their own authentic way rather than emulating the violence of their European masters. Gandhi would come upon this letter, which would inform Hind Swaraj, his seminal treatise on non-violence.

And in my memoir Exhumation, my father was organising an International Conference in Venice in 1960 entitled ‘Tolstoy and Gandhi’.

Savarkar too would later write a seminal book entitled Hindutva, which forms the ideological tract of the Bharatya Janata Party, the Hindu nationalist party in power in India today.

Savarkar reportedly inspired and groomed another young man, Nathuram Godse, to successfully assassinate Gandhi.

In the epilogue of my book, I address Madan Lal:

In your story, the young Savarkar, who was your friend, was just a few months older than you. You met when you were both twenty-three. You both respected, admired and had a deep affection for each other. Of that, I have no doubt.

You were comrades, fellow revolutionaries and both dreamed of an India that was free and for the benefit of all its inhabitants. And Savarkar himself put it rather well: Hindus are at the heart of Hindustan. Nevertheless just as the beauty of the rainbow is not impaired but enhanced by its varied hues, so also Hindustan will appear the more beautiful across the sky of the future by assimilating the best in the Muslim, Parsi, Jewish and other civilisations (M. Purandare quote by Amit Verma)

And that was the vision of India you both shared, struggled to realise and for which you gave your life. But the Savarkar to whom you are linked on the plinth whose disciple you are purported to be, changed his views, wrote Hindutva which stigmatised Muslims and advocated unequal citizenship.

Would you have given your life for that? I think not if I extrapolate.

You are from the Punjab. The land of the five rivers, which has also bee n watered and nourished by the rivers of Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam.

You come from Amritsar, home of the Great Golden Temple whose foundation stone was laid by a Muslim saint.

I would recall that the Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, was revered not only by Sikhs, but by Hindus and Muslims too.

I might also tell you that your fellow patriot from the Punjab and Pentonville, Uddam Singh: ‘While in custody, he called himself “Ra Mohammad Singh Azad”: the first three words of the name reflect the three major religious communities of Punjab (Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh); the last word ‘Azad’ (literally ‘free’) reflects his anti-colonial sentiment.’

In Punjab today, I am told, Muslims are not stigmatised. When the attacks [on Muslims] took place in Delhi a few months ago the Sikhs rescued them. The Golden Temple issued a Hukum namah – an order – to save, and protect, fellow citizens (food, shelter, support made available).

Your plinth also declares ‘I am a Hindu.’ I imagine today there must be many people grappling with that question. Years ago, I asked my father, ’ What does it mean for me to be a Hindu?’

‘It means that you must find and follow your Swadharma, the path of your true nature. But it must be your way. Not Mummy’s way, or my way, or anybody else’s way, but your own way’.

 The country too will have to find its Swadharma.

We live in strange unsettled times. There is sickness in the body and sickness in the mind – where there are ‘alternative’ facts’ and conferences on ‘post-truth’.

Now more than ever, hope matters. And, as it happens, Exhumation was brought out by Hope Road Publishing.