December 3, 2023

British Indian author Anita Anand’s Jallianwala Bagh story wins history prize

The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj beat six other titles for the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History 2020, awarded annually for a non-fiction book of specifically historical content.

British Indian journalist and author Anita Anand’s book that tells the story of a young man caught up in the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar has won a prestigious history-literary prize in the UK. The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj beat six other titles for the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History 2020, awarded annually for a non-fiction book of specifically historical content.

The judges described it as a “genuine historical classic” which will be read for decades to come. “Anita Anand’s The Patient Assassin‘ is the story of a murderer and his victim a British colonial official assassinated by an Indian avenger more than two decades after the horrific Amritsar massacre of 1919, for which that official was partly responsible. Yet it is much more than the story of two men,” said Rana Mitter, chair of judges.

“It is an account of how global the spirit of anti-imperialist revolution was in the early twentieth century. It is also an empathetic account of how categories of good and evil in the context of empire have to be understood in more nuanced and complex ways. For those looking to question empire in the present day, it is a book that provides many answers,” he said.
The judges said that in seeking this year’s winner, they wanted a book packed with historical rigour, a rich base of research, and an ability to speak to wider historical questions beyond its immediate subject.

“We also hoped that it would be the kind of read we couldn’t put down. Getting all of that in one book might have been too much to ask but as it turned out, our 2020 winner has displayed all those qualities and more,” added Mitter. Anand, who is a political journalist who has presented television and radio programmes on the BBC for 20 years, said she is honoured and overwhelmed to be named winner of a prize that was packed with exceptional books by esteemed historians.

“I will be pinching myself for some time to come. The Patient Assassin is very close to my heart. Having been weaned on the story of Jallianwala Bagh, thanks to our family connection, I wanted to write the history of the massacre and Udham Singh’s revenge as an antidote to the rose-tinted portrayals of the Raj so popular in film and television,” she said.

“I also needed to understand how such unspeakable things could be allowed to happen. Faced by complicated characters, contrary accounts, obscure sources, the weight of folklore and deliberate attempts to hide the truth, I sometimes doubted that I could do justice to this dark episode. I’m so glad I persevered,” she said, adding that the recognition for the story would mean a lot to her father and grandfather. The Patient Assassin is a compelling and truth-telling portrayal of a dark time in modern history, and we’re delighted to be able to throw a light on this impressive title,” noted Hannah Trevarthen from English PEN.

While Anand was named the winner of the 2,000 pounds prize, the judges also “highly commended” two other titles from the shortlist: Hazel V Carby’s Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands calling it a “genre-defying work bringing together the archival skill of the trained historian with the unmatchable impact of memoir”.

And, they described Roel Sterckx’s Chinese Thought: From Confucius to Cook Ding’ (Pelican) as highly distinctive in its capacity to take some of the most challenging concepts in a non-western world-view and show with patience and immense knowledge, worn lightly, how it has changed over time, and why it matters to understanding this important society even today
English PEN, which stands for Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, Novelists, is one of the world’s oldest human rights organisations championing the freedom to write and read. It is the founding centre of PEN International, a worldwide writers’ association with 145 centres in more than 100 countries.

Marjorie Hessell-Tiltman was a member of PEN during the 1960s and 1970s and on her death in 1999, she bequeathed 100,000 pounds to the PEN Literary Foundation to found a prize in her name. Entries are required to be works of high literary merit  that is, not primarily written for the academic market and can cover all historical periods.