Exhumation Madan Lal Dhingra, Leena Dhingra Review

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The great niece of Madan Lal Dhingra, Leena Dhingra, unravels the life and death of an Indian revolutionary in Exhumation: The Life and Death of Madan Lal Dhingra that is part history, part memoir.

What was the largest movement of people in history? In 1923, over a million and a half Greeks and Turks were forcibly ‘exchanged’ as part of the Lausanne Convention. In May and June 1940, about eight million people from the Netherlands, Belgium and France fled from the blitzkrieg advance of the German army. But the sorry prize for the largest movement of people must go to the 1947 Partition of India. Seventy-five years ago, up to twenty million people travelled between the newly-created states of India and Pakistan, crossing the border formed by arbitrary political considerations in the last days of the British Raj. Partition was a distressing, painful and bloody process: estimates circulate that something like two million never arrived at their chosen destination.

A bold attempt to summarize a century of Indian history in ten minutes (with maps):

Leena Dhingra’s Exhumation is a lengthy meditation on long-term effects of the process of Partition. Her family were directly affected: they were Hindu, but their house was in Lahore, redefined as a Pakistani Muslim town, a few miles from the border with India. In some ways, her family never recovered from their loss. ‘Partition didn’t only dismember India; it dismembered us: from India, as a family, from each other, from ourselves.’ (p. 348)

The Partition of India 1947 Source Wikipedia
The Partition of India (1947). Source: Wikipedia

One confusing point was that, pre-Partition, they hadn’t defined themselves as particularly Hindu. Within her extended family there were some Muslims and one of her great-uncles became a Sufi (Muslim) mystic. After the Uprising of 1857 (known in the British press as the Indian Mutiny), a ‘divide and rule’ policy deliberately aimed to exacerbate divisions between India’s many religious and ethnic groups: Partition was the logical consequence. Dhingra’s family were caught out by events.<

Her father had been posted to Paris in 1947 to work for UNESCO, and her family never returned to their home in Lahore. Her mother was unable to adapt: she did not learn French, and spent decades obsessed by the thought of building a new family home in Delhi. For the four-year-old Dhingra, everything seemed confusing. No-one ever explained to her what Partition was, although she heard adults talking about it all the time. ‘Was it a mighty machine or a mean monster?’ (p. 33) The immediate consequence was that the young Dhingra was pushed from town to school to city as her parents tried to cope their best with the new circumstances. By 1956, age thirteen, she had attended nine schools.

Exhumation is Dhingra’s belated attempt to come to terms with this trauma and to sort out, for herself, who her family really is. Three events in particular provoked her to write: the Emergency of 1975-77, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended many civil liberties in India, and during which Dhingra found herself — once again — caught out and stuck in a foreign city, this time London. This made her think back thirty years, to her father’s exile in Paris. More unusually, when she joined protests in London against the Emergency, activists recognized her name, and asked her about her great-uncle, the activist and nationalist Madan Lal Dhingra.

With time on her hands, she began to research his history: he too had been politically active in London. Finally, in the 1990s, Dhingra found some acting work. She has appeared in Doctors, Coronation Street, East Enders, The Bill, Casualty and Silent Witness. In 2018, she appeared in an episode of Doctor Who concerning Partition and the Punjab: its time travel theme gave Dhingra a sense of other possibilities: what would have happened if . . .

Leena Dhingra in Doctor Who
Leena Dhingra as ‘Nani Umbreen’ in the Doctor Who episode ‘Demons of the Punjab’ (2018). Source: www.leenadhingra.com/actor

Given this difficult, even tortured, gestation, it is no surprise that the resulting book is not an ordered, chronological essay. To complicate matters further, Dhingra refers several times to project for a Channel 4 documentary, which began in 1989 but which was never completed. One guesses that Exhumation is what remains of the film that was never produced: it often has a filmic, fictional quality — one could easily imagine some passages as scripts.

Exhumation tells three interlocking stories: the first concerning Dhingra’s own life; the second about her family and the effects of Partition; and the third the fascinating, tragic story of her great-uncle Madan Lal Dhingra. None of these stories is told chronologically: instead, Exhumation is more like a series of record-cards, strewn over a desk. First one about 1909, then one from 1956, then 1906, then 1985. At times this can be difficult to follow, but one sees Dhingra’s point: how could this story be told in a linear, chronological fashion?

The first meeting of the Indian National Congress, the main organisation calling for Indian independence.
The first meeting of the Indian National Congress, the main organisation calling for Indian independence. Source: Wikipedia.

The story of her great-uncle has a sombre drama of its own. The youngest son of his family, his future was never clear. His father was a pragmatic but conservative Indian gentlemen who dressed with a gold watch attached to his waistcoat and employed English governesses for his children. He expected Madan Lal to choose a career in law or medicine, and sent him to London to study.

Madan Lal arrived in London in 1906, and quickly noted a strange paradox: it was easier to discuss the reform of the Raj and even Indian independence in London than it was in Raj-ruled India, where political repression hampered attempts by Indians to organize. While in London, Madan Lal Dhingra was radicalized: he observed the rise of the Labour left in Britain, Sinn Fein in Ireland, the effects of the 1905 Russian Revolution and suffragist activism.

Madan Lal Dhingra Indian stamp commemorating him 1992
An Indian stamp commemorating Madan Lal Dhingra (1883—1909). Wikipedia.

In protest against political repression in India, Madan Lal Dhingra shot Sir William Curzon Wyllie, an important figure in the British Raj. Madan Lal had planned to kill himself after the act, but failed and was tried in July 1909. He did not defend himself, instead proclaiming ‘I am proud to have the honour of laying down my life for the cause of my Motherland.’ (p. 289) Leena Dhingra does not justify the assassination, but allows the reader to understand Madan Lal’s feelings.

Inevitably, the book ends on an open-ended note. Leena Dhingra has been called ‘coloured’ when visiting the UK, and ‘from foreign’ when she visits India: she doesn’t feel truly ‘at home’ in either country. She has observed the interplay of the two cultures for over 70 years, and she has some sharp and some perceptive comments about the misunderstandings and prejudices that still flourish between them.

Reviewed by Sharif Gemie for BookBlast.

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About Sharif Gemie 12 Articles
Formerly a Professor in Modern & Contemporary History, Sharif Gemie now lives in South Wales. He co-authored 'The Hippie Trail: A History' with Brian Ireland, (Manchester University Press). His first novel, 'The Displaced', is about a British couple who volunteer to work with refugees in Germany during World War Two (Abergavenny Small Press, March 2024). Some short stories were published in 'Cerasus Magazine,' issue 10, and 'Muleskinner Journal' (July 2023).