Beyond rose-tinted portrayals of the Raj: Anita Anand wins history prize

Beyond rose-tinted portrayals of the Raj: Anita Anand wins history prize

Anita Anand, a British Indian political journalist and author who has presented television and radio programmes on the BBC for decades, says she will be pinching herself for some time to come after she bagged the prestigious PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History 2020.

The 48-year-old author of other acclaimed historical books such as ‘Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary’, was named the winner of the £2,000 prize, awarded annually for a non-fiction book of specifically historical content, for The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj’. It tells the story of a young man caught up in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar in 1919 during British colonial rule in India, an account hailed by the judges as a “genuine historical classic” which will be read for decades to come.

Antidote

Anand said she felt truly honoured by the decision of the judges because in a field of exceptional books by esteemed historians, she felt lucky just to be shortlisted.

She said: “To be chosen as the winner is overwhelming, and 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.

“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 truth, I sometimes doubted that I could do justice to this dark episode. I'm so glad I persevered. Thank you for this award. It means so much to me and would have meant so much to my father and grandfather.”

Judges verdict

Anand’s book beat six other titles for this year’s award for its nuanced portrayal of a historic event, which resonates even today with questions of Britain’s colonial past very much a subject of debate.

“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.

Rich base

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,” said Mitter.

“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,” added Hannah Trevarthen from English PEN.

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 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.

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