A little while ago I decided that I wanted to redress my woeful ignorance of literature from India, (as distinct from expat Anglo-Indian literature) and I asked my friend Vishy for some advice about what to read. Using the Recommendations page at his blog, I set myself up with an Indian-Lit to-read shelf at GoodReads, and Train to Pakistan is the first book in this literary journey.
Khushwant Singh is a prolific author, and his third novel Train to Pakistan is a classic. Written in 1957, it is set during Partition, when the British had departed and hopes of a peaceful transition were in shreds:
In the summer of 1947, when the creation of the new state of Pakistan was formally announced, ten million people – Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs – were in flight. By the time the monsoon broke, almost a million of them were dead, and all of northern India was in arms, in terror or in hiding. The only remaining oases of peace were a scatter of little villages lost in the remote reaches of the frontier. One of these villages was Mano Majra. (p. 2)
There are only about 70 families in the village. About half of them are Sikh small-holders and the other half are Muslim tenant-farmers. Only Ram Lal the moneylender is Hindu and his murder at the hands of dacoits (bandits) at the beginning of the story coincides with imminent violence as trainloads of refugees pass through the village. They are Muslims fleeing India and Hindus and Sikhs fleeing Pakistan, and there are terrible reports of ‘ghost trains’ carrying slaughtered victims arriving at frontier stations along the line. These reports have brought the presence of magistrate and deputy commissioner of the district, Mr Hukum Chand, and his entourage of armed policemen. Unexpectedly, they have a murder to deal with, but it is clear from the outset that justice is unlikely to be done. (Khushwant Singh is clear-eyed about endemic Indian corruption and sardonic about incompetence).
Muslims and Sikhs have lived together in Mano Majra as brothers for generations, and this is in large part due to the moral code by which Punjabis live. Certainly they subscribe to ideas about truth and honesty and financial integrity, and yes, they observe their religious obligations up to a point, but more important than that is loyalty to the village. That is how the village knows that the murderer could not possibly be the local bad-boy, Juggat Singh, because everyone knows that bandits do not prey on their own. Besides, despite a string of convictions, Jugga is a reformed character. When he sneaks out at night these days, it’s to meet his 16 year-old girlfriend, Nooran. She is the daughter of the self-proclaimed mullah, Imam Baksh. (Jugga is a Sikh).
So Meet Singh, (the Sikh leader playing host to Igbal in the temple), is shocked when the evidence points to Jugga.
‘Robbing a fellow villager is like stealing from one’s mother. Iqbal Singh, this is Kalyug – the dark age. Have you ever heard of dacoits robbing their neighbours’ homes? Now all morality has left the world.’ (p. 40)
As far as Meet Singh is concerned, Jugga has disgraced his family. His father and grandfather who were both hanged for murder, never robbed their own village and indeed provided protection because no other dacoits would dare come to Mano Majra while they were alive. But – contradicting his admiration for Jugga’s father’s selective morality and his explanation of Jugga’s efforts to go straight – he tells Iqbal that ‘a snake can cast its slough but not its poison‘ and Jugga ‘has crime in his blood’. (p. 41)
Jugga is arrested, and so is Iqbal, a young communist sent by the party (with remarkably poor timing) to ‘enlighten’ the village as to the potential for real reform if they would only abandon their ignorant ideas (which include remnants of loyalty to the Brits, with whom some of them served in the war). Unfortunately for party ambitions, Iqbal is rather too fastidious to commune much with the locals: educated in England and accustomed to middle-class comforts, he found the press of humanity unbearable on the train, and, staying at the Sikh temple because there is no hotel, he has brought his own bedding and food, and covertly sterilises his water to avoid any contact with less than clean fingers. Indeed, he has to be rescued from the perils of drinking the local milk by the Imam, who tactfully suggests drinking it later on, when ‘it is cold’.
But while the officials don’t believe Iqbal’s claims to be a social worker, he isn’t arrested for being a communist agitator but rather- much to his indignation, because he is a secular ex-Sikh who despises religion – as a Muslim spy. The police come to this conclusion because he doesn’t adhere to Sikh practice: he has cut his hair, and a brief inspection with his trousers down provides the most convincing evidence of all. Still, they treat him well in prison, because he is an educated man. He gets a bed, a chair, a bowl and some newspapers and magazines to read. Jugga doesn’t get any of these things, but he gets what he expects, so that’s apparently as it should be. (Singh is also very clear-eyed about caste differences in his society. He has a serious rant about the role of religion and morality too, much like Balzac on the topic of money and debts in his more effusive moments).
The comic tone of Part 1 (‘Dacoity’) gives way to a more sombre tone in Part 2 (Kalyug). It is indeed ‘dark times’ because the crucial importance of village loyalty is tested in this part of the story. A ghost train arrives, another ‘gift from Pakistan’. The villagers are spared the details because the station is cordoned off while the bodies are dealt with, but the smell of burning flesh soon enables them to work out why they were all asked to bring firewood and oil to the station. But they have to face up to the reality that while they trust their own Muslims as brothers, they cannot vouch for the hordes of Sikh refugees passing through. Urged on by a young soldier’s vengeful appeals to their manliness, but tempered by the humanity of Imam Baksh and Meet Singh’s joint appeals, they vacillate between conflicting positions: should they protect the Muslims within the village, send them away to a nearby refugee centre for their own safety, or avenge the ghost train by killing them all? Superintendent Chand adds to the confusion with his new-found affection for a young Muslim prostitute. His bewildered subordinate has no idea what motivates Chand’s suddenly capricious orders, expressed unambiguously instead of his usual pompous circumlocutions.
The climax of these events is shocking, as Partition was. But as Vishy notes, it has ‘a life affirming ending’ showing that an innate humanity can arise even in a poisonous atmosphere of religious hatred. As the river rises with the monsoon rains the characters who play a decisive role in the final moments of the train are not those the reader might expect.
Title: Train to Pakistan
Publisher: Grove Press, 1990
Source: Personal copy
Fishpond: Train to Pakistan FP has one 2nd hand illustrated edition, which I wish had been available when I bought my copy. Be quick! This is the description:
This unique illustrated edition of a modern-day Indian classic includes previously unpublished pictures by internationally acclaimed photographer Margaret Bourke-White. In the summer of 1947, the frontier between India and its newly-created neighbour Pakistan, had become a river of blood, as the post-Partition exodus across the border erupted into violent rioting. In Train to Pakistan, truth meets fiction with stunning impact, as Khushwant Singh recounts the trauma and tragedy of Partition through the stories of his characters’ stories that he, his family and friends themselves experienced or saw enacted before their eyes. Sixty years later, in an age where these tensions still lie close to the surface, Bourke-Whites photographs of the Partition illustrate Khushwant Singh’s prose with a stark and almost unbearably heart-rending subtext.