Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 11, 2013

Train to Pakistan (1956), by Khushwant Singh

Train to Pakistan (pb)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.

Highly recommended.

Author:Khushwant Singh
Title: Train to Pakistan
Publisher: Grove Press, 1990, first published in 1956
ISBN: 9780802132215
Source: Personal copy


Train to Pakistan (illus ed'n)

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.


  1. Sounds like one to read. It appears that Singh is considered a bit of a literary giant in India, but he is hardly known in the West.
    The subject of the Partition of India is fascinating, but has hardly been tackled head-on by most of the Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi authors most Anglophone readers are familiar with. Rushdie addresses it briefly in Midnight’s Children and Shame, and Seth’s A Suitable Boy deals in part with a family who left Pakistan. Train to Pakistan looks to be book that could fill that gap.


    • Hi Evan, yes, it may be a ‘black-armband’ issue which authors want to avoid? Vishy might be able to answer that question for us…


  2. No, I wouldn’t say that the Partition is an issue that’s consciously avoided by writers. I think it’s more to do with the fact that when Indian writing in English “came of age”, so to say, partition was already a – fairly – distant memory, and there were other, more urgent concerns to write about.

    I strongly recommend – if you haven’t already read these:
    Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, but even more than that, Haroun and the Sea of Stories
    Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (and if you like that, the next two volumes in the trilogy) – it’s something like Gabriel Garcia Marquez writing about India.

    And on the theme of partition and independence:
    A good translation of the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz.


    • I have read Midnight’s Children, but that was a long time ago and I think I should read it again. I’ve read (and reviewed here on this blog) Vols 1 & 2 of the Sea of Poppies trilogy, but I didn’t know Vol 3 was available. I’m off to track down a copy now!


      • Sorry, I should’ve been clearer – I meant the next two volumes in the trilogy, with Vol. 3 still being in the pipeline. :)

        I actually think that Haroun and the Sea of Stories is better than Midnight’s Children. It’s also a fairly light read, so if you have two hours to spare at any point – and if you like magic realism – I’d certainly give that a punt.


        • Not to worry, I am taking your advice about Haroun and checking out my libraries for a copy now. I’m also after a copy of The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra, which is on 1001 Books You Must Read.


          • Hope you enjoy reading Pankaj Mishra’s ‘The Romantics’, Lisa. I read it a few years back and I loved Mishra’s prose. I also liked very much the places featured in the story – the story happens in many historical and fascinating Indian towns and cities, like Lucknow and Benares, which I found quite interesting. Happy reading!


          • Pankaj Mishra writes very well indeed. :)

            Oh, on the partition – I just remembered, one of the famous books is one by Bapsi Sidhwa called Ice Candy Man; it was also made into a very famous film called “1947 – Earth”, by Deepa Mehta.


            • I remember a movie entitled Earth which must have been based on this book. It was a very beautiful movie but very painful to watch.


  3. Wonderful review, Lisa! I enjoyed reading it very much. Glad to know that you liked ‘Train to Pakistan’. I liked very much what you said about the relative morality of the dacoits (it sounds so strange and funny when we think about it today). I also liked very much what you said about Khushwant Singh’s take on caste, religion, morality and corruption. He is a writer who is quite frank with his opinions and sometimes he courts controversy because of that. The illustrated edition of the book that you have written about is quite nice, but the pictures are quite difficult to look at. The weeks and months around partition were a tough and sad time in both India and Pakistan and the pictures take us back to those times.

    I checked out your Indian-Lit bookshelf in Goodreads and it looks so awesome :) Hope you enjoy reading all those wonderful books. Happy reading!

    Thanks for this beautiful review.


  4. I read Train to Pakistan several years ago and was moved by it. Thank you for the review.

    Besides Rushdie (who sometimes goes on too long), I have enjoyed the books of Rohinton Mistry, especially Such a Long Journey and A Fine Balance. They are set in independent India.

    Paul Scott was English, but his Raj Quartet novels give a picture of India during World War II and the Partition, and he tries to include the Indian point of view.


  5. I have made several comments without response. Is that your usual practice?


    • I replied to your comments as follows:
      Submitted on 2013/08/10 at 8:44 pm | In reply to Ken W. Simpson.
      Hi Ken, good to hear from you:)
      Yes, I keep meaning to read Power Without Glory. Unfortunately the edition I have has very small print and it’s just too hard to read. I keep looking out for a large print edition at the library …
      Submitted on 2013/08/10 at 8:48 pm | In reply to Ken W. Simpson.
      Hi Ken, yes I think you’re right, I read something somewhere about him drawing on his own war time experiences to write this book – though it’s not a very big part of it.


  6. this is a great choice to start on Indian Lit I loved it years ago ,the sense of a new country growing and all that follows seems caught so well in this book ,all the best stu


    • And yay, I got a copy of The Romantics from the library today as well!


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