Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh
Train to Pakistan
Khushwant Singh

Train to Pakistan was the first novel published by Khushwant Singh in 1956. The riots that followed the partition of Pakistan and India in 1947 were still a recent memory. Singh’s story opens in a fictional sleepy Punjabi village, Mano Majra, east of the river Satluj. On the other side of the railway bridge across the river lies the newly-created Pakistan. The movement of the trains at the nearby railway station punctuates their humdrum routines. The Sikhs in the village own the land, the Muslims are their tenets who farm for a share of the crop and the sole Hindu household is that of the moneylender in the centre of the village, right alongside the mosque and the gurdwara (Sikh temple). On the surface, everything is serene. Days begin and end with prayers and lovers slip out of their homes for nightly trysts. But there are rumblings and rumours about the killings that are happening across the frontier. Trains are no longer keeping to their scheduled hours.

The villagers seem to be sworn to maintain peace. There is a distinct rift that separates the Sikhs and the Muslims; a sense of otherness. Yet at another level there exists the sense of belonging within the village community which surpasses religion and is tied to the land on which they live and toil.

The story of Train to Pakistan is driven by two incidents. First, a band of dacoits loot and murder the village moneylender. The suspicion falls on Juggut Singh, a resident bad character of the village and Iqbal, a social worker who has just set foot in the village. There is no evidence or witnesses to their alleged crime, yet both are arrested by the police. They are merely someone to pin the blame on. Second, a train full of dead people arrives from Pakistan along with an influx of Hindu and Sikh refugees from across the border who have witnessed mass killings first-hand. These new arrivals fan the emotions of the Sikhs and incite them to attack the village Muslims.

Train to Pakistan could have been a much longer and much more detailed account of many tragedies that took place in the partition, but the author chose not to concern himself with personal tragedies of his characters. Instead, the focus of the book remains on the different forces that shaped this blood-soaked period of history: the government, the masses, the intelligentsia and the army. The police and the magistrates are unlawful. They operate to implement directives from the top and do not deem it worthy to listen to the problems of the people. In their minds they exist to lord their authority over the masses. The masses – that is to say men, for women have no voice in this world – are driven by a strange code of ethics and honour that is devoid of logic or empathy. A question raised against their masculinity can turn them blind to all morality and religious teaching that they would swear they live by at other times. In this world, Iqbal, the western-educated social worker who represents the voice of the intelligentsia, finds himself helpless. The government mistrusts his motives and the people are incapable of understanding his view of the world. They are only interested in making sure that he is the same religion as them. At the same time, Iqbal can only think of the villagers as one-dimensional beings with no sense of justice or fair play. He is too naive to understand what causes them to be so, nor is he capable of finding a common ground with them where they can communicate. The army is the least discussed out of these four forces. It acts both as a safe haven for the refugees, but when bad apples are in charge, it is the worst kind of mob that refugees could walk into.

The approach of the author is to create a stage where characters appear and disappear without any great emphasis on how they get there or what eventually becomes of them. Instead, their stories contribute to the creation of an overall sense of the atmosphere and the collective consciousness of the times. All these stories converge at a single moment towards the end of the book – a single image – when a train heading to Pakistan passes through Mano Majra. What would become of the Muslims on that train?

In an era when religiosity determined the worth of a person, Train to Pakistan criticises what religion does to a society:

India is constipated with a lot of humbug. Take religion. For the Hindu, it means little besides caste and cow-protection. For the Muslim, circumcision and kosher meat. For the Sikh, long hair and hatred of the Muslim. For the Christian, Hinduism with a sola topee. For the Parsi, fire-worship and feeding vultures. Ethics, which should be the kernel of a religious code, has been carefully removed. Take philiosophy, about which there is so much hoo-ha. It is just muddle-headedness masquerading as mysticism ... Yoga, that excellent earner of dollars! ... And all the mumbo-jumbo of reincarnation ... Proof? We do not go in for such pedestrian pastimes as proof! That is Western. We are of the mysterious East. No proof, just faith.

Train to Pakistan, page 180

As a speaker of Punjabi, the first thing I noticed about the book is the contrived spellings and dialogues. Names of people and places are written not in a way that someone who doesn’t know Hindi or Punjabi would be able to arrive at a ballpark pronunciation, rather than the way people usually spell them. Jagat Singh becomes Juggut Singh, Chandan Nagar becomes Chundunnuggur and so on. This is quite understandable as the readership for such a work in that decade would be more outside of Punjab and Punjabi-speakers. When you are writing a story in English in which people talk in Punjabi, how do you translate their speech? Writers these days consider it fashionable to refer to a thing with its Indian name, especially in dialogue, with footnotes or parenthesis to shed more light for non-native speakers. But Khushwant Singh limits such vocabulary to generic expressions. Baisakhi becomes the ‘spring festival’, kaajal becomes ‘antimony’. Again, it was perhaps the target audience of the book that led him to choose this course. A British-educated barrister and former diplomat, Khushwant Singh would have been anxious that his colleagues who did not know the first sounds of Punjabi were able to read the book and make sense of it. In these simplifications the book becomes a little hollow. Had there been more developed characters speaking what was truly on their mind, the scenes would have become more rooted in that period of history. There is a saying in Punjabi, “A hundred hits of the goldsmith, a single hit of the blacksmith.” Nothing pampers the reader so much as a reading experience that’s like a single blow from the blacksmith. There are only hits from the goldsmith in this book.

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Khushwant Singh
Khushwant Singh
Khushwant Singh (1915-2014) was the son of a real estate baron and contractor Sujaan Singh. His father served as a Member of Parliament in the British Government in India. Khushwant Singh studied law at Kings College London and was called to the bar at the London Inner Temple. He practised as a lawyer at the Lahore High Court for eight years, when the Partition of the country forced him to move to Delhi. He worked in the Indian Foreign Service, All India Radio, UNESCO and in the press before deciding to pursue a literary career. His popular weekly columns ‘With Malice Towards One and All’ and ‘This Above All’ cemented his public image as a quick-witted and humorous writer.
Partition Train
Partition Trains
The Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 caused large scale migration and death for the thousands who attempted to cross the border seeking safety and to maintain their ethnic/religious identity. In particular, the division of the provinces of British India, and Bengal and Punjab resulted in violence and massacres. The areas dominated by Muslims in these provinces were given to Pakistan while those dominated by non-Muslims – Hindus and Sikhs mainly – were given to India. Sudden mass migrations led to violence and attempts at ethnic cleansing. Both Muslims and non-Muslims were targeted, and overloaded trains proved to be easy targets. In September 1947 over three thousand Muslims were killed in Amritsar in an attack, as a response to the killing of up to five thousand Hindu and Sikh refugees on a train in West Punjab. Attacks on refugee trains are the basis of Khushwant Singh’s portrayal of the Partition period.