Monday, July 09, 2007

Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

A story with the backdrop of Indian partition holocaust that displaced 20 million people and killed over a million

Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan shall ever be considered one of the most significant chronicles of the horrors that accompanied the partition of India. In this spare and tight narrative, Khushwant Singh selects Mano Majra, a small village near the border, as the place where Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs come to terms with religion based division of a country. To be uprooted from one country, the country that was your home was several hundred years or more, is an extremely painful experience. Khushwant Singh choses to leave the sentimentality to the reader, and just draws a series of sketches of how the events influence his nicely crafted characters.

The characters are closest to the villagers, Policemen and Magistrates I have known in reality. The conversations, the arguments, the brotherhood that extends beyond religion in villages, and the complexity of human nature is all brought out by this pithy masterpiece nicely. Without going into the details of story or characters (which I will let you read and marvel at yourself), I can tell you that the storyline, in spite of the baggage it carries in terms of trains full of dead bodies, forms a reading full of suspense, agony, mystery and things run to a brilliant climax. The novel is more like Life is Beautiful, where holocaust happens elsewhere. It is quite funny at places (Sardars and Sardar humor abound) and the events unfold in a dramatic and cathartic fashion. While I won’t call it a light read, or recommend it for humor, the style and story moves like an accelerating train to a gripping climax.

Why hasn't Khushwant Singh's novel acquired the reputation it deserves in the world literature? I think there are several reasons which primarily are related to how the novel is written. I believe Khushwant Singh could have spent a little more time and text on the history of Sikhism and Islam in India. What happened in 1947 was perhaps a consequence of accumulated hatred of centuries. What happened against the Jews in Europe wasn't the result of Hitler's personal vendetta alone, what happened in India wasn't a result of Jinnah (or you can blame Indian National Congress, if you like Jinnah) alone. We need to look at these in the light of bloodshed that had preceded these events.

Train to Pakistan presents one of the best studies (in English) of Sikhs and villagers of India. Another novel from the same time Maila Anchal (The Soiled Border) by Phanishwer Nath Renu is a complimentary study of villagers in Bihar, as these villagers witness rise of caste based politics and changes in wake of India's freedom. Since the events during partition involved a million deaths, and uncountable inhuman excesses (rapes, slashed breasts, castrations), the novel provides context for very strong emotions. In the dark dance of death and murders, there are occasional glimpses of romance, friendship and kinship.

I would urge every Indian and Pakistani to read this book. It is part of our painful heritage. The book is perhaps not as descriptive as it should be for the taste of non-Indian, non-Pakistani readers, but I am sure it presents the Indian holocaust in a very delicate, refined and understated fashion.


Vivek.Sharma said...


Tue, 2007-07-10 17:38 — chetiyaar New
One of the best ..

THis is one of the best books I have ever read !

ITs easy narration and simple straightforward language does nothing but enhance the complex social reality of the time and age that this book portrays.

But Atra, ultimately this book is about how good humans can be ! Not about how evil they can be !

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Tue, 2007-07-10 13:36 — Vivek
Grim read, with the Sardar humor built in

I think I should have mentioned it more clearly. The novel is more like Life is Beautiful, where holocaust happens elsewhere. It is quite funny at places and the events unfold in dramatic and cathartic fashion. While I won’t call it a light read, or recommend it for humor, the style and story moves nicely to a gripping climax.

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Tue, 2007-07-10 06:16 — atrakasya

I think I will skip that. Books showing the dark side of humanity just bring me down.
I really cringe from reading well-written stories of how evil humans can be, how someone can be so brutal. The sad part is that I think most of us are capable of becoming that evil, if the situation is that extenuating, as it always typically becomes in the time of war and partitioning.
Imagine one’s family being tortured and killed in front of one’s eyes - what it can do to one’s mind…

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Tue, 2007-07-10 04:21 — India Whining
Thanx Viv

Hope the public library here have this book in their collection.. Will surely look for it the next time I go there.

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Vivek.Sharma said...

from blogliterati:

Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

Vivek Comment By : Vivek
Posted On : Jul 12 07, 08:41 AM
I will remember that recommendation.

Another excellent writer from that generation is Sadat Hasan Manto. His short stories are by far the best chronicles of partition. They are concise and precise testaments of that time!

kakes Comment By : kakes
Posted On : Jul 10 07, 11:44 AM
Another good book on the stories of partition is "The Other Side Of Silence" by Urmilla Bhutalia