I just finished reading the Train to Pakistan by Khuswant Singh. I have read very little of fiction on India’s partition. Most of my knowledge about it is through the history books that I had read till tenth standard. Of course, I remember the partition being bloody, but the chilling extent of it has never been truly exposed to my mind. Until I picked up this book, that is.
Khuswant Singh’s prose is straightforward, within the expanse of 190 pages, he talks about a lot of things, and that too in exact amount of detail as required. Set in the backdrop of 1947 India-Pakistan partition, this novel sheds light on the religious massacre that happened during the time, where Muslims and Hindus on either sides of the borders killed each other and sent trainloads of corpses across. The writing is graphic. Singh sets his stage in the silent village of Mano Majra, a quaint one whose life is dictated by the comings and goings of the train at the railway station. Muslims and Hindus here live harmoniously, though through the course of the story it will change.
This book is a deep meditation of different kinds of people. It almost feels like the author wrote the book as a contemplative thesis of the human mind, shaped by love, hatred, political and moral education, politics and other elements. There are the religious heads of the Muslims and the Sikhs, who are predominantly peace-loving people and try their best to maintain peace. Then there is a morally-unstable District Magistrate and his counterpart in the police department, a Sub-Inspector, who want to do the right thing but do not really have the guts to do it. The other striking character is that of Iqbal Singh, the foreign-returned political activist who wants to make a name for himself by going to jail, but when the time comes for him to truly do something of value, he drowns his conscience in whisky and tells himself that in moments of chaos, the best course to take is of self-preservation. I do not completely hate the person. Maybe in his shoes, I would have behaved in the same manner. The more learned we become, the more we see the futility of our actions, which in turn drives us to become more apathetic towards life, more like a passive audience in a theater. On the other hand, there is the village badmash, Juggut Singh, a man who often gets in trouble with the police, who seems to tower above everyone else, both literally and figuratively, and do something that no one else is able to do. Somehow it feels like the remainder of Mano Majra, apart from Juggut, are like puppets in a show and cannot really control their destinies.
I have not read anything else by Khuswant Singh, but with just this one, I am a fan. His writing is very plain, his English far from superfluous, but it has a deep contemplative tone to it. He builds his characters well, lets us get into their head and understand their actions and see life from their lens. Which is why, you don’t really end up hating anyone in Majo Majra – you just feel sad for the lot of them.
This book opened my eyes to the extent of horror of Partition. Sometimes, given the current political scenario of India, I wonder if we are at any better stage compared to 1947. If we took a lesson from the pages of history, maybe we would stop playing the divisive game of the politics of religion, and begin to truly celebrate the diversity of India. This soils of this country has been reddened by blood time and again. Hopefully, we will leave it a better place for our children.
Have you read Train to Pakistan? How did the book make you feel? Do let me know in the Comments below.