Thursday, May 21, 2015

Train to Pakistan – Khushwant Singh

Another classic that has long been on the list but has eluded me somehow. So when I saw this little book perched on Mythily’s bookshelf I picked it up.  The story is set in a little village Mano Majra on the border of Punjab. The time is when the country has been divided into India and Pakistan and people are crossing over – Muslims to Pakistan and Hindus to India. The village has one main attraction – its small railway station through which trains pass by and rarely stop.

The story begins with a dacoity in the house of the village moneylender. The dacoits murder him and on the way out throw some bangles in the house of the village dacoit Juggut Singh, a known offender. Jaggut Singh is at that very moment making love to a young Muslim weaver girl in the fields, flouting orders from the police that he should be in the village after sunset. A western educated communist of unknown origin and religion arrives in the in the village at the same time. The next day or perhaps the same evening a train arrives from Pakistan full of dead bodies. The local police and military quietly cremates the thousands of innocents. Meanwhile the educated young man Iqbal and Juggut Singh are both arrested in suspicion for the murder of the money lender. Another train arrives with dead bodies. The village which has lived harmoniously with its Muslim inhabitants still sticks by them, but now outsiders come into the picture. We must retaliate, we must send trains full of dead bodies to Pakistan they say. The plan is hatched.

The Magistrate is in love with  a Muslim nautch girl and he feels sad she will be killed too. He plays a wild card knowing he cannot do anything to stop the planned massacre of the train to Pkistan. He releases the idealistic, educated communist and the young dacoit in love with the Muslim weaver’s daughter. Both have motives to stop the massacre. But would their motive be greater than their life? Whose purpose drives him to sacrifice himself to save that train full of Muslims and thereby save his own love? The story ends dramatically. I loved the way he ended it though and in a way grateful too.
“Train to Pakistan” is considered a classic. The writing is beautiful as he describes the villages, the situation. The characters are interesting and clearly etched. You can visualise everything and to me it’s almost as if I was part of the crowd in Mano Marjda watching everything as it unfolded. Also it was an important story that had to be told – of what happened during partition. One can see the humongous error or mischief played by the British government in making two countries with such lousy plans of executing it. If the Nazis were guilty of so many deaths of innocents, the British have on their hands the blood of as many with their ideas of Partition.

If there is one lack in the book I felt it was that of emotion. Probably because it was a raw wound and far too fresh – Khushwant Singh published it in 1956 – and he perhaps kept it understated for a reason . One does not understand the educated man’s motive for being in such a dangerous place at such explosive times with such low convictions. The love of Jaggut Singh never rises above lust and one cannot see him making sacrifices for anyone – he is a dacoit after all with no scruples. I wonder what a canny person like the Magistrate Hukum Chand was thinking with all his experience and power in finding the solution he does for the girl. If each of these stories had been given more depth and meaning their motives could have been clearer and more powerful.

But it’s a book we must all read to understand our history. Partition is not a mere word and things did not happen smoothly. It’s a page in our history not many talk about nor write about and it’s something everyone wants to forget. But it’s a truth that shows people for what they can be– the good and the bad, the trauma and the pain – and our capacity to heal and rebuild. Questions that come up are these – are people the same or are they different? Are some people not to be trusted? Are there no stories where some communities have shown that they also stand for what is good? Who leads these campaigns? Who kills and who wants to loot and rape? What happens to sanity and rational thinking? And most importantly, if it can happen then, what will stop it happening now? 

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