Khushwant Singh's "Train to Pakistan"--Classic yet Cryptic
It is interesting to read historical novels where history is written as fiction. Here is a novel that tries to record a memorable phase of Indian history through fictional route but the essence is hardly lost in the process. I enjoyed reading it. This is an enduring piece of literature and generations of readers would like it.
Reading a book 55 years after it was first published should give the reader an impression that he is going through a classic or a book replete with imageries of yester years, yet no such thought ever occurred to me as I was poring over Khushwant Singh’s magnum opus “Train to Pakistan”. Rather, it made me feel as though I were holding in my hand a contemporary novel where everything told or implied was known to me! The reason could be that the basic theme on which he based his novel almost remains the same, even to this day. A subcontinent cannot be subjected to a partition on religious lines without inviting human tragedies of colossal proportions. This is a sort of seminal realization to dawn on Indian psyche. Since then waves of those blame game have come and gone, some of them vigorously espoused and some other not so vigorously, yet the tragedy still haunts. It is worth ruminating, for nobody can deny, especially after such a historical blunder, that a nation should learn from history. Probably the leadership of the hour had not done enough to allay the fear that was in the minds of common men: After British who would take care of us? Of our interests? No leader was so confident as to drive home the point that the land belonged to everybody; there were conflicts of ambitions; a few insecure leaders indulged in the brinkmanship; et cetera, et cetera. There has been a plethora of versions, research theses and stuff. But the basics of history, the truth that is unassailable, remain the same, almost unchanged.
“Train to Pakistan” is the story of one Juggat Singh who is a history-sheeter living in the border village Mano Majra and the police has kept a constant watch on him. And the fellow is in love with Nooran, the daughter of the Muslim weaver, Chacha Imam Baksh. Once he leaves his house in the dead of the night for his love tryst with Nooran and it is the time the dacoits of Malli group choose to loot the moneylender Lala’s house. They kill Lala and while going back throw the bangles into the premises of Jugga. It is their way of insulting Juggat, for he has not co-operated with them in the robbery in his own village and also for not maintaining good relationship with them. Despite everything, this drags Juggat Singh into the sphere of suspicion and he is taken into custody.
That is the time of partition, the summer of 1947. Muslims leave India and their exodus to Pakistan is not free from human sufferings. They leave their lifetime’s earning behind to be vandalized or robbed and go to a new land empty-handed. They leave their relations and acquaintances behind, for not all Muslims decide to join the exodus. Similar thing happens to Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan and they also come rushing to India almost penniless. To add to this, the marauders whip up communal feelings and the exodus is now further exacerbated by loot and bloodshed.
The police is almost clueless how to deal with the crisis. Here Khushwant Singh has portrayed a character of a confused magistrate in Hukum Chand. I find the character fully explored. As the deputy commissioner and magistrate of the district that is in a state of utter lawlessness, Hukum Chand tries to do what a bureaucrat is best at: he only plays safe. He is more eager to cover his tracks than to ensure law and order. He indulges in sexual act with a girl of his daughter’s age and repents his action and then does it again, falters, and so on. Sometimes he is full of compassion for the girl who is incidentally a Muslim. But when it is time to become decisive, he dithers. “No fool like an old fool,” he just makes a fun of himself for being so emotionally involved with a prostitute. The investigations into the murder of the moneylender progress but the real culprits who are apprehended are just released so that they would perpetrate violence against the hapless Muslims in this side of the border. Everything is deliberate and nothing seems to be by default.
Mano Majra which has so far been a place of exemplary communal amity is now touched by the religious frenzy. A train full of the bodies of Sikhs and Hindus come to the station of Mano Majra and they are given a mass cremation. The villagers give kerosene oil and fuel wood for that. The flotsam of dead bodies comes drifting along the river in spate, all of them murdered by those communalists in Pakistan. The inhabitants of Mano Majra are shocked and confused; yet do not act in retaliation. Finally, a Sikh bigot comes to the village and spreads hatred against the Muslims. He has the power of oratory with him. In fact, even now we have bigots with powerful speaking skill who can just overwhelm, if not brainwash, any believer in secularism. By the time the bigot reaches Mano Majra, the Muslim inhabitants of the village including Juggat Singh’s lady love Nooran and her father Chacha Imam Baksh have already left their homes to live in the so-called refugee camp near Chundunnugger. Now Pakistan government sends its army officers to rescue such Muslims of this side as are willing to go over to that side. It is decided that the Muslim refugees will go over to Pakistan by train crossing the bridge over Sutlej that flow by Mano Majra. In order that the train is not attacked by rioters the authorities take precautions and decide to run it without light. But everything seems to be utterly perfunctory. The inhabitants of Mano Majra, on the other hand, are instigated to stretch a rope above the train just over the bridge so that all the refugees that travel on the roof of the train are killed. They have many more nefarious plans of bloodshed. Even Malli the dacoit who is now free thanks to the evil design of Hukum Chand is ready to attack the train.
Around this time Juggat Singh is also released. He wants to do the greatest act of his life and seeks the blessings of the priest of the Gurudwara, Bhai Meet Singh. Meet Singh blesses him, “If you are going to do something good, the Guru will help you; if you are going to do something bad, the Guru will stand in your way. If you persist in doing it, he will punish you till you repent, and then forgive you.” Then Jugga goes in the dead of the night to cut the rope before the train crosses the dangerous bridge. Whether he does the great act of humanism for the sake of her lady love Nooran or for his child in her womb or for everybody or acting upon the spiritual words of Bhai Meet Singh is a question not material here; it is important that a known criminal in the records of the police, an illiterate peasant of the Punjab does the most humane act that is the need of the hour. The train to Pakistan reaches its destination safely. Juggat Singh is hit by the bullet of the marauders and succumbs. And the Train to Pakistan reaches its destination safely.
The novel has simple text, not so long-winded in sentence structures, easy to go through and especially lucid for those readers that resist a large mass of text and labyrinthine plots. I include myself in that group. Yet sometimes the narratives are deceptively simple. If I have to quote some interesting lines from the book, I would quote these: “All this happens in a few seconds. Before you can say Chakravartyrajagopalachari, the gale is gone”; “Singers are neither Hindu nor Muslim in that way. All communities come to hear me”; “Clerks and letter writers who wrote Urdu or Gurumukhi were literate but not educated”; “The art of diplomacy was to state a simple thing in an involved manner”; etc. etc. But the most interesting observation he makes about the Indian sex psyche in the following words: “It was not possible to keep Indians off the subject of sex for long. It obsessed their minds. It came out in their art, literature and religion. One saw it on the hoardings in the cities advertising aphrodisiacs and curatives for all ill effects of masturbation. One saw it in the law courts and market places, where hawkers did a thriving trade selling oil made of skin of sand lizards to put life into tired groins and increase the size of phallus. One read it in advertisements of quacks who claimed to possess remedies for barrenness and medicines to induce wombs to yield male children. One heard about it all the time. No people used incestuous abuse quite as casually as did the Indians. Terms like sala, wife’s brother (“I would like to sleep with your sister”), susra, father-in-law (“I would like to sleep with your daughter”) were so often terms of affection for one’s friends and relatives as expressions of anger to insult one’s enemies. Conversation on any topic—politics, philosophy, sport—soon came down to sex, which everyone enjoyed with a lot of giggling and hand-slapping.” How true! My only quibble is that all these postulates could have been said in simple present tense.
While comparing a novel with a short story, the general belief is that a former should have a larger canvas, a longer period under survey, a posse of characters to explore. But in Khushwant Singh’s “Train to Pakistan”, there is no such thing. The canvas is not so big yet nothing seems cluttered here. While culling characters the author has not believed in the principle: more is merrier. There are less than a dozen characters, almost like a novella and that makes the role of each of them distinct and purposeful. The western educated communist agent in the name of Iqbal Singh does not have much role in pushing the plot forward yet supplies necessary fillers and in that sense the character is well-chosen. Khushwant Singh makes Iqbal utter all those philosophical statements which are in fact the author’s own beliefs. He has nothing extra to do and his activities do not build up any sub-plot either. Even the time span of the novel is limited, say the summer and monsoon months from June to September, 1947. Khushwant Singh devotes quite some time in narrating something so obvious as monsoon; probably he has readers from those places in mind where monsoon excesses are not experienced. Probably he has to make his work acceptably long; in any case there is author’s presence here. Similarly, he has made his character Iqbal to think a lot, and out of his muddle-headedness comes some of the brilliant expositions of things not so good in India, say the constipated thinking of its people; the capacity of Yoga to gross dollars; its muddle-headedness masquerading as mysticism; the tendency to hark back to B.C. Even he presents conundrums like it needs courage to be coward!
To sum up, “Train to Pakistan” for its vivid portrayal of horrible societal dissension warns us about what we lose when we compromise social harmony. It is almost like history is written as a fiction. It is an interesting piece of literature and it has an enduring appeal to the readers. I can safely predict that the book will continue to be read even in twenty-second century and then the twenty-third and even thereafter.
A. N. Nanda
Labels: Book Review