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Book Review: Train to Pakistan Essay

Khushwant Singh opens his novel Train to Pakistan in a seemingly peaceful village on the countryside of Punjabi. Although the small village is fictional, it is important to note the historical significance this village, its people, and the time period represent in the novel. Revered as a one of the finest and best-known renditions of the Indian tragedy of partition, Train to Pakistan embodies more than a fictitious community. The following literary analysis will depict the consequence of human calamity by analyzing the political history of India, the social and cultural struggle of the people, and the moral message and character development.

It is evident that Singh did not want to make this novel a political recount because he shies away from describing the political role of the British and the Indian people in much detail. However, to understand the novel’s progression, it is essential to examine the historical background. Singh bases his relatively short novel in the year 1947 in India; in other words, in the midst of the India Independence Act of 1947 which resulted in the dissolution of the British Indian Empire. Unfortunately, the British withdrawal did not lead to a unified, free India, but instead divided into two, struggling, newly instituted states of India and Pakistan.

At midnight of August 15 of 1947, the two governments of India and Pakistan simultaneously declared independence, officially trying to separate Muslims from Sikhs. This violent divide between the two governments lead to the displacement of approximately 12.5 million men, women, and children and a death toll between several hundred thousand to one million. The violent nature of partition created an atmosphere of mutual hostility and suspicion that still hangs in the air between the two sides today. Singh, who was thirty at the time of partition, published one of the few first-hand accounts of this human tragedy that is now fading into history. Nevertheless, he captivates his audience in the retelling of a major human dispute.

This leads into the social and cultural struggle determined by the setting of Train to Pakistan. In the brief novel, we, as the reader, get the chance to know many of characters in great detail. Examination of these varied groups of people not only increases cultural and social understanding of that time and place, but also shows that the blame could not be placed on any one group; everyone was responsible. In fact, in the opening sentences of the book Singh writes, “Muslims said the Hindus had planned and started the killing. According to the Hindus, the Muslims were to blame. The fact is, both sides killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped” (1). From a reader’s stand point, it is important to note this passage’s significance. Singh wanted to make it clear that blame must be shared for these inhumane acts. As I stated before, Singh opens his novel by recreating a tiny village in the Punjabi countryside called Mano Majra.

Set next to a railway line that crosses the rising Sutlej River, the lives of the inhabitants of Mano Majra would fatefully change one summer season. The fictional village on the border of Pakistan and India is predominantly made up of Sikh farmers and Muslim tenants. Singh depicts how the residents of Mano Majra lived in an almost ignorant seclusion, surrounded by mobs of Muslims who hate Sikhs and mobs of Sikhs who hate Muslims; however, in the village the people had always lived harmoniously. Villagers were unaware about the happenings of larger scope than the village outskirts, which Singh depicts in the mystery of the trains full of murdered people. This obliviousness made them especially vulnerable to outside views. In fact, the most heart-rending passage in the book comes out of the people’s cluelessness when the government makes the decision to transport all the Muslim families from Mano Majra to Pakistan.

One Muslim said, “What have we to do with Pakistan? We were born here. So were our ancestors. We have lived amongst [Sikhs] as brothers” (126). The dumbstruck villagers are overtaken by events as a small joint army convoy, containing one unit of Sikh soldiers and one of Baluch and Pathans, arrives in the village and orders the Muslims to board within ten minutes. They do so with the barest minimum of their meager belongings. The Muslim officer politely shakes hands with his Sikh colleague, and sets off with his caravan to Pakistan, leaving the non-Muslim families without a chance to say goodbye. After the Muslims flee to a refugee camp from where they will eventually go to Pakistan, a cluster of religious agitators come to Mano Majra and instill in the local Sikhs a hatred for Muslims and convinces a local gang to attempt mass murder as the Muslims leave on their train to Pakistan.

This entire scene takes place after we are familiar with the characters, and it is painful at many levels: the poverty in which these people live; the terrible uncertainty they are suddenly cast into; and at least temporarily, the eclipse of people’s humanity. To continue, if these groups of people (i.e. government workers and ordinary citizens) are scrutinized on a closer level than their religious affections, a more detailed social structure emerges. First, government officials were corrupt and manipulative of villagers. They could arrest anyone they chose for any reason, more often than not for their own benefit. They did just enough in terms of dealing with the dispute so that nobody could say that they did not do anything, as I will point out later with Iqbal and Juggut. The law enforcement was completely at the whim of the local government, meaning that in practice, there was no law.

Also, small amounts of educated people trickled in and out of villages, trying to instill in people democratic, communist, or other western ideologies, though the common people were turned off and confused by their dissent. An example of this is when a villager explain, “Freedom is for the educated people who fought for it. We were slaves of the English, now we will be slaves of the educated Indians—or the Pakistanis” (48). More than midway through the novel, Singh depicts a scene in which the villagers learn that the government was planning to transport Muslims from Mano Majra to Pakistan the next day for their safety. To better understand the situation surrounding the Partition of India, Singh provides information about both religions involved. The book sheds light on the various religious practices of both Sikhs and Muslims in rural India, including daily life for individuals from both practices.

For example, the practice of prayer for Muslims is described in the novel: “The mullah at the mosque knows that it is time for the Morning Prayer. He has a quick wash, stands facing west towards Mecca and with his fingers in his ears cries in long sonorous notes, Allah-o-Akbar” (4). Singh points out practices of Sikhs as well, “The priest at the Sikh temple lies in bed till the mullah has called. Then he too gets up, draws a bucket of water from the well in the temple courtyard, pours it over himself, and intones his prayer in monotonous singsong to the sound of splashing water (5)”. These daily routines are not necessarily provided to exemplify the differences between the two religions, but more so how they rely and have a friendly tolerance for one another and the unfortunate changes the compatibility would undergo.

In addition to giving an understanding of human actions and pointing out that everyone was responsible, Khushwant Singh sketches his characters with a sure and steady hand, and we come to know quite a cast. Foremost, Hukum Chand is the regional magistrate, and the most influential character in the story for many symbolic purposes. It becomes noticeable that he is a morally conflicted man who has probably used his power over the years with much corruption. He is often described with a dirty physical appearance which is important emblematically because it is as if he is overwhelmed with unclean actions and sins and is trying to wash himself of them. Hukum Chand’s ethical issues are also shown in one of repeated encounters he has with two geckos. Allegorically, we can likely infer that these geckos represent Muslims and Hindus in conflict and on the verge of fighting one another. When the geckos start fighting, they fall right next to him, and he panics.

The guilt he gets from not helping when he has more than enough power to do so literally jumps onto him: “Hukum Chand felt as if he had touched the lizards and they had made his hands dirty. He rubbed his hands on the hem of his shirt. It was not the sort of dirt which could be wiped off or washed clean” (24). Alcoholism is another tool Hukum Chand uses in attempt to clean his conscience. He feels the guilt of his actions by day but is able to justify them with alcohol and visits from the teenage prostitute Haseena, a girl that is the same age as his deceased daughter. In all his conflictions, Hukum Chand is able to acknowledge that what he is doing is bad, but is still unable to promote good possibly inferring to the weakness of the human will or at least of those in power.

The two other main characters featured in the novel are Iqbal Singh and Juggut Singh, and they are likely meant to be contrasted. Iqbal is described as a slightly effeminate, well-educated and atheist (which is symbolic as his ambiguous name makes his family religion unidentifiable) social worker from Britain who thinks politically and cynically. Iqbal can easily represent modernity as he has purposely forgotten his traditional Sikh heritage and culturally adapted to the Western life style by cutting his hair and going through circumcision. Juggut, conversely, is a towering, muscular, and uneducated villager who places action over thought and is known for frequent arrests and gang problems. When the Hindu money-lender is murdered, it is as if the novel is warming Iqbal and Juggut up for comparison, as they were both arrested for the same murder they did not commit and were placed in adjacent cells.

In that time, a train pulls up full of dead corpses, obviously symbolic and representative of the violence and torment the two sides, Muslim and Sikh, placed upon one another. Upon the prisoners’ release, they learned that a gang was planning to attack the train taking Mano Majra’s Muslim population to Pakistan. They each had the potential to save the train, though it was recognized that this would cost their lives. Although Singh leaves us questioning who the heroic figure of the novel is, it is easy to place Juggut in the role of martyr. He acts on instinct after he found out about the fiasco that was going on, and then sacrifices his life to save the train.

Iqbal, on the other hand, spends pages wondering to himself whether he should do something, revealing a moral irony: “The bullet is neutral. It hits the good and the bad, the important and the insignificant, without distinction. If there were people to see the act of self-immolation…the sacrifice might be worth while: a moral lesson might be conveyed…the point of sacrifice…is the purpose. For the purpose, it is not enough that a thing is intrinsically good: it must be known to be good. It is not enough to know within one’s self that one is in the right” (170).

The questions of right versus wrong which Singh poses throughout the book are numerous, including those of what one should do when one has the opportunity to prevent something bad, when an act of goodwill is truly worthwhile, and how much importance is the consciousness of the bad. Train to Pakistan represents what one calls an “eye-opener.” Many times people block out or remain ambivalent to difficult circumstances surrounding them, but Singh writes, with multiple gruesome and explicit accounts of death, torture, and rape for the public to read, to make the case that people need to know about those improbable dangers.


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