Great Indian Novels #10: Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

In this series of articles I profile 10 great Indian novels…

Revered Indian novelist Khushwant Singh’s most famous work was published in 1956 at a time when the wounds of Partition were still raw. Since then it has courted controversy, both in its original form and in several subsequent attempts at bringing it to the screen, only one of which was successful, and that after a protracted battle with the Indian censors. 

Train to Pakistan shines a spotlight on one of the most harrowing periods in the subcontinent’s history, when the cataclysmic effects of Partition reverberated throughout communities around the country, setting Muslim against Hindu and Sikh, pitting neighbour against neighbour in an orgy of violence that left over a million dead. 

The novel is set in the fictional village of Mano Majra, on the border between Pakistan and India. The village is populated by Muslims and Sikhs, who have lived together peacefully for generations. Singh introduces us to a small cast of characters, most prominently Juggut Singh, a violent scoundrel; Iqbal Singh, a weak-willed social activist newly arrived in the village to proselytise on behalf of his political masters; and Hukkum Chand, a local magistrate. 

The villagers of Mano Majra, a close-knit community, are largely uninformed of what is happening around them in the country at large; but when rumours begin to trickle in of atrocities being committed in neighbouring villages the seeds of trouble are sown. 

In due course, a train arrives from Pakistan, loaded with corpses. This becomes the catalyst for the local police to force Muslims to leave for Pakistan – ostensibly for their own safety. They are housed in a refugee camp overnight awaiting a train to Pakistan. But then Sikh agitators arrive, demanding that the remaining villagers pick up their swords and come with them to seek vengeance…

What sets Kushwant Singh’s novel above earlier attempts to depict the horror of Partition is his focus on the individual. There is little in the way of political grandstanding. Instead, we see an understanding of human motivations, the murkiness of decisions made when fear, rumour and peer pressure combine, and a moral commentary that deftly infuses the work. This perspective gives the story a harrowing, visceral believability – we are never in any doubt that the horrific events that he depicts are a representation of actual incidents. 

The book is relatively short, but all the more powerful because of it, condensing a series of literary gut-punches into less than 200 pages. Singh’s writing style is similarly punchy. He eschews elegy, preferring to offer a clean, precise narrative akin to reportage. His method brings to life villages such as Mano Majra, caught in the eye of the storm during that terrible time. He also makes it clear that the blame for the violence cannot be placed on any one group – all were responsible.

“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.” 

This is not a novel for the faint-hearted. Some of the atrocities Singh describes are difficult to stomach. The idea that humans could – and did – do this to one another calls into question everything we believe about ourselves as moral, intelligent, supposedly enlightened creatures. Yet it is precisely this refusal to shy away from the reality of what occurred that makes the novel a landmark in world literature. 

Today the work is just as relevant. India and Pakistan continue to rattle sabres at one another, exchanging hostile rhetoric at every opportunity. Kashmir is the issue that, more often than not, sparks political angst and the corresponding civilian unrest. But the seeds of this strife were sown during those short years around 1947 when the country was engulfed in something akin to madness. 

No writer has captured that sense of bloody anarchy better than Kushwant Singh in this enduring classic. 

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My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here

And you can read all 10 Great Indian Novel articles (in due course) on my blog archive here

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