Review: Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

Train to Pakistan

Salman Rushdie has a role to play in making me read Khushwant Singh. The Satanic Verses has created lot of controversy over last two decades. But I wasn't aware of the details of his book which had brought to him so much infamy and reviled criticism. In a BBC documentary Khushwant Singh explained the reasons for him asking Rushdie to exclude certain controversial lines in his book before being published by Penguin India. Though I had heard of Khushwant Singh so many times, but never took to reading a book of his. This interview prompted me to rethink why am I excluding Indian writers - even though they don't write pure fiction but historical fiction? So the first barricades were pulled down with this thought. And a conversation with a colleague led to this book being lent to me. The book was tiny when compared to lot of other historical books but didn't make me underestimate its intellect. In fact there was an air of nothingness about that book - and if you weren't aware of the author you might probably think it must be by a fly by night publisher.

The book was very well taken care of as evident from the plastic cover. It was a hard bound edition. The inside of the back cover had a photo of the author looking sideways. But not clear enough to make you remember the face. Given its size, I felt like reading it at one go. It was just a little over 200 pages - those too were so miniscule but couldn't do that because of some mundane office work. Somehow made sure I woke up till beyond two in the morning to finish reading it. Read around 130 of the pages in the first reading, and finished the remaining in the second.

The characters are uncannily real. Nothing about any of them seemed disassociated from the living. Jugga or Juggut Singh is the protagonist. He is a typical Sardar - well built, tall, loud and short tempered. No offence towards the brave Sikhs, but when I mention 'typical' it is only because of their portrayal as such in the unintelligent Bollywood films. I myself have had no Sikh friends, apart from few kids who were in my school and college. Other characters had their own distinctive nuances about them. Iqbal Singh was intriguing as a comrade, but was not brave enough to enforce a change - a change which would have shot him in the limelight in the form of newspaper headlines and also saved hundreds of lives.

Towards the end it felt as if the author was bringing out his own thinking through the characters, especially Hukum Chand, magistrate and deputy commissioner of the district. His reflections on the illogical subtleties of religion, of the association of moral rights and wrongs with action and the division of societal roles seemed to give a peek into the authors mind. He is an agnostic, though. The line of thinking of Hukum Chand makes for a case of how the State and religion snuggle up to each other for parochial gains. The lives of the villagers of Mano Majra come to painful and divisive halt when the Muslims are asked to go to refugee camps by the police. The people of this village had no idea that India was getting independent - that word had no connotations. They always were free and lead happy lives. And now they were being presented with independence, which would separate the Sikhs from the Muslims. The palpable tension that builds up towards the last pages zaps you with its realism. Religion, abruptly, had become far too important in the poisoned minds of the Mano Majrans. Jugga, who loves a Muslim girl, saves hundreds of lives by sacrificing his own. Hatred is finally subdued by love but only for so long as the leaf of innocence has been slit by the spear of religion.

"The summer of 1947 was not like other Indian summers", as it correctly began with. 


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