One of the most brutal episodes in the planet’s history, in which a million men, women, and children were killed and ten million were displaced from their homes and belongings, is now over half a century old.
Partition, a euphemism for the bloody violence that preceded the birth of India and Pakistan as the British hurriedly handed over power in 1947, is becoming a fading word in the history books. First-hand accounts will soon vanish. Khushwant Singh, who was over thirty at the time, later wrote Train to Pakistan and got it published in 1956. Reprinted since then, reissued in hardcover, and translated into many languages, the novel is now known as a classic, one of the finest and best-known treatments of the subject.
Khushwant Singh recreates a tiny village in the Punjabi countryside and its people in that fateful summer. When the flood of refugees and the inter-communal bloodletting from Bengal to the Northwest Frontier at last touches them, many ordinary men and women are bewildered, victimized, and torn apart.
Khushwant Singh sketches his characters with a sure and steady hand. In barely over two hundred pages, we come to know quite a cast: the powerful district magistrate-cum-deputy commissioner Hukum Chand, a sad but practical minded realist, and his minion the sub-inspector of police at district headquarters. The village roughneck Juggut Singh “Jugga”, a giant Sikh always in and out of prison, who secretly meets the daughter of the village mullah. The simple priest at the Sikh temple. A Western-educated visitor who is a worker for the Communist party, with the ambiguous name of Iqbal (ambiguous because it doesn’t reveal his religion).
The village, Mano Majra, is on the railway line near where it crosses the swelling Sutlej. Its inhabitants, mostly Sikh farmers and their Muslim tenants, have remained relatively untouched by the violence of the previous months. When the village money-lender, a Hindu, is murdered, Jugga and the clean-shaven visitor are rounded up, and things change for the worse when an east-bound train makes an unscheduled stop at Mano Majra, the cars full of corpses. There have been many stories of Hindu and Sikh refugees being killed as they fled their homes from what was now Pakistan, but this train was the first such incident witnessed by the villagers.
Khushwant Singh’s eye for detail and his love of the people shine through in his descriptions: the District Magistrate’s “style of smoking betrayed his lower middle-class origin. He sucked noisily, his mouth glued to his clenched fist.”
The most heart-rending passage in the book is when the government makes the decision to transport all the Muslim families from Mano Majra to Pakistan. The dumbstruck villagers are overtaken by events. 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. The non-Muslim families don’t get a chance to say goodbye. 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; the renting asunder of the attitudes and loyalties of the British Indian Army; and at least temporarily, the eclipse of people’s humanity.
In Train to Pakistan, Khushwant Singh succeeds in showing the human dimension of the momentous event of Partition, through ordinary characters we can identify with. In the final climactic scene, the village *badmash* Jagga takes it upon himself to try to save a trainload of refugees, even at the cost of his own life.
Khushwant Singh went on to become a famously truculent, humorous, and eccentric columnist and editor, but this is one book infused with his compassion and humanity. It is as if the author were trying to save the memory of a tragedy too horrible to forget, even at the cost of his own future reputation.