Fiction Reads: Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

In the summer of 1947, a gruesome, violent bloodbath ensues during the turbulent India-Pakistan partition, killing millions in its wake. 

Menwhile at the border village of Mano Majra, life goes on as usual. 
The residents time their daily routine of chores, meals, work, prayers and sleep to the sound of trains arriving-departing at the railway station. 
This fragile peace is soon smashed to bits. The local moneylender’s murder ruffles up the denizens. Then, a train arrives at Mano Majra, ominously quiet, bearing ghostly tidings.

First published in 1956, Train to Pakistan is up there among Singh’s best novels, notably Delhi (1990). Instead of the latter’s epic sweep, Singh slashes at the jugular here. 

He fleshes out life-mirroring characters, rough, raw and hapless to the circumstances. 
From the giant-like Sikh rogue Juggat Singh, the well-intending, yet conniving, district magistrate Hukum Chand, city-dwelling communist Iqbal, Sikh priest Meet Singh to Nooran, the vulnerable Muslim girl, Singh is in his element here.

Symbolisms and insights
Trains running haywire and disrupting tranquil lives makes for strong symbolism here, as does the reading out of Guru Nanak’s teachings, a downplayed, pivotal moment in the story.

As the Sutlej river swells with the monsoon’s advent, dead bloated bodies come floating by. A madness tardily, surely grips the village. It only takes a young mob-rouser to light the flame and the stage is set for mayhem and murder. 

Singh masterfully dissects the times, emotions and short-sightedness of the general public. No individual, independent thoughts prevail here. In a snatch, a crowd transforms into a killing mob.

Nightmarish, brutal descriptions follow. The unsettling analogy to Nehru’s Tryst with destiny speech is haunting. 

An abrupt stunning climax winds up this powerful gritty tale. 
Unsentimental, effectively dry and humane, this is a surprisingly redeeming partition novel. 
A definitive classic, a necessary cautionary tale of our times. Sadly, still contemporary and immediate in the 70th year of India’s independence.

(Article by Snehith Kumbla)    

A partition photograph by Margaret Bourke-White for LIFE magazine.

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