Ever since India gained freedom from the British, many authors have explored the genre of 20th century post-colonial India. One of the first and perhaps the most well known authors to do so is Khushwant Singh. His novel, ‘Train to Pakistan’ is set in 1947, just after independence and describes Mano Majra– a small village in Punjab. Mano Majra is near the Indo Pak border, but has been sheltered from the atrocities of partition, and is one of the few places where Sikhs and Muslims are still living in harmony. That is, until a ghost train shows up at the local railway station. This, along with banditry and political manipulation by members of the administration threatens to permanently destroy the tranquillityÂ of the village.
The story is depicted through the eyes of three contrasting characters. Hukum Chand, the magistrate of the district, is a middle aged man- cunning but not corrupt. The onus of maintaining calm in the village falls upon him. And then there is Juggut Singh, the village troublemaker, who has frequented jail on many occasions. He is fiercely passionate and loyal, and gets romantically involved with a young Muslim girl. And finally there is Iqbal, a modern urban Indian, who is disillusioned with the “rich people’s government” and roams the rural areas hoping to start a proletariat uprising.
The lives of these three interweave with one another leading to a turn of events that tests ties of friendship, loyalty and love among members of two communities that have been living in peace for years. Singh paints a picture so vivid one feels like a part of the surroundings. Despite the apparent gloomy theme of the novel, a feeling of hopefulness rather than despair persists. This is primarily because disturbing events are buffered by calming descriptions of the village and mental dialogues of the characters. This creates a narrative that is evocative, imaginative, and most importantly for me, quintessentially Indian.
In less than 200 pages, Singh guides the readers through an anthropological and sociological journey into the past, with the lesson that– in a society torn by civil and religious wars, it is human relationships that eventually suffer. Ironically, it is the same human bond that provides even a little chance of salvaging the situation. Singh’s style of delving into details as well as the knowledge than he lived through the partition, adds a personal touch and a sense of authenticity to the novel.
The novel inspired me to reflect on not just the struggle for Independence that occurred over 60 years ago, but also on the relevance of Singh’s message in today’s India- where communal issues still influence political and social movements.
All in all, ‘Train to Pakistan’ is a must read– if not absorbing and moving, it is surely thought provoking.
[box bg=”#fdf78c” color=”#000″]About the author: Tanvi Bikhchandani is 19-years-old and a second-year college student. She enjoys reading, writing and photography.[/box]