Khushwant Singh’s ‘A Train to Pakistan’

It was Khushwant Singh’s début novel when it was published in 1956 and memories of the partition were very much alive as it was a momentous event that led to the birth of two nations – India and Pakistan.

Train to Pakistan                                                            Image Courtesy – Wikipedia

The historical context of the novel is well understood by the ordinary Joe on the street so it connected well even as a work of fiction based on the recent events. Singh scores in particular by narrating the human element and the spirit of mankind & sacrifice prevails at the end.

Imagine a small village that ran its daily rhythms as per the passage of trains through its railway station. Mano Majra is as fictional as Malgudi, yet we are easily able to identify with its denizens and their way of life. Pastoral peace reigns as the simple rustic folks went about with their daily routine. A small community of Sikhs and Muslims that had lived in peace and harmony for generations.

And yet tumultuous events had happened as the land went through a massive upheaval and eventually the shock waves reached the village with tragic consequences. There were no easy answers and the dilemma facing the people was not easily resolved.

The Regional Magistrate struggles to maintain law and order in the backdrop of the turmoil that besets the landscape.The choices he makes may seem to be manipulative but at the end of it he seems to succeed in ensuring the greater good for his people. It seems to be a rhetorical question to ask whether ends can justify means or not?

The story revolves around 3 Principle characters – their morals and attitude determine the wait for a great number of passengers who are leaving for a safer and better future. There are no easy answers to the matter of fact situations that confront the characters. The story ends on a positive note but their fate was hanging a thin thread.

Hukum Chand’s is not an easy life but he is a sharp and canny administrator well versed in the art of pulling strings to manage the implications of the rapidly unfolding events that can have disastrous effect on law & order. He is a mass of contradictions – an alcoholic, slovenly and morally corrupt man who doesn’t mind entertaining a young innocent prostitute who even reminds him of his dead daughter. He does even believe in God and religion as well but does seem to have cared for his dead family. And he wants to ensure peace, even if he motivated by the desire to keep his turf clean.

He survives by managing the incompetence of the local Police and still uncannily predicts the future by ensuring a forced exit of the refugees before people get harmed.

Jaggat Singh a.ka, Jagga is a far similar character. He is a budmash and has a bad reputation. He is all brawns and has a reputation for having a wild temper and being impetuous in his actions. An interesting sidelight is his ongoing romantic affair with Nooran, the daugher of the near-blind Imam Baksh.

He lives by his wits and is street smart enough to gather the emotional undertone of a situation. On being released from the Police custody, he does not go searching for Nooran at the refugee camp. Instead his focus remains on settling his scores with Malli and gang. Thus he becomes Hukum Chand’s pawn, who plays the expected role. And he finally comes good when it matters and saves many lives, including that of Nooran, by sacrificing his own life.

Iqbal is a well-educated communist who is soft-spoken and well-intentioned. Neither counts in the charged village environment where the power matrix and the alignment of people’s action is in abidance with brute power that drives it.

We are impressed initially by his idealism but do despair at the practicality that impacts his plans. Unfortunately he does not have the ability to act and make any meaningful contributions towards remediating the touch situation at hand.

(And if you were to find it a tad tedious to read the book, you also have the easier option to watch the movie by the same name. It was directed by noted director Pamela Rooks and premiered on local entertainment channel, Star Plus in 1998.)


2 Replies to “Khushwant Singh’s ‘A Train to Pakistan’”

  1. Such skill at work in his first novel itself – there is a passage that describes onset of Monsoon (derivation from its original Arabic word ‘Mausam’).It could well be a standalone essay and you wonder about its placement.
    And yet it weaves back with telling effect into the main story as well. I feel that he didn’t quite achieve the promise he showed as a novelist and chose to foray into other literary forms instead.


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