Train to Pakistan

Publié le 8 Février 2011


I am not sure I shall be able to do justice to Khushwant Singh’s little novel (published in 1956). It seems both too simple, too factual, and so because of that, too deeply rooted in Indian history and drama (for those who need the plot, go here). Not being Indian, how do I talk about it adequately? Here and there people say that the present upcoming generation is forgetting (has forgotten?) the events it relates, and such oblivion too is a formidable fact. We intellectuals would tend to consider History as necessary to the identity of a nation, especially if this history tells of its “mistakes” (but what are a country’s mistakes? How do you hold it responsible?) So what happens if a generation finds its past too heavy for it to continue to live with it? Hasn’t it got the right to forget? How do you rationalize this need for departure from a searing past?  In general anyway, people forget, time erases. And so history deals with oblivion all the time, by fighting against it, that’s its principal mission. In order to deal with the past, and in this case, a horrible past, it should be careful how it says things, because otherwise this slow and powerful movement of forgetfulness might well be stronger (“I would urge every Indian and Pakistani to read this book. It is part of our painful heritage”, says Vivek Sharma).

Hence the interest of fiction: stories and novels might be the right way to mediatise events which otherwise would simply be too factually strong. I’ll leave to those better informed to say how much in Train to Pakistan is fiction, how much fact. It’s enough to know that the frame is all too historical. “Too historical”: yes, certain facts be too historical, in the sense of sickeningly real, unforgivingly real. So real that you want to forget them. But you know that it’s a novel; there are characters, events and a narration, and all this conventional structure enables you perhaps to go beyond the reality in its bare power.

This function of the novel, for example, works in the sense that readers will tend to need heroes or goodies, and demand revenge against the baddies. And in Train to Pakistan, we have such a character, Jugga. He’s a “budmash”, a young and hefty Sikh peasant who’s watched by the police because of some petty crimes and his loud mouth. His village (where all the action takes place), Mano Majra, a mixed Hindu-Muslim village, in which everybody lives together in a close-knit community, is steeped in the Partition turmoil in 1947, and trainloads of dead Hindus from Pakistan are sent to be buried nearby. Jugga is the one who prevents a similar trainload full of Muslims from being slaughtered in retaliation. This is what somebody has written concerning his bravery:

“It seems fitting that Juggut Singh is the hero in this novel. By allowing Jugga to save the train, Singh suggests that heroes need not always be figures in power. Because Jugga was basically an outcast, Singh places a different light on those in lower standings in society”(Link)


The problem is that Khushwant Singh didn’t turn Jugga into a hero at all. The novel focuses a little on his liaison with the local mullah’s daughter (Nooran), and later he’s imprisoned as a potential culprit for a village assassination (a“dacoity”), which in fact a thug called Malli is responsible for. The local magistrate, Inspector Hukum Chand (we’ll come back to him in a minute), keeps him in jail, even though he knows he’s innocent, because of some obscure political calculation  (his presence in jail could deflect the attention of the Muslims).

What makes Jugga act at the end of the story, what prompts him to save these people in the train, isn’t heroic disinterestedness. It’s clear from the succession of events that he’s revenging himself against that another badmash, Malli, who along with his team of no-good bloodthirsty bums has won from the authorities the dubious merit of looking after the Muslim possessions in the village, once the latter have been sent on a train on the other side of the border. In fact Malli and his men loot everything, and when some militiamen arrive from the war zone closer to Pakistan, and ask the Sikh community to band against the Muslims, suddenly considered as India’s arch enemies, Jugga sees his chance of taking revenge against Malli who not only should have been in prison instead of him, and had taunted him during a short stay there too, but by his attitude is an accomplice of those who sent the village Muslims on that death-train. On board was his girlfriend Nooran. Jugga is clearly much more an instrument of local rivalry and petty injustice than a brave defender of the Muslim community whom the Hindus (in spite of early protestations of defence) soon forget.


And that’s one of Khushwant Singh's great messages: the History of Violence and Hatred is a senseless Juggernaut that rolls over populations, crushing them and blinding them, and cannot be stopped once it’s started. Events happen, and the only strategy one can implement is, like Hukum Chand, to guess their predictable path, and shape whatever appearances you can manipulate, in order to seem in charge. Or like the Hindu militiamen, to slice through human complexity and declare that all Muslims are bloodthirsty devils, that the sacred mission of all Hindus and Sikhs is to eliminate them one by one. Before the Partition, Mano Majra displayed a genuine hospitality and real religious openness. We see it described at the beginning of the book. But blind partisan suddenly pitted one against the other the two peaceful communities that (at least at this local level) didn’t know of enmity.

One character was a better candidate for heroism: Iqbal Singh. He's a social worker (and probable communist reformer) who also happens to be a Sikh, and this quality will be considered much more than he himself would have liked. In fact he will be obliged to accept an identity, which he had almost rejected, because this identity is the one that matters at the moment of these events. But he comes to Mano Majra at the worst of times. He’s an intellectual, and in spite of a few oddities, he soon gets adopted by the community. He has an aura of authority about it that seems to designate him for greater action than submissiveness. Perhaps he might even have led a resistance against this absurd transformation of human relationships into live-or-die opposite camps. But immediately after the dacoity, and against all evidence, he is imprisoned, because authorities don’t know at first who was responsible and just needed suspects.  But then when Malli’s responsibility is recognised, he and Jugga remain in jail because the same authorities need them there for other purposes. Khushwant Singh thus makes it clear that once again the forces that are at work in human affairs have nothing to do with individual heroism or generous motives. And when a very angry and dignified Iqbal is finally released from prison, one might believe he could go back to Mano Majra to reason the villagers and stop them from siding with the butchers against their former brothers: as a social worker who has ideals and sees beyond simplistic explanations, he could have kept his eyes open to other realities than blood, and enlighten them. Instead, that very night when the train is saved by Jugga’s revengeful sacrifice, he gets drunk on whisky and falls asleep. Just before this happens though, we see him pathetically examining the value of moral action:

“The point of sacrifice, he thought, is the purpose. For the purpose, it is not enough that a thing is intrinsically good: it must be known to be good. It is not enough to know within one’s self that one is in the right; the satisfaction would be posthumous (…) If you look at things as they are, he told himself, there does not seem to be a code either of man or of God on which one can pattern one’s conduct. Wrong triumphs over right as much as right over wrong. Sometimes its triumphs are greater. What happens ultimately, you do not know. In such circumstances, what can you do but cultivate an utter indifference to all values?” (p. 195,197)


The one person who has a responsibility and enough power to weigh on the course of events is the corrupt and decadent magistrate who is sent to the village to control the situation. But in fact he too is manipulated by the invisible politicians who have master-minded the Partition itself, at the expense of the genocide (around half a million people died in the population exchanges). What is tragic is that whatever power he has left is misused and paralysed by fear. The writer who wrote the good book review at Wikipedia cleverly reminds us of the moment when Hukum Chand is frightened by the two geckos (representing the two warring parties) fighting one another on his wall, and when they suddenly fall, he pathetically jumps out of their reach. This lecherous and frightened old man is simply paralysed by the fear of anything happening to his poor flesh. The trains full of corpses rumble in Mano Majra, and the river flows by carrying its haunting bloated spectres, but all he can do is hide from the horror, and try to forget it with alcohol and nautch girls.

Still, there is one moment when he does have a plan; it’s when he decides to free the two prison inmates we have spoken about, and hope that whatever grudge they bear might help deflect the Hindu militiamen from attacking the train. So he does try to save those hundreds of innocent lives, but how does he do it? By counting on some other falsely condemned human beings to act according to their emotions. He fails with Iqbal, who gets drunk, but succeeds with Jugga. In effect, he sends them to their sacrifice. And the point of the climax isn’t that Jugga saves the train, but that he saves it by being manipulated by the magistrate. It is the magistrate who, godlike, decides for him his destiny: he arrests him, detains him long enough for him to become infuriated, and then like a caged bull, releases him at the right moment. If Jugga is a hero, he’s a tragic one, an expendable one, a victim to the higher interests of a inhuman and pitiless administration.

Train to Pakistan describes the passage from an order of things where peaceful cohabitation was possible to a state where things will never be the same. That blood can never be forgotten, says this little novel. Alas, it is so very human to refuse to commit in the present and to forget the past. So that’s why Khushwant Singh has written this column, or this  monument to the victims of such an arch-human attitude.

The 1998 film, shot by Pamela Rooks doesn’t seem, according to IMDb reviewers, to be an everlasting work of art…

One last thing to say: thanks Akshay for lending me this little book!!


Rédigé par yves

Publié dans #Book reviews

Commenter cet article

bawa 16/02/2011 12:38

Hello. Dustedoff told me about your fine review in our recent meeting (I ahve been away for a while), and it is indeed very good.I read Train to Pakistan a long time ago, and it is disheartening
to meet so many Indians who have never tried to read it, even though everyone knows of it.The events at ground level were indeed even more horrific than those described by the book, as remembered
by older family members. My then 17-year old father spent many months, as did many other young people, daily helping out in the improvised refugee camps, his best friends dad was shot dead on
independence day while in his sitting room through a bullet coming in through the window, etc. They bitterly recall Gandhi promising that India would be "divided" over his dead body and then
signing on to partition. The one thing he would disagree with in the book is the idyllic Hindu-Muslim harmony depicted in the novel, which he described as uneasy in many places.

I think I will avoid the film, but I do wish there was a translation available of the upstanding and ethical M S Randhawa's fine autobiography. His last post was as the Vice Chancellor of Punjab
Agricultural University, for which he is remembered, but at the time of Partition he was the District Commisioner of Delhi, and relates the difficult circumstances, manipulations under which he
tried his best to do his job and the reasons why and where he succeeded or failed.

yves 16/02/2011 22:45

Goodnight Bawa,

Thanks for posting. What you say about the Hindu-Muslim community living in such ideal harmony doesn't come as a real surprise; it's of course understandable that there were community tensions
before the Partition. I suppose Khushwant had a purpose when he did this statement: that of the Union of two peoples that were on the verge of separating, and becoming TWO whereas before they
were ONE. And even if the reality might well have been often different, this stance dramatizes the choices of each community, when and if properly manipulated, to turn against former
fellow-citizens and let hate and violence reign. The backdrop of the peaceful communities makes the eruption of the evil of racism and religious enmity seem all the more meaningless.

Suja 11/02/2011 05:59

Sorry, of course Nandita was in was a girl called Gita whom I didnt see much of after this film.

yves 13/02/2011 15:48

OK, thanks!

Suja 10/02/2011 14:03

Garam Hawa is a Muslim family's story in post-partition India. It was written by Kaifi Azmi, a celebrated poet and father of Shabana Azmi.  I have memories of a sombre film, with wonderful
performances by Balraj Sahni and a Nandita Das, who was a young woman then. It belongs in the 'art film' category, I would say, but it worked well as a story. For someone like you, interested in
all the different layers of meaning that a film can provide, this would be very interesting. Earth was outstanding. Left me with a deep sadness, but still interesting. I will not hesitate to
recommend both as must-see films.

yves 10/02/2011 23:36

Great! and thanks! This Garam Hawa sounds like something I would really like to see, you're right. Plus I am
quite fond of Nandita Das (but she's in Earth, isn't she?) I had of course heard about Earth a lot... I have not seen it yet, perhaps, because I'd seen Water and wanted
to move on to other things.... But you've convinced me.

Suja 10/02/2011 09:21

Good review, thank you. I believe there is a film based on this book too, but I have neither read the book nor seen the movie. There are some excellent films based on the Partition
(capitalised because that's how the event is referred to in India). Garam Hawa comes to mind, as does Earth & Hey Ram. Attenborough's Gandhi too, of course. There are others but these are the
ones I particularly remember. Hindu-Muslim confrontations are a continuing saga, both in real life and in reel life (Bombay, for example, depicts the horrors which took place in the not so
distant past). I am sure you must have seen most of the films I have mentioned, if not, they are all worth the effort.

yves 10/02/2011 12:07

Thank you Suja, yes I have seen some of the works you mention: Hey Ram, Bombay and Attenborough's Gandhi especially. But not Garam Hawa: what story does this "hot wind" tell?

I mention the film (by Pamela Rooks) which was done from Khushwant's book at the end of the article.