Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Train To Pakistan - Khushwant Singh
This is the first of the works by Khushwant Singh that I happened to read. A great writer, I must say.
Train To Pakistan is a story set in the backdrop of the infamous partition of 1947. The village Mano Majra, which is the scene of the entire story, is a fictitious village by the river Sutlej, on the border of India – Pakistan.
As the writer begins the narrative with the geographical details around the village and then its weather, its inhabitants, their lives, their routine, their homes around a peepul tree, the green fields, the railway station and the waters of the Sutlej, the village comes alive before you.
Even as massacres go on in other parts of the country, the residents of Mano Majra, blissfully unaware of these, go on with their lives. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs live like one family.
The sixteen year old Muslim girl Nooran who is having an affair with a Sikh Dacoit Jugga, the father of the girl, a partially blind elderly Imam, respected by all in the village, the educated stranger from UK whose religion is not known, who takes shelter in the Gurudwara and intends to educate the people so that the whole battle could be turned into a proletariat revolution, the Deputy commissioner visiting the village on duty who feels guilty about wanting to lay a young prostitute, his daughters age and others, go on with their lives as usual.
One day, when a train from Pakistan loaded with mutilated bodies of Hindus and Sikhs arrives at Mano Majra, the entire village watches in silent stupor.
And then arrive in Mano Majra, the instigators who carry out the acts of sedition even as the villagers show reluctance to be incited. Some of them, as expected conspire to retaliate and some villagers consent to join them. A train loaded with Muslims headed to Pakistan is expected to pass through Mano Majra. The conspirators plan to kill each one on that train, not deterred by the fact that all the Muslims of Mano Majra who were like their brothers until the previous day, are going to be on that train. The plan is sabotaged by Jugga whose love for his Nooran (who is on that train), gets the better of his loyalty towards his fellow villagers. The train moves on to Pakistan.
It’s just a story. But it is also a zoom in, onto the carnage during the partition, that makes the tragedy a personal experience to a reader and gives a general understanding of the various political, sociological and circumstantial factors that work together intricately to result in a communal strife among the most loving of people in a peaceful village that has never known violence.
The writing is characterized by excellent imagery. The author has an eye for detail and nuance. It’s the kind of detail that you want to have more of; the arrival of monsoon after a blazing summer, the joy of the people, the singing of the cuckoo, the swell of the river Sutlej, the dependency of people’s daily routine on the train schedules, the peaceful lull in a typical village, etc.
Although a few pages are filled with gory descriptions of death, blood, heads separated from bodies, intestines torn out of living people, the scene of hundreds of slaughtered bodies floating on river Sutlej etc., the reading is not painful as it is also embellished with imagery and poetic verses.
Not forever does the bulbul sing
In balmy shades of bowers,
Not forever lasts the spring
Nor ever blossom flowers,
Not forever reigneth joy,
Sets the sun on days of bliss,
Friendships not forever last,
They know not life, who know not this.
Ordinary mortal as I am, the conclusion left me with a sense of indignation I must admit (without pride), though only for a fleeting moment.
I am not sure whether the choice of conclusion by the author, of an unfulfilled retaliation is just an incidental one or a conscious choice meant to be symbolic of something.
Regardless of what the author had in mind, the story IS representative of reality. It is the summation of the war between the two communities.
The net result of the history of the Hindu Muslim communal strife is that the Hindus have taken 100 times more beatings than the Muslims. If you look at episodes of the recent past in isolation you may not get the right perspective. But if you look at the big picture, the balance sheet, the massacres by Taimur Lang, Nadir Shah, Ghazni, Aurangzeb and the savages from central Asia, then you will see that the Hindus have stretched their limits of tolerance and endurance beyond human capacity. They have never retaliated in equal measure of the atrocities that they were subjected to.
I am NOT suggesting that they should retaliate, but I am just observing that they have taken prolonged, repeated and more severe cruelty than they have perpetrated.
I am only proud that they have upheld the virtues of tolerance, forgiveness and compassion that their religion advocates. I am only sad that it always worked to their disadvantage.
Do read this one.