The Train To Pakistan by Khushwant Singh (book review)

Publisher: Penguin Random House

1st published in 1956

Pages: 190

Genre: Historical Fiction

Language: English

Format: Paperback

When I boarded the train from Vizag, ‘Train to Pakistan’ was already in my hand. I had borrowed the book recently and couldn’t wait to dig into it. After being settled I turned to the last page of the book; a hundred ninety pages: a short read, perfect for a 6 hours journey. Little did I know that these nearly two hundred pages would evoke thousands of thoughts and emotions while the mild rocking of the train would lull me into the plot.

‘Train to Pakistan’ is not one of those books that would immediately grasp your attention, The initial pages are dedicated to preparing the setting of the village of Mano Majra. A simple village where Muslims and Sikhs live in harmony and their simple life is yet unaffected by grim issues like partition, communal riots or the formation of the Congress government. The only people to discuss these subjects are Hukum Chand, the Magistrate and the Sub-inspector of Chandannugger; who are trying to maintain peace in the nearby areas and keep Mano Majra unaffected as long as possible.

As the plot gradually builds we get a glimpse of the passionate love affair between Juggat Singh or Jugga, a notorious Sikh and Noora, a Muslim girl. Just then the loot and murder of a local moneylender take place for which Jugga along with a stranger named Iqbal is later accused and arrested. The story gains momentum with the arrival of the ghost train loaded with the corpses of Hindus from Pakistan at the station of Mano Majra, thus dragging it too at the verge of communal riots.

The blurb of the book was undoubtedly very intriguing and it introduced Jugga as the main protagonist of the story. Jugga, a badmash who is infamous for his illegal activities and frequent arrests is a brute but courageous man. His love for Nooran is genuine and he sticks to his own principles. Singh has tried to portray him as a victim of social injustice. When I was first introduced to him, I felt he would be some kind of an anti-hero, but sadly I saw him in proper action only in the last few pages of the book.

The character which in fact shares a dominant space in the book is of Hukum Chand. I got to see various shades of his character; he is cunning, honest, sympathetic and a great conspirator. For me, he was the puppet master of Mano Majra and he victoriously used the other characters as pawns.

But, besides all these, what kept me engrossed in the book was the writing style of Khushwant Singh. It is so gripping and intense. The man effortlessly writes a lovemaking scene without being erotic, and he successfully paints the gory of communal riots with his with his words, making every scene appear real. Every page of the book added to the horrifying perception of the partition.

The sudden halt of the train broke my reverie. I realised that I had finished the book long before my destination, yet it was clasped firmly in my hands. Certain scenes still rolled behind my mind, certain words still came back to me. I really wished that the book had been a little longer since the ending was not very satisfactory. Yet, the book not only made me shiver, bewildered and restless but had also left in my mind a trail of many unanswered questions, one of which was:

A political decision divided the land and its people making them face massacres and horrors, inducing in them hatred and fear, the burden of which we are bearing still today, was all of that really worth it?

 

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