Friday, February 6, 2009

Train to Pakistan - Khushwant Singh

"India is constipated with a lot of humbug. Take religion. For the Hindu, it means little besides caste and cow-protection. For the Muslim, circumcision and kosher meat. For the Sikh, long hair and hatred of the Muslim. For the christian, Hinduism with a sola topee. For the Parsi, fire-worship and feeding vultures. Ethics, which should be the kernel of religious code, has been carefully removed... Proof? we do not go into such pedestrian pastime as proof! That is Western. We are of the mysterious East. No proof, just faith. No reason; just faith."

Khushwant Singh has provided with a brilliant account of India during the partition of the country aswellas the life and nature of Indians in general. As an Indian and a Punjabi I found this book very close to home. My father has told me stories of my past relatives who had to migrate from Pakistan area to India during this time...but only after reading this book do i genuinely admire their venture.

Khushwant Singh has written this book as a neutral, which is a truly awesome thing. I mean, being a sikh himself, he has openly ridiculed some of the traits of sikhs (which is something he is famous for actually) and has also declared that it wasnt just the Muslims that did all the killing, but it was the whole nation in a state of chaos. He also does not refrain from taking jabs at Gandhi and Nehru.

The story is told with a small village, Mano Majra, near the Indo-Pak border, as a reference which has somehow survived the killings and has so far remained as peaceful as it always has been. This village is next to a railway station and also near the Sutlej river. Juggut Singh, a budmash (or a known dacoit) can be considered to be the protagonist. The peace in this village is one day disturbed when a dacoity takes place and the blame is automatically placed on Juggu. But Juggu was innocent as he having a good time with his love Nooran (who is muslim) just outside the village. At the same time an educated social worker Iqbal has come to the village and is also arrested under suspicion. Juggu reveals the names of the dacoits but the police even after capturing them let them go and keep Juggu and Iqbal under custody. Meanwhile things start happening thick and fast in the village. First a train full of corpses of sikhs turns up at Mano Majra. The burning of these bodies leaves a sour taste in the mouths of the villagers (consisting of half sikhs and rest muslims and only one hindu family living in peace for generations). Then comes the rain and the Sutlej starts rising. But its not just water that is flooding the river. The river is found carrying countless corpses clearly murdered. Then another train shows up from Pakistan similar to the earlier 'ghost train'. This time the bodies are buried. The magistrate and the sub-inspector of the village arrange for the evacuation of the muslims from the village avoid any ugliness. The villagers comply but only after they hold an emotional meeting. Also sikh refugees have come to the village from Pakistan. Then the magistrate hears of a armed young boy accompanied with some men. He agitates the villagers against the muslims and plots his own massacre when a train full of muslims including the ones from Mano Majra is headed to Pakistan. The magistrate decides to free Juggu and Iqbal in hope that they can change the boy's scheme. This is where we get to see the greatest irony. Iqbal the social worker drinks his whiskey, gets philosophical and falls asleep, convinced that he cannot alter destiny and he is just one man. Juggu, the budmash, meanwhile gets on top of the rope meant to kill hundreds of muslims and in the nick of time cuts it, at the price of his life. The train heads of to Pakistan with no casualties and the muslims owe their lives to a sikh and a budmash.

This is where the book suddenly ends. The climax of the book is hardly one and a half pages and the reader is left asking for more. But there isnt anymore. No nonsense about Juggu passing into legend or the reaction of the boy who claimed to be a revolutionary. I must say that i enjoyed even the lack of the typical epilogue. very Alistair Maclean.

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