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A Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh: Book Review

Samragnee Chakraborty

Abstract: The book A Train to Pakistan, authored by Khushwant Singh, has garnered
enormous attention in the field of partition literature. It presents before its readers the
pre and post-partition scenes in the village Mano Majra.

Eamon De Valera once said, “Partition is after all only a fortress of crumbled masonry, held
together by the plaster of fiction”. After releasing itself from the clutches of the British
Empire, the Indian subcontinent got divided into two nations, India and Pakistan in 1947. The
former was planned to be a Hindu dominated nation and the latter a Muslim one. It was accompanied by what can be thought of as one of the most horrific violence the world had
ever witnessed. Innumerable people had been brutally killed, murdered and massacred on
religious lines. The migration of people on both sides of the border counted approximately up
to 11.3 million. All such horrendous incidents are still kept alive in our minds through the
extensive use of literature and media. At the backdrop of the Indian partition, a lot of writers
such as Salman Rushdie, Saadat Hasan Manto and Stephen Alter attempted to pen down their
subjective experiences in the form of novels. The following article centers around one such
novel, A Train to Pakistan written by Khushwant Singh and provides a book review of the
same. A Train to Pakistan is one of the most widely known historical novels which focuses
on the events that took place during partition.

A Train to Pakistan is written in a very simple language, engaging the reader through themes
of suspense, romance and tragedy. In this book, Khushwant Singh recounts the memories of
the 1947 Partition in order to write about the situation of a village named Mano Majra during
the initial months post partition. The village of Mano Majra fell on the border of the two
newly formed nations, India and Pakistan. It consisted of three main religious communities.
The Sikhs and the Muslims were equal in number and there was only one particular Hindu
family, that of the village moneylender. The novel entangles the life stories of several people
and is divided into three sections. The first section focuses on an unfortunate event of dacoity
in which the moneylender Ram Lal gets killed. The dacoits were five in number and were led
by Malli, a well-known ‘badmaash’. However, in order to protect themselves from police
arrest, the dacoits tried to set up a conspiracy against Jugga, another well-known dacoit of
Mano Majra. However, Jugga had absolutely nothing to do with this dacoity. On the other
side, a social worker named Iqbal stepped into Mano Majra just one day after the death of
Ram Lal. He stayed in the gurdwara that was looked after by a Sikh, Meet Singh. However,
since he was a stranger in the village, he could not escape the eyes of the police department. Iqbal, along with Jugga, were soon arrested in connection to the dacoity case. Meanwhile, a
different chain of events took place in the village of Mano Majra. A train that came from
Pakistan to the station of Mano Majra had captured everybody’s attention. It was filled with
about 1500 dead bodies. Every time a train came, they would term it a ‘ghost train’, since all
passengers inside would already have been killed. This incident spurred distrust between the
Sikhs and the Muslims, resulting in the Muslims being forced to leave. The village of Mano
Majra was thus left lifeless.

The novel A Train to Pakistan, like any other book, has its own strengths and weaknesses in
the eyes of each reader. There are a few things that make the book stand out among volumes
of literature on partition. Firstly, it gives the readers a glimpse of the human costs that follow
partition. It mainly talks about the dreadful deeds done by both sides of the border in the
aftermath of the Partition. Such human costs, amounts of bloodshed and subjective
experiences are often not mentioned in the official records. This can be therefore considered
as a critique of official records. Secondly, the writer gives one a clear picture of how
communal riots were spread at that point of time. A very otherwise peaceful village with
three different religious communities, namely Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, that lived together
for ages turned enemies overnight because of the nearby massacres. This portrays a practical
example of the amount of hared planted among people from both communities. Thirdly, the
novel offers a critique of the state machinery, like the police, who were caught up in their
biases. This was quite evident when the social worker Iqbal was arrested without any reason
or firm evidence.

Moreover, one of the dialogues by the magistrate can hint towards the same point, “Let
everyone kill. Just ask for help from other stations and keep a record of the messages you
send. We must be able to prove that we did our best to stop them.” Lastly, the author makes
his audience look at the individualistic sides of the characters from different communities.

Each of them had a different story and not all could be brought under moral concepts of good
and bad. For instance, despite Malli wanting to kill all Mussalmans on the train, Meet Singh
protested for all his Muslim brothers. Thus, the idea of generalizing in such communal riots
comes to a huge question. However, the book failed to shed light on the experiences of women
in a meaningful manner. The protagonists adopted by Khuswant Singh were all male and the
female characters like Nooran and Jaggu’s mother were without a significant storyline and had
been sidelined throughout.

A Train to Pakistan can be read through the lens of Barry Posen’s Security Dilemma. The
concept of security dilemma argues that it is natural to seek power and security. But in this
process, a party tries to gain more power than the perceived threat. Being apprehensive of this
fact, the second party also tries to secure itself, thus creating a loop. After the departure of the
British empire or the previously overarching empire, there was an evaluation among the
Hindus and the Muslims of the capability of gaining state apparatuses and resources that the
other group was getting access to. The sub-inspector in the novel said, “Let them get out, but
be careful they do not take too much with them. Hindus from Pakistan were stripped of all
their belongings before they were allowed to leave. Pakistani magistrates have become
millionaires overnight”. An apprehension between the groups will lead to the evaluation of
each group to cause harm to one another. This is quite evident in the scene right after the
train incident. The rumours of Sikhs and Hindus torturing Muslims in other places like
Patiala made the Muslims of Mano Majra suspicious of the other party’s intent. Similarly, the
Hindus and Sikhs got to hear about incidents of rape that Muslims were accused of. Security
Dilemma often includes calculation and evaluation of interests. “For each woman they
abduct or rape, abduct two. For each home they loot, loot two. For each trainload of dead,
they send over, send two across. For each road convoy that is attacked, attack two. That will
stop the killing on the other side. It will teach them that we also play this game of killing and looting.” This dialogue, mentioned by the Sardar visitor, is an example of such calculations
of interests and possibilities.

Perception is a key element in shaping security dilemma. History shapes perception. Hostile
histories of rivalries shape pessimistic perceptions and perceptions in turn shape the uprisal of
threat. Therefore, the shaping of historical memory is itself shaped or constituted and plays a
major role in how we view the other. The Hindus saying “The last Guru had warned them
that Muslims had no loyalties. He was right. All through the Muslim period of Indian history,
sons had imprisoned or killed their own fathers and brothers had blinded brothers to get the
throne”. Thus, the past might often be constructed in order to fit into the circumstances of the
present. But the history might not necessarily be accurate.

The process of partition involved unthinkable human cost. However, the groups that were
made most vulnerable were that of the women. The level of torture that was held against
them is beyond imagination. Innumerable women on both sides were brutally raped, sexually
assaulted, abducted and murdered. The condition of women after the 1947 partition was
captured very well by Pippa Virdee. Women were objectified. Their bodies became the sites
of violence and it was like an unsaid competition as to who can dishonor the women of the
other group more. Dishonoring a woman belonging to a specific religious group meant
dishonoring and challenging that group itself. Such objectification by the other group can be
explained by the dialogue in the novel that the Sardar visitor uses, “Do the Mussalmans in
Pakistan apply for permission from their government when they rape your sisters?” During
partition, while in some cases, several male members of the family themselves killed the
women of their houses in order to protect them, in other cases the women themselves gave
away their lives in order to prevent them from going to the hands of the other. It was mainly
done to protect a woman’s honour. This was captured very well in the statement- “Sikh refugees had told of women jumping into wells and burning themselves rather than fall into
the hands of Muslims”.

The women were not really given much choice or agency. This was because, during colonial
rule, there was a realisation to improve or reform the religion that could in turn, improve the
society to tackle colonialism. One of the most important aspects of this reform was the
distinction between the public and the private. The men were supposed to gain more power
over their families, especially women who constituted the private. An idle woman was,
therefore the one who could stay within the four corners of the house. This image of the idle
woman was also portrayed in A Train to Pakistan. It is interesting to see how all the women
at the time of partition are represented as only homemakers, thus snatching away any form of
agency or choice. While Jugga does not consider listening to his mother’s request to stay
home at night, Nooran’s choice is not even considered when her father alone decides to move
to Pakistan.

Thus, to conclude, the novel A Train to Pakistan is an extremely rich source of literature to
give the readers a broader understanding of the process of partition, characterized by
subjective experiences. The paper tried to provide a brief summary of the events that were
taking place in Mano Majra, and to discuss the novel through critical analysis.

About the Author

Samragnee Chakraborty is a 4th year undergraduate at Ashoka University,
Sonepat. She is majoring in Sociology and Anthropology, and minoring in International

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