Title: Train to Pakistan
Author: Khushwant Singh
Publisher: Penguin India
Genre: Literary Fiction, Partition Literature
This was my third reading of Train to Pakistan, and every time I read it, there is an ache that seems to have gone but hasn’t. I grew up hearing some stories of the Partition from my grandparents, and at the end of each story, I would see vacant eyes, eyes that said a lot and yet did not want to go beyond what was said. The memory of it all would haunt them all their lives.
Train to Pakistan is perhaps the first book that comes to most minds when speaking of the partition of the country. If not the first, then at least second. The starkness, honesty, and empathy of the novel has spread over decades in terms of being relevant (sadly) and continues to do so.
The plot is about a fictional village named Mano Majra and its residents (Muslim and Sikh), and how they are caught up in the turmoil of Partition, how it affects their relationships and lives. It all starts when a train filled with the dead bodies of Sikhs and Hindus arrive in Mano Majra. Singh gives us this but doesn’t make it the centrepiece of the novel.
Train to Pakistan to me is all about human nature, its relation to religion, its connection with the concept of life and death, and how suddenly it is either each man for his own or coming together of people in times of crisis. What I loved the most about this novel (even in the third read) was that Singh never loses his grip on empathy. There is this sense of brotherhood, of community, and yet in the face of the larger event, people seem helpless. Or are they?
Train to Pakistan is about common people. It is about Government officials who will also use every trick in the book to get their way out. It is about religious extremism and the madness that comes along with it – the madness that will never stop following you.
The sad part is that it is relatable even today – in an India of seventy-three years of independence. It is relevant when there are pogroms against the Muslims in Delhi, it is relevant when Godhra is mentioned, it is relevant when the memory of Mumbai riots of 1992 is evoked, it is relevant when mob lynching is spoken of, and it is relevant when people are killed basis what they eat, wear, look, and who they pray to.
Train to Pakistan was read by me as a part of my Partition Reads Project, of one book on the partition to be read every month. I believe that no matter how much it hurts to read such literature, we can never forget what happened, and in that process we heal – we remember and not forget that we need to be better humans – every single time.