February 15, 2013
Book Review: Train to Pakistan
Khushwant Singh opens his novel Train to Pakistan in a seemingly peaceful village on the countryside of Punjabi. Although the small village is fictional, it is important to note the historical significance this village, its people, and the time period represent in the novel. Revered as a one of the finest and best-known renditions of the Indian tragedy of partition, Train to Pakistan embodies more than a fictitious community. The following literary analysis will depict the consequence of human calamity by analyzing the political history of India, the social and cultural struggle of the people, and the moral message and character development.
It is evident that Singh did not want to make this novel a political recount because he shies away from describing the political role of the British and the Indian people in much detail. However, to understand the novel’s progression, it is essential to examine the historical background. Singh bases his relatively short novel in the year 1947 in India; in other words, in the midst of the India Independence Act of 1947 which resulted in the dissolution of the British Indian Empire. Unfortunately, the British withdrawal did not lead to a unified, free India, but instead divided into two, struggling, newly instituted states of India and Pakistan. At midnight of August 15 of 1947, the two governments of India and Pakistan simultaneously declared independence, officially trying to separate Muslims from Sikhs. This violent divide between the two governments lead to the displacement of approximately 12.5 million men, women, and children and a death toll between several hundred thousand to one million. The violent nature of partition created an atmosphere of mutual hostility and suspicion that still hangs in the air between the two sides today. Singh, who was thirty at the time of partition, published one of the few first-hand accounts of this human tragedy that is now fading into history. Nevertheless, he captivates his audience in the retelling of a major human dispute.
This leads into the social and cultural struggle determined by the setting of Train to Pakistan. In the brief novel, we, as the reader, get the chance to know many of characters in great detail. Examination of these varied groups of people not only increases cultural and social understanding of that time and place, but also shows that the blame could not be placed on any one group; everyone was responsible. In fact, in the opening sentences of the book Singh writes, “Muslims said the Hindus had planned and started the killing. According to the Hindus, the Muslims were to blame. The fact is, both sides killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped” (1). From a reader’s stand point, it is important to note this passage’s significance. Singh wanted to make it clear that blame must be shared for these inhumane acts. As I stated before, Singh opens his novel by recreating a tiny village in the Punjabi countryside called Mano Majra. Set next to a railway line that crosses the rising Sutlej River, the lives of the inhabitants of Mano Majra would fatefully change one summer season. The fictional village on the border of Pakistan and India is predominantly made up of Sikh farmers and Muslim tenants. Singh depicts how the residents of Mano Majra lived in an almost ignorant seclusion, surrounded by mobs of Muslims who hate Sikhs and mobs of Sikhs who hate Muslims; however, in the village the people had always lived harmoniously. Villagers were unaware about the happenings of larger scope than the village outskirts, which Singh depicts in the mystery of the trains full of murdered people. This obliviousness made them especially vulnerable to outside views. In fact, the most heart-rending passage in the book comes out of the people’s cluelessness when the government makes the decision to...