Aryaman Agarwal writes about one of Khushwant Singh’s most notable works of fiction, a novel roiling with emotion and tragedy, and as relevant today as it was in 1956, when the book was written
Set in 1947, Khushwant Singh’s novel Train to Pakistan brings back the horrors of the India-Pakistan partition. The story is based in a village named Mano Majra that lay on the India-Pakistan border. The village was inhabited by both Sikhs and Muslims and housed a railway station that served as the only point of communication with the outside world. The villagers were simple, caring, and peace-loving individuals who kept busy with their day-to-day village happenings and occasionally enjoyed a bit of gossip.
Singh does a wonderful job in intricately portraying its characters that are resonant of the Indian society, at large. He employs excellent literary symbolism to criticise aspects of the society like morality, corruption, hypocrisy and religious beliefs. To this effect, the story moves forward when the murder of a Hindu money lender is blamed on Sikh dacoit Juggut Singh who is in love with a Muslim girl. What happens in the story with Juggut Singh and the villagers’ perception of the murder is evocative of the human psyche and underpinning characteristics of rural India.
The village comes to a standstill when a train full of dead bodies of Sikhs arrive at the station of Mano Majra. This breaks apart communal harmony in the village and creates rife within the society. An atmosphere of fear and distrust begins to hover large over the villagers. Rising religious tensions lead Muslim families to make arrangements to leave the country. Seeing such an opportunity, the Sikhs attempt to take revenge by burning the train which is scheduled to take the fleeing Muslims to Pakistan.
The story concludes with the narration of what happened to this ill-fated train. The concluding narrative is sure to move even the most hardened cynics among us. Does it bring tears of grief or of joy depends on the reader’s interpretation of the ending. Singh has artfully woven the story with a blend of emotion and a lesson for both India and Pakistan, which is still relevant even now, after more than 60 years of the novel’s publication. It’s a gut-wrenching read and if you pick up a copy, be prepared to shed a tear or two.
Aryaman Agarwal is a final year student at Ashoka University pursuing a BA (Hons) focused in Economics and Political Science. With an eclectic range of interests, he’s a passionate reader who reads extensively across multiple genres. He has a keen interest in Urdu poetry and literature and is currently learning to speak and read Urdu. Aryaman is also the author of Beyond Illusions, which is available on Amazon