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Book Review: Train To Pakistan

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Normally, when we read the literature on the partition of India, we feel despondent and low-spirited over the virulent impact it had on the lives of innumerable people. The flashback haunts us one way or the other. Similar was the feeling when I got my hands on ‘Train to Pakistan’ by Khushwant Singh. But as I turned over its last page, I felt at ease, relieved and lightened, as if a load had been lifted off my chest.

“It is the summer of 1947. But Partition does not mean much to the Sikhs and Muslims of Mano Majra, a village on the border of India and Pakistan.”

“Train to Pakistan” by Khushwant Singh begins with the summer and abyss of 1947, when every place seems to be painted in red except a few villages in the remote reaches of the frontier, among which is Mano Majra, a tiny village where all three religions – Hindu, Muslim and Sikh – are living in peace. Known for its railway station, the life in Mano Majra begins with the mail train arriving in the morning and is stilled with the departure of the goods’ train at night. The villagers have been oblivious of the British’s departure and the fact that their country has been sliced into Pakistan and Hindustan.

“This is Kalyug, the dark age. Have you ever heard of dacoits looting their neighbour’s homes? Now all morality has left the world.”

Ironically, peace of the village was not disturbed by the partition of 1947, except due to the murder of Ram Lal, who was a moneylander and owned one of the three brick buildings in the village. The gang of dacoits succeeded in running away, taking advantage of the dark night. As the pages proceed, various other characters begin to appear one after another.

Hukum Chand, the magistrate and deputy commissioner of the district, lived in a bungalow just north of the railway bridge. He grabs the interest of the reader by having enlightening conversations with the sub inspector. Unlike other fellows in his profession, Hukum Chand had a heart that beat – “Learn to keep silent”; “We must maintain law and order”; “There must be no killing just peaceful evacuation”.

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The character of Hukam Chand remains physically detached from the ongoing scenes but is informed of every detail about the affairs of Mano Majra by the sub inspector. Through his shrewd approach and empathetic heart, Hukam Chand succeeds in controlling the fate of other characters by biding in the dark house, surrounded by numerous servants and a young girl.

Jugga Singh, son of a dacoit, reported to the police station every week while being on probation. He was in love with Nooran, the daughter of the imam of the mosque. After the murder of Ram Laal, he was arrested and locked up in jail along with another fellow who was accused of the same crime. In his absence, Nooran had to leave the village along with his father as the Muslims were gathering at the refugee camp to leave for Pakistan. In the beginning, Jugga was portrayed as a ruthless character who was infamous for his bad character. However, later on, he turns out to be the most humane character of all.

“Poor people cannot afford to have morals. So, they have a religion.”

Iqbal, a foreign-educated social worker, arrived at Mano Majro right after Ram Laal’s death and started living at the Gurdwara with Meet Singh. He kept his second name unrevealed and hence faced suspicion of either being Iqbal Singh or Muhammad Iqbal. He could be a Hindu, Sikh or a Muslim, as it is one of the few names common to the three communities.

“Criminals are not born, they are made by hunger, want and injustice.”

Both Iqbal and Jugga were arrested in connection to the murder of Ram Lal. Jugga was out despite his probation and Iqbal came to the village one day after the murder. Afterwards, upon knowing that the wrong arrests were made, Hukum Chand orders to keep them in prison till the authorities get their hands on the real dacoits.

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“We liked British officers; they were better than the Indian. Freedom is for educated people who fought for it. We were slaves of the English, now we will be slaves of the educated Indians – or the Pakistanis.”

Meanwhile, the police officers and government officials were stressed when a train arrives at the small station of Mano Majra, for it was a ghost train full of dead corpses of Hindus from Pakistan. And so, in return, there were Sikhs attacking Muslim refugee trains and sending it across the border with over a thousand corpses. They wrote on the engine, “Gift to Pakistan!” They believed that this was the only way to stop killings on the other side, man for man, woman for woman, child for child; a sight that left many frightened and depressed.

While reading the last part, as the eyes slip each line, one grieves over the sketch of mass killing. Just when the last train is about to leave for Pakistan, filled with Muslims and their families from the refugee camps, one’s heart skips a beat because the Sikh dacoits along with others are waiting for the train to pass by so that they can avenge their departed. Right then, you crave for a miracle and Khushwant Singh ensures that you’re not disappointed. Through Hukum Chand’s assessment, Jugga is released from jail and informed that Nooran and his father are on the same train that is being plotted against.

And so, that last train had been a gift to Pakistan by Jugga who pays the price of his life for the love of Nooran!

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