Krushwant Singh's novel concerns the awful summer of 1947, when India both gained its independence from British rule, and partitioned itself into two separate countries, based largely on religion. Pakistan was created as a "homeland" for Muslims, and in those days had both an eastern and western section. As Singh says at the commencement of this excellent novel on that tragedy, ten million people were in flight to join their religious confreres in their zones of plurality, and as the subject line indicates, a tenth of them did not make it. The enduring image of the partition is entire trains filled with the corpses of men, women and children, Muslim or Hindu or Sikh, who had been hacked to death.
Six years after the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, and only six months before the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war (which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh), I walked across the border between Pakistan and India, in the Punjab. Indeed, one HAD to walk the 500 meters across the "no-persons" land. No trains, buses or taxis made the crossing. In terms of conflicts, I was "running between the raindrops," though the monsoons had not commenced in the Punjab, and I recall simply the stifling heat. One could clearly feel the tension on the border, but in my very formative knowledge of the Indian subcontinent, I was largely oblivious to the background. So, shortly thereafter, in New Delhi, I purchased two books by Singh, who was neither a Muslim nor a Hindu, but a Sikh, another religion I knew almost nothing about. My copy of this work cost Rs. 3.50, about 30 cents at the prevailing "black market" rates of time.
The novel takes place in Mano Majra, a tiny village near the Sutlej River, the largest one in the Punjab. Only three brick buildings: the Hindu moneylender, the Sikh temple, and the Mosque. The religious groups had lived, largely in peace, for many decades if not centuries. The village was also the site for a railroad station, a single track that crossed a large bridge across the Sutlej. After briefly describing the normal tranquility of "one day in the life of Mano Majra" Singh deftly provides the counterpoint that even in "normal" times, not all is tranquility, and this includes an attack by dacoits (bandits) on the moneylender's house, the assignation of the local "tough" with a girl of 16, and similar efforts, on a different plane, by the local "government," the deputy district commissioner, Hukum Chand. Stir into this mix of characters a Westernized "outside agitator" with the first name of Iqbal, the one name common to all three religions. He had spent a number of years in England, and returned to "raise the consciousness" of villagers.
I love the way that Singh describes the monsoon finally arriving, and the sheer joy and celebration of the people. Less appealing, but hauntingly described is the triumph of evil. In Mano Majra are religious groups that had co-existed for centuries, but soon are literally at each other throats, due to efforts to scratch that fear of "the other" that seems to lie barely below the surface of all of us. Singh brilliantly describes the machinations of Hukum Chand, who is trying to attenuate the conflicts, through devious means. Yet, the train from Pakistan arrives, a ghost train, carrying 1500 dead Sikhs and Hindus.
Somewhere in northern India I first read this book, more than four decades ago, and I only marked a single passage. It is as follows:
"India is constipated with a lot of humbug. Take religion. For the Hindu, it means little besides caste and cow-protection. For the Muslim, circumcision and kosher meat. For the Sikh, long hair and hatred of the Muslim. For the Christian, Hinduism with a sola topee. For the Parsi, fire-worship and feeding vultures. Ethics, which should be the kernel of a religious code, has been carefully removed."
`Lo these many years later, it remains an excellent critique of the "fetishes" that all too many observers of that potpourri of religions adopt. The ending is a little melodramatic... but what can you expect from a nation that has given us Bollywood? Nonetheless, overall, it remains a solid 5-star read, and I regret that his equally excellent "India, A Mirror for its Monsters and Monstrosities" is not available at Amazon. 5-stars.