28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on 4 August 2002
There are a number of excellent factual books on Indian Independence, but relatively little fiction, at least available in the UK. 'Train to Pakistan', however, more than makes up for the shortfall.
Set in the Punjab, it charts the descent of a community of Sikhs and Muslims into mutual fear and hatred as a result of the decisions of politicians, and events elsewhere, over which they have no control.
The construction of the book is masterful, instilling at the outset a genuine sense of forboding before building up to a climax that encompasses the futility, waste and despair of the violence of partition.
This is a book I read in one sitting, firstly because it is short, but mostly because it is one of the most compelling books I have read in a long time. Highly recommended, it is a snapshot of a momentous and harrowing period of the Indian subcontinent.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 7 April 2012
The Train to Pakistan is a fictitious account of the impact of Partition in a small country town called Mano Majra which sits beside the railway line which connects the new country of Pakistan to India. All the events described are based in fact but delivered as fiction. It's fair to say that you couldn't make it up if you tried - nobody would believe this if it wasn't documented, photographed and proven to be true.
My copy of The Train to Pakistan is the 50th Anniversary Special Edition in which Kushuvant Singh's classic story is illustrated with the photographs of American photographer Margaret Bourke-White. Pramod Kapoor (who wrote the introduction to the edition) had the creative idea to bring together the words of Singh and the photographs of Bourke-White, correctly identifying that the synergy between the two would create a stunning and very moving tribute to both and to those killed during the events that form the focus of the book. It's worth noting that the anniversary referred to is that of the original publishing of the book and not of the events themselves.
Kushuvant Singh is widely recognised as one of India's finest historians and writers, yet even he took a long time to assimilate the horror of Partition before finally publishing The Train to Pakistan nine years later. Singh was living in Lahore and his Sikh family had little choice but to head for India, leaving their home and valuables in the care of a trusted Muslim friend who protected both and later sent everything to his friends - even the half-drunk bottles of alcohol in the drinks cupboard.
Margaret Bourke-White was sent to India in 1946 by Life magazine to document the fall of the British Empire. I can only say that once you've seen her photographs you can appreciate that she was both a very brave woman and one with an extraordinarily steady hand and strong stomach. She had previously photographed German concentration camps so perhaps death and devastation had become her bread and butter.
In the village of Mano Majro, the Sikhs are the landowners, the Muslims their tenants and the district magistrate is a Hindu. It's a model of calm country life and inter-racial harmony. Into this peaceful setting arrives a band of dacoits (bandits) who rob and kill the local money lender - a Hindu. The police arrest the usual suspect - a local bad boy by the name of Jugga Singh. He would have a cast-iron alibi but it's not one he can use - he was with his Muslim girlfriend, the daughter of the mullah at the local mosque. Her dad will skin Jugga if he finds out they've been together.
Arriving the day after the killing, the mysterious European-educated young man with the ambiguous name of Iqbal heads to the Gurdwara (Sikh temple) to ask for a place to stay and finds himself also arrested in connection with the dacoitry.
So far it's just the village politics of small lives in the country. But suddenly, whilst we are quietly learning about the characters of Mano Majro, a train pulls into the station and is surrounded by the police and army. The villagers stand on their rooftops trying to find out what's happened - why has nobody left the train? Where are all the passengers? When they are all asked to bring whatever wood and oil they can spare to the station, it becomes apparent that the train was filled with the slaughtered bodies of Sikhs fleeing Pakistan and the materials are needed for a funeral pyre.
The summer of 1947 was also marked by some of India's worst ever flooding. Soon the rivers rise and fill with the floating bodies of slaughtered and drowned animals and people. Mano Majro can't ignore the outside world any longer. Realising that the village will soon have to take in Sikh refugees, the locals decide it really would be safer for their Muslim friends to go to the refugee camps - just until it all calms down and they can come home again.
Soon we see how the people of Mano Majro are influenced by outsiders and corrupted to turn on their old friends. Plots are hatched, tales are spread of death and destruction in other towns and villages, a frenzy is whipped up very quickly and when a second train of corpses arrives, there's no wood to burn them and a giant pit is dug beside the railway. Will the activists succeed in carrying out their plot or will someone take a stand and prevent devastation and destruction and a complete collapse of civilised behaviour?
This is a book of astonishing historical impact. There is nothing boring about The Train to Pakistan and it stands on its own merit for the story even without the historical importance. Singh writes in such a way that the reader can't help but be drawn into the every-day happenings of small town life or become involved in the lives of the key characters. Nobody will read the book without knowing about the setting, and so having a sense of impending doom lurking silently in the background. You find yourself hoping that this will be the one town that stands up to the madness all around yet feeling sure that somehow it will all go bad and good people will be dragged into bad actions.
Bourke-White's photos could so easily have distracted from the story but they don't. She has a unique style in which people are photographed slightly from below, giving them an added dignity that might otherwise be stripped by their circumstances. The living are worn and exhausted, carrying their friends, family and possessions but shown with a statuesque dignity that's at odds with their circumstances. The dead are photographed without any attempt to lessen the horror of their situation - streets full of half decayed corpses being picked over by vultures, rivers swollen with the floating bodies of the dead. The cover carries a warning of shocking images and they really aren't exaggerating.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 13 May 2007
What a superb,concise account of the partition of India in 1947. Every page of this novel was almost perfect, the balance,the narrative,the message.
Khushwant Singh has managed to convey the horror of 1947 in the Punjab with clarity and venom as the communal violence spreads along the borders of the new states. He uses the voices of his characters to give some account of the bloodletting and violence that caused peaceful communities to implode. The trains in the novel are at the centre of the message as they carry refugees back and forwards past a little Punjabi village by the banks of the Sutlej river.
New Delhi seems a world away from the chaos enveloping the region, the neat incisions of the political cartographers are revealed as gaping wounds. The Sikhs and Muslims in this novel are the victims of the horror,Singh portrays the inter-faith traditions of the village and the difficulties that result as their awareness of the horror in Pakistan is revealed.
The stories of the local bad boy Juggat Singh and a party worker back from england are woven into the fabric of tragedy and terror. The martial Sikhs facing daily murder and violence,the muslims who don't want to go to Pakistan,there are many confused people here as the new order comes into being.
A lot of the blame for this horror lies with the unhealthy speed at which the British pulled out of India and the obvious danger of splitting a religiously mixed region (the Punjab) into two different nations. The Sikhs possibly suffered worst during that summer of 1947 but nobody living along that border will ever forget the communal hatred and massacres that burst upon them and scarred the creation of Pakistan for ever. 5 stars.
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.