In early September, the trains became less punctual than ever. Additionally, a unit of Sikh soldiers arrive and pile a six-foot-high square of sandbags near the railway bridge. They then mount a machine gun in front of each. Armed sentries start to patrol the platform and no villagers are allowed near the railings. One morning, a train from Pakistan stops at Mano Majra station. The train seems different from the others. It is a ghost train, for there are no people on it. Men and women gossip about it.
There are changes in the village that people cannot explain and about which no one informs them. This air of secrecy reveals the disconnect between the authorities, who exercise power beyond the control or influence of the people, and the citizens of Mano Majra, who rely on gossip to stay informed.
During a meeting in the gurdwara, people are melancholic. Imam Baksh says that they are living in bad times. Meet Singh agrees and says that they are living in Kalyug—the dark age. They all talk about what the empty train could mean. Suddenly, a policeman appears in the doorway of the temple. Banta Singh talks to him. He says that there are trucks waiting outside. They need the villagers to get all of the wood and kerosene oil they can spare. In exchange, they will be paid. A few minutes later, the villagers return with oil and wood.
The village elders know that something is wrong but cannot explain it. They are still largely unaware of the political situation in the rest of India. Their conclusion, based on the arrival of the ghost train, is that they have entered a dangerous time. Still, the villagers are helpful and generous and give the Sikh officers what they demand, without question, revealing their trust in authorities.
Two Sikh soldiers, one of whom is an officer, are near the trucks. Imam Baksh greets the officer, who ignores him. When Imam Baksh seeks the officer’s attention again, the Sikh snaps at him. When the trucks are loaded, the officer instructs Banta Singh to go to the camp in the morning to get the payment. The villagers ask Banta Singh what he knows, but he insists that he has not been told anything. The villagers shout to each other from their roofs, asking if anyone has learned anything. In their excitement, they forget about their afternoon routine. Then, the day gives way to twilight. At night, a soft breeze blows into the village, carrying the smell of “searing flesh.” No one in the village asks about the smell, for they all know it comes from Pakistan.
The Sikh officer is rude to the imam because he is a Muslim. This shows that there is religious prejudice not only among civilians, but within institutions. The villagers, in their simple ignorance, have not connected the smell of the “searing flesh” to the oil and wood that the officers asked them to provide earlier. Accustomed to peace in their village, they are either unaware or in denial of the possibility that dead bodies occupied the ghost train and are now being burned.
It has been a difficult day for Hukum Chand, who has been out of the rest house since morning. Chand’s fatigue comes from all the corpses he saw earlier in the day. The servants and their families watch the flames shoot up in the distance. After a bath and a change of clothes, Chand feels somewhat refreshed. Then, the memory of all of the dead bodies on the train comes back to him in a flood. Chand asks his servant for some whisky. Chand thinks about his experiences with death, an obsession he has had since childhood. His fear of death is the reason he insists on living well.
Chand is the novel’s anti-hero—that is, a central character with no particularly heroic attributes nor aims. Unlike Iqbal, he has no pretensions. Devastating personal experiences affirm his insistence on living without moral guilt. He gets rid of the bodies because it is his job, but, in order to maintain the comfort and ease of his position, the bodies must remain a secret.
The headlights of a car light the verandah. The same musicians from before, as well as the old woman and Haseena, step out of the car. Hukum Chand orders his servant to tell the driver to send back the musicians and the old woman. Haseena enters and stands, staring at him. He invites her to his bed and begins to fondle her. He smells her perfume and her breath, which smells of cardamom and honey. Chand snuggles against her like a child and falls asleep.
Chand takes comfort in whisky and in Haseena’s company. He does not use her for sex, but as a source of comfort. Haseena is the only character who offers Chand companionship. His high position makes it impossible for him to form friendships with the other officers. Therefore, her presence assuages his loneliness.
Hukum Chand awakes to a roll of thunder. The monsoon rains have arrived. He thinks about how the rain must have put out the fire on a thousand charred corpses. He has a headache from drinking too much whisky. He sees Haseena, who is “asleep on the big cane armchair, wrapped in her black sequined sari.” The sight of her in the armchair makes him feel “old and unclean.” His conscience begins to attack him. He remembers his daughter who, if she had lived, would be the same age as Haseena. He feels remorse, but he also knows that he would do this all over again—drink, sleep with the same girl, and feel bad about it. This depressing cycle characterizes life, he thinks.
Chand wishes to avoid reminders of his fear of death. By keeping company with Haseena, who reminds him of his daughter, he can stave off the pain of having lost his child. Though he knows that it is inappropriate for a man his age to keep company with a teenaged prostitute, he justifies it by telling himself that he must take his pleasure and comforts where he can get them.
The tinkling of the tea china and the silver do not disturb Haseena, who continues to sleep soundly. Hukum Chand cannot understand his feelings toward her. He would only sleep with her, he decides, if she wants to be slept with. Chand hears the sound of shuffling feet on the verandah and figures that the subinspector is visiting. He steps out onto the verandah and sees the subinspector reading a newspaper. Upon seeing Chand, the subinspector jumps out of his chair and salutes.
Chand makes a deal with himself that he will not expect sex from Haseena, despite her being a prostitute. He will allow her to choose if she wants to have sex or not. This helps Chand to avoid the guilt of taking advantage of a girl who reminds him of his dead daughter. If it is her choice, then she demonstrates agency and will decide on the nature of their relationship for him.
The subinspector tells Hukum Chand that he sent word to the lambardar, Banta Singh, that no one is allowed near the railway bridge or the station. He tells Chand that the Sikh officer counted more than a thousand corpses. Another four or five hundred were killed on roofs of the train, on footboards, and between buffers. The roof was covered with dried blood. The subinspector says that Muslims in some villages have started to leave for the refugee camp. Chundunnugger has been partly evacuated. However, Mano Majra Muslims remain in their village. Banta Singh reported the arrival of forty or fifty Sikh refugees who crossed the river at dawn and are staying at the temple.
The “ghost train” was the scene of a massacre. To keep the tragedy a secret, the authorities plot with the landowner to keep people away from the area. This indicates how systems of power operate to keep people uninformed about what goes on in their community. The Mano Majra Muslims make up the only substantial number of people in their religious group left in the area. They are oblivious to their vulnerability.
Hukum Chand is upset to hear that incoming refugees were allowed to stay instead of proceeding to the camp at Jullundur. He worries that the Sikh refugees may start a massacre in Mano Majra. The subinspector assures him that the situation is under control and that no other refugees have shown up. Chand figures that, during the rainy season, the river will rise, making it impossible to cross. He insists on getting the Muslims out of the area as soon as possible.
Chand worries, rightly, that the Sikh refugees could be a source of future trouble. This is an instance of foreshadowing in the novel, for these same Sikhs will later play a role in the plot against the train to Pakistan. Chand does not worry because they are a relatively small group and he is focused on evacuating Muslims from the town.
Hukum Chand asks the subinspector what he is doing about Lala Ram Lal’s murder. The subinspector says that Juggut Singh gave him the names of the culprits—former members of his old gang. He confirms that Jugga was not with them at the robbery and that he sent constables to arrest the others that morning. Chand listens with little interest. The subinspector admits that they were wrong about Jugga and Iqbal. Jugga was kept busy by Nooran on the night of the robbery and Malli threw the bangles into Jugga’s courtyard after committing the dacoity.
The police have all of the information that they need to prove that Jugga and Iqbal are innocent and to arrest Malli and his crew. Chand’s silence, however, suggests that he intends to use the capture of Jugga and Iqbal to the advantage of the police—both to avoid acknowledgement of their mistake and to see how the botched arrests can serve as a justification to evacuate Muslims from Mano Majra.
The subinspector suggests that they release Juggut and Iqbal after capturing Malli and the other robbers. Hukum Chand asks if Malli and his companions are Sikh or Muslim. The subinspector says that they are all Sikhs, which makes Chand think that it would have been more convenient if they had all been Muslims, for that would have convinced the Sikhs in Mano Majra to let their Muslims leave town. He decides to let Malli and his gang go for now, but he tells the subinspector to keep an eye on them. Chand also decides to hold on to Jugga and Iqbal, in case the police needs them. Before the subinspector leaves, Chand orders him to send word to the commander of the Muslim refugee camp asking for trucks to evacuate the Mano Majra Muslims.
Chand is unconcerned with Malli and his gang’s participation in the dacoity, or even with the fact that a man was killed. He contemplates how he can use the incident to manipulate the Sikh villagers to let their Muslim neighbors leave the village. Chand figures that if he calls for the evacuation on his own, the village would protest and would protect the right of their Muslim neighbors to remain in their homes. However, if they have a reason to mistrust their Muslim neighbors, the Sikhs will be eager to get rid of them.
Hukum Chand does not concern himself with the morality of his decision; he is a magistrate, not a missionary. His primary concern is to save Muslim lives. He shouts for his servant to bring breakfast. Haseena sits on the edge of the bed, stands, then sits on the bed again with her eyes fixed on the floor. An awkward silence ensues. She says that she wants to go home to Chundunnugger. For the first time, he asks for her name and she tells him. He asks if the old woman is her mother. She tells him that the woman is her grandmother. Chand asks how old she is. She is unsure, but she thinks that she is between sixteen and eighteen. She jokes that she “was not born literate,” so she “could not record [her] date of birth.”
Chand finally asks Haseena’s name, granting her more agency and respect than he has thus far by acknowledging that she is a human being who exists apart from his own desires. Haseena’s youth shows when she asks if she can go home. Without her grandmother and the musicians there, she feels lonely and awkward in Chand’s presence.
Hukum Chand asks Haseena how long she has been in her profession, which she thinks is a silly question because she comes from a long line of singers. Chand suggests that he is really asking about her prostitution. Haseena pretends not to understand and insists that she only sings and dances for money. She tells him that they did not have sex the night before because he fell asleep and snored “like a railway engine.” She laughs at him and Chand strokes her hair. The sight of her reminds him more of his daughter. He thinks that he does not want to make love to Haseena. He instead wants her to sleep in his lap with her head resting on his chest.
Haseena’s playfulness, as well as her denial about her profession and Chand’s knowledge that they did not ever have sex, put him at ease. He realizes that he seeks comfort from his arrangement with Haseena, who reminds him both of his daughter and of innocence. Her naivete and playfulness offer him a reprieve from the death and tragedy that have engulfed him.
Hukum Chand asks Haseena how she manages to stay in Chundunnugger, given that he heard that Muslims had been evacuated from her town. She tells him that the subinspector has permitted them to say, for “singers are neither Hindu nor Muslim.” When Chand asks if there are any other Muslims in the community, she says that the hijras remain, but they, too, do not fall into any particular category. Talking about the hijras embarrasses her and she blushes. Chand says that she is “not Hindu or Muslim, but not in the same way as a hijra is not Hindu or Muslim.”
“Singers” operates as a metaphor for “prostitute,” and they are permitted to stay because they are perceived to be a necessity. It does not matter what their religious backgrounds are, for they, along with the hijras, exist in their own caste and are not perceived as religiously devout anyway. Talking about the hijras embarrasses Haseena because they fall outside of gender norms.
Hukum Chand asks how the hijras were spared. Haseena animatedly tells him the story of how a child was born to a Muslim living in a Hindu locality. The hijras went there to sing, not thinking about the violence in the area. Some Hindus and Sikhs (Haseena mentions that she does not like Sikhs) wanted to kill the hijras, who sang “in their raucous male voices” and whirled around, sending their skirts fluttering. Jokingly, they asked the leaders of the mob, who had seen them with nothing on underneath the skirts, if they are Hindus or Muslims. The whole crowd, except for the Sikhs, laughed. The Sikhs let the hijras go but threatened to kill them if they did not leave town. A hijra ran his finger through a Sikh’s beard and asked if he was afraid of becoming a hijra himself. At that, even Sikhs began to laugh.
The hijras use their gender nonconformity to poke fun at people who are so rigid and strict about religious membership that they would kill an infant. The hijras are neither male nor female. They use their inability to fit into a binary to ask if the mob can tell whether they are Hindus or Muslims. The point of this is to demonstrate that, if one cannot tell if someone is one thing or another, what, then, does it matter? Predictably, the Sikhs threaten the hijras with violence for upsetting this standard, which prompts a hijra to question the Sikh’s own manhood.
Hukum Chand enjoys the story but says that Haseena should be careful. She says that she is not frightened, knowing that Chand can protect her. Smiling mischievously, she asks him if he wants her to go to Pakistan. Chand feels feverish. He nervously asks her if she will stay. She agrees to stay with him in exchange for “a big bundle of notes.” Chand says, “with mock gallantry,” that he does not care about money, for he is ready to sacrifice his life for her.
In this moment, Chand reveals his love for Haseena, though he is not yet aware of his feelings. He desires her companionship and feels protective of her. His desire to protect her gives him renewed purpose. She, on the other hand, still seems to view their relationship as a business transaction.
Iqbal is left alone in his cell for a week. Iqbal does not see much of Juggut, who was removed from his cell after the first two evenings but brought back after an hour. Iqbal does not know what the police did to Jugga during that time, and he never asked about it.
It is implied that Iqbal suspects that Jugga was tortured. He has noticed already the differences in their treatment. He avoids asking Jugga any questions, probably out of a mixture of fear and courtesy.
One morning, five men enter the station in handcuffs. As soon as Juggut sees them, he becomes furious. Iqbal overhears part of the conversation about the men, which is mentions a spree of looting and killing. He remembers seeing “the pink glow of fire” near the police station and hearing screaming in the distance, but at the time the police had made no arrests. Jugga enters Iqbal’s cell, which they will now be sharing.
Iqbal does not yet connect these overheard bits of conversation to the news about the dacoity, which he first heard about from Meet Singh. Outside of the station, the village seems to be in chaos yet the police do nothing.
Juggut takes Iqbal’s feet and starts to massage them with his large hands. He asks Iqbal to teach him some English. Iqbal asks Jugga who will be in his former cell. Jugga is unsure but says that the police have arrested Lala Ram Lal’s murderers. Iqbal is confused, for Jugga was arrested for the murder. Jugga smiles and says that the police always arrest him when a crime occurs in Mano Majra because he is a budmash. Iqbal asks if Jugga killed Ram Lal, which Jugga denies, for Ram Lal was the town banian and lent him money once to pay lawyers while Alam Singh was in jail. Iqbal thinks that the police will let Jugga go now, but Jugga explains that the police do as they please and will let him go when they please. Iqbal asks if Jugga was out of the village that night and Jugga says that he was, but that he “was not murdering anyone,” he “was being murdered.”
Iqbal still does not know that, he, too, was foolishly arrested by the head constable as a suspect in the dacoity. It does not occur to him that Jugga was also wrongfully arrested. When Jugga denies killing Ram Lal, Iqbal believes him but still naively assumes that the police will do the just thing and let Jugga go. Jugga reveals the nature of both his and Iqbal’s condition—that they are at the mercy of the police. Jugga’s playful comment on “being murdered” could be a reference to “la petite mort”—a French expression for an orgasm. Though, this would be an odd reference for Jugga, an uneducated person, to make, and suggests he has more worldly knowledge than one would expect.
Iqbal understands the meaning of Juggut’s mischievous metaphor. He does not want to know more, but Jugga asks him if he has slept with many mem-sahibs. Iqbal is irritated by the question as well as with what he perceives as an obsession with sex among Indians. Nevertheless, Iqbal casually answers that he has been with many. His response excites Jugga, who describes white European women as “houris from paradise” and Indian women as “black buffaloes.”
Iqbal is annoyed by the question but indulges it and shows off his sexual prowess by saying that he has been with “many” white women. Jugga is fascinated by white women because he has never gone to bed with one, and because they were once forbidden to Indian men. His sense of them as more beautiful is an internalization of racism.
Juggut changes the conversation back to Iqbal teaching him English. Iqbal says that, since the sahibs have left, it is more important for Jugga to learn his own language. Jugga is unconvinced, clerks and letter writers are literate in local languages, such as Urdu, but he thinks that the truly educated know English. Besides, with Lala Ram Lal dead, the only person in the village who can read is Meet Singh. Jugga says that he knows a little verse in English and Hindustani. Iqbal teaches Jugga to say “good morning” and “goodnight.” Then, the five new prisoners enter and Jugga’s mood darkens.
This exchange indicates that in India, one’s competence in languages is related to caste. Middle-caste people, such as clerks, are literate in local languages. Jugga’s aspiration to learn English, which he associates with the higher castes, indicates that he, too, is an ambitious person but has merely lacked Iqbal’s opportunities.
By midday, the rain lets up and the day brightens. The subinspector drives as fast as he can to the police station and file a report about Malli’s arrest. The head constable has experience, but the foolish arrests of Iqbal and Juggut make the subinspector less confident in the constable’s abilities to handle situations that are not routine. The constable is also a peasant, full of admiration and awe for the middle-class. The subinspector concludes that the constable would not have the nerve to disturb Iqbal with the lock-up of the new prisoners and, if he puts Malli and Jugga in the same cell, the criminals would discuss the murder and dacoity and find a way to help each other.
The subinspector’s thoughts reveal his cynicism both toward the head constable, who holds a lower station and whom he perceives as less intelligent, and toward Jugga whom he thinks would work with Malli, who has just robbed Jugga’s village. To the subinspector, all criminals are the same in their propensity for ill-doing, just as all peasants, such as the head constable, are the same, he thinks, in their admiration of those of a higher social station.
The subinspector arrives at the police station and asks the present officers if the head constable has returned. One of them confirms that he has. He brought in Malli and his gang a few minutes ago, but has since gone to have tea. The subinspector asks if he has filed a report and the officer says that the constable insisted on waiting for the subinspector before doing that. The subinspector is relieved and goes into the reporting room. A constable brings him a cup of tea and the subinspector asks if Malli and Juggut have been placed in the same cell. The constable exclaims that, if they had done that, there would have been a murder in the police station. He says that Jugga erupted into a fury as soon as he saw Malli. So, they moved Jugga into Iqbal’s cell—the Babu—and put Malli’s men in Jugga’s.
The subinspector is relieved at the head constable’s unwillingness to take any action without prior approval, particularly after the mess he made with Iqbal’s arrest. The present arrangement of placing Iqbal and Jugga in the same cell works in the authorities’ favor. If Jugga was furious to see Malli, whom he knows is the actual culprit in the dacoity and, therefore, responsible for Jugga’s arrest, he will be especially upset to see Malli and his men released. This sets Jugga up to seek revenge against Malli when he, too, is eventually released.
The subinspector tells the constable that he is going to release Malli’s men, a decision which puzzles the constable. He then sends the constable to see if the head constable has finished his tea. The head constable enters the reporting room with a smug expression, as though expecting commendation of his work. The subinspector asks him to shut the door and sit down. He orders the head constable to take Malli and his men to Mano Majra and to release them in front of the villagers, near the temple, perhaps. He then instructs the head constable to ask the villagers if anyone has seen the robber Sultana and his gang, but not to respond to any questions about why he is asking. When the head constable says that Sultana and his gang left for Pakistan and that everyone knows that, the subinspector suggests that the head constable act as though he does not know this and to suggest that the robber left after the dacoity.
The decision to release Malli and his men, which was handed down by Hukum Chand, will convince the villagers that Malli and his men did not commit the dacoity, but that it may instead have been the work of the Muslim gangster Sultana and his gang. The subinspector assumes that the villagers will overlook the fact that Sultana and his men left long before the dacoity. He seems to be relying on the villagers’ inability to tell time, which would cause them to doubt their memory of whether Sultana and his men left before or after the robbery.
The subinspector also tells the head constable to ask if anyone knows what “the Muslim Leaguer Iqbal” was doing in Mano Majra before his arrest. The head constable is confused, for Iqbal is a Sikh and only cut his hair because he was living in England. The subinspector, again, makes a strong suggestion to the head constable—this time to identify “Iqbal Singh” publicly as “Iqbal Mohammed,” a person who could be a member of the Muslim League. The head constable catches on and agrees to carry out the orders. Finally, the subinspector tells him to get a constable to take a letter from him to the commander of the Muslim refugee camp. He also asks the head constable to remind him to send some constables to Mano Majra tomorrow when Pakistani soldiers arrive to evacuate Muslims. The last part, the head constable realizes, is added to help him understand the plan’s purpose. He salutes and leaves.
The head constable catches on to the plan to use the robbery and the arrest of Iqbal as an excuse to evacuate Muslims from Mano Majra. By causing the villagers to suspect that Sultana was actually responsible for the dacoity and that Iqbal is working secretly for the Muslim League, the Sikh villagers will begin to resent the presence of Muslims in their communities. Friendships between the villagers, the police figure, will quickly sour and, when they do, the Muslim refugee camp will be ready to receive more refugees.
Malli is frightened of Juggut—the most violent man in the district. However, Malli is also the leader of his own gang and must not appear weak. The policemen handcuff Malli and his companions and attach them to one long chain attached to a constable’s belt. The head constable then leads them away. As he leaves his cell, Malli mocks Jugga and his companions laugh. The policemen encourage the gang to keep moving. Malli then mentions Nooran, but Jugga ignores him. When Malli bends near Jugga’s iron bar door and starts to say “Sat Sri Akal,” Jugga’s hands shoot through the bars and grab the hair that protrudes from Malli’s turban. He pulls Malli’s head, as though to bring him through the bars, and shakes him. While smashing his head into the bars, Jugga curses Malli.
Malli attempts to establish dominance with his gang by indicating that he is tough enough to mock and challenge Jugga. This does not work out because Malli ends up bruised, bloodied, and crying by the time Jugga finishes battering him. It is not Malli’s mention of Nooran that upsets Jugga, but Malli’s words wishing Jugga peace. One possible reason for this is that Malli mocks the “truth,” which is that he committed the robbery. Another possible reason is that Jugga is angry that Malli will be released and allowed to roam Mano Majra, which could fall under his influence.