Banta Singh, the lambardar, goes to look at the river before sunset. He has never known the Sutlej to rise so high in so little time. The river is “a terrifying sight,” but Mano Majra is far from its banks and the mud bank looks solid and safe. Still, he arranges for men to keep watch over it throughout the night. The lambardar cannot sleep. Shortly after midnight, the three men on duty come back, talking loudly and excitedly. They say that they hear cries across the river. Banta Singh goes with them and asks if they are sure that the voices are human. A black oval object hits the bridge pier and moves towards Mano Majra’s embankment. They see that it is a dead cow, floating belly up.
The dead cow is an omen of what is to come. The village seems to be contending with the strength of two nearly insurmountable forces—the violence which is encroaching upon them from neighboring towns and villages, and nature, embodied by the rising river. The lambardar is unsure if the cries that the men hear are human or animal. When the cow floats by, he is briefly put at ease and thinks that a neighboring village was flooded.
The sun comes up. The river has risen further. Its “turbid water” carries carts “with the bloated carcasses of bulls still yoked to them” and dead horses rolling from side-to-side. There are also men and women floating along, with their clothes sticking to their bodies, and children whose arms clutch the water, while “their tiny buttocks [dip] in and out.” The sky becomes overwhelmed by scavenger birds. Banta Singh still insists that a village flooded overnight. One of his companions asks who would yoke bulls to carts at night. The lambardar admits that this would be strange. Seeing stab wounds, they all finally accept that these people were murdered.
The lambardar does not want to believe that a massacre occurred so close to Mano Majra. However, when he sees the stab wounds in the corpses’ bodies, he can no longer deny to himself what happened. What is most shocking is how indiscriminate the attackers were, killing children as easily as the elderly, and animals as well as humans. It is as though the attackers wanted to destroy everything connected to the murdered villagers.
That night, no one can sleep. Late night visitors arrive in a jeep. They go from door to door, asking if the inhabitants are still alive. The lambardar angrily asks them what they want. They are Sikhs, he notices, in khaki uniforms. One of them says that the village looks quite dead and, if it is not, it should be. He says that it is full of eunuchs. One of them, the boy leader, has “an aggressive bossy manner,” though he is only “in his teens” and is somewhat “effeminate.” He looks as if his mother dressed him as “an American cowboy.”
The young Sikh soldier attempts to bait the men in the crowd by attacking their manhood. He seeks to manipulate them into murdering Muslims by belittling them and calling them weak. The author reveals the performative aspect of the boy’s speech by focusing on his appearance and manner, which give the impression that he is pretending to be a tough guy.
Banta Singh asks what they can do about the massacres. He says that if the government goes to war in Pakistan, they will fight; but, there is nothing they can do in Mano Majra. The boy leader sneers at the mention of the government, which he says consists of “cowardly banian moneylenders,” and encourages them to engage in their own killing—two Muslims for each Hindu or Sikh that the Muslims kill. He determines that only “an eye for an eye” will stop the killing on the other side. People listen, stunned by the boy’s words. Meet Singh is the only one who speaks and asks what the Muslims in their village have done to warrant being killed in revenge for what those in Pakistan do. The boy uses the example of innocent Hindus and Sikhs killed by Muslims, but Meet Singh insists that there is no bravery in killing innocent people.
Meet Singh reiterates his assertion that the villagers must not confuse the actions of Muslims in Pakistan with the those of the Muslims whom they know in Mano Majra. The boy appeals to tribal sentiment and the desire for revenge by mentioning the innocents whom the Muslims have slaughtered. By framing the conflict as one between a “guilty” party vs. an “innocent” party, it becomes easier for the boy to convince the villagers that the Muslims are an inherent source of evil that they must eliminate themselves, due to the apathy and incompetence of their government.
The boy leader loses patience with Meet Singh. The priest loses the argument and the boy turns his attention back to the crowd, which he is beginning to win over. He asks if anyone is willing to sacrifice his life for the Guru. The boy leader’s earlier words made them uncomfortable, and they are eager to prove their manliness. The lambardar asks what they should do and the boy directs them to kill a trainload of Muslims who will cross the railway bridge to Pakistan.
The boy leader spreads out a map and asks if everyone can see the position of the railway bridge and the river from where they are on the map. They agree that they can. Then, he asks if anyone has guns; no one does. He says that it does not matter, for they will have six or seven rifles. He encourages them to bring swords and spears, which would be more useful anyway. The plan, he says, is that tomorrow, after sunset, they will stretch a rope across the first span of the bridge. It will be a foot above the height of the engine’s funnel. When the train passes under it, the rope will sweep away all of the people who will be sitting on the roof off of the train. That, he estimates, should be about four to five hundred people. The listeners are delighted by the plan.
The listeners like the plan, for it does not threaten them with any personal danger. They will also not be asked to handle guns, which they do not own and probably do not know how to use. The plan allows them to prove to themselves and to the boy leader that they are, indeed, sufficiently masculine without anyone having to risk their lives to prove the point. The villagers have forgotten that the people whom they will kill so cavalierly are their former neighbors, whose well-beings suddenly matter less than the male villagers’ sense of virility.
The boy leader sees that it is past midnight. He closes the meeting and encourages everyone to get some sleep. The group disperses. Some visitors, along with Malli and his gang, stay in the gurdwara. Others go home so as not to be implicated in the crime, due to their presence during the conspiracy. The lambardar Banta Singh takes two villagers with him and goes to the police station in Chundunnugger.
The lambardar, normally an authority in the community whose advice the villagers seek, has been displaced by the boy leader who inspires the people to tap into the worst parts of themselves—specifically, their vindictiveness and violent impulses.
At the police station, Hukum Chand is indifferent to news of the plot. He only asks that the subinspector get help from other stations, to show that they did their best to prevent the killings. Chand is tired. He wails that the whole world has gone mad. He does not think that it matters if another thousand people die. The subinspector does not take his boss seriously. He knows that Chand is merely trying to expel the despair from his system. The subinspector then complains about all of the abuse he got from the Muslims for helping them, and all that he got from the Sikhs for not allowing them to have the loot they were expecting. He complains that the government will abuse him next “for something or other.”
Both Chand and the subinspector regard the matter selfishly, worrying only that they do not get blamed for not responding properly to the conspiracy. The subinspector believes that people do not show him sufficient gratitude. Chand, on the other hand, thinks that there is nothing left for him to do. Unlike the subinspector, Chand feels the futility of his position in response to the mounting violence. This indicates that bureaucratic authority has its limitations in the face of mob rule. Furthermore, members of the military are working against the police.
The subinspector talks about the situation in Chundunnugger, which they evacuated the night before. He says that if he had shown up five minutes later, there would not have been a single Muslim left alive. This gets Hukum Chand’s attention. He asks if there is a single Muslim family left and the subinspector confirms that they have all gone. Chand wonders if they will return when everything has settled. The subinspector does not think there is anything for them to return to, given that their homes have either been burned to the ground or occupied. Chand reassures himself that this will not last. Soon, Sikhs and Muslims will go back to drinking from the same water pitcher, but even he does not believe this.
The subinspector imagines that, if not for his intervention, the Muslims would have been massacred. Chand is unconcerned with the subinspector’s attempts at grandstanding, but the mention of Chundunnugger reminds him of Haseena. When he wonders if the Muslims will return, he is really thinking solely of her and his hope that he will see her again. He is less interested in peace between the warring religious groups than he is in Haseena’s safe return to India.
The subinspector says that the magistrate may be right, but that Chundunnugger refugees are being taken on the train to Pakistan that night and he does not know how many will cross the bridge alive; those who do may not want to return to India in a hurry. Hukum Chand goes pale and asks how the subinspector knows that the refugees from Chundunnugger are going to Pakistan by night train. The subinspector says that the refugee camp commander told him. Worrying about an attack on the camp, he decided to get the first available train to get the refugees out. If they do not go, the subinspector reasons, everyone will be killed. If the train goes at top-speed, some will get to Pakistan. The villagers, he explains, do not plan to derail the train; they want it to go to Pakistan full of corpses.
Chand “goes pale” with fear, for he imagines that Haseena could also be on that train. The situations that the subinspector presents are dire. If Haseena and the others do not go to Pakistan, everyone who was sent to the refugee camp will be massacred. However, many of those on their way to Pakistan will never get there alive. Chances of survival are minimal in each circumstance.
Hukum Chand asks if there are any Muslims, particularly “females,” who have refused to leave Mano Majra. The subinspector assures him that not one remains; everyone has left. Chand then asks about Nooran. The subinspector mentions that she is pregnant with Juggut Singh’s child. Chand then remembers that Iqbal was said to be a political agitator of some sort, whom the subinspector still identifies with the Muslim League. Chand asks for blank official papers for orders. The subinspector hands them over and Chand writes down the names of the prisoners. When the subinspector identifies Iqbal as “Iqbal Mohammed or Mohammed Iqbal,” the magistrate insists on “Iqbal Singh.” He says that no political party would be so foolish as to send an educated Muslim “to preach peace to Sikh peasants thirsting for Muslim blood.”
Chand still seeks assurance that Haseena has, indeed, left. His concern for the Muslim girl will mirror Jugga’s later concern for Nooran. It is possible that, in this moment, Chand develops some sympathy for Jugga, for both men are intimately involved with Muslim women who are in danger. Chand also concludes that Iqbal is a Sikh, which he had probably believed all along. However, Iqbal’s true religious identity is never confirmed in the book and the author is intentionally elusive about it.
The subinspector admits that Hukum Chand must be right and that he has seen Iqbal wearing the steel bangle that all Sikhs wear. He asks what all of this has to do with preventing the attack on the train. Chand encourages him to think about it on his way to the police station at Chundunnugger, and to release both men and ensure that they leave Mano Majra right away. The subinspector takes the papers and salutes on his way out. As he cycles back to the station, Chand’s plan becomes crystal clear.
Chand intends to use both men as a means to stop the plot, given that he does not care to do anything himself to stop the conspirators. Chand’s plan is also a moral test to see if Iqbal truly is as politically committed to India’s progress as he claims to be, and to see if Jugga truly loves Nooran. Chand, interestingly, has little incentive to use his power to help Haseena.
Back at the station, the subinspector looks at Juggut and Iqbal and tells them that they will find that Mano Majra has changed. Neither Jugga nor Iqbal knows what to make of the comment. The subinspector pulls out another paper and reads Iqbal’s name and his status as a “social worker.” Iqbal notices that his fake Muslim name has been erased. The subinspector says that he should be grateful for the arrest, for if the Sikhs found out that Iqbal is circumcised, they would have killed him. Iqbal is indifferent to his words. Once again, the subinspector warns them that they will find “big changes” in Mano Majra. He then says that all the Muslims have left. Jugga asks where they have gone. The subinspector explains that they first went to a refugee camp; but tonight, they will go to Pakistan by train. If they do not leave, Malli and his men will kill them.
The subinspector justifies his corruption by saying that, if Iqbal had not been arrested, he would have been killed. The subinspector’s need for appreciation knows no bounds. He delights in telling the men that Mano Majra has not only changed but has become a place that would be uniquely hostile to the two of them. Malli has overtaken the village and could easily kill Jugga with the help of his mob, and the villagers now suspect that Iqbal is a spy with the Muslim League.
The mention of Malli’s name riles Juggut’s temper. The subinspector smiles. He says that Malli and his men are armed and that many others have joined his gang. Jugga still vows revenge and pumps himself up as the toughest man in his village. The subinspector is amused and tells the men to go home. He assures Iqbal that he need not worry, for he is in the company of the toughest man in Mano Majra.
Jugga clings to an image of himself that can no longer hold. The subinspector knows it, so Jugga’s display of masculine power amuses him. Just as he delighted in watching Jugga grovel in response to a threat of torture, the subinspector delights in seeing the tough criminal lose his power.
Iqbal wants to get out of this place, where he has to prove his Sikh identity to survive. He finds it absurd that his life depends on having foreskin. It is both laughable and tragic. He resents needing Meet Singh, an unclean man who defecates in the fields, for protection. He yearns to go back to civilization. In Delhi, he could report on his arrest. He envisions headlines implicating him, “Comrade Iqbal,” in an “Anglo-American capitalist conspiracy to create chaos.” He would look like a hero.
This passage indicates that Iqbal never had any wish to connect with the people of the village and that he never developed any respect or sympathy for them, due to their backward ways. He expected that they would yield to his superior knowledge and listen to him. He would then use his influence in Mano Majra to develop his reputation.
Juggut thinks of Nooran. He no longer cares about Malli. He assumed that Nooran would remain in Mano Majra, for no one would want Imam Baksh to go. He continues to think that Nooran is hiding somewhere or that she would have gone to Juggut’s mother. If the old woman rejected her, he would let her have it. Then, he would leave and never return.
At this moment, Jugga lets go of his tough guy image. He realizes that he loves Nooran and that her well-being matters most to him. He still does not know about the pregnancy.
The tonga arrives at the gurdwara. When Meet Singh greets Iqbal and opens the door to his room, the priest talks about the trainloads of dead people that came to Mano Majra. He talks about how they burned the bodies and the river flooded with more corpses. Muslims were evacuated and refugees from Pakistan have replaced them. Iqbal takes out his silver flask. Meet Singh asks him what is in it. Iqbal explains that it is his medicine, which helps him to get an appetite. The priest laughs, remembering the pills that he takes “to digest” food.
Meet Singh briefs Iqbal on all of the changes to the community, resulting from religious strife and the partition, that Iqbal missed when he was in jail. In response, Iqbal drinks but hides the existence of the alcohol from the naïve priest, who clearly does not know what a flask is for. This makes it easy for Iqbal to break the temple’s rules right under Meet Singh’s nose.
Iqbal asks if there has been any killing in the village. Meet Singh says there has not, but that there will be. He mentions the plan to attack the train to Pakistan. He details how the Sikh soldiers came in the middle of the night and hatched the plan with the cooperation of the community. In the midst of this narrative, he expresses his fascination with Iqbal’s air mattress by asking a litany of questions about it.
Iqbal is afraid of impending violence, but the priest is unfazed. His interest in the air mattress shows that he and the other villagers have little to no access to the modern conveniences that Iqbal takes for granted. On the other hand, they are accustomed to violence, which shocks Iqbal.
Iqbal ignores Meet Singh’s questions about the mattress and figures that this is why the police released Malli. He guesses that Juggut will also join the mob. Iqbal asks if Meet Singh can stop it, for people listen to him. The priest says that no one listens to an old bhai. In bad times, there is no faith or religion. Iqbal insists that this cannot be allowed to happen. He tells the priest to remind the conspirators that they would be killing those whom they previously addressed as “uncles, aunts, brothers, and sisters.” Meet Singh sighs and wipes away a tear. He thinks that his words would be futile; the crowd knows what it is doing. If the plot is a success, they will come to the gurdwara for thanksgiving and make offerings to wash away their sins.
Iqbal understands now how the police have conspired to get rid of the Muslims in Mano Majra. Iqbal appeals to Meet Singh’s position as a respected member of the community and says that the priest has an obligation to serve as the mob’s conscience. Iqbal addresses the hypocrisy, as well as the odd change of heart, in Sikh villagers who had once embraced the Muslims like family but are now rejecting them as mortal enemies. Worse, they seem to believe that their faith permits them to commit murder as long as they do penance.
Meet Singh changes the subject by asking how Iqbal was treated at the police station. Iqbal quickly answers the question, then goes back to asking why the priest will not act. Meet Singh insists that he has done all that he can and that the rest is for the police and Iqbal to do. Iqbal says that he cannot do anything, for he barely knows these people. Meet Singh reminds him that, when he arrived in Mano Majra, it was to speak to the people about something, so why not do it now? Iqbal says that, when people want to talk with weapons, the only way to talk back is with weapons. Otherwise, one should stay out of their way. Meet Singh says that he shares the same view.
Meet Singh acknowledges the limitations of faith and prayer. He can only appeal to those who acknowledge their moral consciences. The villagers will not listen to him if they are in the midst of a violent fervor. The priest tells Iqbal that it is now his turn to act, but Iqbal balks. Both acknowledge that language has its limitations. However, Iqbal has only interacted with the most powerful members of the village and he even agreed to that begrudgingly.
Iqbal puts his things into his sack. He wonders if he should face the mob and lecture them on their immorality. However, there would be no one present to see his act of defiance and they would strip him, see that he is circumcised, and kill him. It would be a waste of his life. Besides, he sees the situation as a “few subhuman species” slaughtering their own kind, making it less likely that they would have their annual population increase of four million. He concludes that self-preservation is best, under the circumstances.
Iqbal is only interested in addressing the crowd if doing so will result in a personal reward—that is, fame and respect within his political party. His cynicism and disgust toward not only the villagers but India in general is on display in this passage. He sees the massacres as a form of self-cleansing.
Iqbal pours himself a whisky and thinks that if one’s mission is “to wipe the slate clean,” maybe it would be best “to connive with those who make the conflagration.” After all, India is full of a lot of nonsense, particularly that which is related to religion. Its philosophy, too, does not amount to much, and he regards yoga as nothing but a moneymaker. The East relies on faith, not reason—reason is Western. Even art and music seem hopeless because it is always backward-looking. He pours himself another whisky and surmises that it is pointless to build another story on a house that is rotting from within. It would be best to demolish it.
Iqbal’s frustration with India is that it is not like the West. His thoughts do not exactly convey a hatred for his people but a resentment for the fact that India seems stuck in cycles of violence and superstition, which stunt its progress. In a moment of defeatism, he drinks and wonders if it might be best to let all of the religious fanatics kill each other so that the country can see the error of its ways and start over.
At the gurdwara, Meet Singh is awake. He is sweeping the floor and tidying up when someone bangs at the door. The priest asks who it is. He undoes the latch and Juggut steps inside. He asks Meet Singh to read him a verse. Meet Singh finds this odd, for Jugga has never before come to the gurdwara and people are asleep. Jugga insists that he read, so the priest gets out a small prayer book, puts it to his forehead, and reads the verse on the page to which he has opened the book. Jugga asks if the verse is good and Meet Singh assures him that all of the words of the Guru are good. If one does something good, the Guru will help; if one does something bad the Guru will try to stop it. They say “Sat Sri Akal” to each other and Jugga prepares to leave.
In his effort to change and redefine his purpose, Jugga goes to the temple to seek counsel. However, Jugga is illiterate and does not know much about the world beyond his village, so when he seeks guidance, he seeks it from his faith. Jugga was never a devout Sikh and knows nothing about the prayers, but it is all that he has to rely on. Jugga’s use of prayer as a source of guidance reverses Meet Singh’s previous comments about the futility of prayer in the face of violence. Here, the word of the Guru will inspire someone to act.
As Juggut gets up to leave, he recognizes one of the sleeping heads on the pillow as that of Iqbal. He quietly says, “Sat Sri Akal, Babuji” and tries to see if Iqbal is awake. Meet Singh asks him not to disturb Iqbal for he is not feeling well. Jugga sees the silver flask lying on Iqbal’s chest. Meet Singh explains that it contains the medicine that Iqbal needs to sleep. Jugga asks the priest to say “Sat Sri Akal” to Iqbal on his behalf, then he leaves the gurdwara.
This is the last time that Jugga and Iqbal see each other. Jugga likely knows that Iqbal has been comforting himself with alcohol. In a sense, the priest is right to say that Iqbal does not feel well, given the violent tensions in town. However, Iqbal, the political worker, dissipates himself in drink instead of doing something.
Hukum Chand is no longer feeling the elation that his plan gave him that morning. He feels anxious and foolish. He thinks about his release of Juggut and Iqbal and what it will mean for the train plot. He figures that Iqbal is an intellectual of “the armchair variety” and will do nothing daring. As for Jugga, Chand thinks that the only reason the budmash has for doing anything is to get back at Malli. If Malli leaves town, Chand assumes that Jugga will do nothing about the train plot. He is skeptical of the depth of Jugga’s love for Nooran and figures that, if she is killed on the train, Jugga will merely find another girl. His type never risks anything for women.
Typically, Chand’s mood swings from contentment to melancholy. He thinks that Iqbal is insincere about his political commitments, which is true, but wrongly thinks that Jugga is more committed to his criminal reputation than in doing right by Nooran. Ironically, Chand accuses Jugga of being the “type [who] never risks anything for women,” but does not recognize himself as a similar type; he has done nothing to save Haseena, and is instead leaving it to Iqbal and Jugga to do something.
Hukum Chand also thinks about his role as magistrate. It does not seem that the government in Delhi is doing anything to make his job easier. All they do is make speeches and hang around with “lovely-looking foreign women.” He thinks of the people who work with him. There is his colleague, Prem Singh, who goes to buy his wife jewelry in Lahore and spends time with sahibs who flirt with each other’s wives.
Chand thinks that his position as a middling bureaucrat is not only difficult and, in the current circumstance, useless, but that it does not come with any of the rewards that those in higher positions get. He envies his colleague who evidently makes more money and has access to better-looking women.
Hukum Chand also thinks of his orderly, Sundari, and how she was not married to Mansa Ram for four days before her bus was ordered off the road by a mob of Muslims. Sikhs were hacked to death. The Muslim attackers held Mansa Ram by his arms and legs while a man cut off his penis and held it out to Sundari. The mob then raped her. Her friends warned her before her wedding not to take off her bangles—it was bad luck. She saw them smashed in the road while she was taken by one man after another.
In this anecdote, Chand thinks about how the religious warfare destroyed his orderly’s happiness. He sees the personal dimension of the strife and stops thinking about it in terms of countless bodies. In this instance, the smashed bangles symbolize the rupture of life.
Finally, Hukum Chand thinks of Sunder Singh. Singh was a big, brave Sikh who had fought in battles in Eritrea, Burma, and Italy. The government gave him land in Sindh and he went by train with his wife and children to seize his bounty. However, his overcrowded train was held up at the station for four days with no one allowed to get off. Food and water ran out and it was over 115 degrees in the compartment. Sunder Singh’s children cried for food and water. He gave his children his urine to drink. When that ran out, he pulled out his revolver and shot his family. Sunder Singh tried to kill himself, too, but he could not bring himself to do it. Then, the train began to move. He hauled the bodies of his wife and children off and came to India.
Sunder Singh appears to be a man who epitomizes masculine strength in Chand’s imagination. The anecdote about how such a strong man was unable to protect his family and save them from thirst and starvation during the massacres reminds Chand of how helpless even the strongest have become as a result of the endless violence. Singh’s inability to kill himself is an indication that he killed his family, not so much out of desperation, but to end their misery because he loved them. His instinct to survive prevents him from killing himself.
Hukum Chand begins to think about Haseena and asks himself why he allowed her to go back to Chundunnugger. If she were with him in the rest house, he would not care what happened in the rest of the world. He starts to cry as he listens to the rumble of the train in the distance, knowing that she is on it.
In this moment, Chand realizes that he loves Haseena. Believing that he can do nothing to save her life, he cries helplessly. The scene is an illustration of the limitations of power.
It is a little after 11:00 p.m. There is little moonlight near the railway bridge. A jeep sits at a good distance from the embankment. No one is in it, but its engine rumbles. The men from the jeep spread themselves out on either side of the railway line. They talk loudly to each other because it is too dark for them to see each other. They hear a steady rumbling, signaling the train’s arrival. They look at the rope. If the train moves quickly, the rope will cut many people in two. The men look toward the lights of the train.
The author starts to build tension in this scene. The Sikhs have organized a military-style operation. The darkness of the night causes the plotters to focus on the train, which they know will carry the Muslim refugees—some of whom are riding on the roof of the train in the darkness. They are unknowingly riding toward their deaths.
A big man (implied to be Juggut) climbs the steel span of the railway bridge. The others think that he is testing the strength of the knot as he stretches himself over the rope. The train gets closer. The leader stands up and commands him to come down. Suddenly, the big man pulls a kirpan from his waist and slashes at the rope. He hacks at it vigorously. The leader, realizing what he is doing, raises his rifle and fires. One of the man’s legs comes off of the rope, but the other is still wrapped around it. The train’s engine is only a few yards away. Someone fires another shot and the man begins to slide off of the rope, but he clings to it with his hands and chin. A tough strand holds the rope in place. He hacks at it with the kirpan, then he uses his teeth. The men on the ground send forth a volley of shots. The man collapses at the moment that the rope snaps. The train goes over him and moves on to Pakistan.
In the final scene of the novel, the author details how Jugga redeems himself by cutting the rope intended to kill the Muslim refugees riding on the roof of the train. Jugga’s action is an attempt to save Nooran from harm because she could be on the roof of the train. However, it is also a chance for him to use himself—a man who has led a violent, criminal life—to prevent sectarian violence from overcoming his village. Where the government, symbolized by Hukum Chand, and religion, symbolized by Meet Singh, have failed, Jugga succeeds and becomes an unlikely hero.