Even as love proves a powerful force within the desperate world of A Train to Pakistan, women in the story are routinely denied autonomy and defined primarily by their relationships to men. At the same time, men in the story are subject to stringent expectations of masculinity that shape their prevalence towards violence. By highlighting the highly-restrictive attitudes that prescribe both male and female behavior throughout the novel, Singh suggests that, in addition to religious and caste tensions, gendered prejudice is heavily to blame for the horrors following the Partition.
Women in the story lack their own subjectivity. When they are discussed, it is in the context of their relationships to men. Even Nooran, who is more fully detailed than any other female character in the novel, is defined as Juggut’s lover and the daughter of the Muslim weaver, Imam Baksh. Juggut’s mother is given no name at all, though Nooran calls her “beybey,” a reference to her status as a female elder and a term that reinforces her role as a nurturer. Muslim prostitute Haseena is perhaps the most powerless female character in the story, whose thoughts and feelings are filtered through her client, Hukum Chand’s, perceptions of her. These characterizations of women reinforce the notion that they lack individual agency.
Women are also regarded as objects or vessels for men’s desires. During a conversation with Iqbal in their shared cell, for example, Juggut speaks of British women as unattainable sexual objects (“houris”) and calls Indian women “black buffalos” due to their darker skin. The comparison of English women to houris, or angels, reinforces a myth, learned through colonial rule, that white women are superior to darker-skinned women and are more desirable because they were long forbidden to Indian men.
When women are not rendered sex objects, they become emblems of purity whose chastity determines their value. Chand says Hindu women are so “pure that they would rather commit suicide than let a stranger touch them.” This indicates that Hindu women who become rape victims worry that the crime committed against them will devalue them in the eyes of Hindu men. Chand’s comment is especially hypocritical given that he happily uses the services of Haseena, the teenaged Muslim prostitute, while rhapsodizing about the “purity” of Hindu women. This indicates grossly disparate standards of behavior for Hindu men and women, which constrain the latter while ensuring the sexual license of the former.
When men cannot prove their masculinity through the sexual exploitation or objectification of women, they resort to violence. Sikh men in the novel in fact characterize their manhood by a willingness to confront or commit violence. For example, when a group of Sikh soldiers goes to the gurdwara during a community meeting, a boy leader stands out among them and baits the Sikh male villagers into killing Muslims by saying that their masculinity depends on it. Singh describes the young man as “small in size, slight of build” and “somewhat effeminate.” This indicates that the boy leader is using his military authority to rouse the male villagers into violence, as a means of validating his own manhood.
Manhood is also threatened by the presence of the hijras, whose transgender or intersex identities place them outside of traditional modes of masculinity and femininity. The hijras’ flagrant disregard for social norms allows them to call attention to the performative nature of gender. During a confrontation with a Sikh and Hindu mob that threatens to kill a Muslim infant, for example, the hijras “[whirl] around so fast that their skirts [fly] in the air,” revealing their genitals and prompting them to ask the mob if they are “Hindus or Muslims,” a comic stroke that pokes fun at rigid obedience to categories of identity. When the Sikhs offer to let the hijras live in exchange for their immediate departure from the village, one hijra “[runs] his finger in a Sikh’s beard” and asks if he is afraid that the men will become like the hijras and stop having children—which sends the crowd, including other Sikhs, into laughter again. The comment is a not-so-subtle reference to the tendencies of some Indian men to have sexual affairs with hijras while denying any affiliation with them in public. Singh uses the hijras’ mockery of the mob, particularly of the Sikhs, who are most hostile toward them, to address the hypocrisy of the men. The animosity toward the hijras further suggests that masculinity is often constructed as a rejection of anything approaching femininity.
The novel’s treatment of women and hijras exposes their vulnerability in a country that does not value them individually, and ultimately highlights how sexism and gender discrimination were related to the vicious cycle of violence that engulfed the country. The gendered nature of that violence is evidenced in the novel’s repeated mention of rape as a weapon of war. For example, Muslims in Mano Majra speak of rumors “of gentlewomen having their veils taken off” and being “raped in the marketplace.” The story of Sundari is another horrific account, as Muslims rape the newlywed and then cut off her husband’s penis—this literal unmanning being the basest and most humiliating of punishments. This routine denial of humanity to women and hijras is one of the precursors, Singh suggests, to the wider violence that overtook India in 1947.
Gender and Masculinity ThemeTracker
Gender and Masculinity Quotes in Train to Pakistan
“Toba, toba! Kill my own village banian? Babuji, who kills a hen which lays eggs? Besides, Ram Lal gave me money to pay lawyers when my father was in jail. I would not act like a bastard.”
“I suppose they will let you off now.”
“The police are the kings of the country. They will let me off when they feel like it. If they want to keep me in, they will trump up a case of keeping a spear without a license or going out of the village without permission—or just anything.”
It was not possible to keep Indians off the subject of sex for long. It obsessed their minds. It came out in their art, literature, and religion … One read it in the advertisements of quacks who proclaimed to possess remedies for barrenness and medicines to induce wombs to yield male children. One heard about it all the time … Conversation on any topic—politics, philosophy, sport—soon came down to sex, which everyone enjoyed with a lot of giggling and hand-slapping.
Muslims sat and moped in their houses. Rumors of atrocities committed by Sikhs on Muslims in Patiala, Ambala and Kapurthala, which they had heard and dismissed, came back to their minds. They had heard of gentlewomen having their veils taken off, being stripped and marched down crowded streets to be raped in the marketplace … They had heard of mosques being desecrated by the slaughter of pigs on the premises, and of copies of the holy Koran being torn up by infidels. Quite suddenly every Sikh in Mano Majra became a stranger with an evil intent … For the first time, the name Pakistan came to mean something to them—a haven of refuge where there were no Sikhs.
The Sikhs were sullen and angry. “Never trust a Mussulman,” they said. The last Guru had warned them that Muslims had no loyalties. He was right. All through the Muslim period of Indian history, sons had imprisoned or killed their own fathers and brothers had blinded brothers to get the throne. And what had they done to the Sikhs? Executed two of their Gurus, assassinated another and butchered his infant children; hundreds of thousands had been put to the sword for no other offense than refusing to accept Islam; their temples had been desecrated by the slaughter of kine; the holy Granth had been torn to bits. And Muslims were never ones to respect women. Sikh refugees had told of women jumping into wells and burning themselves rather than fall into the hands of Muslims. Those who did not commit suicide were paraded naked in the streets, raped in public, and then murdered. Now a trainload of Sikhs massacred by Muslims had been cremated in Mano Majra.
“Well, if the village is not dead, then it should be. It should be drowned in a palmful of water. It consists of eunuchs,” said the visitor fiercely with a flourish of his hand … The leader had an aggressive bossy manner. He was a boy in his teens with a little beard which was glued to his chin with brilliantine. He was small in size, slight of build and altogether somewhat effeminate ….] He looked as if his mother had dressed him up as an American cowboy … It was obvious to the villagers that he was an educated city-dweller. Such men always assumed a superior air when talking to peasants. They had no regard for age or status.
“For each Hindu or Sikh they kill, kill two Mussulmans. For each woman they abduct or rape, abduct two. For each home they loot, loot two. For each trainload of dead they send over, send two across. For each road convoy that is attacked, attack two. That will stop the killing on the other side. It will teach them that we also play this game of killing and looting” … “I was going to say,” said Meet Singh haltingly, “I was going to say,” he repeated, “what have the Muslims here done to us for us to kill them in revenge for what Muslims in Pakistan are doing? Only people who have committed crimes should be punished.” The lad glared angrily at Meet Singh. “What had the Sikhs and Hindus in Pakistan done that they were butchered? Weren’t they innocent?”