A Train to Pakistan details how the Partition of India not only divided the nation geographically, but also demarcated the British colonial era from that of postcolonial independence. In the novel, some characters claim that India was better off under British rule, despite the partition being Britain’s solution, according to the historical record, for stemming the rise of religious strife. Singh depicts India as a place looking to define itself after colonial rule and struggling to create its own path towards progress. The novel ultimately illustrates how overcoming colonial rule is not merely a task of reasserting control over one’s political destiny, but of surmounting the psychological impact of decades of subordination.
The author uses Iqbal Singh, a political worker, who, along with Juggut Singh, is falsely accused of committing the dacoity against Lala Ram Lal, to represent the desire for Indian independence and progress without the aid or presence of the British. Iqbal was educated in Britain and is the only character in the novel who is frank about his distaste toward the British Empire. Unlike Imam Baksh, whom he meets through Meet Singh, Iqbal does not trust the British to protect India from violence. He also recoils from his cellmate, Juggut’s comparison of English women to “houris,” or angels, and Indian women to “black buffaloes,” and argues against others’ near worship of the British and lack of faith in Indian institutions.
When Banta Singh, the lambardar who joins Meet Singh and an unnamed Muslim during a visit to Iqbal, asks Iqbal why the English left India, Iqbal explains their departure in the context of fear among the English that the country would eventually turn against them, evoking the vague example of “the mutiny of the Indian sailors” against the British during the Second World War. He highlights a growing trend in India toward resistance after World War II that was necessary in helping India fulfill its own destiny. By joining the Japanese war effort, for instance, some Indians were performing a major act of defiance against the British, while also subtly pointing out the hypocrisy of fighting with the British against Japanese imperialism while the British perpetuated their own empire. Though “independence” is an abstract concept to Iqbal’s listeners, he believes that the idea of political freedom can serve as the basis for fostering a new economic reality—that is, for creating a system in which fewer Indians suffer from poverty. With the perpetual presence of the British in India, however, self-determination would remain elusive.
Nevertheless, some characters claim that India was better off under British rule. For example, when Banta Singh details how he fought with the Allied Powers on behalf of the British in World War I, he insists that the other Indian soldiers “liked the English officers” and thought that they “were better than the Indian.” Meet Singh confirms this view with an anecdote from his brother, “a havildar,” or sergeant, who says that all of the “sepoys are happier with English officers than with Indian” and that his niece still receives gifts from London from his “brother’s colonel’s mem-sahib.” The language that both men use is distinctly comparative and tends to elevate the British soldier over the Indian, not based on military skill or leadership, but on the quality of their personal interactions with the British officers. Banta Singh, Meet Singh, and Imam Baksh use these positive experiences to subtly justify the presence of the British in India and use these anecdotes to overlook the cruelties of their former colonizers. Their comments also suggest that the three men believe that the British were superior and, therefore, better equipped to lead India—a notion which frustrates Iqbal.
Iqbal contradicts this notion of superiority when he describes the British as “a race of four-twenties,” in reference to Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code which “defines the offense of cheating.” If the British were trustworthy, he says, they “would not have spread their domain all over the world.” He further makes a distinction between their “nice” disposition as human beings and how they behave politically. It is possible for the British to learn Indian religious customs and language, as Lord Mountbatten—“the handsome, Hindustani-speaking cousin of the King”—did, while still undermining India through destructive policy, such as the partition, which was Mountbatten’s idea. Iqbal compares Mountbatten’s love for India to that of “the missionaries”—it is a not a form of love built on acceptance and equality, but one that seeks to transform India in favor of British customs and values. Iqbal’s criticism of the British as “cheats” is his effort to get the others to see them as flawed and not as the superior rulers Indians have been conditioned to regard them as. This effort refers back to Iqbal’s political work of helping Indians overcome their view of themselves as subjects instead of as self-determining citizens.
Iqbal’s experiences in Britain have allowed him to know the British on more egalitarian terms, however, while the others know them primarily as ruling officers. Access to such experiences, as a result of his higher social class, make it more difficult for Iqbal to understand the fears of poorer Indians who believe that they cannot rely on themselves to develop their own path forward. Indeed, Imam Baksh further explains his skepticism toward independence by asserting that the departure of the British will make little difference for the poor and ignorant. He believes that educated people such as Iqbal will get the jobs that formerly went to the British, while poor Indians—“once slaves of the English”—will simply “be slaves of the educated Indians—or the Pakistanis.” Imam Baksh’s outlook for India after independence is a negative one, which envisions that there will always be an underclass over whom others will rule.
The author ultimately uses the conversation between Iqbal, Meet Singh, Banta Singh, and Imam Baksh to highlight the uncertainty that many Indians felt in the post-Independence era. Though British rule may have been unjust, some believed that the imperialists gave the country a structure that it would not otherwise have had. From these conversations, the author describes the nature of postcolonial anxiety—and how self-doubt, lack of education, elitist rule, and, now, sectarian warfare, made a successful post-Independence government seem increasingly elusive.
Postcolonial Anxiety and National Identity ThemeTracker
Postcolonial Anxiety and National Identity Quotes in Train to Pakistan
Iqbal stood up and looked all around. From the railway station to the roof of the rest house … the whole place was littered with men, women, children, cattle, and dogs …. Where in India could one find a place that did not teem with life? Iqbal thought of his first reaction on reaching Bombay. Milling crowds—millions of them—on the quayside, in the streets, on railway platforms; even at night the pavements were full of people. The whole country was like an overcrowded room. What could you expect when the population went up by six every minute—five millions every year! It made all planning in industry or agriculture a mockery. Why not spend the same amount of effort in checking the increase in population? But how could you, in the land of the Kama sutra, the home of phallic worship and the son cult?
Independence meant little or nothing to these people. They did not even realize that it was a step forward and that all they needed to do was to take the next step and turn the make-believe political freedom into a real economic one.
“They are a race of four-twenties,” he said vehemently. [Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code defines the offense of cheating.] “Do not believe what they say.” Once again he felt his venom had missed its mark. But the Big Lord’s daughter sitting cross-legged with her eyes shut for the benefit of press photographers, and the Big Lord himself—the handsome, Hindustani-speaking cousin of the King, who loved India like the missionaries—was always too much for Iqbal …. “They would not have spread their domain all over the world if they had been honest. That, however, is irrelevant,” added Iqbal. It was time to change the subject. “What is important is: what is going to happen now?”
What could he—one little man—do in this enormous impersonal land of four hundred million? Could he stop the killing? Obviously not. Everyone—Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Congressite, Leaguer, Akali, or Communist—was deep in it. It was fatuous to suggest that the bourgeois revolution could be turned into a proletarian one. The stage had not arrived. The proletariat was indifferent to political freedom for Hindustan or Pakistan, except when it could be given political significance like grabbing land by killing an owner who was of a different religious denomination. All that could be done was to divert the kill-and-grab instinct from communal channels and turn it against the propertied class. That was the proletarian revolution the easy way. His party bosses would not see it.
“Yes, the Englishmen have gone but the rich Indians have taken their place. What have you or your fellow villagers got out of independence? More bread or more clothes? You are in the same handcuffs and fetters which the English put on you. We have to get together and rise. We have nothing to lose but these chains.” Iqbal emphasized the last sentence by raising his hands up to his face and jerking them as if the movement would break the handcuffs.
The northern horizon, which had turned a bluish gray, showed orange again. The orange turned into copper and then into a luminous russet. Red tongues of flame leaped into the black sky. A soft breeze began to blow toward the village. It brought the smell of burning kerosene, then of wood. And then—a faint acrid smell of searing flesh. The village was stilled in a deathly silence. No one asked anyone else what the odor was. They all knew. They had known it all the time. The answer was implicit in the fact that the train had come from Pakistan.
He lay down again with his hands over his eyes. Within the dark chambers of his closed eyes, scenes of the day started coming back in panoramic succession. He tried to squash them by pressing his fingers into his eyes. The images only went blacker and redder and then came back. There was a man holding his intestines, with an expression in his eyes which said: “Look what I have got!” There were women and children huddled in a corner, their eyes dilated with horror, their mouths still open as if their shrieks had just then become voiceless … And all the nauseating smell of putrefying flesh, feces and urine.
It all came from his belief that the only absolute truth was death. The rest—love, ambition, pride, values of all kinds—was to be taken with a pinch of salt. He did so with a clear conscience. Although he accepted gifts and obliged friends when they got into trouble, he was not corrupt. He occasionally joined in parties, arranged for singing and dancing—and sometimes sex—but he was not immoral. What did it really matter in the end? That was the core of Hukum Chand’s philosophy of life, and he lived well.
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.
Iqbal realized that it was the company of Jugga and the constable, who were known Sikhs, that really saved him from being stopped and questioned. He wished he could get out of this place where he had to prove his Sikhism to save his life … He cursed his luck for having a name like Iqbal, and then for being a… Where on earth except in India would a man’s life depend on whether or not his foreskin had been removed? It would be laughable if it were not tragic … If only he could get out to Delhi and to civilization! He would report on his arrest; the party paper would frontpage the news with his photograph: ANGLO-AMERICAN CAPitalIST CONSPIRACY TO CREATE CHAOS (lovely alliteration). COMRADE IQBAL IMPRISONED ON BORDER. It would all go to make him a hero.
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. Take philosophy, about which there is so much hoo-ha. It is just muddleheadedness masquerading as mysticism. And Yoga, particularly Yoga, that excellent earner of dollars! … And all the mumbo-jumbo of reincarnation … Proof? We do not go in for such pedestrian pastimes as proof! That is Western. We are of the mysterious East. No proof, just faith. No reason; just faith.