Khushwant Singh’s historical novel A Train to Pakistan is set in the fictional town of Mano Majra during the summer of 1947, the year of the infamously bloody Partition of India. Following World War II, Great Britain granted its former colony independence and then divided it into the states of India and Pakistan—an attempt to dispel bitter religious tensions by providing a separate homeland for Indian Muslims. Murderous chaos ensued, however, as millions of Muslims attempted to cross the partition into Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs into India. Singh uses the tiny frontier village of Mano Majra, once an “[oasis] of peace,” as a microcosm of the religious, caste, and moral divisions that had long existed but were exposed during the nation’s literal rift. Singh suggests that the violence that erupted from India’s partition had less to do with outside influences and more to do with the willingness of people to succumb to pre-existing prejudice and hatred.
At first, Mano Majra, a religiously diverse border town, is blissfully unaware of the tumult surrounding it despite its proximity to a railway bridge that connects India with Pakistan. For example, when the magistrate Hukum Chand asks the subinspector what “the situation” is like in Mano Majra, the latter says that he is not sure if anyone “even knows that the British have left and the country is divided into Pakistan and Hindustan.” He thinks that some of the villagers know who Mahatma Gandhi is, but he doubts that anyone is aware of Muhammad Ali Jinnah—the founder of Pakistan. This blissful ignorance quickly changes in favor of wrathful violence, however, when a trainload of dead Sikhs arrives from Pakistan at the Mano Majra train station. Singh shows how this tragic event, coupled with a pre-existing prejudice, spurs a dangerous cycle of hostility and violence.
The first sign that things are changing in the village is when the train schedule goes awry, causing passenger trains to arrive exceptionally late. For Mano Majra, which uses the arrival and departure of the trains to determine its daily schedule, this disrupts the sense of normalcy in the village. The second sign is the arrival of the “ghost train” from Pakistan, which plants the first seed of suspicion in the villagers’ mind. Finally, Sikh officers show up and ask the villagers to give all the wood and kerosene they can spare. The villagers are kept in the dark about why the soldiers need these materials, but later they smell the stench of burning wood and kerosene mixed with that of charred flesh. The secrecy of the Sikh officers and others in authority, including Hukum Chand, who presides over the burning of the bodies, instills the villagers with the sense that something is very wrong and that they are under possible threat.
Later, following the dacoity at Lala Ram Lal’s house, the head constable asks if anyone has spoken to “a young Mussulman babu called Mohammed Iqbal who was a member of the Muslim League.” The villagers find it strange that the police think that an educated, middle-class man would be a suspect in a dacoity, and begin to suspect that the Muslims have sent Iqbal as a spy. The head constable’s questions succeed in dividing Mano Majra “into two halves as neatly as a knife cuts through a pat of butter,” revealing how easily people can be manipulated to mistrust those whom they call friends.
The village is exposed to further violence after the monsoon, when the rainwater causes the Sutlej River to rise. When the villagers witness several people floating in the water, they see stab wounds and the mutilated breasts of women, making it clear that these people had been massacred. The sight of these bodies, coupled with the knowledge that hundreds of Sikhs and Muslims were murdered in Pakistan before being sent into India on the “ghost train,” spurs the Sikhs into violent action, convincing many to partake in the plot to kill Muslim refugees going to Pakistan.
Not all of the inhabitants of Mano Majra succumb to hatred. The local bhai, Meet Singh, is not a particularly gifted priest, but he uses his position of respect to appeal to people’s sense of decency. His efforts to remind his fellow Sikhs that their Muslim neighbors should not be blamed for the behavior of Muslims across the border prove to be futile in tempering the violent impulses stirred up by visiting Sikh soldiers. Indeed, one evening Mano Majra receives a visit from a group of Sikh soldiers with rifles slung on their shoulders, one of whom—a boy leader—entices the crowd to engage in revenge killings in response to the massacres of Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan. He urges the male villagers to kill “two Musulmans” for “each Hindu and Sikh [the Muslims] kill.” Meet Singh highlights the lack of sense this makes; the Muslims of Mano Majra have nothing to do with the violence in Pakistan. The priest reminds the crowd that it is more important to regard Muslims individually than to condemn an entire group, but his measured appeals to rationality prove futile as he is outdone by the boy leader’s appeal to the crowd’s thirst for revenge.
Toward the end of the novel, the boy leader plots with Sikh villagers to kill hundreds of Muslim refugees who will be sitting on the roof of a Pakistan-bound train. Meet Singh advises his fellow Sikhs on proper moral action, but he does not interfere too much out of fear of also becoming a victim of retributive violence. However, the bhai’s words do inspire Juggut Singh, a former robber well-known for violence, to take redemptive action. Juggut visits Meet Singh and asks the priest to read him a prayer. He then asks if the prayer is good, and the priest assures him that the Guru’s word is always good and can help those who do good. If people perform evil, the Guru’s words will work against them. Juggut goes on to “do good” by sacrificing his own life in order to save the train full of Muslim refugees. Through this, the author suggests that language alone cannot either stop or spur violence but, like the head constable’s manipulative suggestions to the villagers, language can be a catalyst that prompts people to act on already existing desires.
By refusing to cast blame toward any particular religious group for the violence of the partition, Singh illustrates the complexity of humanity during a time when people were simplified to their religious allegiances. He gives detailed accounts of the cruelties committed by all to emphasize that such habits are not limited to certain religious factions, but rather, are common to humanity. Yet even as Singh uses the story of India’s partition as a cautionary tale of what can occur when people succumb to their baser instincts, his depiction of Jugga’s destruction of the rope shows that humanity is also capable of extraordinary acts of courage and heroism in the face of hatred.
The Partition of India and Religious Warfare ThemeTracker
The Partition of India and Religious Warfare 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.
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.
“Sir, the Babu’s name is Iqbal Singh. He is a Sikh. He has been living in England and had his long hair cut.” The subinspector fixed the head constable with a stare and smiled. “There are many Iqbals. I am talking of a Mohammed Iqbal, you are thinking of Iqbal Singh. Mohammed Iqbal can be a member of the Muslim League.” “I understand, sir,” repeated the head constable, but he had not really understood. He hoped he would catch up with the scheme in due course. “Your orders will be carried out.”
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.
It was a dead cow with its belly bloated like a massive barrel and its legs stiffly stretched upward … The faint sound of a moan was wafted across the waters … Horses rolled from side to side as if they were scratching their backs. There were also men and women with their clothes clinging to their bodies; little children sleeping on their bellies with their arms clutching the water and their tiny buttocks dipping in and out. The sky was soon full of kits and vultures … They pecked till the corpses themselves rolled over and shooed them off with hands which rose stiffly into the air and splashed back into the water.
“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?”
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.
He felt a little feverish, the sort of feverishness one feels when one is about to make a declaration of love. It was time for a declaration of something. Only he was not sure what it should be. Should he go out, face the mob and tell them in clear ringing tones that this was wrong—immoral? Walk right up to them with his eyes fixing the armed crowd in a frame—without flinching, without turning, like the heroes on the screen who became bigger and bigger as they walk right into the camera. Then with dignity fall under a volley of blows, or preferably a volley of rifleshots. A cold thrill went down Iqbal’s spine. There would be no one to see this supreme act of sacrifice. They would kill him just as they would kill the others … They would strip him and see. Circumcised, therefore Muslim.
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.
The leader raised his rifle to his shoulder and fired. He hit his mark and one of the man’s legs came off the rope and dangled in the air. The other was still twined round the rope. He slashed away in frantic haste. The engine was only a few yards off … Somebody fired another shot. The man’s body slid off the rope, but he clung to it with his hands and chin. He pulled himself up, caught the rope under his left armpit, and again started hacking with his right hand. The rope had been cut in shreds. Only a thin tough strand remained. He went at it with the knife, and then with his teeth. The engine was almost on him. There was a volley of shots. The man shivered and collapsed. The rope snapped in the center as he fell. The train went over him, and went on to Pakistan.