Monthly Archives: August 2008

Train To Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

After the prolix of Love in the Time of Cholera, Train to Pakistan was a refreshing change. Not merely for its brevity and directness, but also for a context with which I could very much relate.

Although fiction, the background events are real. Thousands of refugees perished during the exodus, when a Pakistan was split from India. Instead of joy in freedom, it was misery and bloodshed that greeted many of the new citizens. Trainloads of dead crossed the border, as people in vengeance sought an insane form of justice.

The copy I have is a 1961 Grove Press edition, which cost 50 c. then, and which I bought for $3.50 circa seven/eight years ago. Here’s what the cover blurb says:

The brew is indeed acrid, and would leave one rather burned, but for the salve in the end. The sacrifice of Juggat Singh, alias Jugga, for the love of his Muslim fiance.

The train went over him, and went on to Pakistan.”

The train with Jugga’s fiance. Whom he will never marry, in whose womb grows the child he will never see. The brawny thug had the wisdom which political leaders of the time lacked.

The story is set in an isolated border village, Mano Majra, where Sikhs and Muslims lived in harmony, till the wake of the partition. There are several relevant characters. There’s the tough guy Jugga, a convict in parole, in love with a Muslim girl. There’s the Europe returned intellectual Iqbal, a communist social worker seeking to reform the simpletons, but becomes a frustrated victim of bureaucratic quagmire instead. Then there’s Hukum Chand, the seasoned district magistrate, scheming, playing his moves as in a game of chess.

While Jugga, in denouement, is a portrayal of how love can elevate the motives of a common criminal, Iqbal and Hukum Chand, from their own different perspectives, reveal the bitterness in the abject failure of a political move. A move that heavily cripples both countries to this day, and is likely to do so for many more years.

Khushwant Singh, with his acerbic prose, effectively drives home the dual themes of the novel: the brutality of partition, and the incapabilites, even indifference, of an inept politcal class

To end this piece in a less sombre note, here is Khushwant Singh’s translation, in this novel, of the first few lines of a famous Hindi number of yore:

In the breeze is flying

My veil of red muslin,

Ho sir, Ho sir.

If you’re still fumbling, here’s the song itself.

Interestingly, this is an anachronism, though minor. The film was not released till two years after 1947, the year of the story.

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Love In the time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Love in the time of Cholera did not impress me. It is, of course, a translation. Thus, I do not know how much of its original essence was lost. But surely, the story would be the same, which, I found quite uninspiring, even boring and inane at times. There is very little dialog in the nearly three hundred fifty pages of leisurely story telling, which adds to the misery. There is nothing in the main character, Florentino Ariza, that I find worthwhile. If remaining a promiscuous libertine while pining away for one’s unrequited love could be symbolized as a great sacrifice on the alter of love, I certainly am not one to bow to it.

There seems to be a deep confusion about love, which is somehow deeply, intricately intertwined with sex and easily, mistakenly substitutable. So, Florentino Ariza has no qualms in his quest to find that illusory thing, but remains true at heart, to his first love, Fermina Daza, who meanwhile has forgotten him and is enjoying life with an illustrious husband (whom she doesn’t love passionately, but is practical enough to hold on to) and children. They eventually do meet and mate in their dotage, when she is a widow and when all his teeth have fallen off (I’m not sure if I’m making this up, but you get the idea), and by which time the reader is throughly disgusted and is holding on to the book merely because it is backed by the fame of the writer.

Reading fiction is enjoyable for two things: story and characters. If the story isn’t very good, it could still be a great read if the characters are interesting and memorable. I found none of this to be true in this novel. One simply is not drawn into the work, which somehow seems to hover around the periphery of things. As an example: there are numerous descriptions of the stuff that Florentino Ariza writes (poetry and prose), both full of juvenile love sickness and sagely wisdom in old age, but none of what is actually written by him comes through to the reader. How is one to plumb the depths without the real thing? Mere descriptions are not enough.

But I must also admit my lack of knowledge on the historical perspective, the Caribbean socio economic heritage and river navigation history, which provide a significant background. So it could well be that my aversion was partly due to the absence of anything identifiable. Yet, I cannot deny the fact that a good work should be able to transcend such obstacles.

So, where do Love and Cholera combine? In the end, of course, when, to escape inquisitive minds, Florentino Ariza quarantines their pleasure boat. And it is with a sigh or relief that I put the book aside, as Florentino Ariza decides to keep navigating forever with his eternal love to escape the world. Symbolic? Of course. But I was happy to be spared the journey.