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 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:
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.