Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh: A Review

Book #6 of 2021. This year I aim to read 60 books. This was one of them. Be sure to check out my Goodreads.

As someone who has done quite a bit of research into the history of Indian Partition, I understand the frustration of trying to find novels set during the tumultuous period. The truth is there are very few novels that touch upon the subject. Perhaps because of how painful it was for those who lived through it. In many ways, Partition is becoming a part of forgotten history. Fortunately, I got my hands on a copy of Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan.

The novel takes place in the fictional village of Mano Majra located on the new border between Pakistan and India. The village is an even split between Muslims and Sikhs with only a single Hindu family. Life is peaceful in Mano Majra and typical of a Punjabi village. Then one fateful night, Lala Ram Lal, the Hindu moneylender, is murdered.

Suspicion is laid at the feet of the local badmash, Juggat Singh, and a mysterious new arrival by the name of Iqbal (Mohammed? Chand? Singh?). Tensions begin to rise in Mano Majra, as news pours in of the atrocities committed by Muslims and Sikhs in the rest of Punjab. The villagers are then forced to make a decision that would change Mano Majra forever.

Khushwant Singh’s tale is an in-depth look into Partition on the local scale and doesn’t get bogged down in its politics. By focusing on its impact on the lives of regular village folk, Singh humanises a turning point in history that has often been devolved into a debate concerning Pakistan’s legitimacy. This isn’t a tale about two religious communities at each other’s throats but rather the coming of the apocalypse for the innocent people of Mano Majra. Their way of life is turned on its head due to the egos of those in power.

Throughout the novel, you get to meet an interesting assortment of characters. All of which seem as though they have lived full lives before you meet them and add to the fabric of the novel. Surprisingly, despite the number of characters, none of them come across as bland or irrelevant. Iqbal’s and Hukum Chand’s internal monologues are particularly gripping.

I highly recommend Train to Pakistan and go as far as to include it in my personal canon. Its social commentary provides insight into rural Punjabi life (in all its glorious vulgarities) and highlights the real human impacts of Partition. It wasn’t just the breaking up of a country but the breaking up of brotherly bonds tracing back generations.

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