Book review: Train to Pakistan (1956)

The Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 resulted in the largest migration in human history. In the few shorts months after the line was drawn, more than 10 million people crossed the India-Pakistan border. Violence occurred on both sides, and the migration left indelible scars. Countless books and movies have struggled to understand and explain these events.

In his debut novel, Train to Pakistan, Khushwant Singh writes about one fictional border community’s response to the horrors of Partition. The arrival of a trainload of dead Sikhs from Pakistan throws the peaceful residents of Mano Majra into a tailspin. Like many communities along the border, Mano Majra is an eclectic mix of Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims. Murder, dacoity, and politics change the dynamics among the residents. Will they respond to the ghost train from Pakistan by returning a ghost train of their own?

The good

With Train, Khushwant Singh proves that books don’t need to weigh 2 kg to have weight. Partition is a complex, difficult topic imbued with complex emotions. Singh grapples with those emotions beautifully—without breaking 200 pages. After the local do-nothing magistrate learns of the plan to murder the local Muslims traveling on the train, he hopes to incite two others to action: Iqbal and Juggut. Iqbal is a village outsider and political organizer whose beliefs are challenged by the impending genocide. Will Iqbal prove to be all talk and no action—the worst example of India’s ruling elite in the 1940s and 50s? Juggut is a local Sikh with a criminal history. Will his love for a Muslim girl spur him to act and sacrifice himself or will he live up to his badmash nickname? Will the magistrate’s plan work? The tension in the last 10 pages is intense; the action moves quickly.

As a newspaper editor and columnist, Singh did not mince words. That succinctness serves the reader well. The sounds of a train’s arrival foreshadow the coming violence:

It came to a halt with a rumble, and the wagons groaned and creaked. After a time, the engine could be heard moving up and down, releasing wagons. There were loud explosions as the released wagons collided with the ones on the sidings.

Singh’s description of the impending monsoon—and all the emotions and frustrations that accompany it—could have been written last week. Ultimately, that freshness makes this book compelling.

The bad

Before the ghost train arrives, life in the village seems a little too idyllic. The characters are well drawn, complex individuals with competing agendas and loyalties, but readers might hunger for a deeper glimpse into the underlying communal tensions. The army exploits these tensions with such ease later in the story that we wonder if violence was a regular experience for the villagers.

The verdict

Train to Pakistan is a haunting novel of Partition that proves books don’t need to weigh 2 kg to have weight.

[usr 4.75]

2 thoughts on “Book review: Train to Pakistan (1956)

  1. What a great review of a classic novel. It was the freshness and immediacy of the writing which immediately appealed to me and yes, a slim novel but one that continues to resonate with me. It’s one of the books which I recommend to new expats to give them some insight into the fascinating country which they have come to live in.

    Like

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