Back to the Classics: Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh (1956)

The Partition of India in 1947 is something I’ve been interested in for a long time but it wasn’t until I read Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh that I had any idea of the scope of the tremendous upheaval, tragedy and heartache it caused. An arbitrary line drawn by an ‘Empire on whom the sun was setting,’ divided a nation and created the twin countries of India and Pakistan. Former neighbours and friends became deadly enemies, people lost their homes, and an estimated one to two million lost their lives.
The author chose a true-to-life work of fiction to tell his story. Every character in the story was modelled on a real person that passed through Khushwant Singh’s own life. He was about 32 years of age at the time of Partition and witnessed firsthand the atrocities committed by Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, and records them without taking sides or showing favour. He and his family were forced to flee from Lahore in 1947, leaving behind his home, his belongings and his closest friends.

The Story

In 1947 the new state of Pakistan was formerly announced, setting in motion the mass exodus of ten million Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Northern India was in chaos and only in the remote villages on the frontier was there any semblance of peace.
Mano Majra was one of these villages, known mostly because it boasted a train station. Not that many trains stopped there. In fact, it was only two slow passenger trains, one from Delhi to Lahore in the mornings and another from Lahore to Delhi in the evenings, that were scheduled to stop and then only for a few minutes. The express trains and the morning mail train rushed through without pausing. Goods trains shed and collected wagons on the sidings, and throughout the night the villagers could hear the whistling and puffing of engines and the clanging of metal couplings. The trains were the villagers’ alarm clocks, signalling their mealtimes, their siestas and their prayer times. That is, up until the summer of 1947.

After Partition, the trains became less punctual, disturbing the rhythm of the village. A unit of Sikh soldiers arrived and machine guns were mounted at the railway station. Trains coming from Delhi stopped and changed their drivers and guards before continuing on to Pakistan. Trains from Pakistan heading to Delhi with their Hindu and Sikh refugees would run through without stopping.
But one morning, the train from Pakistan stopped at Mano Majra and the only person to emerge alive out of the fifteen hundred on board was a guard from the tail end of the carriages.

It was a botched up surgical operation. India’s arms were chopped off without any anaesthetic, and streams of blood swamped the land of the five rivers known as the Punjab.

An order came to evacuate all the Muslims in Mano Majra to a refugee camp and from there, be placed on a train to Pakistan. Sikh agitators arrived in the village after the Muslims had left and drummed up support for a revenge attack on the next train to Pakistan. For hundreds of years the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims had lived together as neighbours in this village and now those former neighbours and friends who had just left were to be murdered.

Iqbal, born a Sikh and educated in England, came to Mano Majra with his head full of theory to spread his message of communist reform. Learning that the train to Pakistan was to be sabotaged, he found he had nothing to say to the people of Mano Majra:

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…
Then with dignity fall under a volley of blows, or preferably a volley of rifle shots. A cold thrill went down Iqbal’s spine.
There would be no one to see this supreme act of sacrifice…It would be an utter waste of life! And what would it gain? A few subhuman species were going to slaughter some of their own kind – a mild setback to the annual increase of four million…
In a state of chaos self-preservation is the supreme duty.

If you really believe that things are so rotten that your first duty is to destroy- to wipe the slate clean – then you should not turn green at small acts of destruction. Your duty is to connive with those who make the conflagration, not to turn a moral hosepipe on them – to create such a mighty chaos that all that is rotten like selfishness, intolerance, greed, falsehood, sycophancy, is drowned. In blood, if necessary.

It was left to another, a most unlikely character, the local ‘budmash’ or worthless thug, to put his life on the line for the sake of someone he cared about.

Final thoughts

This was a brutal, gross, and at times crude novel. It’s not the sort of book you’d leave sitting on your coffee table and I don’t recommend it unconditionally, but it was a heartfelt, candid and literary account written by an excellent author. I learnt more from this one book of fiction than I would have gleaned from a shelf-full of political or historical titles. It was a powerful and awful account. Although there wasn’t a political theme to the book, I couldn’t help imbibing the political atmosphere of those days. Mano Majra was a miniature India that mirrored the whole nation. It also mirrored humanity in its portrayal of the fluidity of human reasoning – we can justify anything we decide to do. We are so readily manipulated by the opinions of others and the voices of those who stir and agitate.

The photography in this edition of the book is the work of Margaret Bourke-White who lived and travelled in India during 1946 and 1947. She was sent by Life Magazine to cover the emerging nations of India and Pakistan after spending four years in Europe during World War II where she witnessed the Nazi concentration camps. According to one of the articles below, some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse.

The copy I have above is out of print but available secondhand. Margaret Bourke-White’s images are online here.
Further reading:
The Great Divide: The violent legacy of Indian Partition
Khushwant Singh (1915-2014) – Obituary

11 thoughts on “Back to the Classics: Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh (1956)

  1. This is such an interesting title, Carol. I must add it to my list of books to read! I like when I hear that it's a book that teaches you. Some historical fiction is also my best aid to learn all that I am so ignorant about, and this book, according to you, fits that mark.


  2. This sounds like a difficult but very worthwhile read. Such a tragic period in the history of that region and the people there are still paying the price of the hubris of those who believed that drawing lines on a map would solve a problem. It happened in the Middle East as well and look at all the mess that has ensued.


  3. This sounds like such an interesting book. I appreciate books that are written honestly, and if that makes it a bit brutal, so be it. I am also drawn to books that are not necessarily political, but where politics are involved. I must give this one a try. Thank you for taking the time to share you thoughts.


  4. I think that I would like this boo.I also want to read more history about this time and place. It was truly tumultuous time when very bad things happened. Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children also took place during this time. I highly recommend that book.


  5. Hi Brian. I'd like to read more books set in India & Asia Pacific. When I was looking at some of the articles on the author of Train to Pakistan, Rushdie's book was one that was mentioned so thanks for the heads up. I'd like to read that one now I've heard it recommended a couple of times.


  6. Great review! I second Brian's suggestion that you try Midnight's Children. I think knowing some of the historical background would be helpful in deciphering Rushdie's magical-realist take on the events.


  7. Pingback: April Blether | journey & destination

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