How Khushwant Singh deals with the Crisis of Identity in Train to Pakistan?

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The present work here aims at finding whether any character or any event in Train to Pakistan directly or indirectly reveals any crisis of communal identity or not. Before Basudeb undertakes this investigation, he first looks into what Khushwant Singh deals with in this novel. Mano Majra is a small and obscure village in Punjab. Nothing remarkable is at this unknown village, except one railway station that is important for the trains to cross only one-track bridge on the river Sutlej. People of different communities – Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Muslims live together here for decades after decades in peace and harmony until the summer of 1947. The life at Mano Majra before August 1947 is idyllic. But, the centuries old communal harmony between the Hindus and the Muslims at the grassroots is subverted by the planners of the Indian Partition and transfer of population. Imam Baksh and his daughter’s sense of belonging to their village, Mano Majra where they have been living in peace through generations hints at their apprehension of being uprooted from their own soil. Pluralism and tolerance for each other is one of the important characteristic features of Indian psyche. The ordinary Hindus and Muslims do not want the partition. Here the columnist explains how one identity split into two and the sensitive way Khushwant Singh handles it, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

The crisis of identity is not the dominant theme in Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan. Indeed the novel is a faithful record of how human disaster has taken place during the gruesome period of Indian partition. Two communities living together in peace and harmony for centuries start killing each other in communal pride and hatred. The contrast between the communal violence during the time of the partition and the fundamental goodness of some individuals is the unique feature of Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan.

Accepting this premise as a starting point, the present work here aims at finding whether any character or any event in Train to Pakistan directly or indirectly reveals any crisis of communal identity or not. Before I undertake this investigation, I first look into what Khushwant Singh deals with in this novel.

Mano Majra is a small and obscure village in Punjab. Nothing remarkable is at this unknown village, except one railway station that is important for the trains to cross only one-track bridge on the river Sutlej. People of different communities – Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Muslims live together here for decades after decades in peace and harmony until the summer of 1947. The life at Mano Majra before August 1947 is idyllic.  Khushwant Singh narrates this breathless and disquieting calm of the village thus:

The northern horizon, which had turned a bluish grey, showed orange again. The orange turned into copper and then into a luminous russet. Red tongues of flame leaped into the black sky. A soft breeze began to blow towards the village. It brought the smell of burning kerosene, then of wood. And then – a faint acrid smell of searing flesh. The village was stilled in deathly silence. No one asked anyone else what the odour was. They all knew. They had known it all the time. The answer was implicit in the fact that the train had come from Pakistan. (Train to Pakistan, Pp.80-81)

The local administration either out of the fear of the break-down of law and order at Mano Majra or by the communal zeal to drive the people of Muslim community to Pakistan persuade the Muslims to leave the village and to go to the nearby refugee camp at Chundunnugger.  Tension between the two communities is mounting gradually. Sikh militants are anti-Muslim and their slogan is ‘never trust a Mussulman’. The arrival of the second ghost train from Pakistan further adds fuel to the fire of mutual hatred and distrust. Lambardara is a sensible and secular person. He tries to appease those angry young men of Mano Majra and to maintain the communal harmony. Initially he is reluctant to let his Muslim neighbours leave their village and go to Pakistan. He tells Imam Baksh, who wants to know whether the Muslims should leave for Pakistan, “This is your village as much as ours”. But finally it is decided that the Muslim people should evacuate Mano Majra for their own security, because their Sikh and Hindu neighbours may not be able to protect them from the frenzy of the Hindu refugees coming from Pakistan and temporarily settling down in the nearby refugee camps. Imam Baksh in an outburst of emotion at last says,” What have we to do with Pakistan? We were born here. So were our ancestors. We have lived amongst you as brothers”. (p.120) Meet Singh and others are also moved at this moment of impending separation. One excerpt of the conversation between Imam Baksh and his daughter Nooro is also heart rendering:

The girl sat with a jerk.’ I will not go to Pakistan’, she said defiantly. Imam Baksh pretended he had not heard. ‘Put all the clothes in the trunks and the cooking utensils in a gunny bag, Also take something for the buffalo . . . .  ‘I will not go to Pakistan’, the girl repeated fiercely. ‘You may not want to go, but they will throw you out. All Muslims are leaving for the camp tomorrow’.   Who will throw us out? This is our village Are the police and the Government dead? (Train to Pakistan, p.123).

This conversation is significant, for it implies certain ground realities at two tier levels. The centuries old communal harmony between the Hindus and the Muslims at the grassroots is subverted by the planners of the Indian Partition and transfer of population. Imam Baksh and his daughter’s sense of belonging to their village, Mano Majra where they  have been living in peace through generations hints at their apprehension of being uprooted from their own soil. Pluralism and tolerance for each other is one of the important characteristic features of Indian psyche. The ordinary Hindus and Muslims do not want the partition. One of the younger men of the Sikh community says, “It is like this, Uncle Imam Baksh. As long as we are here, nobody will dare to touch you. We die first and then you can look after yourselves” (p.120). The emotional ties between the two communities during this traumatic moments of Indian history are even strong. There is hardly any animosity between the two communities at the grassroots. The authorial comment brings out how people of both the communities suffered at this partition, “Not many people slept in Mano Majra that night. They went from house to house — talking, crying, swearing love and friendship, assuring each other that this would soon be over. Life, they said, would be as it always had been” (Train to Pakistan, p126).

The second implication is that man like Meet Singh, a priest of the Sikh community does believe that not every one of the Muslim community is after rioting and killing their Hindu counterparts. This clearly shows how the rational mind of a man works even in a moment of communal tension. A young boy who represents the Hindu fundamentalism in this novel is found inculcating the feeling of hatred among the Sikhs at Mano Majra against the Muslims. It is very characteristic of a fundamentalist of any brand to make such a general comment like this, “Remember and never forget – a Muslim knows no argument but the sword” (Train to Pakistan, p.143).  This boy representing Hindu fundamentalism missions to create a deep dent into one Indian identity of the villagers at Mano Majra. The sole objective of the fundamentalism is to rouse and enliven the non-Muslim religious identity among the Sikhs and Hindus living at the tiny village, Mano Majra. He inculcates the feeling of the separate and independent Sikh identity by loudly proclaiming:
By the name of Nanak,
By the hope that faith doth instill,
By the grace of God,
We bear the world nothing but goodwill.

After all Muslims are evacuated from Mano Majra with the help of military officers, the boy makes this clarion call to Sikhs and Hindus of the village and to proclaim the above hymn. The crowd at Mano Majra is finally stirred up with militant fundamentalism, the evidence of which is that the crowd start chanting:
The Sikhs will rule
Their enemies will be scattered
Only they that will seek refuge will be saved! (Train to Pakistan, p.145)

Triumphant cries of ‘Sat Sri Akal’ are heard. What is horrible then is that the boy opens the map of the area among the volunteers and the villagers and asks them how many of them possess guns. He then gives the crowd details of the dreadful plan:

‘The plan is this. Tomorrow after sunset, when it is dark, we will stretch a rope across the first span of the bridge. It will be a foot above the height of the funnel of the engine. When the train passes under it, it will sweep off all the people sitting on the roof of the train. That will account for at least four to five hundred.’ (Train to Pakistan, p.146)

Here ‘four to five hundred’ refers to Muslims migrating to Pakistan after the partition violence breaks out. The authorial comment that follows immediately after they disclose is strikingly revealing, “The eyes of the listeners sparkled with admiration. They nodded to each other and looked around. … It seemed a perfect plan, without the slightest danger of retaliation. Everyone was pleased.” (Train to Pakistan, p.146). The keyword in this authorial comment is ‘admiration’. The crowd is ideologically convinced by the boy leader. It is not the crisis of identity, on the contrary, it is a creation of two new identities, one identity of Hindus and another of Muslims. Both these two identities are based on religious polarisation.  Here lies his success. The Indian identity according to this militant group of Hindu fundamentalism means the identity of only non-Muslims. The aims and objectives of fundamentalism of all brands are almost same. Like M.A. Jinnah, the boy leader who stands for the Hindu fundamentalism is also an indirect advocate of so-called ‘two-nation theory’. Hindus and Sikhs living in India have their own identity, which has nothing to do with the identity of Indian Muslims.

Nooran is the daughter of Imam Baksh, the mullah of the mosque at Mano Majra. Everyone at this village respects him. No body calls him Imam Baksh or Mullah. Everyone addresses him ‘Uncle’ or ‘chacha’. Juggut Singh, a social marginal lives with his mother at one corner of this village. He is a terror to the villagers. He has gone to the jail several times in the past. Juggut Singh and Nooran love each other. They meet each other frequently. Neither Juggut’s mother nor Nooran’s Imam Baksh know of the affair that has developed between them. After the declaration of the partition of India, the massive violence breaks out. At the beginning Mano Majra, a small and obscure village in Punjab is quiet and the violence in the rest of the country does not affect the peace and communal harmony among the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslim villagers living at Mano Majra. The villagers even do not know that India has been divided into Pakistan and Hindustan. The reporting of the Inspector to the Magistrate is an evidence of the peaceful situation of the village:

I am sure no one in Mano Majra even knows that the British have left and the country is divided into Pakistan and Hindustan. Some of them know about Gandhi but I doubt if anyone has ever heard of Jinnah. (Train to Pakistan, p.23)

However, when the Hindu refugees from West Punjab and the other parts of Pakistan start swamping the Indian Territory, Mano Majra slips gradually into intense communal tension. Local administration asks Muslims living at Mano Majra to evacuate their villages and to take shelter in the refugee camp. It is decided that all Muslims at Mano Majra will leave the village and for security reason they will be shifted to nearby refugee camp at Chundunnugger and from the camp, they will undertake their journey to Pakistan. Imam Baksh asks Nooran to pack up quickly and they are sure to migrate to Pakistan from the camp. At this Nooran becomes upset. Her repeated arguments with Imam Baksh not to leave the village utterly fail. And in a fit of desperation, she goes to Juggut’s mother as a last resort to convince of her dire need to stay at the village with the plea that her son has promised to marry her and she carries Juggut’s child. She then exasperatingly curses Nooran:


Two phrases in her curse on Nooran are important. They are, ‘You, a Muslim weaver’s daughter’ and ‘Go to Pakistan’.  Nooran loves Juggut and she comes to his mother when she finds no alternative to dismiss the plan to leave for Pakistan. Here is no crisis of identity. Here what is important to note is that Juggut’s mother, an illiterate rustic woman is even effective in inculcating a sense of separate Muslim identity to Indian Muslims. The very address, ‘You, a Muslim weaver’s daughter’ makes Nooran feel that Muslims are distinctly different in their identity from that of Sikhs or Hindus.  The Sikh woman communalises the love between her son and Nooran. Perhaps Nooran for the first time hears someone who is dearer to her and who belongs to Sikh community, asking her to believe that India is not her country. So, Nooran should leave India and ‘go to Pakistan’ once the partition is negotiated.

A reference to another event is relevant to the context. A convoy with two officers, a Sikh and a Muslim reaches the village to evacuate Muslims to a nearby refugee camp. The Muslim officer is accompanied by Pathan soldiers. The lambardar, the village head, is summoned by the officers. The officers also ask all Muslims to pack up and go with them to nearby camp at Chundunnugger. The lambardar first understands that Muslims in the village are going to the refugee camp for a day or two. But when he comes to know that they are going to Pakistan for a longer period he says that the Sikh neighbours will not be able to take care of the Muslim property for such a longer period. The news that Muslims at Mano Majra are leaving for Pakistan is a surprise to all. The Muslim officer does not allow Muslims to take with them their buffaloes and bullock carts. He only asks them to take what they can only carry. At this time the conversation between the Muslim officer and the lambardar is revealing:

‘…No, Sahib, we cannot say anything,’ replied the lambardar. ‘If it was for a day or two we could look after their belongings. As you are going to Pakistan, it may be many months before they return. Property is a bad thing; it poisons people’s minds. No, we will not touch anything. We will only look after their houses.’ The Muslim officer was irritated.  ‘I have no time to argue. You see yourself that all I have is a dozen trucks. I cannot put buffaloes and bullock carts in them.’

‘No, Sahib,’ retorted the lambardar stubbornly. ‘You can say what you like and you can be angry with us, but we will not touch our brothers’ properties. You want us to become enemies?’

‘Wah, Wah, Lambardar Sahib,’ answered the Muslim laughing loudly, ‘Shabash! Yesterday you wanted to kill them, today you call them brothers. You may change your mind again tomorrow.’ ‘Do not taunt us like this, Captain Sahib. We are brothers and will always remain brothers.’ (Train to Pakistan, p.128)

A careful analysis of the character of lambardar shows that he is very simple, innocent and non-communal. Rustic simplicity is one of the cardinal features of his character. The total environment of Mano Majra, Khushwant Singh creates in Train to Pakistan before the shifting of Muslim population to nearby refugee camp at Chundunnugger, is of communal peace and harmony. The partition of India, in 1947, is a shock to the inhabitants of this village. The lambardar is not a hypocrite when he tells the Muslim officer of the convoy that ‘we will not touch our brothers’ properties’. And he genuinely believes that property ‘poisons people’s minds’. However, the Muslim officer’s sarcastic reaction to the lambardar’s address to his Muslim neighbours as ‘brothers’ makes both Hindus and Muslims feel that they belong

to two different identities. The officer inculcates the feeling among the crowd present there that the relationship between Hindus and Muslims are hostile and it cannot be the relationship of brotherhood; both Hindus and Muslims are of two separate identities. If there is no Muslim identity crisis at Mano Majra before this crucial juncture of the Indian partition, the Muslim officer’s taunting remark at what the lambardar has said, partly creates or sharpens the two identities, one of Muslims and another of Hindus if they at all exist.

All quotes are taken from one primary source:

Khushwant Singh, “Train to Pakistan, Memories of Madness: Stories of 1947”, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2002

©Basudeb Chakrobarti

Photos from the internet.

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Basudeb Chakraborti is a retired professor of English and Faculty Dean, University of Kalyani. He founded the Department of English in Sikkim Central University (2013). He taught in the USA and India. He wrote more than 100 articles in different literary journals in India and abroad. Among his books, Thomas Hardy’s View of Happiness, Some Problems of Translation: A Study of Tagore’s Red Oleanders, Indian Partition Fiction in English and in English Translation, etc.