Thursday, August 23, 2007

Wounds that Don't Heal

August 15 was the 60th anniversary of Indian Independence. In honor of that, Lotus posted a review of Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh that made me immediately check it out and read it.

The fact is, both sides killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped.

This story covers the summer of 1947, the summer of Partition, in a small Sikh and Muslim village near the newly created Indian/Pakistani border. This is the summer of a late Monsoon, when people are suddenly forced to become aware of and care about the religion of their neighbors.

In a matter of weeks, the residents of Mano Majra go from their daily lives of peace with their neighbors, where religions differences don't matter, to learning that the British have left, to dealing with the realities of the ghost trains that keep appearing at their train station. (Ghost trains are, for me, one of the most chilling aspects of partition. Trains full of refugees fleeing across the borders in the both directions, but murdered before they get there, leaving a train of corpses to arrive at their destination. In the case of Mano Majra, it would be trains of murdered Sikh and Hindu passengers fleeing Pakistan.)

Beautifully written, Train to Pakistan tells the haunting story of a terrifying time in Indian and Pakistani history that most Westerners don't know about. It also tells the story through many eyes--the communist agitator who has recently come to town, the Bhai of the Sikh temple, the Imam of the mosque, the inspector of the region, the Sikh criminal the the girl he loves, the Imam's daughter. This cast of characters allows Singh to tell the story from all sides, and to do it well. No good guys, no bad guys, just people, trying to make the best of a situation thrust upon them that they don't understand.

Two other minor things I really appreciated--this is a town that lives by the trains, the whistles acting as clocks. Even daily prayers are done according to the train schedule. As someone who grew up in a city surrounded by trains and then went to college where the tracks cut campus in half, this aspect of the village life made me smile. It also underscores the horror of what happens when they stops being goods trains and start being trains of refugees.

The other was the communist agitator, who wanted to raise the people up, but as a highly educated individual, disdained their backward, rural ways. This is not confined to the this book, I think it was one of the problems with communism in general (and, of course, one of the reasons Trotsky was purged) but it really brought it home for me. Intellectuals want the workers to rise up and take the party, but individually, they hate the workers and their customs and culture...

I want to thank Lotus again for the great suggestion and you should check out her list of other reading about Partition and Indian Independence. Also, check out Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa, which is one of my favorites. (Review here.)


Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Jennie!

So glad you were able to read "Train to Pakistan" and that although it was a sad read, it made a favorable impression on you. You mentioned being more devastated by "Cracking India", and even though I haven't read the book I can believe that because the movie "Earth" which is based on "Cracking India" makes me cry like a baby every time I watch it.

THe list of books on the Partition is coming along quite well, I think have got close to eleven recommendations now.

Also,I was delighted to see a link to your review of "Cracking India", I am going to read it in a bit. Thanks, Jennie!

Jennie said...

Thank you again for the great recommendation!