Reading a novel based on the theme of partition of India is never a normal journey. It is bound to have a fair share of traumatic episodes with ample doses of truth, in the garb of fiction.
Focusing on only one village as the events unfold makes the situation, characterization and consequent climax, brings it closer to our psyche, making everything more identifiable to readers' emotions. In this regard, some parts of the story are similar to the novel 'Clear Light of Day' by Anita Desai, where the focus of after-effects of the partition are confined to one family.
Two trains arrive at Mano Majra from Pakistan. They are ghost trains, filled with thousands of mutilated corpses of innocent Hindus, including women and children, that are cremated and buried in India. This is the trigger which unleashes events that unfold in the quiet hamlet of peace-loving villagers, a majority of who are Muslims. The subsequent events unfold to what happens when a train leaves India to Pakistan and build up to form the crux of the story.
The first thing one notices is the setting of the narrative and the background that form a crucial part of the experience. One has to keep reminding oneself that Mano Majra is a fictional village, although we know that the author has drawn heavily from reality. One just wishes that the barbarism depicted by human beings on innocent victims was untrue, despite being deeply etched into the pages of the history of both the countries.
Singh’s book is a dissection of myriad shades of the human character. One is left wondering if any human is really bad or only evolved into darker shades of what was once a good persona. The vice versa is also true.
Circumstances in the world, the society and chiefly , the crucial political turns that cause upheaval in the country, invariably makes helpless pawns of the common populace and the hapless people who govern them.
When the readers are introduced to each character, one is left loathing some of them. And then, each of them is unveiled like peeling a dirty package layer by layer, to discover some semblance of beauty in them. Each new turn of the page surprises the reader.
Hukum Chand, the magistrate is one such character. The man who induces disgust with his lecherous demeanour with a teenaged child calls into question the dignity of his position, in the administration of an important position in society. But then, his verbal prowess and sheer shrewdness during crisis is revealed. So are the facets of his personal life and his humane side, which after all every man must have. His redemption is so complete by the end of the book, that one is left feeling sorry for the man, albeit reluctantly.
The Muslim girl Nooran, is a complete surprise. The initial impression is that she is an innocent novice, untouched and virginal 16-year old in the beginning. Her reluctance to indulge the fat fifty year old man is palpable and heartrending. But then, her complete reversal to a naughty, teasing demeanor later, is highly unnatural and difficult to believe. It is almost as if the author has changed her behaviour solely to redeem Hukum Chand’s character traits from the pejorative perspective to a relatively positive one.
Iqbal Singh and Juggut Singh’s characters are meant to complement one another. Both of them turn out the opposite of what one might expect from them. Iqbal is also the representation of the city bred, foreign returned educated elite who means to bring about change in the village but is unable to accept their thought processes and way of life. The large gap that exists between innocence of villagers who are eager to serve him with their generosity contrasts sharply with his disgust and reluctance to accept their unhygienic offerings. Also, his musings hold a mirror to some hypocrisies of society.
Iqbal’s drunken soliloquy towards the climax reveals the tenets or excuses of the typical armchair activist that he turns out to be, although most of the points are valid from his perspective.
Juggut Singh on the other hand leaves us feeling proud and sad. The scene where he requests the priest Meet Singh to read from the ‘Granth’ and asks for the meaning of the verse is a fearful foreshadow of the fate that he chooses to pursue. There could have been more depth to both the characters.
The element of suspense wields a strong hold on the entire story. Descriptions of life at Mano Majra village, the role of the trains on the life of villagers is fascinating. Also, the brilliant imagery of nature and environment around the village makes for an enjoyable read. The seasonal changes and their effect of the people is captured with detailed finesse.
The language is top notch but not overbearing. The pleasant and easy-going style allows us to move quickly from page to page. It is the story in itself that causes traumatic melancholy and fear in the mind.
The goriness of human massacre leaves little to the imagination. How low humans can fall, how easy it is for the evil in them to manifest itself in violence of the worst kind and how barbaric men can become in the face of a vengeful mob fury is captured and narrated in a detached, hard-hitting manner.
One is thankful that there are no scenes of direct slaughter as we find many times in the novel Tamas, by Bisham Sahni. The aftermath is effective enough, in itself.
The swollen Sutlej where the villagers discover that the mutilated floating bodies of cattle, men, women and children is bound to stay on the readers’ mind for the sheer horror it evokes. Also, the scenes of mass cremation and burial, although not described directly are enough to cause a sinking gash in the pit of one’s stomach. Skillful depictions of the atmosphere during each new discovery of horror, through the eyes of the peace-loving villagers, makes readers experience all of it as though present on the scene.
The contrast between the trains that arrive on normal days and the ghost train that arrives with thousands of bodies from Pakistan, is as palpable as a sledgehammer on the mind.
Again, one is reminded of the novel Ice Candy Man, by Bapsi Sidhwa, where the arrival of the train from India causes uproar in Pakistan.
It is noticeable that the Pakistani author Bapsi Sidhwa has mentioned the train from India with bodies of Muslims arriving in Lahore. Khushwant Singh remains true to his nation, in his own way, by ensuring that in his version of the tale, it is the train from Pakistan that bore the massacred arrivals in India.
Reading other partition based novels (Tamas, Ice Candy Man and Clear Light of Day) gave me the feel of a set of terrible jigsaw pieces falling in place to fill in left out spaces, through various scenes from three different books juxtaposing together. One of the worst parts of history embedded in both countries comes into larger focus with wider perspectives, from reading these partition novels. It just convinces me more, that human beings are undoubtedly the most dangerous creatures on the face of the earth.
I rate the book 4/5.
Hope you found my review useful. Do keep reading more during the lock-down. Happy reading, readers.
Image: Chethana Ramesh