I READ historian-and-novelist (he wasn’t a popular columnist then) Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan for the first time in 1959, three years after it appeared in print. It was authored when horrifying riots in the wake of Partition were fresh in the memory of people on both sides of the Great Divide. Those who witnessed the tragedies, not to speak of the ones who were victims of rioters and rapists, are hardly there now. The generation that followed heard vivid eyewitness accounts, which have remained etched in their memories.

Never before in history has there been a cross migration on such a stupendous scale. With over 10 million people uprooted, the paths of migrants were punctuated with pools of blood. About a million, mostly in the two Punjabs, were killed or died of cholera in refugee camps, with thousands of women abducted, raped, mutilated and left to die. Even friends and neighbours, in many cases, proved treacherous while at times strangers came to the rescue.

It was against this background that Singh wrote what was to remain inarguably his most memorable work of fiction and though written in English, the novel gives an authentic feel of the Punjab. It is set in the fictional village of Mano Majra, located near the border, with Sikhs and Muslims in almost equal numbers, and just one Hindu, the moneylender. His was the only house built of bricks. The other two communities lived in mud houses, and co-existed in peace.

Mano Majra was the last frontier of what became the Indian Punjab. It was also the last railway station before the trains to Pakistan crossed the Sutlej, which served as a border. The bridge over the river had a road and a single railway track from where the refugees crossed over. For the Muslims, it was the last hurdle to be crossed to reach the land that was to offer them security, and for the Hindus and Sikhs it marked the entry to a safe haven.

The peaceful atmosphere turned venomous when a train, overloaded with dead bodies of Hindus and Sikhs, steamed onto the Mano Majra station from Pakistan. Those who reached alive added to the prejudice against the Muslims.

The characters in the novel have been neatly chiselled by Singh. There is Hukum Chand, the corrupt district magistrate, whose callous indifference to the happenings is alarming. Then there is Meet Singh, the priest in the gurdwara, who time and again tries to convince the agitated Sikhs to protect the innocent Muslims in the village.

Of the two people whom Hukum Chand had imprisoned on charges of murdering the moneylender, and later released, one is Iqbal (he never revealed whether he was Iqbal Singh or Iqbal Ahmed). He is a hardened socialist, opposed to killings and insists that the seeds of hatred were sown by the British. The other accused is the budmash of the village, Juggat Singh. He has an affair with the village maulvi’s daughter, Nooran. When he hears of the plan hatched by a batch of Sikh goondas to derail a train carrying Muslims from Mano Majra and a neighbouring village, he decides to take action. His main concern is for Nooran to reach Pakistan safely.

Khushwant Singh may be no more, but Train to Pakistan is as relevant now as it was when published, for racism, religious intolerance and violence have not abated. If anything, they are on the rise.

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