Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Train to Pakistan: Book Review

Train to Pakistan details a story that dates back to the summer of 1947. Published for the first time in 1956, this book holds a place of prominence till date. That it features quite noticeably in most bookstores' shelves even today speaks volumes of its relevance and notable ability to cross decades in time.

The story revolves around incidents in a tiny, fictitious village - Mano Majra,  in Punjab, on the border of India and Pakistan. This 190 page book (Penguin publications) is divided into four broad sections.

The first  section describes the village Mano Majra and activities of its residents only paint it as an insipid speck in the vast subcontinent. The village is marked by only three brick buildings - a gurudwara, a mosque and a moneylender's house, a peepul tree right at its centre, adjoining sprawling fields, flat roofed mud huts, low walled court yards and narrow lanes. The author highlights the importance of  railway station in Mano Majra, how its residents, an almost equal number of Muslims and Sikhs, chalk out their daily chores in sync with two passenger trains, one from Delhi to Lahore in the morning; another from Lahore to Delhi in the evening.

The central nerve of the story is the village gangster, Juggut Singh's love for a Muslim girl, Nooran. Other important characters include Bhai Meet Singh who preaches at Gurudwara, Imam Baksh, Hukum Chand who is the district deputy commissioner and Iqbal, the educated, social worker who lands up at a wrong place at a wrong time. Post independence tumultuous times coupled with the death of a money lender - Ram Lal, the only Hindu resident in Mano Majra, catapults the village into wild, gripping action.

Sections two and three portray TRAIN as the chief and central character. The author paints grim pictures of massive killings during partition. He describes ghost trains choked with dead bodies, Sutlej river brimming with dead and running red; how both sides nonchalantly killed, raped, shot and speared, how institutions meant to maintain law and order watched mutely, took very few, impulsive but wrong actions only to create a farce. These sections weigh upon the reader.

It is however, the last ten pages of the book that deliver the real, hard hitting stuff. When Iqbal contemplates in the last section of the book - India is constipated with a lot of humbug, be it religion, art and music, one cannot refrain from accepting his thoughts. Higher is the acceptance when the author weaves in Tryst with Destiny into the plot. Long ago, we made a tryst with destiny, now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, said the Prime Minister of a free nation in front of dignified visitors seated in galleries, rapt in admiration; how beautiful, elite and poetic it sounds. However, the common man had a completely different tryst on the roads across the border narrates the author. The author clearly differentiates the literate, statesman lot who preach and make policies but fail miserably when it comes to actions from the illiterate, not so well informed lot which believes in delivering only by actions and trusts in presence of mind more than logic and researched literature.

Even if you remarked that the book offers no exceptional stuff and wondered why or what earned it its place, you go completely wrong as the author nails it in the climax, a heart wrenching one it is, one that has secured the eminence of this piece of Indian literature through years.

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