Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

1947 Migration to Pakistan, wikipedia

There are so many tragic stories surrounding the independence of India and the formation of East and West Pakistan, or the 1947 partition, as it’s often referred to, sadly thousands that will never be told because there is no one left to tell them. It was a moment in history that demonstrated what happens to humanity when fear and panic take hold in the wake of political posturing and it is devastating.

Train to Pakistan was written in 1956, a mere nine years after the British drew a controversial line through India, sending Muslims to the newly named Pakistan and banishing Hindus and Sikhs from that territory.

The author, who died in 2014 at the age of 99, belonged to a Sikh family, with roots in the area that was to become Pakistan, was an outspoken critic of the establishment, intolerant of hypocrisy, who abandoned his studies in law and diplomacy to become a writer. Witness to killings on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, his novel is his reflection of events in that period in history, his frustration with various parties and people in positions of authority and a comment on the individual living in fear.

Khushwant Singh takes the Punjabi farming village of Mano Majra, a small village on the border between India and Pakistan, one of strategic importance to the railway system, and narrates the moment when news of this change arrives and shows how it affects this community.

The trains are symbolic to the story, portenders of what is to come; in the past they have run like clockwork and though they rarely stop, the lives of the villagers is intricately linked to their passing. When the trains become delayed, the rhythm of the village gets out of sync and worse when the trains begin to stop in Mano Majra, life will never be the same.

An educated young man named Iqbal arrives from Delhi, sent by his party to observe the impact of the news.

Well, Babuji,’ began the Muslim. ‘Tell us something. What is happening in the world?
What is all this about Pakistan and Hindustan?
‘We live in this little village and know nothing,’ the lambardar put in. ‘Babuji, tell us, why did the English leave?’

The villagers aren’t convinced by Iqbal’s idealistic view that freedom will follow Independence.

‘Why, don’t you people want to be free? Do you want to remain slaves all your lives?
After a long silence the lambardar (Headman/Revenue collector) answered: ‘Freedom must be a good thing. But what will we get out of it? Educated people like you, Babu Sahib, will get the jobs the English had. Will we get more land or more buffaloes?
‘No,’ the Muslim said. ‘Freedom is for the educated people who fought for it. We were slaves of the English, now we will be slaves of the educated Indians – or the Pakistanis.’

Iqbal and a young local man are wrongly arrested for a murder just as the village arrives as a point where it can longer deny what is happening elsewhere in the country. The town’s Muslims are told to leave and eerily quiet trains begin to arrive in the village, causing consternation and fear. The fate of the two young men becomes a political consideration, justice playing no role. It builds to a terrible climax and will leave them and generations to follow scarred by the experience.

Brilliant, a compelling read, and one that was relatively respectful to all who were affected and to readers with vivid imaginations, who don’t need certain scenes described in overly graphic detail.

Buy a Copy of The Train to Pakistan via Book Depository

Further Reading:

Obituary: Khushwant Singh by Reginald Massey

Partition: 70 years On – Authors consider its legacy and the crises now facing their countries

– featuring Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid, Tahmima Anam, Fatima Bhutto, Kiran Desai, Pankaj Mishra and others

Advertisements

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie #ManBookerPrize

I read Home Fire in two days, I thought it was brilliantly done, heartbreaking, tragic, essential. It’s been long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017 and certainly makes my short list! I’m looking forward to reading more of the author’s back list.

Underpinning the novel is the premise of Sophocles’ 5thC BC play Antigone, an exploration of the conflict between those who affirm the individual’s human rights and those who must protect the state’s security.

Before reading Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, I downloaded a translation of Antigone to read, she acknowledges herself that Anne Carson’s translation of Antigone (Oberon Books, 2015) and The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles’ Antigone by Seamus Heaney were constant companions as she wrote, expressing gratitude too, for the children’s book version The Story of Antigone and its author Ali Smith.

In Ali Smith’s version there is a discussion at the end of the book about what stories are, which reads:

“Stories are a kind of nourishment. We do need them, and the fact that the story of Antigone, a story about a girl who wants to honour the body of her dead brother, and why she does, keeps being told suggests that we do need this story, that it might be one of the ways that we make life and death meaningful, that it might be a way to help us understand life and death, and that there’s something nourishing in it, even though it is full of terrible and difficult things, a very dark story full of sadness.”

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is a contemporary retelling of the classic play, set in contemporary London. Even though I knew the premise of the story from having read the play, the story unfolded as if I had no prior knowledge of its likely outcome, it has its own unique surprises and insights, making it a compelling read.

We meet Isma, the eldest daughter of a family, who’ve been raised by their mother and grandmother, as she announces to her twin brother and sister Aneeka and Parvaiz that she is going to the US to complete her PhD studies that were put on pause after the death of their mother and grandmother within the space of a year, leaving her to become the mother to griefstruck twelve-year-old twins. She had briefly known her father, but the twins never.

The rigorous interrogation she is put through on leaving the UK reveal something in her family background that their entire family has tried to keep quiet, just wanting to move on with their lives, that their father had abandoned them and gone to fight as a jihadi in Afghanistan and had died en route to Guantanamo.

While in the US, Isma meets Eamonn, the son of a British politician she detests, setting in motion a litany of events that will have a catastrophic impact on both their families.

“Eamonn, that was his name. How they’d laughed in Wembley when the newspaper article accompanying the family picture revealed this detail, an Irish spelling to disguise a Muslim name – Ayman become Eamonn so that people would know the father had integrated.”

For Parvaiz, the only son, the lack of a father figure created a void, his grandmother had been the only family member willing to talk about him, but her stories were always of the boy, never of the man he became, a subject she was reluctant to be drawn into.

“He had always watched boys and their fathers with an avidity composed primarily of hunger. Whenever any of those fathers had made a certain gesture towards him – a hand placed on the back of his neck, the word ‘son’, an invitation to a football match – he’d retreat, both ashamed and afraid in a jumbled way that only grew more so as the years passed and the world of girls and boys grew more separate, so there were times he was not a twin to a twin but rather the only male in a house that knew all the secrets that women shared with on another but none that fathers taught their son.”

It’s a riveting, intense novel that propels the reader forward, even while something in us wants to resist what we can feel coming. It pits love against loyalty, family versus country, and cruelly displays how hard it is for families to distance themselves from the negative patterns of their ancestral past.

Kamila Shamsie was born in Karachi and now lives in London, a dual citizen of the UK and Pakistan. Her debut novel In The City by the Sea, written while still in college, was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in the UK and every novel since then has been highly acclaimed and shortlisted or won a literary prize, in 2013 she was included in the Granta list of 20 best young British writers.

Her novels are (linked to Goodreads):

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Click here to Purchase a copy of

Home Fire via Book Depository

Where the River Parts by Radhika Swarup

I came across Where the River Parts by Radhika Swarup not long after reading the Sri Lankan author Nayomi Munaweera’s excellent second novel, What Lies Between Us which was published earlier this year and when I read her comment below on the novel, I was even more interested. Coincidentally, I’d been following Radhika Swarup on twitter and soon after seeing her book  around, she contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in reading it.

‘A heartbreaking story … on a chapter of South Asian history that has often been deemed too painful to be explored fully.’
Nayomi Munaweera, Author of Island of a Thousand Mirrors

River PartsIt is 1947, in the province of Punjab, which sits between India and Pakistan, an area where Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and others live side by side. Tension is mounting as political events cause rifts between friends and neighbours as many of the Muslim population support the area becoming part of Pakistan and many Hindu fear for their lives, while the same tensions exist among Muslims living in the predominantly Hindu parts of India.

They are all living on the cusp of Pakistan’s creation and the brutal partition of the two countries, which will split Punjab in two, the west becoming Pakistan, the east India, triggering the largest mass migration of humanity in history, affecting 10 million people.

Asha and Nargis are neighbours and best friends, they go to school together and spend time in each others homes, sharing their excitement at the future, especially as they are close to marriageable age and they know it’s something their parents are considering on their behalf. After he walks her to school for a week, Asha slowly becomes close to Nargis brother Firoze, a relationship that was unlikely to be accepted by their families even without the changes that Partition is threatening to bring.

‘Punjab has been set alight,’ he said at length. ‘It’s burning with a call for freedom, with a call for Partition.’

‘A call you favour.’

‘There’s no room for Muslims in a  free India.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘It is,’ he said firmly.

Partition 1947The thing they all fear most, that some desire most happens and Asha’s family leave their past behind and head for Delhi. Firoze helps them to escape and Asha leaves with a secret she has kept from everyone, the future unknown.

‘Suddenly those who read, those who had access to news, learned to differentiate. People spoke of ‘those Muslims’ and ‘those Hindus’, of separatist and patriots, of a Hindustan for Hindus and a Pakistan for Muslims. They spoke of two nations, they mourned the martyred, the shaheed.’

We follow the life of Asha and all that happens to her, the sacrifices she makes, the effect of the secrets she holds and watches as the family she raises and lives among move far from the childhood and attitudes she has known. She makes peace with what has happened and accepts her new life, until 50 years later, when old memories resurface as she visits her daughter and grand-daughter in New York, who are in conflict as Asha’s Indian grand-daughter has fallen in love with Hussain, a young Muslim originally from Pakistan.

One of the most touching scenes in the novel, one that must have encapsulated the thought processes of so many, was when a grandmother from Pakistan asks Asha about Delhi because she too had been severed from her roots. That and the frequent, evocative references to the way she would make tea or other subtle habits that retained within them, the essence of where she had come from – representing those seemingly insignificant things people miss, that when they encounter again, provide immense nostalgic pleasure. Radhik Swarup evokes these memory inducing touches without sentimentalising, we sense it at a primal level, as those who have ever left home for an extended period will recognise.

‘But I want you to tell me about India. I want you to tell me what changed in Delhi after I left.’

‘It’s changed. There are new shops, new roads, new names.’ She saw the woman’s face fall, and she leaned forward, taking her hands in her own. ‘But in spirit it remains the same. It’s still a village at heart; noisy and intrusive. There are still the narrow lanes that cross the magnificent boulevards, still the shanties beyond the grand circuses. It’s still impossible to keep things secret.’ The woman closed her eyes, considered Asha’s words, and a slow smile spread on her face. ‘In that case’, she said, ‘all is well.’

An often heart-breaking story of the impossibilities of love to survive political and religious differences and events, the way it changes lives, how people cope and the deep compassion required if it is ever to be overcome.

Author, Radhika Swarup

Author, Radhika Swarup

Radhika Swarup is an Indian author based in London, whose family was displaced by the Partition, having had to leave Pakistan and move to India, so the events and their repercussions are ‘engraved on our psyche’ .

Where The River Parts is her debut novel.

Buy a Copy of Where the River Parts

via Book Depository (Affiliate Link)