Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

I’ve been meaning to read this novel for some time, I remember when it was first published it was widely read by  bloggers, it won a National Book Award in the US and it is covered in esteemed comments from reviews within many well-known media titles.

“Beautifully written … A powerful depiction of grinding poverty, where somehow, amid the deprivation, the flame of filial affection survives and a genuine spirit of community is able to triumph over everything the system and nature can throw at it.” DAILY MAIL

I decided to read it now before her new novel comes out in November, Sing Unburied Sing (already on the short list for the 2017 National Book Award for fiction) and because with all the hurricanes and storms acting out currently, a novel set in the twelve days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, seemed timely.

It’s a novel about a family struggling to stay together under already challenging circumstances, about to become even more trying with a grade 5 hurricane heading their way. It is set (as is the new novel) in a fictional, rural coastal town named Bois Sauvage, Mississippi.  Interestingly, the French edition of the novel is called Bois Sauvage, meaning Wild Wood, the author playing with the world savage and salvage, connected to the theme of survival.

It’s narrated from the point of view of fifteen year old Esch, the only girl in the family, their mother died after the long and difficult birth of Junior when she was eight years old. The children have adapted to living without their mother, though Esch is vulnerable in this all male environment which attracts other males, despite the protection of her brothers. She is becoming a woman, without another to guide her, and men who don’t know how to. Her only female reference is within the romantic tragic classic she is reading, referred to often throughout the text, the tragic anti-heroine Medea. Esch too is blinded by love and fearful of its outcome.

“In Mythology, I am still reading about Medea and the quest for the Golden Fleece. Here is someone I recognize. When Medea falls in love with Jason, it grabs me by my throat. I can see her. Medea sneaks Jason things to help him: ointments to make him invincible, secrets in rocks. She has magic, could bend the natural to the unnatural. But even with all her power, Jason bends her like a young pine in a hard wind; he makes her double in two. I know her.”

The father is an alcoholic and although that seems dire, the children are familiar with his habits and behaviours and seem to manage to keep out of his way when they need to and to care for him when he is a danger to himself.

For most of the novel the father is unable to do anything, he is either absent, asleep or suffering from an accident that  further reduces his ability to manage his role as father. Despite this, he pays attention to the preparations for the hurricane and even if he can’t do things himself, he doesn’t give up giving instructions to his children, the one thing he won’t fail at is to keep them safe.

The other main narrative concerns the plight of one of the son’s Skeetah’s prize pit bull China, who has given birth to pups that are extremely valuable, though nothing is more valuable to him than her, he rarely leaves her side, except to get food or medicine for her or her pups. It is a struggle for him to care for them all and the approaching hurricane will test his loyalty.

In all, the strongest feeling I am left with in reflecting on this novel is the effect of the mother and of the attempt by nearly all in this situation to act like her. The children prepare food and Esch’s thoughts often linger to nurturing thoughts, a sense that magnifies as her body begins to respond to the life she carries within it.

Although the mother is never present, her memory is held strong by Esch and fiercely through Skeetah, in his protection of China and her pups, Junior clammers for attention and affection, never having known her. They hold strong to how she made them feel and recognise that after the devastation, they can salvage what’s left and continue.

Medea is both the maiden and the mother, tender and vulnerable to love, fierce in her protection, loyal to her siblings and devastating in her revenge, she is the storm. She is the anti-thesis to the mother Esch remembers, but important for her survival, a warning against falling too far, while recognising how destabilising the emotions can be. Ward isn’t trying to recreate a version of Medea’s story, she uses it as reference, one that causes Esch to contemplate what is happening around her, even if it doesn’t always modify her behaviour, the emotions are too strong. Ultimately Medea will guide her.

As Esch, Randall and Junior walk through the debris after the hurricane has passed Esch picks up a piece of coloured glass, marbled blue and white and another that is red and a pink brick stone, remnants in the aftermath. Their friend Big Henry reminds her that he too will be there for them and it is a poignant moment for Esch, who squeezes the remnants tight in her hand:

“I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”

Though it took me a while to read it, this is a book that stays with you, that continues to work on the reader long after the water has receded. It is a lament to the lone motherless adolescent and her siblings, to the courage of victims of natures destructive forces, to the ability of survivors to regroup, find solidarity, to continue, to the destabilising highs and lows of young love. And to universal themes and heroines of the classics, the stories we turn to, that ask and answer life’s questions, challenge us, inspire us. I’m looking forward to reading her next book.

Have you read any of Jesmyn Ward’s works?

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Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

Salt Creek is a powerful and riveting account of a family struggling to make a living in the harsh environment of coastal South Australia, depicting the pioneering patriarchal entrepreneur and his devoted but long-suffering wife, and the children that will grow up with both an attachment to the place and an instinct to escape it. This story gets inside you and makes you feel the struggle and the dilemma, and wish that it could have been different.

We meet Hester Finch, in Chichester, England in 1874 where she lives as a widow with her son Joss, in the house where her mother spent her childhood, remembered from the stories her mother used to tell, in a place so far from this new reality, of that life in Salt Creek, South Australia.

Hester takes us back to her childhood in the Coorong, narrating the family story throughout the period she lived with them at Salt Creek from 1855 to 1862. Her father was an entrepreneurial businessman, who could never settle to one thing, without always having his eye on the next great idea, the thing that was going to make him rich, a success. For a while the family had lived in Adelaide, while he ran a successful dairying business, but not content to stick with that he would borrow against the things that seemed solid to invest in the next thing. He’d bought land at Salt Creek, but the sheep he’d hoped to farm were lost at sea while being transported, causing the entire family to be uprooted as the family home required selling to pay the debts.

The family find themselves leaving their grandparents, friends and familiar town environment behind to live on an isolated peninsula in rural South Australia. They must rely on each for company, schooling and help their parents out to run the farm and household.

Hester’s mother becomes melancholy and withdrawn from the moment she views her future home, requiring Hester to have to step into a more encompassing role than just that of eldest daughter. To add to her woes, their mother whose youngest Mary is only three years old, discovers she is again with child, and the nearest neighbour not company she can bring herself to indulge.

Mrs Robinson was no comfort to her and never would be; she was the measure for Mama of how far she had fallen.

The family discover indigenous Ngarrindjeri people camping not far from their property, and become interested in a boy named Tully, who is able to speak a little English and seems keen to learn more. Slowly he slips into their lives, though without ever letting go of his ways, his disappearances, his unassuming manner, his sharing of old knowledge about which trees can and shouldn’t be cut, which ducks to avoid, much of it disregarded particularly by the two eldest sons and the father as superstitions to be ignored.

“Do you know what that boy told me today? That we shouldn’t have chopped that tree down and then showed me which ones we should use, can you believe it? Didn’t have all the words but did very well making his thoughts known. I told him we would use the wood that we saw fit since it was ours, not his, and did not trouble to conceal my feelings.”

Although the father believes himself to have an enlightened view, that all men are created equal and seen by the Divine as being equal, his beliefs are challenged when it comes to his own family, both in the example he sets for his son (in relation to indigenous women) and the restrictions he places on his daughters (including his desire to use matrimony as business negotiating device).

It is the younger siblings who grow into and live his more open minded view, and who will force to the surface his deep conditioning, which is unable to embrace those beliefs at all. Hester recalls the first day they set eyes on indigenous people and is filled with remorse:

When I think of what they became to us and how long I have been thinking of them I would like to return to that day and stop the dray and shout at our ghostly memories and the natives: ‘I am sorry. I am sorry for what is to come.’

While the older boys rebel by going off to try their luck in the goldfields, the younger sibling Fred stands his ground and resists his fathers efforts to use him as a form of payment, he spends a lot of time drawing plants in his notebook and is fascinated by the work of Charles Darwin.

“Watching Fred, I began to wonder if it was something other than interest and curiosity alone that drove his actions. He was so purposeful in what he did. Self doubt did not occur to him; he was able to look only at the thing, the task before him. I wished that I could do the same. My own self was mysterious t me. Oh, I knew what I did, but other than that I was invisible to myself…I did not know or see the difference that I made, the space I occupied in this world.”

Hester stays and stays, witness to all that occurs, as the challenges of Salt Creek and the rigid attitude of their father begin to wear everyone down. Hester is warned more than once, that she should not hesitate should there be an opportunity for her to escape. Mrs Robinson comments ‘Hard for girls like you’ to Hester and when questioned why, tells her:

I know, my dear, I know. It’s the expectations that hold you back. They’ll kill you in the end, if you’re not careful, suck the life right out of you. Run, I say. Run whenever you should have the chance, don’t spare a glance back or you’ll turn to salt or stone.”

The arrival of European settlers, their desire to own and restrict land, to create boundaries, while beneficial to their capitalist desires, becomes increasingly detrimental to the way of life of the indigenous people, as they pollute their fresh water access, introduce sickness and disease and contemplate removing their children.

Brilliantly conceived and heartbreaking to read, Salt Creek opens itself wide for discussion on the many issues related to the impact of colonial idealism, whether it’s how it affects women and children, how it impacts and impedes the native population, the imposition of solutions by one group on the other, the inherent disrespect and disregard for a different way of life.

I’m interested to read these accounts yet I am repelled by what transpires, knowing there is little possibility for an alternative ending, it is and always be a kind of clash of civilisations, which annihilates the ancient view, and will only accept its input when it has been turned it into a version of itself.

Lucy Treloar speaks of the considerable unease she felt and continues to feel two years on from its initial publication  in Australia, at telling the story, which was partly inspired by her ancestors attempt to set up a farm in the Coorong region. Compelled to share the experience and uncomfortable in the role they played. – Lucy Treloar on writing about indigenous Australians

The short video below gives voice to the Ngarrindjeri people and some hope that we might learn something from their more sustainable way of living in harmony with the natural elements around us.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by Aardvark Bureau, an imprint of Gallic Books. It is published in the UK in September 2017.

Eve out of her Ruins by Ananda Devi tr. Jeffrey Zuckerman #WITMonth

I was intrigued to read a book by a Mauritian author during Women in Translation month. Eve out of her Ruins hadn’t been on my initial list, but it was recommended to me and I decided to get a copy especially as I’ve been seeing many images of the island of Mauritius recently.

My Uncle is spending some months there at present, designing a noir thriller film called Serenity, starring Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey. A fishing boat captain’s past is about to crash up against his life on a tropical island.

Thank you Andrew McAlpine for the photos shared below, which so well depict the contrasts of Mauritius.

Ananda Devi writes from her roots. Deep within the Indian Ocean, Mauritius was colonised by Dutch, French and English explorers, traces of this colonial past remain evident both in the landscape and among the languages spoken by its multifarious population, descendants of settlers, slaves, indentured servants, and finally immigrants.

Though the blurb does mention the novel is enchanting and harrowing in equal measures, it is the story that is harrowing and the lyrical prose that is enchanting.

…she has trained her novelistic gaze on disenfranchised populations and the ways in which femininity is shaped and established. Her gorgeously hewn sentences rarely shy away from depicting violence or suffering; her novels, rather, embrace the entirety of human experience, from abject suffering to unalloyed joy. Jeffrey Zuckerman, Translator

The novel is narrated through four teenage voices, two young men Saad and Clélio, who like many young people on the island are bored and belong to a gang, not through any desire to cause harm, but almost to create some kind of a sense of community, their destructive tendencies more a result of a restless energy that has no other channel.

Saadiq, though everyone calls him Saad is in love with Eve and wants nothing more than to be able to protect her, and though she is used by everyone, there is something between these two, something that both draws them together and keeps them apart. He loves words, he expresses himself through the poetry of others, inscribing lines upon a wall, when he finds the phrase that resonates.

“Our cité is our kingdom. Our city in the city, our town in the town. Port Louis has changed shape; it has grown long teeth and buildings taller than its mountains. But our neighbourhood hasn’t changed. It’s the last bastion. Here, we let our identities happen: we are those who do not belong. We call ourselves bann Troumaron – the Troumaronis – as if we were yet another kind of people on this island filled with so many kinds already. Maybe we actually are.

Our lair, our playground, our battleground, our cemetery. Everything is here. We don’t need anything else. One day we’ll be invincible and the world will tremble. That’s our ambition.”

The two girls Eve and Savita are friends, the light in each others eyes and lives, something observed by the boys that generates jealousy and inspires something terrible.

There is  a second person narrative throughout, written in italics, employing the you voice, an omniscient presence that sees everything, enters the minds of characters, in particular Eve and all who encounter her, it understands everything and voices thoughts that can not be expressed.

Out of distress. Out of misery. Confirming angrily, belligerently, hopelessly, what they’re all thinking, over there, outside.

Being. Becoming. Not disappearing in your eyes. Escaping the straitjacket of passivity, of idleness, of failure, of ashen gazes, of leaden days, of sharpened hours, of shadowy lives,of faraway deaths, of gravelly failures, of lingering, of nakedness, of ugliness, of mockery, of laughter, of tears, of moments, of eternity, of shortness, of heaviness, of night, of day, of afternoons, of dawns, of faded Madonnas, of vanished temptresses.

None of that is you.

It is a tragic account, full of foreboding, it seems as if there is no escape, the one that did, a brother, promised to return, a hollow promise.

She forces open a door in darkness’s wall. This opening indeed reveals the beauty of the island, of this gift from the gods that is Mauritius, this gift that humans do not deserve but only a few innocents may ever see. J.M G. Le Clézio

Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba (Spain) tr. Lisa Dillman

Such Small Hands is an incredible and unique novella, quite unlike anything I have read, it’s written almost from another dimension. The author somehow enters into a childlike perspective and witnesses the aftermath of a car accident in which the child Marina’s parents don’t survive.

“My father died instantly, and then my mother died in the hospital.”

An omniscient narrator theorizes on her relationship to sounds and words, as she repeats certain phrases and sees visions of the accident recurring.

As if, of all the words that might describe the accident, those were the only ones that possessed the virtue of stating what could never be stated; or, as if they, of all words, were the only ones there, so close at hand, so easy to grasp, making what could never possibly be discerned somehow accessible.

Marina sees a psychologist after recovering from her own injuries and is placed in an orphanage.

The narrative alternates between Marina’s perspective and the collective “we” of all the other girls. Marina is already different, in that up until she entered the orphanage she lived in her own family with her parents, unlike many of the other children.

They love her, they are intrigued by her, but resent the attention she receives.

“This is the moment when Marina realises something: I’m different. And as always, the realisation itself outshines the symbolic event that lead to it, the realisation emerges from the sludge of reality performed, , round and irrefutable, , something that had always been there: I’m different.”

Marina introduces them to a game, which splits their daytime from their nighttime selves. Without another outlet for their emotions, they resort to certain behaviours, which begin like a game, but without an authority to draw the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable behaviours.

“The doll opened one eye, her right one, slowly, surprised. Her hands were still, resting on her knees, waiting for what she did not know. We didn’t know either. It was just the momentum of the circle, the knowledge that something was about to spring like a coil, the conviction that the circle would spin faster and faster and faster until it was so fast that it would vanish into the air, and we’d vanish with it, everything would vanish.”

Inspired by a disturbing event, this enters the realm of post trauma in an innocent and bizarre way, taking the reader back to a kind of twilight zone of an insecure childhood, where the nightmare becomes real and the line between reality and dreams is blurred.

Fascinating.

Andrés Barba is the author of twelve books and was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young Spanish Novelists.

He was a teacher at a university in Madrid and now gives writing workshops. His writing has been translated into ten languages.

Further Reading

Guardian Review – An unsettling tale set in an orphanage will trouble readers long after they have put the novella aside by Sarah Perry

Paris Review – All Writers Have a Corpse in Their Closet: An Interview with Andrés Barba by Jonathan Lee

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan tr. George Miller #WITMonth

Nothing Holds Back the Night is the book Delphine de Vigan avoided writing  until she could no longer resist its call. It is a book about her mother Lucile, who she introduces to us on the first page as she enters her apartment and discovers her sleeping, the long, cold, hard sleep of death. Her mother was 61-years-old.

De Vigan collects old documents, stored boxes, talks to members of her family, the many Aunts and Uncles and creates a snapshot of Lucile’s childhood, a large family of nine children living in Paris and then Versailles, holidaying at a ramshackle country house Pierremont, where they would all come together for summers throughout childhood and for many years to come.

Part One strings together the many anecdotes of memories of her mother’s past, and even in their telling, though the purpose is to reveal Lucile’s childhood, she is like a shadow, the one voice that is missing, whose presence is inferred but rarely at the forefront of the drama. She is a beautiful middle child, her beauty quickly capitalised on by her parents, who turn her into a pliable child model.

Her reticence and fear of being alone, is visible when their parents announce they are going to London for a weekend, leaving the children alone to take care of themselves:

Lucile greeted the news like the announcement of an imminent earthquake. A whole weekend! That seemed to her like an eternity, and the idea that a serious accident might happen when Liane and Georges were away made her breathless. For several minutes, Lucile stared into space, absorbed by the horrible visions she could not banish – shocks, falls, burns affecting each of her brothers and sisters in turn, and then she saw herself slip under a metro train. Suddenly she realised how vulnerable they were, how their lives ultimately might hang by a thread, turn on a careless step, one second more or one second less. Anything – especially something bad – could happen. The apartment, the street, the city contained an infinite number of dangers, of possible accidents, of irreparable dramas. Liane and Georges had no right to do this. She felt the tears run down her cheeks and took a step back to hide behind Lisbeth, who was listening attentively to her father.

Though Lucile isn’t given a voice (unless the author imagines it) in the section about her family and upbringing, the events depicted show her reactions and create a vision of the fragile woman she would become; lost, finding it difficult to cope alone, struggling to raise two daughters when she could barely take care of her own needs.

De Vigan goes through the family history, though only one generation, she isn’t as interested in inter-generational patterns, she searches the near past for clues:

The fact is that they run all the way through families like pitiless curses, leaving imprints which resist time and denial.

She asks what happened, what caused the turning point, the change in a family that appeared to be happy and thriving, that then was subject to trauma, cracks in its foundation, broken parts.

And so I asked her brothers and sisters to talk to me about her, to tell their stories I recorded them, along with others, who had known Lucile and our joyful but ravaged family.

She is particular about who she interviews, deciding early on not to speak to any of the men who temporarily came into her mother’s life, including her father. It’s as if she wishes to remove the possibility of judgement, by those who saw something of the effect on a life and not the life in its entirety.

This is her mother’s story and the daughter is fiercely protective, while being very open and honest about what she and her sister experienced. She is also an experienced investigative journalist and is practised in presenting her findings to meet a preconceived aim. She doesn’t wish to harm the family and yet she wants to present a truth, exorcise certain demons that keep her awake at night. Thus the first part reads a little like a novel as she immerses herself into the characters and lives she wishes to portray bringing them alive by imagining their thoughts and dialogue.

A daughter arrives part way through a mother’s life and so she goes back to fill in the gaps, to see her as a child, a sister, a daughter and for the rest, she narrates her story, as the daughter of this fragile woman, whose early life contributed to a deterioration in her mental health, who struggled to continue regardless, even though part of her yearned for an escape. Part Two therefore reads more like a memoir as she no longer has to step into the shoes of others and imagine a time when she wasn’t there, from now on she selectively recalls her own experience and that of her sister.

De Vigan shows her mother’s perseverance alongside her inability to cope, her periods of stability alongside events that trigger her periods of instability, her creativity alongside the terrible hallucinations and paranoia, no one knowing how long either of those states will endure and whether either one will persist.

I read this book in a day, it’s one of those narratives that once you start you want to continue reading, it’s described as autofiction, a kind of autobiography and fiction, though there is little doubt it is the story of the author’s mother, as she constructs thoughts and dialogue inspired by the information provided by family members, acknowledging that for many of the events, some often have a different memory which she even shares.

Manon and I had become adults, stronger for Lucile’s love, but fragile as a result of having learned too young that life could collapse without warning and that nothing around us was completely stable.

With the end of summer holidays approaching, I was in one of the local French bookshops buying a new French dictionary for my son, when I spotted this next book from Delphine de Vigan and in a moment of spontaneity, decided I would try reading it in French. Not straight away, but watch this space, for a review in English of a novel read in French.

Have you read any of Delphine de Vigan’s works?

Further Reading

Guardian Review – Ursula Le Guin is fascinated by a dark yet luminous memoir that straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction.

New York Times Review – A Mother in Absentia by Nancy Kline

 

Claudine Married (Book 3) by Colette tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

The impulsive Claudine, thinking a marriage of her own making and choice (not one chosen by her father or suggested by a man who had feelings for her that weren’t reciprocated) embarks on her marital journey which begins with fifteen months of a vagabond life, travelling to the annual opera Festival de Bayreuth, in Germany, to Switzerland and the south of France.

It might have been more enjoyable had she not had to endure the many introductions to numerous of her husband’s friends and their families, whom he made himself most agreeable to and put himself out for, something the young bride was unable to fully appreciate.

“As he explains, with impudent charm, it is not worthwhile doing violence to one’s nature to please one’s real friends, since one’s sure of them anyway…”

Claudine demands mercy and a fixed abode and thus this book of her marriage begins when they are reinstalled back in Paris, however Claudine still feels as though something is lacking. Before they returned she requested they visit Montigny and while unable to visit her childhood home (now rented), they visit the school and for a brief period she reconnects to something of her former self and notes one of the differences between herself and her husband in so doing.

“How willingly I look back over this recent past and dwell on it! But my husband lives in the future. This paradoxical man who is devoured by the terror of growing old, who studies himself minutely in looking-glasses and desperately notes every tiny wrinkle in the network at the corner of his eyes, is uneasy in the present and feverishly hurries Today on Tomorrow. I myself linger in the past, even if that past be only Yesterday, and I look back almost always with regret.”

This living in the past causes her even to forget that she now lives in this new apartment, coming out of her daydream, she readies herself to return home (to her father) only to realise she no longer lives there and ponders where her home really is.

“To go home! But where? Isn’t this my home, then? No, no, it isn’t, and that’s the whole source of my trouble. To go home? Where? Definitely not to Rue Jacob, where Papa has piled up mountains of papers on my bed. Not to Montigny, because neither the beloved house…not the School…”

Her husband decides to re-initiate his “at-home day”, a day when society friends can call to visit, Claudine isn’t too enthusiastic, but agrees as long as she doesn’t have to be the hostess. It is here she will meet Rézi, a woman she is both charmed by and fearful of, one whom she becomes attached to, visiting her daily, encouraged by her husband.

“Rézi… Her whole person gives off a scent of fern and iris, a respectable artless, rustic smell I find surprising and enchanting by contrast..”

Having achieved his objective in coming to Paris, to find his daughter a suitor, Claudine’s father announces he’s had enough of Paris and is returning to Montigny, and taking her cat Fanchette with him.

Claudine is drawn into the intoxicating intimacy of her friendship with Rézi, albeit somewhat bothered by the overly attentive encouragement of her husband.

“The violence of Rézi’s attraction, the vanity of my resistance, the sense that I am behaving ridiculously, all urge me to get it over and done with; to intoxicate myself with her till I have exhausted her charm. But, I resist! And I despise myself for my own stubborn obstinacy.”

Their relationship plays itself out, up to the denouement, when Claudine seeking refuge decides to return to Montigny, to the safety of her childhood home, the woods, her animals whose loyalty she is assured of, and the affection of the maid Mélie and her humble, absent-minded father.

She writes a letter to her husband, the last pages arrive and we are on to the next book, in English entitled Claudine and Annie, in French Claudine s’en va, meaning Claudine Leaves!

Further Reading:

An Introduction to Colette

Book 1 – Claudine at School

Book 2 – Claudine in Paris

Book 4 – Claudine and Annie (to come)…

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