A poignant exploration of communal harmony, political chaos and individual moral dilemmas in the backdrop of India’s painful partition through the lens of Khushwant Singh’s evocative narrative
While preparing a research paper, my mind was propelled to make a critical commentary on the fictional village – MANO MAJRA – a symbol of unity between the people of different communities before the partition of India and Pakistan. The idea that strikes my mind while going through the plot of the novel is how things turned topsy-turvy all of a sudden as if an ill omen had fallen on the village and its people. My focus went not on the conflict but on the mismanagement on the part of the lawless authorities, which symbolizes the chaos and confusion on the dawn of freedom in both countries and the sufferings of common people on account of the prevailing circumstances and no fault of their own.
Khushwant Singh concentrates more on communal harmony/disharmony and less on the political uncertainty that prevailed at that crucial juncture. The most striking feature of the novel is the impact of the partition on people of both sides: the bloodshed, loot and plunder, mass rape of women on both sides, and loss of life and property on a large scale. More specifically, the dislocation of common masses and the aftermath thereof.
Before a judicial review of the novel, let’s have a look at what happened in MANO MAJRA on the occasion of partition. The day is symmetrical to the author’s birthday, as the author has reconciled it with August 15, 1915. Mano Majra, the fictional village on the border of Pakistan and India in which the story takes place, is predominantly Muslim and Sikh. Singh shows how they lived in a bubble, surrounded by mobs of Muslims who hate Sikhs and mobs of Sikhs who hate Muslims, while in the village, they had always lived together peacefully. Villagers were in the dark about happenings of larger scope than the village outskirts, gaining much of their information through rumour and word of mouth. This made them especially susceptible to outside views.
Upon learning that the government was planning to transport Muslims from Mano Majra to Pakistan the next day for their safety, one Muslim said, “What have we to do with Pakistan? We were born here. So were our ancestors. We have lived amongst [Sikhs] as brothers” (126). Juggut Singh, a local Sikh tough, has a Muslim lover Nooran, who leaves for the refugee camp. After the Muslims leave for a refugee camp from where they will eventually go to Pakistan, a group of religious agitators comes to Mano Majra and instills in the local Sikhs a hatred for Muslims and convinces a local gang to attempt mass murder as the Muslims leave on their train to Pakistan. Juggut, knowing Nooran is in one of the rail cars, acts on instinct and sacrifices his life to save the train.
In a relatively short book, the reader gets to know a lot of characters in detail. Examination of the varied groups of people not only increases cultural and social understanding of that time and place but also shows that the blame could not be placed on any one group; all were responsible. “Muslims said the Hindus had planned and started the killing. According to the Hindus, the Muslims were to blame. The fact is, both sides were killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped.”
If groups of people are examined on a closer level than their religious attachments, a more detailed social structure emerges. Government officials were corrupt, manipulative of villagers, and could arrest anyone they chose for any reason, more often than not for their own benefit. They did just enough in terms of dealing with the dispute so that nobody could say that they did not do anything. Law enforcement was completely at the whim of the local government, meaning that in practice, there was no law. Also, small amounts of educated people trickled in and out of villages, trying to instill in people democratic, communist, or other Western ideologies, though the common people were turned off and confused by their orthodoxy. When one such educated man was speaking to a villager about freedom, the villager explained, “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.”
Moral Message and Character Development
The story is an extract from the novel published in 1956. It talks about how partition affected a small village where people from all religions and sects once lived in harmony. More than giving the details of partition, Singh has recounted the impact it had on people. In addition to providing an understanding of human actions and pointing out that everyone was responsible, Singh makes a background moral commentary that bubbles up through the main characters in their thoughts and actions. Hukum Chand is the District Magistrate and one of the main characters in the story. It becomes apparent that he is a man in moral conflict who has likely used his power over the years with much corruption. He is often described with a dirty physical appearance as if he is overwhelmed with unclean actions and sins, and is just as often trying to wash himself of them, similar to Pontius Pilate after Christ was condemned. Hukum Chand’s ethical issues are shown in one of the repeated encounters he has with two geckos, which likely represent Muslims and Hindus in conflict, on the verge of fighting each other. When they start fighting, they fall right next to him, and he panics. The guilt he feels from not helping when he has more than enough power to do so literally jumps onto him.
“Hukum Chand felt as if he had touched the lizards, and they had made his hands dirty. He rubbed his hands on the hem of his shirt. It was not the sort of dirt that could be wiped off or washed clean.”
Alcoholism is another tool Hukum Chand uses in an attempt to cleanse his conscience. He feels the guilt of his actions by day and is relieved of them by night when his alcohol is able to justify trysts with a teenage prostitute the same age as his deceased daughter. In all his conflicts, he is able to acknowledge that what he is doing is bad but is still unable to promote good.
The two other main characters that are given a lot of attention are Iqbal Singh and Juggut Singh, and they are likely meant to be contrasted. Iqbal is described as a slightly effeminate, well-educated, and atheist social worker from Britain who thinks politically (and cynically). Juggut is a towering, muscular, and uneducated villager who places action over thought and is known for frequent arrests and gang problems. As if to warm them up for comparison, they were both arrested for the same murder they did not commit and were placed in adjacent cells. Upon their release, they learned that a gang was planning to attack the train taking Mano Majra’s Muslim population to Pakistan and kill the passengers; Juggut’s Muslim lover Nooran is also supposed to be on that train. They each had the potential to save the train, though it was recognized that this may cost their lives. Juggut, nevertheless, acts on instinct and sacrifices his life to save the train.
Iqbal spends pages wondering to himself whether he should do something, exposing a moral paradox on the way:
“It is important to note that Iqbal or the learned people are less of action, while the people of Juggat’s breed are less about talking. ‘The bullet is neutral. It hits the good and the bad, the important and the insignificant, without distinction. If there were people to see the act of self-immolation…the sacrifice might be worth while: a moral lesson might be conveyed…the point of sacrifice…is the purpose. For the purpose, it is not enough that a thing is intrinsically good: it must be known to be good. It is not enough to know within one’s self that one is in the right.’”
The questions of right versus wrong which Singh poses throughout the book are numerous, including those of what one should do when one has the opportunity to prevent something bad, when an act of goodwill is truly worthwhile, and how much importance is the consciousness of the bad. Train to Pakistan, with its multiple gruesome and explicit accounts of death, torture, and rape for the public to read, makes the case that people do need to know about the bad.
Khushwant Singh does not describe the politics of the Partition in much detail. This is mostly because his purpose is to bring out the individual, human element and provide a social understanding, two aspects of historical events which tend to be either ignored or not covered effectively in texts. In the Partition, the major change was political; the partition of India into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. The effect of the change, however, was significant, and as Singh has shown, frighteningly, social, as religious groups rearranged and clashed violently. Singh makes it clear that many people played a part in this chaos and everyone was equally worthy of blame, all while integrating examples of the sheer moral confusion that arises from trying to make sense of an event as momentous as the Partition.
Iqbal is a political agitator who encourages peasants to demand more political and economic rights. He identifies himself as a “comrade,” suggesting that he is part of the Communist organization. Iqbal is a Sikh, given his last name and the band he wears, but does not practice the religion anymore. He is portrayed throughout the novel as Muslim. Iqbal has an affinity for English costumes and practices, “his countryman’s code of morals had always puzzled him, with his anglicized way of looking at things. The Punjabi’s code was even more baffling. For them, truth, honor, financial integrity were ‘all right.'”
Jugga is described as a budmash, a bad man, by others but ultimately becomes a hero. One of the central protagonists and in many ways a foil to Iqbal, Jugga seeks to redeem himself over the course of the novel. He’s framed for the dacoity, used as a scapegoat for the police, and abused by many in Mano Majra. But Jugga is also an honest man, and he tends to change his ways once he falls in love with Nooran. His crude language and wordplay often contradicts his inner morality: “I was out of the village . . . but was not murdering anyone. I was being murdered” (106). (I.e., “being murdered” here refers to his sexual relationship with Nooran.) He is large in frame (6 foot, 4 inches tall) and is prone to violent tendencies.
Hukum Chand is the deputy commissioner in Mano Majra and has authority over the sub-inspector and the head constable. His daughter, along with other members of his family, have died, but it’s not clear how. Her death deeply affects him and fuels his detached, utilitarian style of policing; he centers on saving as many lives as possible, at any cost. This includes restricting the freedom of the people to keep them safe (i.e., imprisoning Jugga and Iqbal despite knowing that they are innocent). He is described as depressed, and he is deeply marked by the violence of the Partition. For example, when Chand is reflecting on the train massacre, he focuses on his memories of the bodies: they haunt him despite his efforts to remove them from his mind. Furthermore, he is obsessed with death, viewing it as “the only absolute truth”; he is afraid that when someone dies, their existence no longer matters. When he recalls the train, he can only imagine the utter terror felt by the passengers, which manifests in a belief that life must be made as pleasurable as possible through hedonistic behaviors.
In conclusion, it is only the hatred and prejudice reinforced by the self-interested people, especially politically corrupt individuals hell-bent on fulfilling their interests at the cost of the lives of thousands/lakhs of people. Had such hatred and prejudice not been deliberately created, there would not have been any bloodbath. The fictional town Mano Majra serves as a metaphor for the whole subcontinent where more than fifty lakh people lost their lives for no fault of their own. It is clear that somewhere the leaders from both sides missed the mark and could not enjoy the freedom that they had fought collectively for. And to some extent, the colonial masters were responsible for it. Had they not passed the Independence act in such a way that could divide a country on religious grounds, the scene would have been completely different from what it appears to us today. Since then, there has been a hostile relationship between both the countries that otherwise ought to have been facilitators to each other after long servitude to the common colonial master from Britain.
On the 75th Republic day, for both the countries, our message is that the past is lost and it can’t be recaptured. Let the bygones be bygones or let the sleeping dogs lie would be a modest proposal on my part to the leadership of both the countries. We as neighbors can live a happier life than we have been living as enemies. Who was responsible for that mishap is still a mystery, and it is no use giving it any more importance than giving priority to the people who are alive at present and why they should suffer on account of the fault they didn’t commit. If we consume our energy and time on irrelevant issues like who anticipated the clash/conflict, who started it, it will take us 75 more years, and we shall be on the verge of killing each other again.
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