My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Khushwant Singh is somewhat of an Indian literary legend. His books, columns and short stories have been in circulation for quite a few decades providing fodder to bibliophiles across a few generations now. This book was one of his earlier works and as such has been considered a classic and a must read for any Singh aficionado.
Not that I consider myself a fan, but this particular title has been on my radar for a while and I was keen on reading it to see what was it all about.
Before I picked up this book (more like clicked on the “Buy” button) I hadn’t read the synopsis. However the title and my recollection of history lessons did give me a vague picture of what to expect. Sure enough I was pretty close.
The story is set in the village of Mano Majra, close to the border of what is today India and Pakistan. The period spans the days after the partition. The village is home to Sikhs as well as Muslims. Although the two nations are dealing with the bloodiness of partition, the ill-effects of the conflict have not touched this small hamlet. But that all ends when one day a ghost train arrives at Mano Majra. What follows is the crux of the story that Singh has chosen to pen under this title.
Before we stumble across the pages that talk about the said train, we are introduced to the characters that will play crucial parts in the events that follow. I won’t get into the details of who they are, but I felt that Singh wasn’t just introducing individuals, but in fact introducing the various classes of people that were present at that point in India’s history and how each of these classes impacted the other during this tumultuous period. It almost felt akin to The Great Gatsby in that sense.
At 190 pages, it is an extremely quick read. And that’s another reason I feel that the characters are much more than individuals. Singh manages to pack in a lot of philosophy and debate using only these few people and so little writing space. That is quite commendable.
The language is used is simple yet elegant at junctures. Singh obviously comes off as a learned man with a great command over the nuances of English and does not succumb to colloquialism in narration. My biggest (and perhaps the only) peeve with the book is the literal translation of certain Hindi terms and phrases into English. Although this helps it stay true to the original intent of the characters and their feelings, it sort of feels a tad pseudo for someone who is fluent in both languages.
To me this book felt like a window into the past providing an insight into the thoughts and motivations of the people of India during the partition. The ending may seem a tad lackluster but therein lies the brilliance of this classic. The ending isn’t the focus of the book. It just serves as a medium to tell the story of a set of people and how they functioned and thought during one of India’s most turbulent events.