Advisory note: it would be both impossible and pointless for me to review this book without discussing the way it talks about sexual assault.

Train to Pakistan, by Kushwant Singh, is a novel first published in 1956. It’s set during the Partition of India, and depicts the horrors of the religious violence that erupted at that time. The action is set in the tiny village of Mano Majra on the new border, where Sikhs, Muslims, a single Hindu family, and a few Christians have always lived in relative harmony. This peace is shattered when a prominent village man is murdered, and attempts to pin the blame on someone begin to intersect with the violence that is happening everywhere else. Local gangster Juggut Singh is arrested for the crime, as he tends to be arrested for things that go wrong in the village, only for once he didn’t do it. His arrest acts as a focal point, a way for Singh to explore the mechanisms whereby religious hatred was suddenly stirred up among people who had previously lived in peace. I am going to say one or two very critical things about this book, so I should start off with this: notwithstanding all that, it is brilliantly written, and if you think you can stomach all its worst parts, it is well worth reading.

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Singh was an atheist from a Sikh family, born in an area of India that is now Pakistan. He studied law and qualified as a barrister at King’s College London, before returning to India where he worked as a lawyer, a writer, and, eventually, an MP. His family personally did pretty well under the Empire – his father was knighted in 1944 – and I think all of this context is probably important in understanding the novel he wrote about the time of Partition. He had already returned when it occurred, so he’s writing about something he experienced (though, I assume, from the relative shelter of wealth and class). In recent years there has been more of a focus on learning about the atrocities that occurred during this period. However, I think I’ve heard very few contemporary Indian accounts of the time, and even though this is obviously fictional, it’s also clearly informed by Singh’s experiences (and nine years of reflection).

Although this is a novel driven by character and plot, rather than by its themes, there is a lot of background discussion about what is happening in India. There’s a stark contrast to the way we tend to talk about Partition now, as mostly the fault of selfish British officials getting the heck out of Dodge and not worrying overmuch about what they left behind them. They drew the lines and didn’t care about the consequences. This is, of course, partly true, but it’s a very minor part of the situation as it is depicted in this novel. Instead, Singh depicts the religiously motivated violence as intentionally fomented by wealthy, educated Indians – like his own family – to the disadvantage of poor and illiterate ones. Sure, the British were dishonorable and dishonest, he seems to say – but so are most of the characters in this novel, especially the ones who exploit the opportunity to grab power at any cost. The novel is replete with people in existing positions of power trying to stir up just the right amount of religious hatred to shoot them into a position of slightly more power, and more, and more. When things start to snowball out of their control, they have the gall to throw their hands up in the air and feel hard done by.

Most of this discussion happens through Iqbal, one of the central characters. Iqbal is the only named character who is not local to the area, instead arriving on the train at the start of the novel. He describes himself as a social worker – he is presumed to be a communist agitator, because he is educated and won’t state his religion – and through Iqbal we get the perspective of a idealistic upper-class revolutionary. Even though he is opposed to some of the violence that is occurring, he thinks the time is right for the proletariat to rise up and turn the bourgeoisie coup into a people’s revolution. In contrast to the various officials who want to divide and conquer, Iqbal wants to encourage the Mano Majra villagers to unit and seize power – he can’t understand why they don’t understand the benefits of independence. Yet he is part of the problem he is trying to solve. He has several exchanges with the villagers in an attempt to turn them to his point of view, but is singularly unsuccessful. Essentially, he is hamstrung by his own obvious advantages.

“Babuji, what you say may be right,” said the lambardar hesitantly. “But I was in the last war and fought at Mesopotamia and Gallipoli. We liked English officers. They were better than the Indian.”

“Yes,” added Meet Singh, “my brother who is a havildar says all sepoys are happier with English officers than with Indian. My brother’s colonel’s memsahib still sends my niece things from London. You know, Lambardar Sahib, she even sent money at her wedding. What Indian officers’ wives will do that?”

Iqbal tried to take the offensive. “Why, don’t you people want to be free? Do you want to remain slaves all your lives?”

After a long silence the lambardar 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 lands, or more buffaloes?”

Iqbal’s idealism slams into the wall of India’s poverty and caste system when he arrives in Mano Majra. He wants to help the villagers – vaguely, nonspecifically – but he can’t bear to eat the food they prepare him because their hands are so dirty. He makes very little effort to understand their values, wanting instead to simply replace them with his own – this is an interesting quality in someone who hates colonists so devoutly. Iqbal’s hypocrisy is done brilliantly. The similarities between his paternalism and that of the British Raj are hinted at, but never directly stated. Juggut Singh asks Iqbal to teach him a few phrases of English, which he judges will help him to get ahead in life. When Iqbal says that Juggut should focus on learning to read Urdu, rather than speak the language of departed oppressors, he cannot get him to understand why. The independence of India means little to the people he had hoped it would benefit most. Singh worked for the Indian government almost from the moment of independence – in politics, diplomacy, foreign service – and I wonder how much of himself he put in Iqbal.

Another running theme in Train to Pakistan is that of dubious or absent sexual consent, including right at the start. I am not sure that Singh actually intended this as a theme. More probably he was just observing the world around him and not thinking about this particular bit very critically. When I say dubious, I am not being euphemistic. The novel opens with an encounter between the adult Juggut, whom we are definitely meant to read as a lovable rogue, and his teenage girlfriend. I was not sure if the emphasis on him forcibly undressing her while she said no, tried to run away before being pinned to the ground, and was unable to wriggle free was genuine coercion, or a necessary pantomime for the two of them to go through so she could maintain the idea of being a “good girl”. If they are both just pretending, though, the necessity of that pretence still makes for uncomfortable reading. The first time I tried this book, I set it aside after this scene because it was early in the pandemic and I just wasn’t up for reading something so grim. Almost all the men issue rape threats casually and frequently. Most of this isn’t a result of Partition, but merely depicted as a natural background detail. The only character who’s revolted by it is foreign-educated Iqbal, and even then, he’s more bothered by the villagers’ preoccupation with sex distracting them from the revolution. He’s not fussed about the violence and coercion. Also, this, er, very moving scene, when the Sikh villagers are discussing with the Muslim villagers what is to become of them:

One of the younger men spoke.

“It is like this, Uncle Imam Baksh. As long as we are here nobody will dare to touch you. We die first and then you can look after yourselves.”

“Yes,” added another warmly, “we first, then you. If anyone raises his eyebrows at you we will rape his mother.”

“Mother, sister and daughter,” added the others.

Imam Baksh wiped a tear from his eyes and blew his nose in the hem of his shirt.

It’s all like that. Women, in this novel, exist for two reasons: to be raped/threatened with rape, or to kill themselves to avoid being raped. Want to insult a man? Threaten to rape his mother. Bantering with a friend? Offer to rape his sister. The only official making an effort to protect the Muslim villagers also makes an effort to get just drunk enough to sleep with a child prostitute, but not so drunk that he falls asleep beforehand. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with such casual and constant references to sexual violence, or with so little revulsion at the idea of it. Hemingway looks like a radical feminist by comparison. I don’t really know what else to say about it, but I didn’t feel like I could review the book without pointing out how much of it there is and how difficult it is to read.

And yet, at the start of this review, I said that if you could stomach all that, you should consider reading this. Why? It’s because it really is so beautifully and brilliantly written. It takes a long time for the violence that is unfolding around Mano Majra to enter the village boundaries, but there are enough hints at it to build a very real sense of dread. The whole novel, you have a sense that something awful is coming – but no idea really what it is, or how it will look. I have to imagine that this is how people feel when they are reading well-crafted horror. When eventually shocking things do start happening, they are written incredibly well – almost impossible to read, but also impossible to look away from. Towards the start, there is a lot of sly humour. Juggut Singh is a jovial man and happy to joke away with anyone who happens to be nearby. I found myself laughing a few times. As the novel progresses, that slowly drains away – I didn’t notice to start with, but the tone of the novel becomes bleaker and tenser gradually. There is a sense that night is coming. And in the final couple of chapters – the final couple of pages – this novel turned itself around for me, going from a novel that I regretted reading to one I am very glad to have picked up. For a slim novel – 192 pages – it packs an extraordinary punch. The next book in my reading life, though, is going to be something happy – and I won’t be reading this again.