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30 January, 2015

The man from whom I learnt the word "malice"

It was from the editorial columns of the Hindustan Times that I learnt the word, "malice". It was the "Dirty Old Man of India" to be specific, who made me familiar with this word, as I read his weekly column, "With Malice Towards One & All." My sense of humour was largely shaped by his column - irreverent, dirty, deadpan and yes, malicious :)

So when Khushwant Singh, passed away last year on 20 March (celebrated as the International Day of Happiness, ironic, eh?), I realised that I had never read his most celebrated book, Train to Pakistan. It wasn't however until this year, that I finally picked it up, as part of my New Year resolution to resume devouring books at a breakneck speed (was temporarily halted in 2014 by Yohann, who made me a mother on 3 June 2014 :P)
My baby & my book :)

Published in 1956, the book is largely historical, drawing from the events related to the partition of India after independence. His book would haunt Indians and Pakistanis who would have witnessed and/ or been victims of the horrors of the holocaust, as his fictional story comes quite close to the facts. The partition was no longer just a chapter from my history textbook by the time I finished reading this heart-rending account of a village where Muslims and Sikhs had lived in harmony, as brothers for years, until 1947 - Mano Majra. It is quite probable that Khushwant Singh, who himself fled from Lahore when India & Pakistan were born, drew from a lot of his own experiences.

“In the summer of 1947, when the creation of the state of Pakistan was formally announced, ten million people—Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs—were in flight. By the time the monsoon broke, almost a million of them were dead, and all of northern India was in arms, in terror, or in hiding. The only remaining oases of peace were a scatter of little villages lost in the remote reaches of the frontier. One of these villages was Mano Majra.”

Mano Majra lived in a bubble, away from the communal politics. Khushwant elaborates, “The mullah at the mosque knows that it is time for the morning prayer. He has a quick wash, stands facing west towards Mecca and with his fingers in his ears cries in long sonorous notes,Allah-o-Akbar....The priest at the Sikh temple lies in bed till the mullah has called. Then he too gets up, draws a bucket of water from the well in the temple courtyard, pours it over himself, and intones his prayer in monotonous singsong to the sound of splashing water."

Mano Majra lived in a bubble, away from the struggle from freedom. According to a villager, “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.”

I started reading Train to Pakistan expecting a political perspective of those days. But Singh expertly brings out the human element, the social standpoint of the partition. Every character in the story, has been fleshed out in detail, yet each one of them is a stereotype of the various forces that were in play and that led to the creation of two nations. I was left unsettled and pensive by the time the story ended.





Other lines from the book that have stayed with me:

“Morality is a matter of money. Poor people cannot afford to have morals. So they have religion.”

“The last to learn of gossip are the parties concerned” 

“His mind was like the delicate spring of a watch, which quivers for several hours after it has been touched.”

This Khushwant Singh is way better than the one who wrote, "The Company of Women" - a highly forgettable book, according to me.