The village to which my parents and grandparents belong nestles in a seemingly insignificant part of the world. Khanpur is home to a few thousand people who eat and sell what Punjab’s fertile land yields. It is just a few hours’ drive from Pakistan but bears no trace of a shared past. Occasionally on summer days military jets zoom across the sky and children run outside their homes in the hope of seeing more.
Like many Indian immigrants growing up in Britain in the 1980s, I visited the birthplace of my parents frequently and stayed there for long periods. Though Punjab was the epicenter of the sectarian conflict, rarely did I hear stories about the 1947 Partition, when the Subcontinent was cleaved into two nation states: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. My grandmother mentioned only a few times how the family house, the first brick dwelling built there in early 1900s, had been a refuge for our Sikh relatives who fled Pakistan.
Behind that house was a mound, an elevated dirt patch that belonged to our family where the boys and girls would go to play. That was where Taj lived, the village bachelor known for the quality of dung cakes he made, which were used in ovens throughout the village. It was a job my grandmother had given him. It didn’t carry much status—it wasn’t akin to working on the farm or taking care of buffalos. But what little he earned provided him with a roof over his head.
Over time, as an adult my visits became less frequent, and on each trip I would notice the ways village life changed. Brick rooms slowly replaced mud huts, financed by the steady trickle of remittances sent from families like mine living abroad. In addition to dung cakes, Taj carried gas cylinders for fire stoves. Though the village economy changed, there were few improvements in Taj’s life. He continued to live alone, in a mud hut, on that elevated dirt patch. I would see him out and about near the mound with a deeper bend in his lanky frame.
Once I graduated and embarked on a career in London, my new responsibilities didn’t allow for long visits to Khanpur. It was then that I turned to Khushwant Singh’s celebrated novel Train to Pakistan, first published in 1956. It tells the story of Mano Majra, a fictional village lost in the remote reaches of the frontier, where Muslims and Sikhs live peacefully. By the monsoon of 1947, more than a million people across states such as Punjab and Bengal have been slaughtered and millions more are on the move. Northern India is afire, but so far Mano Majra has remained peaceful.
The village Singh describes bears an eerie resemblance to the one I know. Mano Majra has three brick buildings, one of which belongs to the moneylender Lala Ram Lal. The other two are the Sikh temple and the mosque. A railway station distinguishes the place from surrounding villages. Life ticks to the rhythms of morning and evening Delhi-to-Lahore trains. It is when the cattle are rounded and the meals are cooked.
The plot revolves around three characters: Juggut Singh, Iqbal, and Hukum Chand—archetypes representing force, intellect, and power. Juggut, is a towering figure with a hard exterior known for petty crimes. But he is capable of redemption and we see this in the way he loves Nooran Baksh, a Muslim weaver’s daughter. Their relationship, a secret and forbidden for it crosses religious boundaries, is the only thing that anchors Juggut. Iqbal, is an urbanite and a socialist who is visiting the village to mobilize grassroots support for the socialist party of India. In the early parts of the book, the reader doesn’t know Iqbal’s surname, creating ambivalence as to whether he is a Hindu, Muslim or Sikh. Hukum Chand, the village magistrate, is a debauched figure with an insatiable appetite for young women and alcohol. His position lends him considerable authority but he is gravely unprepared for a new tumultuous era.
Love across religious lines is the cardinal sin and also what might in the end save the village. Every night Juggut and Nooran rendezvous by the green fields. One such night Iqbal disembarks at Mano Majra train station. “It is after seeing the world that one feels how backward we are and one wants to do things about it. So I do social work,” he tells the priest shortly after arriving. During long strolls in the village he laments the state of his country. Abandoned animals foreshadow human deprivation: “A mangy bitch lay on her side with a litter of eight skinny pups yapping and tugging at her sagging udders.”
Night and day as metaphors have a special place in Singh’s plot. Bad things happen only at dark. The day is when life returns to normal. One late evening, armed robbers come to the village and murder the moneylender. The murder is pinned on Juggut and he is arrested. Iqbal is amongst the first in the village to ask if the murder of a Hindu moneylender is a religious hate crime. Iqbal, too, is arrested for spreading his socialist ideology. In prison, Juggut and Iqbal form a relationship. “I hear we have our own rule now,” Juggut asks Iqbal. “Yes, the Englishmen have gone but the rich Indians have taken their place,” Iqbal says.
It isn’t long before communal violence strikes Mano Majra. One morning a ghost train arrives from Pakistan loaded with the dead bodies of Sikhs and Hindus. The mythical sanctity of dawn itself is violated: “When they woke up in the morning and saw it was raining, their first thoughts were about the train and the burning corpses. The whole village was on the roofs looking towards the station.”
What happens next is in large part shaped by the reactions of the three main characters. Hukum is confused and paralyzed when he is informed of a plot by villagers to derail a train and by killing passengers, turning it into a cargo of Muslim corpses. Singh shows how the political and intellectual classes prove impotent when base human instincts are unleashed. Even Mahatma Gandhi couldn’t appeal to the nation’s senses, and Hukum after all is a less perfect man. Hukum asks the sub-inspector what happened to the two men who were arrested for the murder of the moneylender. He releases Juggut and Iqbal, one in search for his love and the other in the quest of a more perfect country. How, the book asks, will the characters ally themselves? That question determines the fate of the village.
Soon after reading the novel for the first time, I remember asking my father about Partition. Taj, he told me, was a Muslim. His mother was amongst the few who had refused to resettle across the border.
The next time I returned to the village, I visited Taj’s home. Even he now lived in a brick room with a tin roof. He was old, and his hands had lost their agility. I asked him if he had relatives in Pakistan. Proudly, he showed me letters he still received, inviting him to visit. He was a child when his mother had refused to join the foot caravans heading west. Time passed and they never left. But he was too old to travel now. He never married because there were no Muslim girls left in neighboring villages. But he did have a request for me, he said, and the next time we would meet, he will ask me.
For some years I did not go back at all, and one day I got the news that Taj was dead. Someone paid the seasonal migrant workers from Bihar to take Taj’s body to the crematorium located at the edge of the village. It was unclear if anyone returned the next day to collect his ashes. It dawned on me that his last rites were probably what Taj wanted to discuss. No doubt he had wanted to be buried, as is the custom in Muslim tradition, rather than being cremated as Sikhs and Hindus are. If we had met again, he might have requested a patch of land in which he could be laid to rest.
If Taj had set up home in Pakistan, he would be known as a Muhajir— a term derived from the Qur’an after the Prophet leaves Mecca for Medina to seek a new society, and commonly used in Pakistan to describe Muslims who hail from India. But there is no term to describe Muslims who stayed behind. Taj had not joined the foot caravans. For that he toiled not only in this life but also lost dignity in the next.
Singh, a native of Delhi, could have set his story in a town or city. Yet his artistic choice would prove prescient. Partition has come to be understood at the national level but Singh reminds us how the seemingly insignificant places turned into sites of monumental horror.
Towards the end of the novel, the magistrate asks if there are any Muslims left in Mano Majra. “Astray Muslims,” as he calls them, suggesting that something neat and surgical had happened, as though the British cartographers had drawn clear lines. But the incisions were bloody and, seventy years after, the injuries persist. For most people, the novel introduces a foreign land. For me, it familiarized a land and people I thought I knew. Where the story of Partition ends in Mano Majra, it begins in countless small places like Khanpur.
Navtej Singh Dhillon is a former Senior Advisor at the U.S. Treasury. He’s the author and co-editor of Generating in Waiting (Brookings Press 2013). His nonfiction work has appeared in WSJ, Newsweek and The Guardian. He is currently working on his first fiction–a collection of stories based in Punjab India.