Title: Train to Pakistan
Author: Khushwant Singh
# Pages: 182
Publisher: Grove Press (Reprint)
I read this short novella (only about 180 pages) over this past weekend. It's about India right after partition, and takes place in a small Punjabi village where the population is divided: half Sikh, half Muslim (and one Hindu family, which serves as the catalyst for the novel's action). The village lies on a railroad line. One day, a train comes to the village, filled with dead bodies from the Partition riots. And the villagers must help bury the dead. After that, the village must come to terms with its divided population and determine what to do with the violence of Partition upon them.
I read this as one of the books in my "I'm now obsessed with Indian culture and want to learn more about my history" phase. Though it may be misleading to call it a phase- I think it will last for some time. And such a moving story. The writing is very different than what I'm used to. I can't really explain HOW it is different- there was short dialogue between long portions of description. There were a LOT of words used that I don't think a non-Indian person would recognize (it took me a very long time to figure out that "clarified butter" is actually ghee). But I don't think the book is available with footnotes or a glossary to help readers understand what is being said. So in that way, I think the audience is a bit limited.
If you have any interest in Indian history, especially about Partition and the religious tension that exists, this book is a very good one to read. Partition seems to be a time in Indian history that authors write SO well about. There are many painful stories written about that time (such as Toba Tek Singh, which should be required reading). The ones I've read have all been amazing. And Train to Pakistan is no exception. It is the story of so many different people- mostly men. And it flits from one person's perspective to another's with seemingly no regard for readers or a reader's ability to get to know the characters. But in this short amount of space, Singh manages to give all of his main characters a surprising amount of depth. There is the Communist who has come to the village to help the villagers help themselves- but he would rather be in Delhi as a hero. Though he's done nothing heroic. There is the good-natured Sikh thief who is sleeping with the Muslim village leader's daughter. There is the subinspector of the police, and his boss. The Sikh guru. So many people! And you become invested in everyone's story.
And the ending is magnificent. Thoroughly magnificent. Read it and weep- literally.