Published in 1956, Train to Pakistan is Khushwant Singh’s third and most famous work. The novel draws upon Singh’s own experiences during and after the Partition of India in 1947, and details the chaos and violence in the forming of Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. The partition resulted in the displacement of approximately 14 million people, and saw violent acts perpetrated by Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims alike.
Rather than take a macro lens perspective of the conflict, Singh analyzes it with a micro lens, from the view of a small village that is eventually torn apart by the partition. The novel is set in Mano Majra, a fictional village located in India but on the border of Pakistan, where the population is mostly Sikh and Muslim. At the beginning of the novel most of the village’s inhabitants are unaware of the religious and nationalistic violence happening in India and Pakistan, and live in peace across religious lines. This quickly changes when a train from Pakistan full of murdered Sikhs arrives in Mano Majra.
In addition to providing a deeply human and poignant portrayal of a key moment in the histories of modern-day India and Pakistan, Train to Pakistan is a critical piece of the literary canon. The novel was written in the aftermath of World War II when countries such as England, Germany, and France were losing power gained via imperialism and colonialism. During this period, postcolonial literature that used the language of the colonizer to critique and denounce colonization was prevalent.
Works roughly contemporaneous with Train to Pakistan include Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Black Skin, White Masks by Franz Fanon, and Waiting for the Mahatma by R.K. Narayan. Train to Pakistan’s historical fiction content and deeply personal approach make it similar to other works of postcolonial literature. However, Singh’s satirical humor in the face of violence and tragedy helps to set his work apart from other novels in the postcolonial canon.
The book was adapted into a movie of the same name and premiered in 1998 to some critical acclaim. In addition to its India release, it was also released in the United States, Sri Lanka, and the UK, and was shown in several international film festivals.
Though Train to Pakistan has not received any awards, Khushwant Singh is the recipient of many awards and accolades, some for his service to India and some for his writing. The literary honors include the Punjab Rattan Award and the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship. Today, Train to Pakistan remains a crucial exploration into the destructive power of religion, corruption, and nationalism.