Train to Pakistan begins in the summer of 1947, right in the middle of the conflict surrounding the separation of India into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Both sides of the conflict have committed atrocities, and there is no end in sight. One of the few remaining oases of peace is Mano Majra, a small village on the border of India and Pakistan. This is the novel’s setting.
A tiny village, Mano Majra is composed of mostly Sikh and Muslim families, with only one Hindu family, the family of the town’s moneylender, Lala Ram Lal. Despite their religious differences, the people of Mano Majra live in harmony together. Life in the small town is directed by the railway station and the trains that pass through it. The villagers not only watch the trains go by; the trains also serve as a type of clock. The morning mail train wakes up everyone and lets them know it’s time to start their day, while the evening goods train announces it’s time for bed.
Life in Mano Majra plods along, separate from the chaos in the rest of the country, until one night a band of dacoits comes into town and kills Lala Ram Lal. For now, these dacoits are unnamed, but they talk about a young man named Jugga, and his lover, Nooran. The robbers go to the moneylender’s house and his family tries to protect him. Eventually however, Lal’s son tells the robbers where his father is, and they drag him out. They demand the keys to Lal’s safe, but he refuses to give it to them, so they beat him and eventually kill him. As the robbers run from Lal’s house through Mano Majra, they stop at Jugga’s house and throw a package of bangles into his yard, and then escape towards the Sutlej river.
Jugga is the nickname of Juggut Singh, the resident bad boy of Mano Majra. At the time of the dacoit’s visit to his house, he wasn’t home. He’d left an hour before, much to his mother’s dismay, to go meet his lover, Nooran. The daughter of the Mano Majra’s imam, Nooran agrees to meet with Jugga, but rejects his physical advances. Jugga is about to pressure her into having sex with him, but suddenly the gunshots from Lala Ram Lal’s house ring out. Jugga pauses briefly, but then resumes his lovemaking when no more noise occurs. Then, shots ring out again, and Nooran begins to cry, nervous about being caught by her father. As they huddle in the brush, the dacoits walk by, and Jugga recognizes them as Malli and his gang of thugs. Jugga and Malli are bitter enemies, and Jugga swears to settle the score.
Elsewhere, north of the railway bridge on the outskirts of Mano Majra, an important guest has arrived at the officer’s rest house. Mr. Hukum Chand, magistrate and deputy commissioner of the district has come for a visit. Chand sits with the subinspector of the area, whom he calls Inspector Sahib, and the two men discuss the happenings and politics of the area. The subinspector reports no trouble has happened, and Chand reveals that convoys of dead Sikhs have been sent over the new border at Amristar, and Sikhs retaliated by sending a train of Muslim corpses back over the border.
The subinspector, a Hindu, begins to speak critically of the Sikhs, claiming that Hindus are not soft like the Sikhs of Mano Majra who live in peace with Muslims. Chand cautions him against speaking his opinion so freely, advising him to keep silent even if he feels strongly about something. He then asks how the situation is in Mano Majra. The subinspector reports that things are quiet, and that he’s convinced no one in the village even knows of the partition. The only “bad character” in the village is Juggut Singh, the son of the dacoit Alam Singh. Chand is gratified, because Mano Majra’s rail station and proximity to the bridge make it the most important village on the border.
The two men continue to talk and drink, until the afternoon comes. Then, Chand asks if the subinspector has arranged any entertainment for him, and the subinspector says yes. He leaves, and Chand takes a nap in preparation for his night entertainment. When he awakes, he sees two geckos fighting above his bed. He shouts for his bearer to prepare his bath, and gets ready for his nighttime company.
It’s Haseena, a young Muslim girl, accompanied by two musicians and her grandmother. Haseena sings love songs to Chand as he drinks heavily, and she begins to remind him of her daughter. Despite his guilt at Haseena’s youth, he still pays her grandmother, and sends her and the two musicians away. He sits Haseena in his lap, kisses her, and begins to undress her. Suddenly, the sound of gunshots pierces through the night. It’s the shots Malli and his gang fired while killing Lala Ram Lal. Similar to Jugga and Nooran, Chand at first tries to resume his lovemaking, but the second gunshots ring out. Chand begins to curse, and leaves the room to investigate.
Khushwant Singh quickly places the reader in the political and social context of his novel by explaining the religious persecution and violence the Partition of India has caused throughout the Indian subcontinent. He then juxtaposes Mano Majra with the rest of the country, which establishes for the reader Mano Majra as a unique and special place. Because Mano Majra is the setting of the novel and thus important, Singh describes it thoroughly, both physically and socially. For example, he explains the importance of trains to the village, and the village’s religious composition. The latter is particularly important, because as Khushwant later foreshadows, Mano Majra won’t remain a bastion of peace forever. For now, we can only assume this means that the religious violence sweeping the rest of India and Pakistan eventually reaches Mano Majra.
The murder of Lala Ram Lal sets off a period of confusion and danger in Mano Majra. As we later find out, the perpetrators are a Sikh man named Malli and his pack of dacoits, who are trying to offend our protagonist Juggut “Jugga” Singh by committing a dacoity in Jugga’s village. The levity of Malli and his gang prior to the murder underscores the idea that for these men, being dacoits is a way of life, and not just a onetime occurrence. Morality, one of the novel’s key themes, isn’t even a question for these men.
When we first meet Jugga, it’s not clear if morality is a concern for him either. He lies to his mother about where he’s going, and more or less forces Nooran into having sex with him. According to our omniscient narrator, Nooran “could not struggle against Juggut Singh’s brute force,” but “she did not particularly want to” (Singh 26). This makes it unclear whether Nooran was consenting to Jugga’s sexual advances. However, it is clear that Jugga was not giving her much choice. At this point, his characterization is every bit the brutish badmash Nooran accuses him of being.
Two other important characters are introduced and characterized in this first section of Train to Pakistan. They are the wily and sly subinspector, and the corpulent and intelligent magistrate, Hukum Chand. Through their discussion of current events, the men reveal more about the killings, massacres, looting, and raping happening across India and Pakistan. One example was a train full of dead Muslims sent to Pakistan with the ironic phrase “Gift to Pakistan” written on it. The men lament the lack of government intervention, and use a simile to compare Mahatma Gandhi’s disciples to yogis—warriors of morality but ineffective and unhelpful otherwise. Mano Majra is another discussion topic, and the subinspector reports that the villagers don’t even know the partition occurred. This is an example of dramatic irony on a mass scale, as an entire village thinks they live in a unified country, but the opposite is true.
Once the subinspector leaves, Hukum Chand naps, wakes up, and prepares for his evening entertainment. As he gets ready, he sees two geckos fighting above his bed. The geckos serve as a symbol for the warring the Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, as they are evenly matched and neither wants to back down. The geckos disgust Chand and make him feel dirty, which foreshadows his own guilt in the strife between the religious groups. For Chand, morality is a concern, further evidenced by the twinges of guilt he feels when his young prostitute arrives. His guilt doesn’t prevent Chand from indulging in her services, but it’s clear this is just the beginning, and more pressing moral dilemmas are coming his way.