INDIA’S GREAT LITERARY TRADITON
Sure, we all know Indian Nobel Prize Winners, Rabindranath Tagore and V.S. Naipaul (Yes, yes, I know he wasn’t a “true” Indian!) but the subcontinent has produced a veritable cornucopia of great authors including Vikram Seth, R.K. Narayan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai, Satyajit Ray to name just a few others. But one of India’s greats is Kushwant Singh famous in India for his novels, many of which are filled trenchant humor and sarcasm directed at both Westerners and Indians. Singh was educated as a lawyer, was a reporter for All India Radio, served with UNESCO and was a member of the Indian Parliament from 1980 until 1986.
I have just finished re-reading “Train To India” which is about a Punjabi village’s trails and tribulations near the border of what became Pakistan during Partition in 1947. Mano Majra is a small peaceful village where Hindus, Sikh’s and Muslims have lived together in harmony forever. Located on the banks of the Sutlej River where a train crosses a long bridge over the river on its way into Pakistan, Mano Majra’s peace is destroyed by a badmash Sikh’s love for a Muslim daughter of a weaver, the mysterious arrival of an NRI do-gooder (who is probably Communist) social worker from New Delhi the day following the murder of the village moneylender and the ultimately evil mechanizations of a corrupt visiting Police Subinspector who sets the wheels in in motion that result in a tragedy.
I have reproduced the last couple of pages from “Train To Pakistan” since I believe that they are among the finest of prose you will find anywhere outside of Shakespeare. (The “rope” referenced in the piece is designed to sweep anyone perched on top of the train’s bogies off to their deaths.)
Kushwant Singh (1915- 2016)
Pages 188 – 190 (The end of the novel.)
“A little after eleven, the moon came up. It looked tired and dissipated. It flooded the plain with a weary pale light in which everything was a little blurred. Near the bridge there was very little moonlight. The high railway embankment cast a wall of dark shadow.
Sandbags, which had guarded the machine gun nest near the signal, were littered about on either side of the railway tracks. The signal scaffolding stood like an enormous sentry watching over the scene. Two large oval eyes, one on top of the other, glowed red. The two hands of the signal stood stiffly parallel to each other. The bushes along the bank looked like a jungle. The river did not glisten; it was like a sheet of slate with just a suspicion of a ripple here and there.
A good distance from the embankment, behind a thick cluster of pampass, was a jeep with its engine purring gently. There was no one in it. The men had spread themselves on either side of the railway line a few feet from each other. They sat on their haunches with their rifles and spears between their legs. On the first steel span of the bridge a thick rope was tied horizontally above the railway line. It was about twenty feet above the track.
It was too dark of the men to recognize each other. So they talked loudly. Then somebody called:
They listened. It was nothing. Only the wind in the reeds.
“Silence anyhow,” came the command of the leader. “If you talk like this, you will not hear the train in time.”
They began to talk in whispers.
There was s shimmy-shammy noise of trembling steel wires as one of the signals came down. Its oval eye changed from red to a bright green. The whispering stopped. The men got up and took their positions ten yards away from the track.
There was a steady rumbling sound punctuated by soft puff-puffs. A man ran up to the line and put his ear on the steel rail.
“Come back, you fool,” yelled the leader in a hoarse whisper.
“It is the train,” he announced triumphantly.
“Get back!” repeated the leader fiercely.
All eyes strained towards the grey space where the rumbling of the train came from. Then they shifted to the rope, still as a shaft of steel. If the train was fast it might cut many people in two like a knife slicing cucumbers. They shuddered.
A long way beyond the station, there was a dot of light. It went out and another came up nearer. Then another and another, getting nearer and nearer as the train came on. The men looked at the lights and listened to the sound of the train. No one looked at the bridge any more.
A man started climbing on the steel span. He was noticed only when he had got to the top where the rope was tied. They thought he was testing the knot. He was tugging at it. It was well tied; even if the engine funnel hit it, the rope might snap but the knot would not give. The man stretched himself on the rope. His feet were near the knot; his hands almost reached the center of the rope. He was a big man.
The train got closer and closer. The demon form of the engine with sparks flying from its funnel came up along the track. Its puffing was drowned in the roar of the train itself. The whole train could be seen clearly against the wan moonlight. From the coal-tender to the tail end, there was a solid crust of human beings on the roof.
The man was still stretched on the rope.
The leader stood up and shouted hysterically: “Come off, you ass! You will be killed. Come off at once!”
The man turned round towards the voice. He whipped out a small kirpan from his waist and began to slash at the rope.
“Who is this? What is he…?”
There was not time. They looked from the bridge to the train, from the train to the bridge. The man hacked the rope vigorously.
The leader raised his rifle to his shoulder and fired. He hit his mark and one of the man’s legs came off the rope and dangled in the air. The other was still twined around the rope. He slashed away in frantic haste. The engine was only a few yards off, throwing embers high up in the sky with each blast of the whistle. Somebody fired another shot. The man’s body slid off the rope but he clung to it with his hands and chin. He pulled himself up, caught the rope under his left armpit, and again started hacking with his right hand. The rope had ben cut in shreds. Only a thin tough strand remained. He went at it with the knife, and then with his teeth. The engine was almost on him. There was a volley of shots. The man shivered and collapsed. The rope snapped in the center as he fell. The train went over him, and went on to Pakistan.“
And There You Have It For Today!