Families crossing the border during Partition
Snapshot
  • This celebrated novel, now in a new edition, by a writer who happily frittered away his gifts, deserves a B at the most.

The salon circles in Delhi were buzzing with excitement a few months ago. Khushwant Singh’s Train To Pakistan, first published in 1956, was about to be released in a new edition.

Since its publication, the book had already been reprinted a number of times in the last few decades, before the new, re-jacketed avatar finally saw the light of day last month. It was a low-key release, quite unlike the larger-than-life style that the late author revelled in. Possibly, the hoopla will follow soon.

It would be interesting if we try, so many years after its initial publication, to understand the book’s basics. It is a competently written, taut and moving account of the horrors of Partition and how they impacted a small group of people. The characterisation is done well, but the work, taken as a whole, would not have got more than a B in a rigorous grading. Certainly not a B+, leave alone the encomiums and praises that have been showered on it by critics and others. Indeed, the chorus of hallelujahs for so many years ensured a cult status for both the book and Khushwant Singh. Therein lies a tale.

Truth be told, there were a number of other Indo-Anglian writers who were more talented and insightful than KS. To name a few, they included contemporaries of KS like Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, Bhabani Bhattacharya, G.V Desani, Sudhindra Nath Ghose and Manohar Malgonkar. This illustrious list does not include a titan like Naipaul who was not based in India. All these writers had niche audiences but never managed to dominate the stage as confidently and for as long as KS did.

It, therefore, becomes necessary to look at the overall scenario that permitted and indeed facilitated the success story of KS. Immediately following the book’s publication, the man was propelled to a position of an “intellectual” giant and a poster boy of Indo-Anglian writing, a position that he occupied seamlessly till he passed away in 2014. Occasionally, he would allow others in his social group, like Nayantara Sehgal et al, to share centrestage with him, but, make no mistake; he was the top gun and primus inter pares in this lot.

Clearly, there was a support system that enabled KS to pull off this act. The first thing we should keep in mind is that the man had deep pockets and substantial financial resources that came in very useful. Indeed, the family’s clout stemmed from its bottomless coffers that had been accumulated as members of the “contractor class” that built the new capital of India. This was when our British rulers showed a clean pair of heels when they were compelled to leave Calcutta post-haste in 1911.

The father of KS was a Sobha Singh, who later wangled a knighthood from the Raj, after he had made a fortune building a considerable part of Lutyens Delhi, including the South Block on Raisina Hill and the India Gate Memorial. Like many members of this class, KS went to Delhi’s native Oxbridge, St Stephen’s College, followed by stints in King’s College in London and the Inner Temple, where he did his Bar-at-Law.

The skeleton in the cupboard of the KS family is the role played by his father Sobha Singh in betraying Bhagat Singh and Batukeswar Dutt, the two revolutionaries who were involved in a bomb attack in the Delhi Assembly in 1929. During their trial, Sobha Singh identified the two revolutionaries as the persons who threw the bombs. KS, of course, put up a feeble defence of his father many years later, but it is clear that good old SS was a prototype Quisling who sold his countrymen down the river.

The knighthood later bestowed on Sobha Singh was a just reward for his services to the British crown. In some other countries that shook off colonial rule, like the USA for example, the likes of Sobha Singh were despatched fairly quickly. The Americans, in fact, were quite ruthless; after 1776, they expelled the Empire Loyalists in their thousands to Canada in the north, which was a British colony.

To return to the milieu that helped KS and his ilk to prosper, we have to look more closely at the colonial residue left behind by the British. The four pillars gifted to India by the sahibs were the following, not in any order of priority: a colonial “mai-baap” civil service, protected and mollycoddled by a firewall; a non-accountable judiciary that has the same unbreakable ring of protection as the babus; a venal and brutal police force; and the most abiding legacy, an intellectual community with a completely colonial and compromised mindset/psyche.

KS and his cohorts were the front-runners and cheerleaders in the fourth category. To understand this lot, we have to go back to the brilliant French-West Indian social scientist Frantz Fanon and his seminal study of post-colonial elites, Black Skin, White Masks (1952). I have visited this subject at length earlier, but it is necessary to do so again, if we want to understand Khushwant and his work.

What Fanon does is to study the feeling of inadequacy and low self-esteem that colonised people display vis-à-vis their former conquerors and rulers. Having lost their indigenous culture and after embracing the civilisation of their occupiers, the elite in the newly-independent countries assiduously follow the norms of their erstwhile rulers, while running down their own indigenous roots. This trait, according to Fanon, was particularly widespread among the upwardly mobile and educated blacks in the West Indies. It also accurately described the scene in Delhi’s salon circles in the 1950s and 1960s (and indeed, till today) where KS and company reigned unchallenged. The Nehruvian ambience of Delhi was the perfect biosphere for KS to thrive in.

KS, in fact, was one of the key leaders of the brigade of “salon secularists” (SS). KS and his group revelled in the world of the Mughal conquerors and the English overlords and saw our pre-colonial civilisation and heritage through their prisms. In fact, running down an Indic patrimony that goes back 4,000 years or so is what gave KS and people like Romila Thapar their daily high. The more they could vent their feelings before an international (read “Western”) audience, the happier they were.

Returning to Train to Pakistan, it is interesting that KS in his real-life behaviour, particularly after he took over the stewardship of The Illustrated Weekly of India, was as colourful and bumptious as Juggut Singh (Jugga),the protagonist of the novel. In his editorial column, KS took a vicious delight in unfairly criticising all and sundry, particularly those who could not (or did not) want to take up cudgels against a powerful person and a rich journal like the Weekly. However, KS plumbed rock bottom when he penned a particularly disgraceful piece against a well-known art critic of Delhi, Charles Fabri, and his medically impaired son. This understandably hurt the boy’s maternal uncle, Gautam Mathur, the well-known economist, who wrote an impassioned letter of protest. It was water off a duck’s back.

The love affair of KS with Mrs Gandhi senior (including his unstinted and disgraceful support of the Emergency) ended after the Golden Temple episode. However, he had no compunction in accepting a Padma Vibhushan from Mrs Gandhi junior’s government in 2007, although the Congress had strenuously avoided taking any action against the culprits of the 1984 genocide against the anti-Sikh riots, a genocide in which the Congress had played a major role.

The two redeeming features I have found in KS: the first one was his spat with V.K. Krishna Menon when the latter was independent India’s first envoy in London and KS was a relatively junior employee in the High Commission in London. Whether or not there was a clash of egos, I would side with KS on this issue.

The second is his translation of the hymns of Guru Nanak ji, first published in 1969. These translations are immensely moving and eloquent; they provided proof of the man’s inherent talent which he frittered away on trivial pursuits. P. Balaswamy, in his assessment of KS in A Companion to Indian Fiction in English (2004), has this to say about him: “Khushwant has a natural flair for narration and can keep the reader engrossed in his tale, provided he does not allow his satirical and cynical tendencies to overwhelm the artist in him. It should be stressed in no uncertain terms that international reputation as a columnist/ journalist and social commitment can never be substitutes for an artistic vision and creative imagination.” Balaswamy is also caustic in his critique of the “apparent rejection of cultural values” and the “phallocentric narratives” of KS. The fellow would, of course, have laughed it off if he had ever bothered to read it.

To sign off, we must look at his self-composed obituary :

“Here lies one who spared neither man nor God;

Waste not your tears on him, he was a sod;

Writing nasty things he regarded as great fun;

Thank the Lord he is dead, this son of a gun.”

Here too, KS cuts a sorry figure. Though he is quite honest and accurate about his basic attributes, he still couldn’t come up with a truly classy poem.

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