Revisiting Khushwant Singh’s Partition Saga

Revisiting Khushwant Singh’s Partition Saga

Thousands of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs walking bare-foot and in bullock-carts migrating to their newly-born countries, trains that brought in cargoes of the dead, instead of the living, children clutching at wizened hands of their deceased parents, bodies lying on streets like so much garbage with vultures pecking at them.

These are some of heart-rending pictures by Margaret Bourke-White, the celebrity American photographer, that illustrate Khushwant Singh’s classic Train to Pakistan in a new golden jubilee edition (published by Roli Books). The new edition has 60 unpublished black-and-white photographs by Bourke-White that captures the many traumatizing faces of partition in all their stark cruelty and human-all-too-human pathos.

Horrors of the partition – a cataclysmic moment in the history of the subcontinent that saw the slaughter of one million people and the rupturing of lives of another 10 million – continue to haunt and mark all those who lived through that period of collective insanity, mayhem and bloodbath.

Horrors of the partition – a cataclysmic moment in the history of the subcontinent that saw the slaughter of one million people and the rupturing of lives of another 10 million – continue to haunt and mark all those who lived through that period of collective insanity, mayhem and bloodbath.

For Bourke-White, photographing these chilling testaments of cruelty inflicted by human beings on each other after she arrived in India in March 1946 as “an eyewitness to the fall of the British empire,” was a heart-wrenching experience. As she wrote in her book “Halfway to Freedom”: “The exodus of the children of Israel was dwarfed by the great migration of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus which took place on the partition of India. At the time I was photographing it for Life magazine there were five million people on the move, with several more million due to follow as soon as the room could be found for them. This, for these wretched millions, was the first bitter fruit of independence.”

For the Pakistan-born author, the partition was not a remote historical event, but an event that he saw upclose and lived on to transmute the pain and suffering of displacement in his novel (first published in 1956).

“World history is divided into two distinct eras – BC Before Christ) and AD (After The Death of Christ). For millions of people living in the Indian subcontinent, it is divided into two similar eras: BP (Before Partition) and PP (Post-Partition),” the author writes in a new preface to the golden jubilee edition of his best-selling Train to Pakistan.

The human costs of the partition that followed the blood-drenched birth of two individual nations, inextricably bound up by shared history and culture, but sundered apart by an arbitrary line drawn by a British cartographer, were simply too horrifying to put into words.

“The aftermath was beastlier than anything beasts could have imagined,” writes the 92-year-old author, who was born in a village in pre-partition Punjab, and who had to leave his ancestral house in Lahore to start life anew in India.

Nearly 59 years after that eruption of mass insanity, the event has the same immediacy and emotional resonance for him. “It was a botched-up surgical operation. India’s arms were chopped off without any anaesthetic, and streams of blood swamped the land of the five rivers known as the Punjab.”

Brainchild of publisher Pramod Kapoor, who conceptualized and edited this new edition, the book “is an exercise in perpetuating the memory of those who perished and a lesson for future generations to prevent a recurrence of this tragic chapter in our history.” Reading Khushwant Singh’s prose in Train to Pakistan and looking at Bourke-White’s partition photographs still “wets the eyes of my generation” after nearly sixty years of the splintering of the subcontinent into two nations, writes Kapoor.

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