Khushwant Singh


The latest book by Khushwant Singh that recently hit the bookstores is a compilation of 35 famous and controversial personalities through the eyes of the 98 year old celebrated columnist. The Good, The Bad and The Ridiculous pens uncensored attacks on people with whom Khushwant Singh had relations, met and interacted over the years. Co-authored by Humra Quraishi, this book provides an insider’s look at the lives of people like Indira Gandhi, Giani Zail Singh, Jinnah, Gandhi and many others and introduces us to their not-so-pleasant characteristics.

He dedicates small chapters to each personality and narrates his accounts wittingly and candidly. The book engages you with innately honest opinions and makes one curious to know what bomb would explode in our perceptions of the famous ones after reading about them.

Reading out blurbs like, “There was something cold and haughty about her. Not my type at all … But she had her set of admirers … and never forgave anyone who said anything against her” for Indira Gandhi or “He took a vow of celibacy in his prime, but without consulting his wife, which I think was grossly unfair. He would sleep naked beside young girls to test his brahmacharya. He could be very odd” for the Father of the Nation makes the book both intimate and irreverent.

He quite clearly expresses his bitterness for L.K Advani and expresses his ‘ambivalence’ for Indira Gandhi. Khushwant Singh dedicates the biggest chapter to V.K Menon followed by a close second of Giani Zail Singh.

The book entertains and shocks the reader with Singh’s sketches of the good, bad and the ridiculous shades of the people whom he knew for almost a century.  Well informed accounts and frank opinions by KS have been appreciated by all and makes him one of the most honest and candid writers in this industry.  Khushwant Singh also makes it very clear in this book he that neither dreads criticism and nor is bothered about it.

This book will certainly ring a bell for people who crave gossips coming out from the elite class of the country. Notwithstanding the fact that the book is only a person’s opinion which need not be a full story, the book can prove to be useful for peeking into the lives of others through the eyes of the Big Old Man of the writing world.

Historically, we are all aware of the partition of 1947, the splitting of India and Pakistan, a violent episode that led to the death of millions of people and the displacement of ten million people from their homes. Some of us may have even heard our grandparents talking about the tragic events of that summer.

What Khushwant Singh does in his book, Train to Pakistan, is that he narrates the incident with a story around a small, remote village on the border of India and Pakistan where Muslims and Sikhs resided together in peace for many years.  Relatively unaffected by the politic scenario of the country at the time, the villagers had only heard of the gruesome crimes committed on Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs by each other.

Mano Majra is a village were the villagers plan their day’s activities in accordance to the timing of the train that stops at the station nearby. As the reader plods through the novel, this train station turns out to play a crucial role in shaping the climax of the plot. The violence is unleashed early on with the death of the money lender, Lala Ram Lal at the hands of village goons. Shortly afterwards, the badmash  Juggut Singh and a social worker from Britain visiting the village, Iqbal are accused of the murder and rounded up by the police.  Juggut, or Juggu as he’s referred to, is infamous throughout the village but has been wrongly accused of the crime. Iqbal is a cynical and well educated babu sahib who often voices his thoughts about the flaws in the system and the mentality of the villagers.

While they are still in lock-up, an unscheduled train stops at Mano Majra, full of bodies of dead Sikhs. This train from Pakistan is the first gory event that stems from the Partition that the villagers witness themselves, having hitherto merely heard storied of murder, rape and abduction before. After this incident, mistrust, anger and sorrow divide the otherwise friendly villagers with the Muslims deciding it best to leave for Pakistan.  Tension mounts as the Sikhs plan to retaliate by killing off all Muslims in a train to Pakistan, which was also carrying the villagers they’d lived with for many years. Once released, both Iqbal and Juggu are presented with the same opportunity of saving many lives and preventing more bloodshed. Juggu makes for an unlikely hero at the end when he risks all to save the passengers on the train, including Nooran, the girl he loved.

Khushwant Singh narrates the incidents and creates the characters in excruciating detail, thus allowing the reader to visualise. He captures the transition of behaviour and attitude in the characters in a life like manner. The characters, Hukum Chand, the magistrate in particular, are often posed with moral dilemmas and conflicting thoughts. Rather than focusing on the political events, he looks at how they affected common people at the grass root level. He doesn’t condemn any side but rather holds all parties equally responsible for the Partition and the terror it created. Train to Pakistan is a book many have recommended but I had never actually gotten down to reading it. I regret having picked it up so late, for though it is fictional, this book catches human emotions of fear, anger and brutality in a simple yet chilling manner.