Academic journal article IUP Journal of English Studies

Fiction as Social History: A Study of Khushwant Singh's Novels

Academic journal article IUP Journal of English Studies

Fiction as Social History: A Study of Khushwant Singh's Novels

Article excerpt

This paper re-evaluates the fiction of Khushwant Singh, a Sahitya Akademi fellow. What makes his fiction noteworthy is that it depicts with force, brilliance and passion the problems which torture and torment the Indian spirit in contemporary times. Though Khushwant Singh is famous as "India's most prized dirty old man", his fictional writings have hardly received the attention they deserve. My purpose here, however, extends beyond a mere reading of his fiction. I wish to argue that the conventional ways in which Khushwant Singh is understood-as a "salacious gossip" and a writer whose books "make for brisk sales at railway stalls"-are actually insufficient if not misleading. I argue that his body of work underlines the specific features of many social problems which engage our attention and it seeks to give us a sense of direction, whither we are to advance and how.

Introduction

Khushwant Singh has an India-wide understanding of our social problems. His writings depict with force, brilliance and passion the problems which torture and torment the Indian spirit in contemporary times. He has pointed out the drawbacks that plague India, which hold her back from moving full steam ahead on the path of progress. If we seek to understand the India of today which we love so passionately, we find a vivid reflection of it in his writings. His body of work underlines the specific features of many social problems which engage our attention and it seeks to give us a sense of direction, whither we are to advance and how. Thus, it is rich in lessons for the student-historian of society to learn. His literary creations not only mirror society, but also try to transform it, to remould it "nearer to the heart's desire".

The special qualities of Singh are described thus in the introductory note of collection of essays titled Khushwant Singh's India (1970), "Khushwant Singh has been described as India's Malcolm Muggeridge. He holds nothing sacred. He enjoys nothing more than dipping his barbed pen in a pot of vitriol and lambasting the establishment, the accepted order of things political, religious or social and puncturing inflated reputations" (Singh, 1970, p. 1).

Novels

Khushwant Singh has seriously and painfully recorded in his novel Train to Pakistan, the tragedy of partition, the communal, the linguistic and casteist passions which maddened the people in the very hour the freedom was born, and the agonizing spectacle of "the divided house in place of emotional integration, with a deceptive floor and a precarious roof' (Iyenger, 1984, p. 320).

During the partition, villages were put to flames and people burnt alive. The bloodiest holocaust, the like of which had never been witnessed, rudely shocked the conscience of the civilized people all over the world and made them shudder with dismay at man's ruthless cruelty to man in the name of religion. This crisis also caused an unprecedented questioning of identity. A Hindu or Sikh who had lived and worked for years in company with Muslims and vice versa, was forced often with tragic consequences to take a stand, to identify himself as an Indian or a Pakistani.

Singh, in this novel, has written a riveting account about a period-the partition of India, an episode and an aspect of India's near past which was accompanied by savage rioting that took a toll of more than five lakh lives and uprooted ten million people from their homes. The theme of the novel is the partition of India along religious lines. It is poignant that though the hopes, desires and aspirations of different communities living in Mano Majra are identical, they are forced to separate simply on account of their different religions. This deeply moving novel brings out the inherent similarity of the people who were forcibly divided. That people should not be divided along religious lines is brought out effectively, and yet in a subtle and sophisticated manner. Train to Pakistan is not just a political novel but a social one-a politics-polluted society, played by the bureaucrats for their personal and private ends, under the pretensions of executing the so-called policies of the so-called government. …

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