Train to Pakistan

I have not read much of Khushwant Singh. Frankly speaking, I like the crispy flavor of his writing but most of the times it is only this crispiness that I get from his book, no protein or vitamins of life. So, I mostly avoided it till I bumped into his “Train to Pakistan”. I don’t know how much value it carries as a novel, but what strikes me is the underlying prophecy of all times told in the backdrop of the most inhumane times of our subcontinent: the partition.

A small village, on the border of India and Pakistan, with a history of peaceful co-existence of Sikh and Muslims, is thrown into a series of most unusual happenings during partition. A case of dacoity, a murder, arrival of a new educated socialist in the village is accompanied by the surge of Sikh refugees who lost all their belonging and most of their ladies on the way and a train carrying thousands of dead bodies from Pakistan. People who lived happily together for generations couldn’t make out what they were going through. Police is keen to send the Muslim villagers to Pakistan because they suspect something brewing among the refugee Sikhs; some plan to wash the Muslims out. The original Sikh community of the village assures the Muslim cleric “Chacha, it’s on our dead body that they’d be able to touch you people.” And the old blind cleric says “Why should you sacrifice everything for us?” They sit together in the dark rainy night, with the dead bodies carried by the train being burnt by the police, and can’t make out what to do!

At last, comes the police and declares the expected: all the Muslims should vacate the village NOW. And all they can only carry is their bare minimums. The pang of leaving everything behind, all your life, memories and friends; all your belongings: both material and emotional! In a flash of second, your land becomes somebody else’s and you become to some alien lands! And you start a journey which you never know will ever end up or not, even if it ends, how many of you will be able to make it there. And how much destruction, death and hunger are waiting on the way!

But wait, the journey has not yet started. And before they can start their journey, the refugee Sikhs hatches a murder plan for them. They will be killed while in the train. The Granthi (Sikh Priest) of the village knows it and says “It’s my duty to warn people about the bad, I can’t restrict them from doing it.” The educated socialist who is still in the village also called it quit because he was not sure about whether his sacrifice would be noticed by anybody, police didn’t want to interfere; they didn’t have much time to give attention to all these incidents.

And when nobody bothered to do anything, a badmash (somebody whose name has been registered as culprit in police station), a notorious dacoit from the village stood up to save his fellow-villagers lives by sacrificing his own.

It’s a story of the time of no religion, no humanity and no morale, but it is also about how even a small sparkle of humanity in such mad times can transform the pitch-black night into an aura of thousand suns. Even one human standing tall in the middle of injustice all around can make the vast difference. A prophecy that holds good for all ages.



Reading a book is like falling in love to me. You start with some anticipation, and then turning of every page transforms you to some different world; some good and some bad experiences; all new to you. But when you reach the end of it, you are content and know that you have assimilated something within which will stay with forever.

Girish Karnad’s “Tughlaq” was one such book. This legendary king, better known as the “mad king” in history took some decisions which were theoretically excellent but resulted chaos and brought agony to his subjects, due to impractical implementation. This book deals with the internal conflict of king Tughlaq, his turmoil and conflicts within, his suffering and his transformation from an idealistic believer to a non-believing demon. I get carried away with him throughout; in his journey of faith, love, power and helplessness.

When the king asks the cleric “How do you expect me separate out from all my knowledge; of other faiths, of Greek mythology, of poetry and associate with only one religion?”, I feel its almost my words. How badly I wanted to scream this out to the world! How badly I wanted to cry it out to the religions people practice around..

When Tughlaq murmurs “I wanted to be one with my subjects. I wanted them to be part of mine. I wanted them to laugh and cry with me. To pray with me.”; I knelt down and cried with him. I could feel his pain in such a way that I can touch his robe almost. But his subjects don’t believe him anymore. They call him mad Tughlaq. Mad…Tughlaq…fell prey to revenge and I feel like holding his hand, stopping him as did her step-mom in the story..

At the end, when all his friends left him, some killed by him; he sits there on the throne. Unmoved by what’s happening around. He doesn’t know where he started from, where he wanted to go or where to go from here. I feel like putting the shawl around him as did the servant in the story. This tragic king; with all good intentions are doomed by circumstances. I feel numbness inside. As if half of me is perishing with him; his dreams and his helplessness.

By now I know Tughlaq will always be there within me. In my dreams and prayers; agony and ecstasy; in my love and hatred. I close the last page. Amen…

Freedom in Exile

I go through phases of reading: sometimes all I read are fictions and don’t even bother to open any other books, sometimes its only history; mainly Indian but as India has a history closely knitted with middle and far east, I tread through them as well. This time, it was biography.

It all started with the biography of Frontier Gandhi Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, and what a life it was! Well, the life-story was familiar but not to this extent obviously, and as I went through the pages discovering this self-tamed Pathan lion who remained an epitome of non-violence and compassion come what may ; my spirit just got shuddered at the magnanimous purity of his soul. I was not in a state to read anything else for a long time after I finished it. So, I thought of trying the tried and tested (I read it at least five times) life-story of Md. Yunus in my mother tongue (Bengali); as I knew that it will bring down my level from the all-pure high to a normal good. His is a very inspirational life which teaches you to believe that you can achieve whatever you want if your aim is good; but he remains a man of blood and flesh; with his share of personal issues like a mentally challenged mom and a divorce.

Once I finished that, I went into Andre Agassi’s “Open” which was pretty good, really open and a journey through truth. It was a good read but the shadow of the life of Frontier Gandhi was still looming large in my mind; I was actually searching for something else; something more pure and meaningful. And then I got the 14th Dalai Lama’s “Freedom in Exile” in a bookshop in the basement of our office-building; hidden under all sort of corporate books (which I really really hate to read)! At first, I was a little bit skeptical; as to whether to take it or not. I am very much afraid of reading books on religion or more specifically by religious leaders because they lack flexibility; you’ll have to buy whatever they are telling or you’re left out. But then, I have a very little knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism and I thought of enhancing it because there was a chapter on it in the book. So, finally I went for it.

And as I started reading it, it imported me to an altogether different domain: Tibet in 1940s when there was no proper road, transport, electricity there. A country with almost nil security forces, run by a couple of religious leaders who were chosen in rebirth after rebirth through some signs! Well, it’s actually tough to believe that such country existed on the world; that too so near of ours! But the truth is that it existed; and people there lived with their own set of rules in study (which was mainly religious and philosophical), medicine (mainly herbal) and way of life; which was in close proximity with nature in its true sense. I was aghast at finding out that there was no school which could teach subjects like modern history, geography or science! And this country has been ruled by the Dalai Lamas for centuries without even thinking about those aspects! And what on earth am I doing here by reading his life? But hold on, I don’t believe in rebirth; so I reasoned myself that this is not the same person who ruled this country for last 13 times, he is an innocent boy on whom the other religious leaders of his country had put this great responsibility and let’s see how he carries it off. So, I started my journey with this little boy from Taktser village in north-east Tibet to find out where he reaches ultimately!

And he led me through a roller-coaster ride of his own life: from a small greedy boy who loves to eat pork to an inquisitive student, from the post-holder of highest sacred spiritual leader of a country to a helpless refugee in India and thereon his journey towards winning noble prize for peace. The integrity of his character amazed me. He was also a part of the so-called non-modern Tibet. But when time reckoned; he was just more than ready to embrace all modernity required. When his country was invaded by a much powerful communist China; instead of taking the path of both extremes; revolt or surrender; he tried out the middle option. He told to himself “Buddha always preached to depend on your senses rather than his teachings; and the basic rules of communisms are seemingly good. So, let’s try out.” I doubt whether any spiritual/religious leader in the world would have possessed courage to think that way. Chinese communism was a direct blow on their root, their religion; still he opted to experiment! And when it didn’t work, Chinese did their best to torture innocent civilians, high-held officials, and respected lamas; to wash out their religion and culture; he opted the path his senses told him to choose: to come out of his country so that he can do something for his fellow men from outside. Though it may seem to be a cowardly act of flying away with his own life; later when I read about what happened to the Panchen Lama; I appreciate his sense of practicality. With a huge number of refugees who were struggling to getting adapted to low altitude Indian weather and were meeting with their end in that struggle; he kept his calm, consoled them and tried to buy out the best possible places and amenities from Indian govt. His personal journey was also remarkable; he picked up English to be able to interact with modern world, started meeting people all across the globe and putting up to them the right angle of their struggle against a much much powerful invader ; and all from exile.

He declares himself a half-communist because “Buddha preached equality” among people, discrimination of any sort; cast, creed, religion or gender is not acceptable in Buddhism. He tells he is not bothered about the rebirth lineage of the Dalai Lama; he just wants to do what job he has been assigned in this lifetime with utmost care and respect. He accepts himself as a non-vegetarian and tells that Buddhism teaches a lama to eat whatever is offered to him/her without being fussy about it. He speaks of restoration and conservation of Mother Nature as one of the first priority of humankind. “You can live without a religion, but not without nature.”  All these are distinguishably unique for a spiritual leader of his religion and stature. But, he is more a humane than a spiritual leader. He speaks of the words of peace and love among humankind not only as taught by the Tathagata thousands of year back; but with a bizarre modernity which is rare in some so-called much-educated philosophers as well – “You don’t need to have a religion to be good or bad. You can be whatever you chose to be with or without religion.” He practices and teaches humanity. I have very rarely seen such a transformation! From an age-old isolated nation head to a world peacenik with utmost modern approach! The journey was really memorable and matchless!

He celebrated his 75th birthday very recently in Dharamshala, in exile. To celebrate the journey of this beautiful soul, let’s utter the prayers which teaches us to serve mankind as a man; much like he follows and does –

“For as long as space endures,

And for as long as living beings remain,

Until then may I, too, abide

To dispel the misery of the world.”