The Rachel Papers

A South Asian Summer in London

Rachel Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London
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Khushwant Singh and other festival delights and diversions

JUNE IS THE time of the annual migration of Delhi and Mumbai elites to London and it’s the time for Indian literature and film festivals. I’m looking forward to catching up with literary friends at the talks and parties of Jaipur Lit Fest in London and filmi friends at the Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival, and finding out about more books and films that need to be read and seen.

This weekend was a very special festival, Kasauli in London, in memory of Khushwant Singh. I met Khushwant only once, nearly 30 years ago, at his flat in Delhi. Although he was no longer editor of the Illustrated Weekly, this magazine which I picked up whenever possible was my best introduction to contemporary India in the pre-internet days. I knew of his columns and his outspokenness but was pleasantly surprised by how unlike his public persona he was.

Khushwant’s son, Rahul Singh, and Niloufer Billimoria curate a festival in Khushwant’s memory in Kasauli, which they first brought to London last year. This year it was at Khushwant’s alma mater, King’s College London, although the college itself was barely represented among this blend of Indians, Pakistanis, British Asians and Brits who love India.

I learnt from all the discussions in the festival but rather than review or, horrors, summarise the panels, I’d like to mention some of the lit fest types who emerged before giving pride of place to the panel in which I participated, not just out of ego but because it engages with what I see as Khushwant’s most important work.

1. The amateur: Davinder Toor, who first volunteered at an exhibition as a schoolboy, now advises museums while building one of the world’s greatest collections of Sikh art from auctions, eBay and enthusiasm. He spoke about items in his collection, mixing history and culture with anecdotes and observations from his ‘day job’ as an optometrist, commenting on the picture he bought from eBay of Alexander Gardner (the cover of John Keay’s The Tartan Turban) that had a squint, making him probably even more deadly than intended as a mercenary.

2. The professional: Senior journalists such as Andy Whitehead and John Elliott reminded us how to talk to the audience, while the academics spoke of new research. They intone in the soothing tones of radio programmes, educating us in an engaging manner while making us feel as though we are part of the conversation, just as informed and articulate as them.

3. The poets: The poets took words—English, Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi—and put them in all the right places. They evoked, they provoked, they teased and they made us laugh with Mona’s mango, Daljit’s Punjab, while Imtiaz flew over the moon.

4. The cricketer/cricket writer: My first encounter with cricket was as a young child when I was made to play wicketkeeper due to a shortage of boys. My first catch saw my instant departure from the field. No one told me it would hurt so much. As a teenager, I helped make cakes and sandwiches (and ate them after the players left). I once knitted Mr D a cricket sweater though I was by then a cricket widow as soon as I heard the theme tune for Test Match Special (Soul Limbo, by Booker T). I think he being at Lord’s to watch India triumph in the World Cup in 1983 was the most important feature of the year, rather than our first date. Despite this, some of my great friends are former cricketers, and many more write about cricket, so I enjoy the culture if not the game. A great panel with Mihir Bose, Allan Lamb and Robert Winder.

5. My many mistaken identities: After a session on foreign women who loved India, I was much amused to be asked if I was Bengali after I quoted Ami chini go chini tomaare o go bideshini in my videshini accent. I felt I had to reassure everyone that Michael Dwyer is not in any way related to Dyer or O’Dwyer, though I didn’t give my lecture on Michael Dwyer, the Wicklow Chieftain, who has (I think) the largest grave in the Waverley cemetery near Sydney, seen in the song Tanhayee in Dil Chahta Hai (2001).

However, there were too few young people. Perhaps they don’t know who Khushwant Singh is, even though his novel Train to Pakistan (1956) is a classic for all who study the Partition. The festival this year encouraged me—if not required me—to read the novel again after several decades.

Although there were relatively few Indian English novels at this time, the author effortlessly found a voice to make the characters of the village of Mano Majra seem real, whether Muslim and Sikh locals, the magistrate or Iqbal, the foreign- returned social worker. I was also struck that although the book is about the Partition, it focuses on the characters and the atrocities around them that make them debase themselves or become heroes. There are no saints and no absolute sinners in the novel, but people respond to events and to others in ways that are true to their characters. The least sympathetic character is probably Iqbal, even though he is likely the most similar in background to many of the readers of the book, which I feel sure was intended by the author.

The story is set in the months after the Partition in a village near the border with Pakistan, whose Sikh and Muslim population is plagued not by communalism but by dacoity, showing that villagers had long traditions of bonding against the outside world, following traditional codes of honour and shame.

The book shows how the trains between Delhi and Lahore mark out the rhythm of the village, imposing modern Western time on this seemingly timeless landscape. It also evokes the landscape and geography of the area; the railway now is what connects the village to the rest of the world rather than the River Sutlej.

The film, directed by Pamela Rooks in 1998, is mostly in Punjabi, with some English, Hindi and Urdu, adding a more local flavour to the story, backed by Punjabi songs, in particular the verses of Waris Shah. The film frames the story differently, rather than using a narrator to read from the novel. It opens with Jugga Badmash seeing his father hanged with a coir noose; it ends with Jugga choosing to cut another coir rope to save those on the train to Pakistan, losing his own life in the process, transformed by his love for Nooran, who is one of the passengers.

The film features some of the greatest stars of India’s middle cinema. Mohan Agashe is outstanding as the morally ambiguous magistrate, while Nirmal Pandey, Smriti Mishra and Divya Dutta are all excellent in their roles, who manage in some way to compensate for the rich prose and descriptive and explanatory sections of the novel.

Although the hero dies and the heroine goes to Pakistan as a refugee shorn of her possessions, the film ends with the train crossing the border and the passengers going on to their new life.

THE PARTITION AND the violence in Punjab were mentioned in several films soon after Independence, perhaps in passing—Aag (1948, directed by Raj Kapoor), Nastik (1954, directed by IS Johar)—or more directly in Chhalia (1960, directed by Manmohan Desai). Several films were based on works of fiction—Dharmputra (1961, directed by Yash Chopra) based on the novel by Acharya Chatursen, Tamas (1988, directed by Govind Nihalani) based on the novel by Bhisham Sahni—but it was perhaps a trauma too great to mention, until its 50th anniversary in 1997, after which several Hindi films re-engage with the theme, notably Pinjar (2003, directed by Chandraprakash Dwivedi) based on the novel by Amrita Pritam. The biggest hit of all was the far from literary Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001, directed by Anil Sharma). The other most famous writer about Partition is Saadat Hasan Manto, whose Urdu short stories such as ‘Toba Tek Singh’ and ‘Thanda Gosht’ are regarded as classics and filmed notably by Nandita Das in her film Manto (2018). The writing and the films are not only about the violence and the displacement but the way in which these horrors became part of daily life—and death—for so many people.

An elderly Sikh gentleman at the festival spoke in the end of how he fled as a seven-year-old from what is now Pakistan to Patiala and lived in a camp. Despite his experiences he had built a new life and felt he was able to participate in a discussion of the book and the film, which clearly moved him to speak, though we didn’t have time to ask him if they had helped him form his own narrative as a survivor.