The Writer as Historical Witness: Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and Chaman Nahal’s Azadi

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Author: C. N. Srinath
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,264 words

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[(essay date 1990) In the following essay, originally presented at a conference in 1986, Srinath uses Train to Pakistan as an example in a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of historical novels.]

One has to examine the implications of the two crucial words ‘historical’ and ‘witness’ in relation to the Commonwealth writer before embarking on a specific study of the two Indian ‘Partition’ novels chosen for comparison. How far can a creative writer be ‘historical’ and ‘witness’ at the same time? Perhaps, in the strictest connotation of the words, they seem to lie outside the frontiers of creative writing. We have seen how good literature, because of its human centrality is essentially contemporary rather than historical. Then ‘the writer as witness’ can be an ambivalent concept. As witness to his own art he is welcome but not as witness to the historical incident which threatens to make him a reporter, at best a realistic reporter unless there is a colouring of imagination.

Let me consider two Indian novels, both products of actual events which shook us to our bones. In Train to Pakistan it is the historian who is the witness-turned-writer that presents all the graphic details of violence in a neutral tone of voice which has an advantage of achieving an objectivity and even some sort of detachment. But this in itself, in another way, may carry seeds of limitation in it, as we see later; the narrative tends to be ruthless, dry and even unconcerned. In Azadi, (the title itself in all its simplicity has profound implications as opposed to the sensational tang of Train to Pakistan), it is the creative writer, who plays the role of historical witness, that makes the novel an imaginative work. It has a limited canvas, comparatively speaking, but the story unwinds itself gradually centring round Lala Kanshi Ram and his family and his town and how they are affected by partition. It is Lala Kanshi Ram’s world that is shaken and the ending of the novel has tragic dimensions with his portrayal as a shattered individual whose cherished beliefs in certain values, not giving him support or sustenance. Partition penetrates this small, peaceful, even complacent world of Kanshi Ram and through this the novelist explores the dehumanising atrocities of partition with profound sympathy. In Train to Pakistan we miss this sadly and what we are given is a wider canvas of action which is probably more realistic but also rhetorical. The characters that figure are men and women who are not personally and deeply affected by partition. Mano Majra is like Sialkot though it sounds more poetic but there is no indication of a homogeneous community there as in Kanshi Ram’s village. Khushwant Singh’s characters are not rooted in Mano Majra; indeed, they could have lived anywhere and so partition does not tear their interior as it does Kanshiram who belongs to Sialkot, and conscious in his bloodstream of his moorings, property and his status in that society.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100123678