One Subject; Two Books

A subject we’ve all heard about, but may know little.  I’ve seen bits of Gandhi, but never watched the whole film.  Partition.  I’ve tended to recoil.

But over at the Guardian Books Blog I was recommended to read not one, but two books; the first from an Indian who experienced the events; and the second from an Englishman, who I know writes beautifully, and who returned to meet old friends some years later.

The frontier became a river of blood in 1947, as Sikhs and hindus went in one direction; muslims the other.  Khushwant Singh, who went on to become an MP in the 80s, wrote of the tragedy that played out before him.  He builds a fictional account, life in a village, peaceful life as villagers vow to get through it together.  Then a train arrives, laden with thousands of dead Sikhs.  And many Muslim lives are saved, the efforts of one Sikh

Singh published Train to Pakistan some years later, in 1956.  There was a 50th anniversary edition relatively recently, and that was enhanced by previously unpublished photographs of Margaret Bourke-White, whose role in Gandhi was played by Candice Bergen.


More than Singh’s story it is the photographs that bring the full horror of the events.  I will spare you these, for now.  The vultures made no distinction, religious or otherwise.  Bourke-White has expressed the view that the exodus of the children of Israel was nothing compared to the migrations of the partition of India.  I have to confess that thoughts of the holocaust that saw them return came to mind as I saw what she had captured of the horrors that befell the Punjab.  Yet we give little acknowledgement to the events the followed the days of Our Empire.

It is an entirely lighter mood that fills Peter Mayne’s The Narrow Smile.  He had served in the North West Frontier Province and returned in the early 50s, to meet up with old friends and to travel in the tribal areas of the recently created Pakistan, and in the cities of his past.  It was the Pakhtuns in which he was most interested.

At the time there was much talk of further uprising, of Pashtunistan; and indeed the same issue has returned in the past decade as the area is ripped apart.  The tendrils of the British Empire will embarrass us for a long time to come.

Mayne though is a fine writer.  He arranges a trip to Kabul, and Embassies, tea-parties, Masters of Hounds and much more.  But he has a background across the border, and is less trusted in Afghanistan for that.  And in the background the Hindu Kush, sprawled like a snow-leopard all over the north.

Mayne introduces us to some interesting characters, in interesting times, and we look at those days from the present, still with little understanding.  He is most relaxed amongst the tribesmen and in the villages; endures bus travel without food, seats, comfort or air, reverting to the roof in the manner of the movies we see from bygone days.  But the world he visits is solely the Muslim world, and only once does he mention the departure of the hindus.  But then he is devotee of Marrakech, and was then.



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