The book is about the bloody aftermath of one of the most significant events that affected India when she gained Independence- partition. Set in the summer of 1947 in a tiny nondescript village called Manomajra near the border, Independence does not mean much to the simple residents of this village, for whom the only concern is either the river Sutlej rising, or what the local badmash Jugga is up to. Made up largely of Sikhs and Muslims, again the religious differences too are of no concern to them. However, the residents are shaken when the village bania (money-lender) is murdered. Various theories arise. Add to it, the arrival of a train full of corpses from Pakistan, and the presence of a mysterious England educated 'babu', loyalities slowly start shifting. A plan is hatched to send a trainful of corpses back to Pakistan. So what happens next?
An engrossing read. The storytelling is brilliant, and one gets hooked to the book. It was first published in 1956, but Singh was far-sighted, and he has described everything so well, even what might have been considered routine then. It makes it easy to imagine how life was then. Right from the punkah which had to be manually pulled by someone, to how neighbours interacted with each other. Even most of the common Hindi abuses are translated into English!
On a more serious note, it attempts to give an insight satirically, into what the common man faced when the partition was made. It might have been easy for the leaders to sit around a table sipping coffee and smoking vilayati cigars, to draw a line on a map of India and call the part on the left-hand side, Pakistan. But for millions of people on both sides of the line created, it meant leaving behind everything they had and fleeing to a new land. People who might have never gone out of their villages, were now boarding trains in thousands as refugees to a distant land, unsure of what would happen next. People died. Died due to atrocities from either religions. Died due to diseases affecting the refugee camps. Died due to suffocation in trains. People died.
And, some of the things that happened then, hold good even today. How easy it was, is and will continue to be in our country, to divide people based on religion. That's the plot of the book, and what continues to happen in our country even today. Spread a rumour, and people are bound to get into a mad frenzy. At two points in the book, I actually got goosebumps imagining all the brutality inflicted and borne by people. The best part however was, it takes no sides, and just attempts to show how illogical both sides were.
As a line in the book says, "...Yes, Mr. Prime minister, you made your tryst. So did many others".
This is a must-read for all those who like modern Indian fiction.
(Picture sourced, and book bought from Amazon)