Khushwant Singh

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Vasant Anant Shahane

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Khushwant Singh, as a short-story writer, pursues and practices the art of the short story in its early twentieth-century mold and narrative form. His stories reveal a distinct narrative structure and an almost traditional development of the plot which recalls, and approximates, the early phase of the Italian novella or German novellum. Although his stories are not tales in the traditional sense, they exemplify many narrative elements of the tale. Although his stories tend to be episodic in structure and intent, the unfolding of the dominant theme characterizes all of his stories. Episodes seem to be dexterously strung together to make the essential point or to delineate character or bring out the significance of action. Action and episode dominate the stories. This dominant characteristic accounts for their being within the traditional mold and conventional pattern.

Singh's stories derive their structure from the plot which is based on conflict or crisis in character and situation. The development of action in his stories is sequential and is marked by progression in time rather than in space. The stories are episodic in some measure since episodes, or units of action, often seem to dominate other elements in the story such as character, theme, symbol. The action is unfolded in a series of complications which evoke curiosity and create suspense. A conflict in situation and character is created, developed, and resolved through a succession of scenes. The resolution of the conflict brings out the point of the story which is sometimes a surprise, sometimes an unexpected tragicomic outcome or revelation; but it is always a fitting finale to the interesting sequence of events. Khushwant Singh's stories display a linear development in sequence, a geometrical design, the lines advancing in straight, though different, directions only to find the ultimate point of resolution.

His stories and techniques cannot be described as modern because they do not transcend the traditional narrative and episodic structure and enter the arena of modernity either of the "luminous halo" indicated by Virginia Woolf or of segments of space-time polarity. (pp. 32-3)

The definitions or descriptions of the novel as a "dramatic poem" or the short story as a "poetic playlet" are inapplicable to Khushwant Singh's novels and to his short stories primarily because the basic quality of his creative mind is not that of a poet but that of a satirically and comically inclined writer of fiction….

The compression of a maximum of life within a minimum of space, which is an essential element of the modern short story, characterizes Khushwant Singh's stories of social import. He is a humorist and realist in one, and his stories reveal this dual artistic power. (p. 33)

Irony is one of the main characteristics of Singh, and his stories illustrate this quality. (p. 34)

"The Mark of Vishnu" is a strikingly original and significant story, and it has found a place in many anthologies of Indo-Anglian and English stories. Though many anthologists seem to admire "The Mark of Vishnu," I believe it suffers from inherent weaknesses of structure, theme, and symbol. First, the title "The Mark of Vishnu" is overweighted with religious and moral significance for the thin body and narrative content of the story to bear as its symbolic heading; second, the irony arising out of the symbolic significance is partly misconceived. (p. 37)

"The Mark of Vishnu" has a powerful theme and an extraordinarily gripping narrative content; yet the irony, which is the keynote of the story, is not quite brought out…. The ironic meaning emerging from the two levels of meaning of the title is the principal motif of the...

(This entire section contains 3230 words.)

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story. The mark of Vishnu is a symbol of divine preservation, whereas the actual "V" mark, dug by theKala Nag's fangs, since it is fatally destructive, is the very reversal of the original Hindu symbol. The issue is presented between superstition and reason, popular belief and corporal reality, pagan faith in animal deity, and the sheer aggressive beastliness of the animal world; yet the question remains whether the problem is appropriately presented…. The sheer scientific, biological, bodily reality, of the natural poisonousness of the fangs of the cobra is pitted against the superstitious-cum-religious belief of the Hindus that the cobra is divine…. Ganga Ram's blind devotion to the Kala Nag, as presented by Khushwant Singh, seems a little unconvincing inasmuch as it is an exaggerated portrayal of a perhaps vanishing Hindu tradition and belief. (pp. 38-9)

Khushwant Singh's art of the short story is marked by a preponderant comic spirit which assumes various shapes and forms…. Singh is a skilled craftsman in unmasking the central character in a story; in the process, he is mildly satirical, or farcical or lively and light-hearted. This process operates extensively in Singh's stories, and man's absurdities are constantly exposed and held up to ridicule. (p. 39)

The quality of experience and its presentation in stories such as "My Own My Native Land" are journalistic and reportorial in nature, which develops into a pattern in Singh's fiction. The experience seems to merely touch the surface of life and does not form part either of sensibility or sensation, the two principal strands in modern English and American fiction…. Singh's stories, though masculine in spirit, do not belong to the world of sensation. They contain qualities which are associated with the essays of Addison and Steele, the perceptive comments on social and individual mores, a fine sense of humor, and a not-too-obtrusive moral intention. Though they lack the urbanity and surface graces of Addison's essays, they embody and encompass his delectable satirical art, his liveliness and humor. (pp. 50-1)

In analyzing some of the sociologically and psychologically motivated short stories of Singh, the critic should recognize and interpret the interplay of means and ends…. Sometimes the characteristics of the central figure undergo a change, but this is only a means of creating the total effect, which is the author's ultimate objective. Thus, the interplay between means and ends constitutes a growth which is almost parallel to the development of the story's structure. (p. 53)

Although Khushwant Singh is a pronounced realist, he quite often confronts the supernatural. His treatment of the intangible, inexplicable, and supernatural elements of human experience and its differentiation from the actualities of existence brings out his view of the complexity of life and the danger of oversimplifying it. He portrays characters and situations that are outside the boundaries of the rational and yet seem truer than real-life characters and commonly prevailing situations. (p. 59)

[Singh] does not quite create what may be termed as "formula" stories, though the elements of ideological and structural manipulation in them are unmistakable. Stories such as "The Great Difference" are essentially sociological and, therefore, approximate to the pattern of the formula story. The accepted pattern of the "well-made tale," too, is relevant to stories such as "Rats and Cats in the House of Culture" and "The Constipated Frenchman." The predominant quality of Khushwant Singh as a short-story writer is his comic spirit, informed by the sense of incongruity and by the bewildering phenomena of contradictions in life. Modern man is up against the absurdities that life presents and though the sense of the absurd has in part led to the formulation of the philosophy of existentialism, which has given birth to writers such as Kafka, Singh is not attracted to this philosophical approach. He is primarily preoccupied with the incongruities of life in a lighter vein and with the comic spirit that is generated from the schism between what men are and what they seem—by the gulf that divides appearance from reality. His short stories communicate elements of experience in which darkness is distilled into light and in which the comic is creatively transmuted into essence. (p. 67)

Train to Pakistan (1956) is one of the finest realistic novels of post World War II Indo-Anglian fiction. It is Khushwant Singh's supreme achievement, which he is unlikely to excel. This realistic masterpiece contains, among other things, a well-thought-out structure, an artistically conceived plot, an absorbing narrative, and imaginatively realized characters. It has many notable features such as an unobtrusively symbolic framework, meaningful atmosphere and a powerful, unvarnished naturalistic mode of expression or style.

The predominant quality of Train to Pakistan is its stark realism, its absolute fidelity to the truth of life, its trenchant exposition of one of the most moving, even tragic, events of contemporary Indian history, the partition. It is also marked by its special naturalistic mores. The individual in Khushwant Singh's fictional world is silhouetted against this vast, panoramic background, the great human catastrophe of the partition of India and the ghastly and inhuman events which followed it. Khushwant Singh's art is revealed in not merely probing deep into the real but in transposing the actual into symbol and image. His art of realistic portrayal cannot be described merely as an exercise in the bookkeeping of existence; in effect, it is a creative endeavor of transcending the actual, asserting the value and dignity of the individual, and finally, of expressing the tragic splendor of a man's sacrifice for a woman. (p. 68)

[The train] indicates the harrowing processes of this change, the awful and ghastly experience of human beings involved in a historical, impersonal, and dehumanized process. The train suggests the fate of individuals, the destinies of the two newly formed nations, consequent upon a political decision and the miseries, sufferings and privations which issue from it. Second, the train is also a symbol of the machine age, an era dominated by science and technology. (p. 69)

[The] train is a dual symbol: it symbolizes life and action but it also stands for death and disaster. (p. 70)

Singh's art of portraying and transmitting atmospheric effects is amply shown in scenes of the trains from Pakistan…. The use of the words "ghost" and "ghostly" forms part of the accentuation of experience and expression. Adjectives in Khushwant Singh are filled with subtle meaning, and single nouns, like little "drops," contain oceans of meaning. Thus, the significance of the title, Train to Pakistan, is woven into the narrative substance of the novel. It also indicates the process of the connection between meaning and symbol. (p. 72)

Train to Pakistan has an almost conventional structure since it grows out of a chronological sequence of time. Yet the structure is not purely traditional because it is superseded by an intangible current of values and also an evolving form. It is not circumscribed by the areas of action and character, but transcends them and enters the area of value judgment…. Thus the synthesis of reality and value is one of the remarkable qualities of Train to Pakistan….

Train to Pakistan alternates between the dramatic novel and the novel of character, between growth in space and movement in time and, therefore, simultaneously develops both of these dimensions. (p. 73)

Train to Pakistan is surely part of the march of the novel toward realism, but it also goes beyond it in the area of values, the field so subtly and superbly explored by great novelists such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. It embodies the exploration of new concepts of reality. Train to Pakistan, in spite of its predominantly realistic mores, tends toward prophetic fiction. Paradoxically, it is prophetic because it is so innately realistic. The exploration of the human world and its related values in Train to Pakistan is more profound and more moving than perhaps the most erudite and expert commentary on aspects of twentieth-century civilization. (p. 74)

It is Khushwant Singh's deep and ethical humanism that governs his portrayal of the real and the actual. Train to Pakistan, therefore, is no mere realistic tract, nor is it a bare record of actual events. On the contrary, it is a creative rendering of the real, and it reaffirms the novelist's faith in man and renews artistically his avowed allegiance to the humanistic ideal. (pp. 103-04)

The symbolistic pattern in the novel, though prominent in places, is overshadowed by the realistic strain. Religious festivals—Baisakhi and Christmas—symbolize the regeneration of man, but the effect is hardly sustained by the sequence of events. Birds too are symbols of the renewal and joy of life, and it is surely ironic that Sabhrai would not, after all this ado, hear the nightingale. The monsoon, which is an atmospheric rhythm, also symbolizes renewal of life in a cyclical pattern, but even its effect in short-lived.

The basic theme, interlinked with symbol, is that of love as a solver of the problems of life—human, social, cultural, and political….

A dichotomy between the inference of the title and the implications of the content is created in I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale. The title signifies the poetic intention of the novelist, whereas the substance of the novel is dominated by dialogue and descriptions of individual, social, and political situations, and by the complications that arise from them. The tension arises out of the difference between the novelist's desire to make a poetic communication about life and his actual performance in capturing merely the physical reality of India in ferment. The schism between symbol and theme, poetical ideal and realistic treatment, is a significant feature of the novel's form.

However, the schism is not deep, and the dichotomy between Khushwant Singh's intention to make a poetic communication about life and his realistic portrayal is resolved by his mode of presentation of lifelike characters. Fictional characters look in two directions, out toward life and in toward art. The characters in I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale look toward life and become lifelike, not artlike. In this process, the dichotomy between the poetic intention and the realistic achievement is resolved since the realm of life is all-inclusive and covers the area of the passion of life and prose of everyday existence. (p. 124)

[The motif of love is] the basic principle, the sine qua non of I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale and, by implication, of Khushwant Singh's attitude toward, and evaluation of life. (p. 125)

Khushwant Singh's nonfiction is pervaded by his view of life, which reveals his "acceptance" of the world with all its bizarre associations. His view of the world shows his positive acceptance of things as they are and thus becomes the kernel of his realistic creed…. Singh's literary talent is versatile, and his comic pose makes him appear sometimes a hedonist and at other times a supercilious social historian. But the fact remains that Khushwant Singh is deeply religious in his basic approach to life, and his inner craving for moral elevation is an act of the will. (p. 141)

Singh's essays are in part personal and in part objectively expository and are marked by liveliness, gentle irony, and an irrepressible comic spirit. His historical sense is often combined with his perception of contemporary relevance, and this movement, backward and forward in time, gives his essays their essential vitality. (p. 142)

[In some of his essays, the] description is almost idyllic, and the poet in Singh bursts out in lyrical expansiveness. But the question arises whether it is genuine and whether this lyrical strain is in accord with the dominant realistic trend in his writing. It seems to me that there is no inevitable conflict or contradiction between the poetical and the realistic elements in fiction and that these apparently contradictory tendencies can coexist and even contribute to the totality of effect in art. (p. 144)

[The] satirical mode is only one aspect of Singh's creative art; certainly, it is not the most important one. He, of course, holds the mirror to India's, and the world's, "Monsters and Monstrosities"; but he also knows that the world is not monopolized by monsters only. There are also angels. As a realist, he faces the monsters, exposes them, ridicules them, and makes them the target of his rapier thrusts and biting irony. As a humanist, he realizes and acknowledges the principle that man will supersede all the monsters and establish the supremacy of the moral law. Man is the crowning glory of creation, and, though he is partly beast, he is also partly angel. In moments of crisis, the angelic in man will triumph over the beastly element in him. This is indeed the moral triumph of man so forcefully demonstrated in Train to Pakistan.

Singh's criticisms and comments on life and personalities aim at reaching the humanistic ideal. The novelist is harmoniously combined with the social critic in his creative self. I think he occupies a special position in his adherence to, and interpretation of, Realism. His creative faculty is preoccupied, not so much with the individual as an isolated entity or with society in the mass, as with the main issue of maintaining the balance between them. The far sighted realist must try to keep the balance between the claims of sociological presentation and the virtues of psychological analysis. Singh's realism thus becomes part of his moral universe. It is tinged with and mellowed by his deep humanistic faith; therefore, it is free from the disastrous effect of Mrs. Grundy, who equates "realistic" with "pornographic." Khushwant Singh's realism is singularly free from this blemish because it is profoundly permeated with moral values. As a creative writer, Singh is an embodiment of the synthesis of the realist and the humanist—which is indeed the essence of his achievement. (pp. 150-51)

An extremely interesting aspect of Khushwant Singh's achievement as an author, of fictional and nonfictional prose, is his use of the English language…. This particular variety of English, sometimes called "Indian English," has been admired by certain linguists, and quite paradoxically denounced as "Babu English" by certain others, particularly by purists. (p. 152)

Another significant aspect of Khushwant Singh's use of language and style is his realistic, down-to-earth idiom, transposed from Punjabi to English, which is a pronounced expression of the quality of his mind and his view of life. He unconsciously, almost inevitably, revolts against the deceptively soft and sweet style of the Romantics and what he believes to be its fake exterior…. Singh's style also seems to be part of the general trend in style that has been influenced by the belief that there is a close connection between serious intention and "unvarnished" realism. The identification of realism or naturalism with the exploration of the more dreary and darker side of life rules out the use of figurative language. (pp. 153-54)

Singh specializes in the use of Indianisms which faithfully depict the gestures, attitudes, and the vernacular of Punjabi villagers. The Punjabi rustic dialect abounds in the use of four-letter words. (pp. 156-57)

These deviations from the norms of native speakers of English or, alternatively, the literal English translations of typical Indian modes of expression or usage, characterize not merely Khushwant Singh's special modes but also his attitudes and value patterns. I admire the delicate and rare combination in Singh of the faithful translator of Punjabi expressions into English and the suave, urbane, cultured, Westernized writer who frequently quotes French and Italian…. Khushwant Singh the typical Punjabi rustic has come to terms admirably with Khushwant Singh the highly educated, Westernized, cosmopolitan, cultured person. In this peculiar synthesis lies the extraordinary vigor and urbanity of his style, the down-to-earth worldliness, and the visionary gleam of his art as a creative writer of great passion and power. (p. 158)

Vasant Anant Shahane, in his Khushwant Singh (copyright 1972 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1972.


Phoebe Lou Adams


K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar