Khushwant Singh is one of the major Indian English novelists of our times. He is not only a novelist but also a short story writer, a columnist, a journalist, an editor. He has five novels to his credit besides a large number of works on other subjects. He is a reputed social realist. He is a sensitive artist who has used realism so as to present his humanistic vision of life. He is very keen to explore the realities of life. He has a sensitive understanding of the problems of contemporary Indian society. His intimate knowledge of rural and urban India life is an out come of his minute observation of life.
He is a product of western education and culture but he is at heart a Sikh and an Indian. Realism is a remarkable feature of Indian English novel in which Indian sensibility is expressed through a foreign language. T. Anganeyulu rightly says:
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Realism shows real life, facts in a true way. It omits nothing that is ugly and painful and idealizes nothing. The term 'realism' means (1) a theory of writing in which the familiar ordinary aspects of life are depicted in a matter of fact, straight forward manner designed to reflect life as it actually is, ( 2) treatment of subject - matter in a way that presents careful descriptions of every day life, often the lives of so-called middle or lower-middle classes. Realism which refers to both the content and technique of literary creation has been evident in literature from its very beginning.
Indian novelists show a passionate awareness of life in India - the social awakening and protest, the poverty and hunger of the peasants, various dimensions of the struggle for independence the tragedy of partition, social and political changes along with inner life of the sensitive, suffering individuals. Different Indian English novelists have treated different aspects of social life.
Khushwant Singh, like other Indian novelists, explores social, political realities of contemporary Indian life. His main concern is the man and the reality. He has established himself as a distinguished writer of social realism with the publication of his first novel, Train to Pakistan. The term social realism means the depiction in literature of social reality in its true colours. The emergence of social - realistic novel in Indian fiction in English is due to the rise of Nationalistic Movement. The novelists who have been influenced by this movement roused the feelings of nationalism in common man through their works. They also tried their hands to make the people socially and economically conscious.
Most of Khushwant Singh's critics have talked about his realistic portrayal of sex and violence, they have not fully apprehended the expensive scope of his vision of humanism. Khushwant Singh is, no doubt, a writer of social novels but not only sex and violence. He does not keep the surface reality. Unlike the other social writers Khushwant Singh selects his material from the bewildering variety of life and his vision is truly comprehensive.
In shaping the emotional world of an artist the social milieu is one of the determining factors. The more deeply he reflects on the basic trends of society and the more sensitive he is to its processes, the more significant is his work.
Khushwant Singh's special contribution lies in the portrayal of political life in India. Sex, violence are not the only realities Singh's social novels transcend this ideological boundary and present the real picture of society, encompassing the broader humanity. Through his characters he enlivens the contemporary Indian life. He portrays man objectively in relation to society without making him a mouthpiece of any preconceived ideology.
Khushwant Singh's fictional world indicates the richness and depth of his apprehension of reality. He deals with various aspects of social reality. He is the oldest living monument of Delhi. He himself is history. He is the witness of pre-partition national movement, post-partition, Independence, and the modern complex world. He is much interested in human relation. His East-West education and rural-urban life help his fictional world to record contemporary socio-political tensions. He, thus, presents a panoramic view of Indian life.
The relation between literature and society is integral and eternal. The reflexive value of literature though important, cannot be the sole basis of evaluating literature. The angle of vision with which the artist undergoes the experience also shapes the picture of reality presented in his work.
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Khushwant Singh's work has socio-religion-political context, but he is not always in the mood of iconoclastic anger. He is not a committed writer in the narrow sense of being bound up with an ideology or a school. There is no didacticism or moralization in his novels. He neither uses his art for allowed propaganda, nor professes indulgence in art for art's sake. He is the artist's detachment with a humanistic basis.
Khushwant Singh's angle of vision is also shaped by his devotion to human interest. As for example Train to Pakistan shows the unconquerable spirit of man in the face of mighty forces of wickedness and savagery. The novel implies Khushwant Singh's optimistic and affirmative views and his enduring faith in the values of love and humanity. As V.A. Shahane observes Khushwant Singh's realism:
Is not an attempt at a book-keeping of existence, but an artistic endeavour to transcend the actual, asserting the dignity of individual stimuli and expressing the tragic splendour of man's sacrifice for woman.
(Khushwant Singh 347)
It is a grim story of individuals and communities caught in the holocaust of partition of the sub-continent into two states India and Pakistan in 1947. Train to Pakistan is a social, realistic novel. Its social realism is found in characters scenes and language.
As D.Prempati says:
What sort of social realism does one find in Train to Pakistan? The formula which got this novel its well deserved popularity was: A sincere belief in traditional moral and social standards of Indian society and a charming narrative skillâ€¦. It is, therefore, obvious that Train to Pakistan is a documentary novel with no claims whatsoever to the artistic technique and extra artistic philosophies of social realism and naturalism.
(Three Contemporary Novelists 113-114)
The setting of the first three novels, Train to Pakistan, I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale, Delhi is in the context of some historical framework. Khushwant Singh at the same time plays the role of a writer as well as historian. They have an intrinsic quality and ability to look beyond his time. As a novelist he is most responsive to the call of equality, freedom and human rights. It is the writer Khushwant Singh whose writing make the common people socially, politically and culturally conscious. He designed the novels not only to give insight into a period of history, but are exemplary; he illustrates action and are ideal in the sense of manifesting the universal form of human action. Like the other Indian writers, Khushwant Singh responded to these happenings with a sense of horror. A large number of novels were written on freedom movement and on the theme of partition. The novelists skillfully records the reign of violence and the complete destruction of human values.
Literature is the reflection of life. Various events and experience find representation in books. Not all are good, pleasant or profitable. It is the business of a writer to hold a mirror to life. In doing so he may paint some ugly pictures. Who can label these pictures ugly and why if he has comprehended literature? There is nothing good or bad in literature. The writer espies a person or observes an event and records his opinion in a language and style known to him. It all scribblers were to subscribes their views identically, English would be reduced to sheer 'Arithmetic'.
Khushwant Singh very efficiently portrays the real picture of the contemporary society and the social, political and religious behaviour of the people. As we find in Train to Pakintan, the original pictures of the village Mano Majra before and after partition, the love story of Nooran and Jugga, the greedy people, death and violence. Khushwant Singh depicts the peaceful co-existence of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh in a multi-religion society. It has only three brick buildings, one of which is the home of Hindu money lender Lala Ram Lal. The other two are the Sikh Temple and the Mosque. Their common sharing of the ' large peepul tree' is unmistakably the rich common heritage shared by different communities in India. Here life is regulated by the trains which rattle across the near by river bridge. Lala Ram Lal is murdered by Mali and his gang. Suspicion falls on Juggat Singh, the village gangster, who is carrying on a clandestine affair with Muslim girl Nooran, A western educated communist is also involved. A train comes full of dead Sikhs. Some days later the same thing happens again, and the village becomes a battlefield of conflicting loyalties, and neither magistrate nor police can stem the rising tide of violence.
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I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale is appreciated for significant portrayals of the Sikh life and traditions in the days of pre-Independence India. Buta Singh and Wazir Chand both the magistrates cherish pro-British ideology. Their son Sher Singh and Madan are anti British in their attitude. The womenfolk of Buta Singh's family and of wazir chand's family are not bothered about the political life of the country. They are mainly concerned with the security of family life and comfortable living. Sabhrai, wife of Buta Singh happens to be a very religious lady who believes in the sanctity of Granth Sahib and the supremacy of Guru Govind Singh. Champak represents the clandestine affair of the contemporary high society lady. The illicit relationship between Shunno and Peer Sahib is depicted as a counter part to the affairs between (the upper class) Madan and Champak. Khushwant Singh tells us that sexual and sensual urges are very common in all classes of society. Mundoo represents the poor condition of child labour in pre-Independence India. Buta Singh's relationship with Taylor speaks about the behaviour of British rulers with Indian officials.
The novel Delhi is full of Muslim customs and rituals. The novel is not a dirge sung over lost empires. It is a celebration of the unique power of a culture and civilization, the power to generate some of the finer values of life; the power to ensure the survival of these values in the face of a nation; collective debasement, and above all, the power to ensure that when all is lost, an awareness of loss remains. It is superb in its vulgarity and myriad evils of perversity. It is also superb in symbolism of the Indian society, its contradiction, balances, caste and religious communalism, racial and ethnic strife, the spirit of unity in diversity.
The trio-Musaddi Lal Kaysatha, Nihal Singh and Jaita Rangreta in their monologues make a rational assessment of social and political situation and plight of the people in general. Musaddi Lal in his helplessness compares himself with a hijda,; as is the case of Bhagmati, a symbol of Delhi, for their inherent qualities to adapt themselves to any circumstances. The writer depicts every kind of sexual encounter efficiently.
The Company of Women is also based on man-woman relationship. The novel begins with its hero Mohan Kumar, a successful Delhi's businessman, breaking off with his wife and his everlasting 'lusty' effort to set up more flexible arrangement for appeasement of his physical needs. The novel also provides middle class aspirations, the concept of arranged marriages in India, which are often akin to business bargains and the desire for scandalous gossip of the urban elite. The novel chronologically presents the women with whom the hero beds, including his wife. Here Singh seems to have been extending the idea that love and sex know no caste, class and community bar.
Violence is another fundamental aspect in Khushwant Singh's novel. But his final aim is not only to highlight communal violence death, disaster, hate, and vendetta but also to show the path of humanism. Singh's protest against violence, bloodshed and hatred is not merely a physical phenomenon but a continuous process of human civilization. In Train to Pakistan the Hindu - Muslim and Sikh - Muslim riots, death, violence, disorder, chaos are intricately depicted not only at the political level but also at the personal level. At the end Khushwant Singh hints at the ultimate humanism through the love story of Nooran and Jugga. Love has great impact in human life and it seems to be the only resisting human power against all inhuman evil forces. In the days of communal riots, the human relationship among the Hindus - Sikhs and Muslims determines the human values; man - woman love relationship has greater power than the other evil forces. No evil force can subdue love in respect of time or society as the writer presents in the novel.
In I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale, Khushwant Singh is again preoccupied by the theme of the antithesis between violence and right moral conduct and the notion that the only redemptive feature of a situation which justifies pessimisms, or cynicism of outlook depends on a single demonstration of personal sacrifice, honesty and moral consistency. In the novel Buta Singh and Taylor represent not only two different communities but also two different nationalities. At the end Mrs. Taylor and Sabhirai transcend all narrow thoughts of traditional and religious belief. The essence of humanism is in 'love' not in hate and this we find in a micro level in the novel.
Hindu-Muslim riots, Sikh Hindu riots, Jaliwanawala Bagh massacres and assassination of Indira Gandhi are efficiently depicted in the novel Delhi. The anti-Hindu feeling that has prevailed ever since the first Muslim invader came in is emphasized throughout the novel. The arrogance of the Islamic leaders, their dreams of uprooting Hinduism and their belief that they are the only race capable of salvaging the Hindus comes through a number of characters like Taimur, Augangzeb, and Nadir Shah.
Sufi idealism is depicted here as the way of humanism. The Sufi way of life, its philosophy, is imparted to the readers through saint Nizamuddin in his long discourses with Sultan Ghiasuddin Balban. Bhagmati is a symbol of Delhi and from the beginning to the end displays non-communal attitude and has an intrinsic urge to protect the Sikh narrator.
Ultimately, Khushwant Singh tries to establish his vision of humanism as an antidote against violence and communalism. Being a humanist, he cannot help speaking from the point of view of the common man. He warns us that we should stop letting the politicians use religion to take advantage of the sentiment of the masses. This only leads to bloodshed, tremendous loss of life and property. Singh very competently analyses the use of religion by the rulers from the earliest times. He indicates the politicians and holds them responsible for the ills that plague our society. Instead of addressing the real issues like economic disparity, the people in power are only concerned with consolidating their own positions.
He also makes the readers aware of charlatans in our society who prey upon unsuspecting people in the guise of religion. He does this in a very genial, good-natured and humorous manner. He does not try to hurt the sentiments of any particular religious community in any of his writings. Neither does he mock at those for whom belief in their particular religion is something holy and sacred. Rather, he reveals the positive aspect of religion also in I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale. It is the intense faith of Sabhrai that provides succour to her family and holds it together in the face of crisis. Religion also provided comfort to the minorities and the down trodden as is seen in the case of Mussadi Lal and Jaita Rangreta, in Delhi. Down the ages, religion was exploited by successive rulers to strengthen their own position. Of these, it was the English who exploited it to the maximum to foster divisive tendencies. After they left, the national leaders ignored discontent among the masses. Over the years this dissatisfaction was channeled into communalism, again by leaders intent on securing power for themselves. This led to further alienation between the different communities. This is the sinister side of religion, and Singh tries to make one aware of this. Indian history is replete with examples of religion being used as a tool by rulers to secure gains for themselves. Khushwant Singh has desperately tried to expose this unpalatable fact through all his works, specially Train to Pakistan and Delhi. He exhorts people to see through the manipulations of the leaders in the name of religion, and to stop being used as hapless pawns by them. He writes of this so brilliantly that the reader cannot help being moved.
In India there is an inexorable link between religion and politics. Khushwant Singh being a journalist and a sociologist of sorts has taken note of this fact.
Khushwant Singh is able to write so feelingly about religion and politics because he has been personally involved with the subject. His earliest memories are those of his grandmother reciting passages from the Granth Sahib and the Sukhmani. Years later he was a spectator to the horror unleashed by the partition. He was also a witness to the terrible tragedy of the anti-Sikh riots. It is his close association with these subjects that has enabled him to write so poignantly about them. Beginning with Hadali and his grandmother, both of whom have been immortalized in his writings, Singh has written about every subject that has touched him. His friends, family, and his identity as a Sikh; all find a place in his fiction. Apart from this, he writes feelingly about the partition and the city of Delhi that has been home to him ever since he left Lahore. His writing has been enriched by the substantial autobiographical note which is all pervasive in his fiction. In fact, two chapters in Delhi, "The Builders" and "The Dispossessed" have been fashioned through the history of his own family. There has been a growth in the autobiographical content in Khushwant Singh's works. This is evident in Delhi where he is not afraid to speak his personal views and the details of his life. This reveals the maturing and innate honesty of the writer, whereby he is equally comfortable with the squalid, as well as the wonderful aspects of his life.