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Khushwant Singh (1915-2014) has won fame as a journalist as well as a fiction writer. With Malice towards One and All was a very popular weekly newspaper column penned by him. He was editor to the prominent newsweekly known as The Illustrated Weekly. Khushwant Singh is also well known for his poems and short stories.
‘Karma’ is taken from The Collected Short Stories of Khushwant Singh (2005). The story is written with a note of irony. The author shows concern with the issue of cultural identity.
Sir Mohan Lal- a vizier and barrister educated at Oxford
Lachmi– Sir Mohan’s wife
Bill and Jim– two English soldiers
Waiting for the Train
Sir Mohan Lal looked at himself in the mirror of a first-class waiting room at the railway station. The mirror was obviously made in India and not in a very good condition. Sir Mohan smiled at the mirror with an air of pity and patronage. He murmured that the mirror was like everything else in this country- inefficient, dirty, indifferent.
He then addressed himself in the mirror and said he was distinguished, handsome and efficient. He had a neatly-trimmed moustache and was wearing an expensive suit. He called over a bearer and had a drink.
Outside the waiting room, Sir Mohan Lal’s luggage was along the wall. On a small grey steel trunk, Lachmi, his wife, sat chewing a betel leaf and fanning herself with a newspaper. She was short and fat and in her middle forties. She wore a dirty white sari with a red border and had diamond nose-ring and several gold bangles.
She hailed a passing railway coolie and made her way to where the zenana stopped. Lachmi began to chat with the coolie. She decided to eat her food before she boarded the train because it would be crowded. The coolie asked her if she was travelling alone.
She said she was with her husband, but he was a vizier and a barrister who travelled first class. He met a lot of Englishmen in the trains. She was only a native woman who did not understand English, so she travelled in the zenana inter-class.
Lachmi chatted away happily. She had no one to talk to at home. Her husband never had any time for her. She lived in the upper storey of the house and he on the ground floor. He did not like her poor illiterate relatives at his bungalow, so they never came. He came up to her sometimes at night and stayed for a few minutes. They had not had any children yet.
The Train Arrives
The train was approaching the station. Lady Lal hurriedly finished off her meal. The inter-class zenana compartment was almost empty although the rest of the train was packed. Lachmi found a seat by the window and started chewing her betel leaves.
Sir Mohan Lal continued to sip his scotch and ordered the bearer to tell him when he had moved the luggage to a first-class compartment. He wanted everything to be orderly. In his five years abroad, Sir Mohan had acquired the manners and attitudes of the upper classes. He rarely spoke Hindustani. He fancied his English, refined at the University of Oxford. He was fond of conversation, and like a cultured Englishman, he could talk on almost any subject. English people often said that he spoke like an Englishman.
Sir Mohan wondered if he would be travelling alone. It was a Cantonment and his heart warmed at the prospect of an impressive conversation with English officers. He would retire to his corner by the window and get out a copy of The Times which Englishmen often wanted to borrow. Or someone would recognize his Balliol tie which led to a conversation about Oxford. If these failed, he would order whiskey and offer them his English cigarettes.
He was nostalgic about his five years of life in England. They were worth far more than his forty-five years in India with his dirty, vulgar countrymen. The bearer announced that he had put Sir Mohan’s luggage in a first-class coupe and he made his way there. He was disappointed to see that the compartment was empty.
The English Soldiers
Sir Mohan looked out of the window down the crowded platform. His face lit up as he saw two English soldiers looking for empty compartments. He decided to welcome them, even though they were entitled to travel only second class.
One of the soldiers, Jim, came up to Sir Mohan’s compartment and noticed the unoccupied berth. He shouted for his companion Bill to come up. They both yelled at Sir Mohan to get out.
Sir Mohan protested in his Oxford accent. The soldiers paused because it almost sounded like English. But the train was leaving so they picked up Sir Mohan’s suitcase and other items and threw them to the platform. Sir Mohan was extremely angry and called for the guard to arrest them.
At this, Jim struck Sir Mohan flat on the face and both the soldiers grabbed him and flung him out of the train and onto the platform. Sir Mohan was speechless. He stared at the train going past him. As the zenana compartment sped past the platform, Lady Lal spat out her beetle leaves.
The arrogant Sir Mohan who thinks of himself as an Englishman and looks down on his fellow Indians learns a lesson when two English soldiers kick him out of his first-class compartment. This shows us how foolish rejecting one’s own country is.