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Khushwant Singh: I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale

This novel is set in 1942 and 1943 in Amritsar. The world is at war and Britain is not doing well, losing to Rommel in North Africa and being beaten by the Japanese in the Far East. The district is run by a twenty-eight year old Englishman, Taylor. Taylor seem a decent man and, indeed, favours Indian independence, though only when the Germans and Japanese are defeated. He feels that if the Indians were to gain independence now, they would be defeated by the Germans and the Japanese and that would not be in their interest.

The story mainly revolves around the Singh family who are, of course, Sikh. The head of the family is Sardar Buta Singh, the chief magistrate in the district, who is close to Taylor. His wife is Sabhrai. She is very religious, invariably turning to religion when she has any problem and is devoted to her family, always looking up to her husband. She does not speak English. They have two children. Sher is tipped as a future leader. He is very much involved in politics and, as we learn almost immediately, that includes anti-British activities. He is married to Champak. Apart from sex, they seem not to be too close, and she spends her time in her room listening to the radio and reading magazines. Sher’s sister is Beena who spends much of her time with Sita, daughter of another magistrate.

The other magistrate is Wazir Chand. He has a son, Madan, who, unlike Sher, is dashing and athletic. Indeed, he is a hero as he scored a century in cricket in a game against an English team. Beena is attracted to him and though she is nominally with Sita to study, her real reason is to see Madan, despite the fact that he is married and his wife is pregnant. Madan and Sher are also fairly close. There is a certain rivalry but Madan accepts that Sher is brighter and more of a leader, while Sher accepts that Madan is stronger and more dashing.

The two are part of a group of other well-connected young men who are opposed to the British and who favour violent means to overthrow them. Sher has managed to obtain various weapons which he has well hidden in his garage. The books starts with the young men meeting together to practise. They have rifles and feel they need to blood the rifles by shooting something. An unfortunate crane is selected as the victim. It does not go well as the crane is one of a couple (cranes are monogamous and often mate for life) and the surviving partner shows her grief in an aggressive manner. More importantly, the local headman appears and demands to see the shooting licence (they do not have one) and he has to be bribed and placated.

The rest of the novel follows two main themes. The first follows the Singh family and their ups and downs: Buta’s relationship with Taylor, particularly with the political situation (both local and the war), various issues relating to the individual family members, Beena wanting an affair with Madan but Champak having an affair with him, and a range of local gossip.

The second theme involves Sher and his group of young men. There is a lot of discussion about Independence, particularly discussion of the Gandhian non-violent approach and their proposed violent approach. However, we also follow their tentative steps to becoming what we might call a terrorist group/freedom fighters (depending on your point of view). They practise some more and have more confrontations with the local headman, who is invariably fawning but also clearly no fool. We also learn that Taylor is also no fool and knows more than they think he knows. When things get somewhat out of hand, Sher is arrested.

Buta is, of course, horrified and immediately disowns his son. Sher himself is weak and bursts into tears when the police mildly beat him up. Taylor remains loyal to Buta but clearly is determined to stamp out any local violent anti-British opposition, not least because there is trouble breaking out all over India.

This is Singh’s best-known novel and it is easy to see why. It gives an insight into a region of India at a difficult time, both because of the war and Anglo-Indian relationships, with many Indians calling for independence. We see a Sikh family at close hand and we also follow a story of immature young men who come from a very privileged background but think they are tough enough to take on the British Empire. We know, of course, that once the war is over, things will change but, in the meantime, it is going to take more than a handful of young men to overthrow the British Empire.

Publishing history

First published in by IBH in 1959