The story set in a small village in Northwestern India in 1947, during the division of India into India and Pakistan. The village is on the border with Pakistan, with both Sikh and Muslim inhabitants. The two ethnic groups have been living together in the village for centuries, but events in the wider world around them are forcing separation.
The book is rather short. More a snapshot of life during a troubled time than a story, since there is no clear beginning or end to the narrative itself. Various characters influence events in the village, such as the social worker from the big city, the chief of police, and the well-known criminal (almost a caricature of “the usual suspect”). The behavior of the characters is often absurd, and governed more by temporary feelings than by rational behavior. Many of the situations would be comical if not for their utter human tragedy. I think that Singh is trying to convey to the reader the absurdity of dividing people who have lived together for centuries in peace based on the thoughts of the rulers. In the village of Mano Majra, there is no conflict between Sikhs/Hindus and Muslims. The conflict comes to the village from the outside, forcing neighbors against each other, and resulting in displacement, despair, and finally massacre. The final sacrifice of the Sikh criminal Juggut to save his muslim lover Nooran is noble, but in the end only a drop in the ocean. Singh also shows how, despite a long history of being peaceful, a place can become the theater of bloodshed all too easily if the rulers (a purposefully vague concept in the novel) do not take care in their exercise of power.
The novel is touted as a portrait of what was actually happening during those troubled times on the Indian subcontinent. But it is not a history of rulers and armies in the traditional sense. The story revolves around simple villagers in a simple village. Villagers who, before the troubles, wanted nothing more than to live their lives in peace.
While the naif style of the prose sometimes grated on my nerves, I found that reading the novel sent a profound message about the responsibility of leadership, and the frailty of our heterogenous human society.