Karma by Khushwant Singh
In Karma by Khushwant Singh we have the theme of self-importance, heritage, control, insecurity, shame, identity and acceptance. Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator the reader realises after reading the story that Singh may be exploring the theme of self-importance. Sir Mohan Lal considers himself to be better than others. Particularly other Indians. It is as though Lal has forgotten or abandoned his heritage and culture in favour of taking on the role of an Englishman. Though Lal has only spent five years in England he has adopted the ways of an Englishman and appears to be somewhat arrogant. Something that is noticeable by Lal’s desire to travel first class away from other Indians including his wife. Who does not appear to have adopted the same traits as her husband. If anything Lady Lal feels comfortable in her surroundings and does not seem to mind the position she finds herself in. Which may leave some readers to suggest that Lady Lal unlike Sir Lal accepts that she is Indian. She has no interest in adopting the culture of an English person and feels at home at the train station and on the train. Something that is noticeable by her chewing on the betel leaves.
Lal’s relationship with Lady Lal is also interesting as he appears to completely control her. The first class compartments are only meant for English people and though Lal considers himself English. He doesn’t consider Lady Lal to be English. It is as though Lal considers his wife to be subservient to him and as such she must travel in the general compartment and not first class. Though it might be worth noting that Lady Lal is content in the general compartment of the train. There is also a sense that Lal is ashamed to be Indian. It is as though he considers Indian people to be inferior and as such he has taken on the persona of an English person. Lal’s use of The Times newspaper is also interesting as he seems to use it as a device to highlight to others how intelligent he may be. It is as though Lal is attempting to change his identity by portraying himself to be something that he is not (an Englishman). Rather than being proud of his achievements and still maintain his nationality or original identity. Lal endeavours to change himself completely. Forgetting his roots and favouring the habits of Englishmen.
If anything it would seem that the most important thing to Lal is to give off the impression to others that he is an Englishman. That he is a man of substance (in his eyes). Unfortunately Lal’s appearance lets him down. Something that is noticeable by the fact that the two English soldiers throw Lal out of the first class compartment because in their eyes he is an Indian and as such should not be in first class. This too may be important as Singh may be highlighting the effects of colonialism on Indian society. Just as Lal considers himself better than Lady Lal. Many English people considered themselves better than Indians. In many ways some readers might suggest that Lal got what he deserved. He is after all an imposter who considers himself better than not only his wife but his fellow countrymen. It is also possible that Lal is insecure about the fact that he is really an Indian and sees no virtue in being an Indian. Whereas many of his countrymen would be proud of where they came from and would not wish to shift their identity.
What is interesting about the end of the story is the fact that Lal is left alone on the platform when the train moves off. Symbolically this could be important. In life it is important to try and keep moving forward. This is something that Lal does not do. He is firmly rooted to the platform yet Lady Lal remains on the train. It is possible that Singh is suggesting that should an individual abandon their heritage or culture as Lal does they are only fooling themselves. It may not be possible for a person to transform their identity into something else due to the actions of others (two soldiers). A person will be judged by their appearance and as Lal did not look like an Englishman to the two soldiers he was removed from the first class compartment. The reader assured that the only injury that Lal would have received is that his pride may have been wounded. The reader is also aware that if Lal had been proud of his own heritage not only would he have not ostracized Lady Lal but he would not have encountered the difficulties he did with the two soldiers. Unfortunately Lal’s belief in his own self-importance is a stumbling block. Which may leave the reader suspecting that Singh is suggesting that an individual should be proud of who they are and not adopt another country’s behaviours and habits as their own.