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SINGHBorn on Feb. 2, 1915- March 20, 2014
Indian novelist, lawyer, journalist,
Born and raised in Hadali, Punjab
(now in Pakistan)
Studied law at St. Stephen’s College,
Delhi and King’s College London
Married to Kawal Malik
After working as a lawyer in Lahore Court for
8 years, he joined the Indian Foreign Service
upon the Independence of India from British
Empire in 1947.
Appointed journalist in the All India Radio
Moved to the Department of Mass
Communications of UNESCO at Paris (1956)
Best known for his trenchant secularism,
humour, sarcasm and an abiding love of poetry
Served as the editor of several literary and news
magazines, as well as two newspapers (1970’s and
Bet. 1980-1986, served as Member of Parliament
in Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Parliament
Decorated with the Padma Bhushan (1974) but he
returned the award in 1984 in protest against
Operation Blue Star in which the Indian Army
In 2007, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan,
the 2nd highest civilian award in India.
"Karma" is a story written by Indian
writer Khushwant Singh. It was
originally published in 1989 in
Singh's The Collected
Stories. Karma is about an Indian
"Gentleman" who tries to adopt upper
class English culture and lifestyle such
as speaking the "Queen's English", and
about his relation with his wife etc.
Mohan Lal is one of the main characters in
the short story. His characterization is done
both directly by the narrator, his wife and
himself, and indirectly through his actions
Mohan Lal is a middle-aged Indian man,
educated in England, who works as a lawyer
and a vizier in his native country (p. 179, l. 28)
The defining personality trait of Mohan Lal is
his arrogance which can be identified based on
his attitude towards Indians and his wife.
He treats his wife with indifference and
superiority. While waiting for the train, the two
of them never speak.
Lachmi is Mohan Lal’s wife and the second important
character in the story. Her presence in the short story
helps emphasize Mohan’s arrogance through contrast,
as the woman is very different from her husband, being
a typically Indian wife.
The first contrast between the two characters is in
terms of physical appearance. While Mohan Lal is
clean and dresses like a westerner, his wife is dressed
in a dirty traditional sari:
When it comes to the woman’s personality, her main
traits are her modesty as she knows where she belongs
in the Indian society, and her carelessness with regards
to everything around her.
The bearer and the coolie
The bearer and the coolie are secondary
characters and they are only briefly
sketched in the short story.
The English soldiers
The English soldiers are also secondary
characters, but they function as
‘instruments’ of karma in the short story.
Their discriminating and aggressive
attitudes teach Mohan Lal a lesson about
NGThe short story “Karma” by Kushwant Singh is
set somewhere in India, in a railway station.
Though we do not know the exact time
setting of the narrative, the presence of the
English soldiers and the date when the short
story was written (1950) indicate the action
might be set sometime before India’s
The elements of the physical setting are the
railway station waiting room, the train platform
and the train compartments.
The waiting room for the first class is only depicted
from Mohan Lal’s perspective, which focuses on the
poorly made Indian mirror:
The social setting of the short story is more
important than the physical one, which only helps
present the former. The story depicts a class
Indian society, in which both women and lower-
class Indians are treated in a different way.
Lachmi travels in a special compartment for
women and not with her husband in his first-class
coupe. The bearer and the porter are servant
labourers and treated as such:
It is a first class waiting room at the
railway station. Sir Mohan Lal is
found standing before the mirror. The
mirror is worn-out and partly broken.
He hates the mirror as he hates
everything of India. But he admires
his own appearance. He looks perfectly
like a sahib. The train is yet to come.
He calls the bearer and orders a drink.
Outside the waiting room, Lachmi, his wife
is sitting on a small grey steel trunk. She
is chewing a betel leaf. She is a traditional
Indian woman and is commonly dressed.
She requests a coolie to carry her luggage
to the end of the platform. She will get into
the inter-class woman compartment. She is
not allowed to accompany her husband in
the first class compartment, because her
husband is a high government official, a
He will meet many officials in the compartment.
But Lachmi cannot speak English and does not
know their ways. Obviously, she cannot travel with
her husband. She hardly enjoys the company of
her husband. He visits her rarely at night. Then
Lachmi plays the role of a passive partner. They
have no child.
The train arrives at the platform. Lachmi enters
the inter-class compartment. It is almost empty.
She prepares some betel-leaves and starts chewing
There is a lot of noise. Passengers are jostling on the
platform. Sir Mohan Lal totally detests them. He is calm and
quiet. He is still enjoying his drink. He has spent five years in
Oxford University. He strictly follows the manners of the
English. He rarely speaks Hindustani. He speaks in English
with a foreign accent. He can talk on any subject like a
cultured Englishman. Indeed, he always feels at home with
the English. He expects some Englishmen as co-passengers.
In that case it will be an enjoyable journey for him. But he
shows no sign of urge to talk to the English like most of the
Indians. He pretends to read The Times. He has already his
Balliol tie. He orders whisky. And lastly, he opens his gold
cigarette case full of English cigarettes. He knows well that
all these things will automatically arrest the attention of the
Englishmen. Now he recalls his five-year glorious life of
England. He loves everything of the country. Even the
prostitutes of England are more charming to him than his
However, Sir Mohan enters his reserved first class
coupe. It is empty and so he is sad. He begins to read The
Times. Just then two English soldiers appear. They are
looking for a suitable compartment. Sir Mohan is ready
to welcome them. The two soldiers ultimately choose Sir
Mohan’s compartment. But they order him to get out
from the compartment. Though it is reserved, the
soldiers do not care for it. Sir Mohan protests mildly. His
royal English, sahib like appearance and The Times come
of no use. The soldiers throw all the belongings of Sir
Mohan out of the train. Finally they push him out of the
train. The train quickly passes the station leaving him on
the platform. His wife, totally unaware of his condition,
chews the betel leaves, spits and sends a jet of red dribble
flying across like a dart.
S The word karma is a Sanskrit one and literally means
destiny. It also has a Hindu theological idea, but it has
been used as the title of the story only to speak about the
identity crisis of a person who blindly imitates the western
culture and fashion under the impact of British colonialism
Irony forms one of the basic characteristics in Khushwant
Singh’s style of writing. The consequence of Sir Mohan’s
babu-culture is ironical. The irony lies in the fact that he is
neither a British nor an Indian. He has no real identity. He
himself has lost it. Khushwant Singh has portrayed a deep
ironical view of the world around him through this story.
Mohan Lal and Lachmi are totally opposite characters
though they are couple to each other. Mohan Lal is a
blind follower of the English culture, whereas his wife
Lachmi is a typical Indian woman. Finally, Mohan Lal
loses his identity, but Lachmi has no such crisis.
Through this story, Khushwant Singh warns us against
our false belief in foreign excellence. It teaches us not to
cut our roots off with our own soil, men and civilization.
Otherwise, we are sure to face humiliation and tragic
The story shows Khushwant Sing’s art of presenting the
psychological aspects of human beings nicely. His power
to study of man is as remarkable here as the glamour of
his linguistic style to present them vividly.
MESBrute versus Refined
The story revolves around the contrast between
brute, visceral behaviour, and an educated,
Mohan Lal represents the refined man. Though
an Indian, he has been educated in Oxford and
has acquired the English manners and the
English dress code. Even if he returned to India
and had been living there most of his life, he
stubbornly continues to conform to British
Power and Symbols
The theme of power and symbols is more subtly explored by the
author. At a first sight, the story seems a very simple account of
a man receiving a karmic lesson for his arrogance. However, at a
closer look, the text has a lot of hidden symbolism.
Motifs: arrogance, discrimination and class
The themes of the short story are enhanced by several motifs.
The story shows that refinement leads to arrogance. Mohan Lal
acts arrogantly towards his wife and fellow countrymen because
he sees himself as an educated gentleman, a citizen of the
British Empire. But the English soldiers also act arrogantly,
even if they are not educated, for the simple reason that they
were born English and India is a colony.
The story Karma illustrates the famous proverb "Pride Comes
Before a Fall". It is the story of an arrogant person who feels
bad about his country's culture, lifestyle etc. He is
condescending to his wife because she is an ordinary woman
unable to appreciate his aristocratic English culture
Imitation of foreign culture
Unhappy married life
Contrast of culture and life-style
Aristocracy and patriotism