Karma by Khushwant Singh

About Khushwant Singh

Khushwant Singh (1915–2014), a brilliant and straightforward writer, was a man of letters, a lawyer, and a journalist by profession, a novelist, a playwright, and a short storey writer in the twentieth century. He served in the Indian Foreign Service in Toronto, Canada, England, UNESCO, and Paris, among other places. He worked as an editor for the Yojana and Illustrated Weekly of India, both published by the Indian government. From 1980 to 1986, he served in the Rajya Sabha, receiving the Padmabhushan in 1974 and the Padmavibhushan in 2007. Truth, Love, and Little Malice (2002), his autobiography, chronicles his rise from a common man to a renowned author of several books. His writing style is very fluid and witty. He is regarded as a true secular Indian.

Summary of Kurma by Khushwant Singh

The story Karma exemplifies the adage “Pride Comes Before a Fall.” It is the story of an arrogant individual who is self-conscious about his culture, lifestyle, and so forth. He despises his wife because she is an ordinary woman incapable of infusing her life with foreign culture. Mohan Lal was a middle-aged British Raj official. He was ashamed to be an Indian and thus attempted to communicate in English or Anglicized Hindustani and dress in the manner of a senior British official. He used to fill in crossword puzzles in newspapers to demonstrate his vast knowledge of the English language. His wife Lachmi was a traditional Indian woman, and as a result, they did not have a happy marriage. The significant event occurred during Mohan Lal and Lachmi’s train journey. Mohan Lal relegated her to the general compartment while reserving his seat in the first class compartment reserved for the British. There he encountered two British soldiers who attempted to assault him. Mohan Lal was thrown out of the train when he attempted to protest. Sir Lal’s pride is thus punished. His wife’s karma, on the other hand, ensures that she travels safely and comfortably in a ladies’ compartment.

Analysis of Kurma by Khushwant Singh

Karma is a short storey by Khushwant Singh that was published in 1989 in The Collected Stories. It is about a native Indian named Mohan Lal who lived under British rule. Indians’ attitudes toward their British masters can be broadly classified into three categories: blind admiration, strong contempt, and mixed feelings. And Mohan Lal is a member of the first group. According to Bhaba, “colonial mimicry is the desire for a transformed, recognisable Other, as the subject of a nearly identical difference.” Yes, Sir Mohan Lal has spared no effort in becoming an Englishman. The very title ‘Sir’ implies this, as it is “preceded by the first name of a man who has been awarded one of the highest British honours (=a KNIGHT)”. The storey begins with Sir Mohan examining his own reflection in the mirror of a ‘first class’ railway station waiting room:
Distinguished, effective, and even attractive. That neatly trimmed moustache – the Saville Row suit with the carnation buttonhole – the scent of eau de cologne, talcum powder, and scented soap all around you! Yes, you are a bit of a gentleman, old fellow.

He regards himself as an exemplar of Western culture, which makes him more efficient and distinct from other Indians. As a middle-aged man, he even appears dashing in a Western suit and high-end cosmetics. According to Lacan, “the effect of imitation is camouflage…it is not a matter of harmonising with the background, but of standing out against a mottled background.”

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Sir Mohan, a blind admirer of western culture, despises anything indigenous. When he discovers that the mirror is in poor condition and does not reflect a ‘first class’ image, he readily concludes: “The mirror was clearly made in India.” It is a metaphor for his fate, demonstrating that he does not belong in the first class waiting room reserved for Englishmen. Unaware of the impending doom, he lumps it in with the rest of the country: “You are so much like everything else in this country, inefficient, filthy, and indifferent.” In this regard, Rabindranath Tagore states, “…we take for granted that India lacked culture, or had a semblance of culture.” When we hear foreign pundits lauding India’s culture, we can no longer contain ourselves and rend the sky with the cry that all other cultures are merely human, but ours is divine—a special creation of Brahma.” The same sentiment is expressed in Nandalal Bose’s Vision and Creation: “…we have remained ignorant and insensitive to the glory of our forefathers’ painting, sculpture, and architecture; foreign connoisseurs have been required to come and expound it to us.” To our shame, even contemporary art is not recognised in our country until it achieves acceptance in foreign markets.” This sense of reliance on the Western world is a direct result of colonial rule. Two centuries of dominance over the Indians were likely to project the British culture and language as superior, powerful, aristocratic, and glamorous enough to attract slaves. As a result, Mr. Lal prefers to communicate in English: “He seldom spoke Hindustani.” When he did, it was as if he were an Englishman—using only the most essential words and properly anglicising them.” As a cultured Englishman, he was capable of conversing on virtually any subject—books, politics, or people. Sir Mohan acquired ‘the manners and attitudes of the upper classes’ during his five years abroad. Thus, the indigenous ‘excitements, bustle, and hurry’ appear to him as ‘exhibitions of poor breeding’. He prefers to walk with a’studied gait’ and wear ‘a matter-of-fact expression’ like an Englishman.

Existential crisis is a central theme in postcolonial discourse. Existentialism’s definition is the subject of a flurry of heated critical debates. However, a central proposition of Existentialism is that existence precedes essence, which means that the primary concern for individuals should be that they are individuals—independently acting and responsible, conscious beings (“existence”)—rather than what labels, roles, stereotypes, definitions, or other preconceived categories they fit (“essence”). Individuals’ actual lives constitute what might be called their “true essence,” rather than an arbitrarily ascribed essence that others use to define them. Thus, human beings create their own values and give meaning to their lives through their own consciousness.” Mohan Lal becomes alienated from the world around him as a result of his self-denial and yearning for the foreign (“The desire of the moth for the star”). He is not permitted to travel with his wife, live on the same floor with her, or have mutual sex with her:

She lived on the second floor of the house, while he was on the ground floor… He occasionally approached her and stayed for a few moments. He simply directed her in anglicised Hindustani, and she passively obeyed. However, these nocturnal visits had been fruitless.

Sir Mohan’s sexual frustrations (‘all-too-brief sexual acts’), the hidden violence in his ‘anglicised Hindustani’ order, and his’subject’s’ passive obedience all suggest colonizer-colonized experiences. In some ways, Lachmi (his wife), who is ‘obese’, ‘old’, and’smelling of sweat and raw onions’, barely exists for him. Naturally, his ‘illiterate’ relatives and ‘dirty, vulgar countrymen’ are irrelevant to him.

After being alienated from his wife, his people, and his culture, he desperately attempts to identify with the English people, of which he believes he is a part. Far from any traditional attire, such as a ‘white sari with a red border,’ he dons a foreign suit and a Balliol tie in order to transport himself to “the fairy land of Oxford colleges, masters, dons, tutors, boat races, and rugger matches,” where he may have once existed. He always carries the English daily The Times, English wine, and English cigarettes in a handsome gold case, all of which serve to impose an Englishness on himself. He is perpetually ready to express the long-repressed “five years of grey bags and gowns, of sports blazers and mixed doubles, of dinners at Court inns and nights with Piccadilly prostitutes,” but no Englishman will listen to him.

Sir Mohan, seated in the empty compartment, peers out the window, as if seeking disillusionment. When he notices two English soldiers approaching, he decides to greet them and even speak with the guard to arrange for them to travel in the ‘first-class coupe’ with him. To his dismay, he discovers that he is nothing more than a ‘nigger’ in their eyes. He is instructed to exit the compartment, naturally in anglicised Hindustani: ‘Ek Dum jao.’ Mr. Lal makes a futile attempt to protest in his ‘Oxford accent’: “They picked up Sir Mohan’s suitcase and hurled it onto the platform. Following that were his thermos flask, briefcase, bedding, and a copy of The Times.” He shouts again, hoarse with rage, ‘Preposterous, preposterous,’ only to be slapped and thrown from the train. Furthermore, he “reeled backwards, tripped over the bedding, and landed on the suitcase.” Thus, at the conclusion, Mohan Lal’s long-cherished balloon of Englishness is punctured. Oxford’s illusion is over. He no longer belongs to either the Balliol or the betel. As a matter of fact, he does not exist: ‘he lost his speech.’ He is a man who is lost in a land where he has no purpose in life.

In stark contrast to Mohan Lal, Lachmi is portrayed as a simple woman who embodies the everyday indigenous Indian under colonial rule. She is found sitting on a small grey steel trunk, chewing a betel leaf and fanning herself with a newspaper, short and fat in her mid-forties. As is customary for an Indian woman, she enjoys wearing ornaments. She also enjoys conversing with people regardless of their social status. She prefers to travel where she fits and is unafraid to admit it: “I am unable to communicate in English and am unfamiliar with their customs, so I stick to my zenana inter-class.” She is without pretence. She is perpetually true to herself. She is also not a devoted wife. Despite the fact that her husband has no time for her, she never complains. She is constantly attempting to be content with what she has or is. She appreciates a straightforward meal of chapattis and mango pickle. Thus, the portrayal of this straightforward image of Lachmi serves to emphasise the survival of essential Indianness in the face of colonial influence. The bearer and the porter represent the working class in that era’s society, while the two soldiers represent the ruling class. All of these elements contribute to the text’s postcolonial flavour.


1.In what condition was the mirror in the 1st class waiting room?
Ans: The mirror was not in good shape and at some places on the backside ,the redoxide coat had come off.

2. How was Mr. Mohan Lal dressed as he stood before the mirror?
Ans: Mr. Mohan Lal stood before the mirror dressed in a suit from Saville Row with the carnation in the buttonhole.

3.What did Mohan Lal order the bearer in white livery ?
Ans: Sir Mohan Lal ordered the bearer in white livery a small peg of scotch whiskey.

4. What did Lady Lal purchase from the hawker’s stall in the platform?
Ans: Lady Lal had purchased betel leaves from the hawker’s stall in the platform.

5.What type of co-passengers was liked by Sir Mohan Lal?
Ans: Sir Mohan liked English officers as his co-passengers.

6. How does Sir Mohan Lal compare his five years spent in Oxford with his present long forty five years stay in India?
Ans: Sir Mohan Lal considered his five years stay spent in Oxford as glorious and his forty five years  stay in India as worthless.

7.What did Sir Mohan Lal do as the bearer installed his luggage in a first class coupe?
Ans: Sir Mohan Lal had walked without hurry and excitement to the first class coupe where the bearer had installed his luggage.

8.Where was the guard and what was he doing?
Ans: The guard was standing in the open doorway and was waving his green flag.

9.What did Jim do to Sir Mohan?
Ans: Jim struck Sir Mohan flat on the face as Sir Mohan was shouting in protest.

10.How did Sir Mohan feel as the train went past him?
Ans: Sir Mohan was speechless and he stared at the lighted windows of the train going past him.

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Descriptive Questions

1.“I’ll have you arrested”— Who said this and to whom? Why did the speaker say this? What was the result? Ans: In the story ‘Karma’ by Khushwant Singh, Sir Mohan Lal said this to the two English soldiers.
Those two English soldiers after entering the compartment had picked up Sir Mohan’s suitcase and other belongings and  had thrown them one by one on the platform. On seeing this Sir Mohan was extremely and had uttered the quoted line.
The two English soldiers paid no heed to Sir Mohan’s threatening words. One of them namely Jim struck Sir Mohan flat on the face. Bill joined Jim and both of them caught Sir Mohan by the arms and flung him out of the train compartment. Sir Mohan reeled backwards, tripped on his bedding and landed on his suitcase .The train gradually took speed and left the station.

2. Describe Sir Mohan’s appearance. How was Lachmi dressed?
Ans: Sir Mohan  had a neatly trimmed moustache, wore an expensive suit from Saville Row with a carnation in the buttonhole. He wore an expensive perfume and his used talcum powder and soap emitted good fragrance. His watch was costly and he possessed a gold cigarette case.

Lachmi wore a dirty white saree with a red border. She wore a diamond nose ring and had several gold bangles on her arms.

3. Discuss the role of irony in the play ‘Karma’.
Ans: Irony plays a very important role in the short story ‘Karma’. Sir Mohan travels first class and is confident that he knows the British ways of life. In spite of everything , at the end of the story it is ironical that Sir Mohan is thrown out of the compartment. On the other hand, Lachmi gets respect from the poor Indians and travels comfortably in the Zenana compartment. It is due to ironies of fate that  Sir Mohan Lal is insulted and humiliated by the class of people whom he admired the most.

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