Literature & Life

"Karma" by Khushwant Singh

An Exploration of Class, Identity, and Self-Acceptance

Khushwant Singh was a well-known author, journalist, and lawyer from India. He was best known for his prolific writings, which covered a wide range of topics pertaining to Indian society and culture. The short story “Karma” is one of his many literary works, and it is notable for the ways in which it explores topics such as social status, individuality, and the capacity to accept oneself. The complexities of life in colonial and post-colonial India are reflected in these themes. In India, the British influence left an indelible mark on the nation’s cultural and social fabric, and these themes reflect those complexities. Singh deftly explores these themes through the story’s main characters, Sir Mohan Lal and Lachmi, and offers a critical examination of the consequences of rejecting one’s cultural heritage and the importance of embracing one’s identity.

The Characters

Sir Mohan Lal

Sir Mohan Lal is a complex character who represents Indian society’s upper echelons during British rule. He is an English-educated man who aspires to be British, even imitating British mannerisms and clothing. He despises Indian culture and values, frequently mocking them in favour of British traditions. His treatment of his wife, Lachmi, exemplifies his contempt for his roots.


Lachmi represents traditional Indian values. Despite her husband’s mistreatment of her, she is an illiterate, simple woman who remains loyal and committed to him. Lachmi’s personality stands in stark contrast to Sir Mohan Lal’s, emphasising the couple’s estrangement. Singh establishes the groundwork for a thought-provoking examination of class, identity, and self-acceptance through these characters.

Class Struggle

The struggle for social status and class is a central theme in “Karma.” Sir Mohan Lal aspires to be a member of the British elite and distances himself from his Indian roots in order to do so. His obsession with British culture, customs, and etiquette demonstrates this aspiration. He adopts a superior demeanour, believing that adopting British customs will elevate his social standing and make him more respectable.

His ambitions, however, come at a cost. Sir Mohan Lal’s rejection of Indian culture separates him from Lachmi. He dismisses his wife’s traditional values and disparages her illiteracy, ignoring the emotional bond and companionship that marriage should provide. This treatment of Lachmi highlights Sir Mohan Lal’s obsession with social status and reveals the consequences of his unwavering pursuit of a higher class.

During the train ride, the consequences of Sir Mohan Lal’s ambitions become more apparent. When he tries to board the first-class compartment, the British ticket examiner refuses to accept his first-class ticket and throws him out. This humiliating experience serves as a wake-up call for Sir Mohan Lal, exposing the limits of his ambitions and forcing him to face the fact that he will never be truly accepted by the British elite.

Identity Crisis

Another central theme in “Karma” is Sir Mohan Lal’s struggle with his own identity. His constant attempts to appear more British, as well as his rejection of Indian culture, reveal a deep identity crisis. He hides behind a mask, desperately trying to fit in with the British elite while denying his true self.

The train journey is important in Sir Mohan Lal’s understanding of himself. His altercation with the British ticket examiner, and subsequent ejection from the first-class compartment, force him to confront the fact that he cannot escape his Indian ancestry. This experience marks a watershed moment in his struggle with identity, shattering the illusion he has carefully crafted around himself.

Self-Acceptance and Transformation

The train incident in “Karma” provides Sir Mohan Lal with the opportunity for self-reflection and acceptance. As he comes to terms with the fact that his efforts to appear British have failed, he has the opportunity to reconsider his options and embrace his Indian heritage. This transformation would entail not only acknowledging his roots but also learning to appreciate his own culture’s values and traditions.

Sir Mohan Lal’s relationship with Lachmi has the potential for change as well. A greater sense of self-acceptance may result in a better understanding of Lachmi’s values and a more genuine connection between the couple. Recognizing the value of his wife’s loyalty and commitment may pave the way for a more meaningful and fulfilling marriage founded on mutual respect and understanding.

In “Karma,” the theme of self-acceptance serves as a reminder of the importance of embracing one’s identity in overcoming struggles with self-image and societal expectations. It emphasises the futility of attempting to conform to an unattainable ideal and the importance of striking a balance between cultural influences and personal values.


The themes of class, identity, and self-acceptance in Khushwant Singh’s “Karma” are extremely relevant in today’s society. Individuals may struggle with the complexities of navigating multiple cultural identities and expectations as the world becomes more interconnected. Singh’s depiction of Sir Mohan Lal’s struggle with these issues serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of rejecting one’s heritage and the importance of embracing one’s true self.

Khushwant Singh masterfully dissects the complexities of class and identity struggles in colonial and post-colonial India in “Karma.” The author exposes the pitfalls of aspiring to a higher social class at the expense of one’s own cultural heritage through the character of Sir Mohan Lal. The story also emphasises the importance of self-acceptance in overcoming identity struggles, as seen in Sir Mohan Lal’s potential transformation following his humiliating train experience.

Singh presents a thought-provoking exploration of the human condition and the ongoing battle between societal expectations and personal identity by weaving these themes together. “Karma” is a timeless reminder of the value of self-acceptance and of embracing one’s cultural roots.

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