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A Reassessment of “Toba Tek Singh”, A short story by Saadat Hasan Manto

Sadat Hassan Manto (1912-55) was born at Ludhiana district in Punjab of the undivided India. He lived in India till 1948 before he left for Lahore in Pakistan. He was regarded as prolific Indo-Pakistan writer. Toba Tek Singh (1955) was a short story written in Urdu. The story depicts the human trauma of partition was at the time about a couple of years after the partition of India, of India in a lunatic asylum and their exchange at Wagah boarder check-post.

In this short story, Manto uses a third person narrator to tell a tragic story of the ignorant inmates of a lunatic asylum in Lahore on theme of identity, separation, trauma and confusion in the exchange of them after partition.  Toba Tek Singh is a name of a place located in Pakistan. Bishan Singh who was from Toba Tek Singh is the main character of the story. Everybody calls him Toba Tek Singh.

The settings of the short story is mainly inside a lunatic asylum in Lahore and also at Wagah border check-post. The description of the lunatic asylum and the process of exchange of Muslim lunatic, and Sikh and Hindu lunatics between Pakistan and India happens a couple of years after the partition of India.

A brief story that did the rounds was that the exchange of the lunatic created quite confusion leading to funny developments. Discussions were on as to whether there were Pakistanis and Hindustanis among the lunatics. When asked what Pakistan was, one Muslim lunatic who read the daily newspaper Zamindar, replied that it was a place in India. Likewise, a Sikh lunatic asked another Sikh why they were being deported to India where they did not know the language of the people. The other lunatic responded that he knew the language of Hindostoras and he blamed India. Another Muslim screamed ‘Pakistan Zindabad’.

The entire inmates were not lunatics. A few of them were murderers whose families had managed to keep them at the asylum by bribing the officials to escape the penalty. They were ignorant of the news but they felt that there was a man called Quid-E-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah who created a Muslim country called Pakistan. They knew nothing about the location of Pakistan. Hence, they were confusing India and Pakistan. One inmate climbed on a tree and wished to live on the tree. After coming down from the tree he expressed unhappiness his Sikh and Hindu friends that they were about to leave him and go to India.

A Muslim Engineer has who never mixed with anyone, gave all his cloths to one of the attendant and ran into the garden. Another Muslim who took bath fifteen times in a day declared himself as Mohammad Ali Jinnah while a Sikh also announced that he was Master Tara Singh. A Hindu lawyer was deeply worried if Amritsar where his beloved girl lived would form a part of India. Two Anglo-Indians were also worried if there would be a separate European ward or it would be abolished.

There was also a Sikh who had been there for the last 15 years and was seen to be standing without sleep all the time. When asked about his opinion his reply was ‘’ Uper the gur gur the annexe the bay dhayana the mung the dal of the laltain’’. He desired to know whether his home place Toba Tek Singh was in India or in Pakistan, but inmates had no idea of the Toba Tek Singh because they were very confused that Sialkot which was in India was now in Pakistan. His real name of the Sikh was Bishan Singh who hailed from Toba Tek Singh where he had his family land and property. Once in a month when his visitor came to meet him and he had the good sense to take bath and put all clean clothes on such occasions. His daughter who came occasionally to meet him was always weeping to see his father. He was always enquiring about the Toba Tek Singh without any proper answer. After the partition of India no one had visited him. Bishan Singh asked same question to a lunatic who consider himself a god. He replied that Toba Tek Singh was neither in India nor Pakistan because he was not deciding it as he was busy.

A few day before the exchange, one of his friends, Fazal Din by name, came to meet Bishan Singh and informed him that his family including his daughter have gone to India and he requested to covey his salaam to bhai Banbir Singh, bhai Raghabir Singh and bahain Amrit Kaur. Taking a gift from Fazal Din Bishan Singh asked where Toba Tek Singh was In India or Pakistan?.The replied of Fazal Din was “in India oh no in Pakistan. Bishan Singh unable to control his emotion started murmuring as usual as ‘”per the gur gur the annexe the bay dhyana the mung the dal of the Pakistan and India dur fittey moun.

The exchange of lunatics was on a cold winter day. Some lunatics refused to get down from the trucks, some began to run all the directions, some fought each other, some swore and sang. Bishan Singh also ran back but he was caught and tried to push him in Indian border, but he firmly stood and refused. As he was a harmless man he was left alone for time being, but just before sun rise Toba Tek Singh was found lying on a piece of no man land between the borders two countries.

The story describes the changing of physical and mental behaviours of the lunatics when their exchange between India and Pakistan based on religion or caste was under process.  It is the view of the writer that it difficult to say whether the proposal made any sense or not. The story is to criticize the reason of partition, and aftermath crisis and human tragedies both in the newly created India and Pakistan. The story tells the plight of the lunatic who had nothing to say on the arrangements of exchange except the emotional and physical expression.

The character of Bishan Singh, a mad Sikh represented a group of people whose trauma  was never been noticed. It appears that the Manto satirically compared the madness inside the asylum and what is so called sanity outside the asylum though the writer did not describe the madness outside the asylum as turmoil, hostility and sense of uncertainty. The writer had taken the mental asylum as a small society where inmates of different religions with different types of people were living together as a symbol of mini-country.

The change of behaviour of the lunatics was of the human nature while the arrangement of exchange of lunatics was associated with political and religious ambition.  An underlying idea is that even the lunatics did not agree the decision taken by the politicians and bureaucrats. Bishan Singh was not allowed to go to his home only because he was a Hindu, but he was firmed not to cross the border till death even he was forced to do so. In between the extreme situations he stood so firmly that he died under no one’s orders to a land which was neither in Pakistan nor in India. The mad man could take a decision which he somehow managed to perform. When even lunatics with their natural instinct felt against the partition and their exchange, and then what would be the anguish and suffering of exchange of population on the basis of religion. The feeble voice of lunatics, though reasonable and sentimental were never been heard. The story depicts the plight of such simple and ignorant people whose physical and mental conditions were neglected.

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