Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’ (1955) was written in the aftermath of the Partition of India and Pakistan that accompanied independence in 1947 and satirises the insanity of the violence of partition. The satire is achieved by making a mental asylum the primary setting of the story and its inmates, including the protagonist, the chief characters.
The setting of the story is thus – the nations of India and Pakistan are newly independent and newly partitioned, in the wake of this the governments of both the countries have decided to hold an ‘inmate exchange’ of sorts in the mental asylums wherein the Hindu and Sikh inmates in Pakistan would be transferred to India and the Muslim inmates in India to Pakistan. What follows is a short story of the inmates reacting to this news and the subsequent exchange.
Through his characters, Manto blurs the line between rationality and irrationality that is supposed to be demarcated by the walls of the asylum. He brings into question the so-called rationality of the world outside that let something like horror that was the partition of 1947 take place. He comments on the Partition and the politics and violence of partition through the Muslim and Sikh lunatics who declare themselves to be Mohammad Ali Jinnah the Qaed-e-a’zam and Master Tara Singh respectively (both of whom were important political figures at the time and continue to remain important historically). In the story, “The imminent bloodshed in the enclosure was, however, avoided by declaring both of them dangerous and confining them in separate cells.”. This is in obvious contrast to the ‘rational’ and ‘sane’ world outside where political differences and policies culminated in large scale violence and bloodshed.
The news of the Partition leads to a lot of confusion within the asylum, even the inmates who were not really insane have only vague notions about the Partition. The inmates only knew that there had been Partition and as a result, some of them would be transferred, they, however, couldn’t understand the notions of Hindustan and Pakistan and were puzzled by it, “they did not know a thing about its actual location and its boundaries. That is why all the inmates of the asylum who weren’t completely insane were thoroughly confused about whether they were in Hindustan or Pakistan. If they were in Hindustan, then where was Pakistan? And if they were in Pakistan, then how was it possible since only a short while ago they had been in Hindustan, and they had not moved from the place at all?”. The question of belonging is further highlighted through the inmate who used to be a Hindu lawyer from Lahore and had been in love with a Hindu girl from Amritsar. After finding out that Amritsar had gone to Hindustan, “he would abuse all the Hindu and Muslim leaders who had got together to split Hindustan into two- turning his beloved into a Hindustani, and him into a Pakistani.”. This confusion and uncertainty with respect to the boundaries and sense of belonging mirrors the disorientation that was a consequence of Partition in the outer world.
While Manto mentions various ‘lunatics’ in this short story, at the centre of the story lies Bishen Singh, also called Toba Tek Singh after the village he comes from. Bishen Singh was a Sikh inmate who had been in the asylum for fifteen years. “He would often be heard blurting out a string of strange, unintelligible phrases like “opar di gurgur di annexe di bay dhiana di mung di daal of the laltain.””. He never slept and, according to the guards, he hadn’t slept in fifteen years. He didn’t even lie down, “though he would lean against a wall and take a “tek” now and then.”. Manto further describes him, “The lunatic’s kesh had become sparse and straggly. As he seldom took a bath, the hair on his head was entangled with his beard, giving him a fearsome look. But he was a harmless fellow, and had never got into a brawl with anyone during the last fifteen years. The older staff in the asylum knew that he was a fairly well to do landlord from Toba Tek Singh, where he had considerable landed property. One day, without any warning, his brain had gone awry.” Bishen Singh becomes the central character and his confusion and desperation to find out the fate of his village after the Partition reflects the state of uncertainty created by Partition.
The first change that occurs in Bishen Singh is in his speech which changes from an already incomprehensible speech to an even more absurd one that highlights the absurdity of the Partition and the chain of events surrounding it. When asked about his opinion, Bishen Singh replied, “Opar di gurgur di annexe di bay dhiana di mung di daal of the government of Pakistan”. “Government of Pakistan” was later replaced by “Government of Toba Tek Singh” in his speech. His main concern was finding out whether Toba Tek Singh went to India or Pakistan, however, his questions were only met with confusion. This is reflected in the lines, “no one knew whether it was in Pakistan or Hindustan. Those who attempted to explain got entangled in the confusion that Sialkot, which had earlier been in Hindustan, was now reported to be in Pakistan. Who knew whether Lahore, which was now in Pakistan, would not go over to Hindustan the following day, or the whole of Hindustan would not turn into Pakistan? And who could say with certainty that someday both Hindustan and Pakistan would not vanish from the face of the earth altogether!”
As the story progresses, Bishen Singh’s desperation to find out the fate of Toba Tek Singh increases. He approaches a lunatic who called himself Khuda who replies “it’s neither in Pakistan nor in Hindustan, for we haven’t yet passed on the orders”. While this instance reflects the utter desperation and hopelessness surrounding the sense of belonging, it also reflects the real-life consequences of the bureaucratic policymaking where decisions like Partition and the subsequent boundaries were decided upon.
In the end, Bishen Singh stands unmovable in the no man’s land between India and Pakistan during the transfer of inmates and stands resolute despite the numerous attempts by the soldiers on both sides to move him. It is there in that no man’s land that he dies. His last moments are described by Manto in the final paragraph of the story, “Just before sunrise, a sky rending cry emerged from the gullet of Bishen Singh, who till then had stood still and unmoving. Several officials came running to the spot and found that the man who had stood on his legs, day and night for fifteen years, was lying on his face. Over there, behind the barbed wires, was Hindustan. Over here, behind identical wires lay Pakistan. In between, on a bit of land that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh”. These last lines hold a great symbolic importance and highlight the cruelty of Partition and make us question the rationality of the world and the people who were behind that decision.
Thus, Manto uses the trope of madness, the setting of a mental asylum, and his various characters, most significantly Bishen Singh, to comment on the irrationality and insanity behind the partition. He problematizes the notion of rationality and sanity using the world of the asylum and presents it as a mirror of the world outside.