A successful attempt at satirizing aspects of calamity is a difficult task to accomplish. An equally challenging task is of capturing the aftermath of events from perspectives perceived to be removed from the immediacy of on-ground violence. Saadat Hasan Manto, master of the Urdu short story, manages to execute both to perfection in Toba Tek Singh.
The tale reads as an almost mechanical account of patients at a Lahore asylum whose lives change following news of a complete overhaul of the facility because of the India-Pakistan partition (a 1947 event in which borders were drawn leading to the creation of India and Pakistan). There is a division in the relocation of patients according to religion: Muslim patients across the two states are to be relocated to Pakistan only, while Hindu and Sikh ones are to be moved to India.
Manto’s great success is using his mostly unnamed characters to paint the politics and feelings that accompanies the divide. This is especially salient in a setting removed from the horrific violence of the 1947 partition; the place is an isolated mental hospital, and time is at least two years after the event itself. Even in confinement, there is no escaping what has occurred.
What follows is a common question from inmates: how could they be in India in one day, and Pakistan in the next, while never having physically moved?
The narrative’s primary focus is on a Sikh patient named Bishan Singh, a man who is obsessed with determining which side of the border his hometown of Toba Tek Singh lies in. Through Singh, who is nicknamed “Toba Tek Singh” by other patients, Manto portrays confusion, loss, and displacement. When Bishan dies stretched between the two countries in no-man’s land, we understand him as a representation of those who perhaps did migrate physically, but could not come to terms with their reality and remained abandoned somewhere in the middle.
Individuals with mental illnesses are defined as the others’ burden to carry, justified by religious mandates. This highlights the absurd way in which society criminalized persons in the context of new nationalist divisions—Pakistan would tolerate only Muslim deviants, and India only Hindu and Sikh. This premise also provides relevant sardonic commentary on the haphazard and highly paranoid relationship that defines the two territories to this day.
Published in 1955, Toba Tek Singh remains presently pertinent even seventy years after the partition itself.