In Thomas Stephen Szasz’s words- “Insanity is the only sane reaction to an insane society.”
Written by Saadat Hasan Manto in 1955, ‘Toba Tek Singh’ highlights how the lunatic Bishan Singh gave a response, which was saner than that of the other people deemed “sane” by society.
Manto’s work depicts his perception of mental illness. Set in the post-partition era, the story has been narrated from the eyes of Manto on how the world was clueless about their land, their identity by describing the usage of a mental asylum as a mirror to the outside world. This highlights Manto’s clever reality check on who exactly the insane is and who isn’t. The story showcases the psychological and emotional impact that the divide had on the people outside the asylum.
Expressing a satirical representation of the relationship between India and Pakistan, the writer attempts to throw light on how societal norms gained greater importance than the individual’s ethical views, ethics being embodied by the protagonist Toba Tek Singh. Taking his last breath on no-man’s land, he refused to surrender to the brutality of the situation, indicating the strong message of the futility of war and how political decisions made by people in power affect the lives of common citizens.
Manto’s excellent work of giving a different perspective to the Indo-Pakistan divide refreshes the memories of a united India, the sane now turned insane in the hands of politics.
“Uper the gur gur the annexe the be dhyana the mung the daal of the Pakistan and Hindustan durr fittey moun”
Manto’s most famous Partition narrative “Toba Tek Singh” is a stinging satire on institutional insanity that led to the savage division of the subcontinent. Listed in the BBC’s 100 stories that shaped the world, Toba Tek Singh is praised as a classic that translates the trauma of the Partition through the post-Partition exchange of lunatics across the India and Pakistan border. [Singh Shah Harmeet (2020) The story of Toba Tek Singh and the partition of the subcontinent https://www.indiatoday.in/news-analysis/story/story-of-toba-tek-singh-and-partition-of-subcontinent-1711580-2020-08-15]
Manto himself witnessing the Indo-Pakistan partition pens down some fine observations, capturing in his writing the realities oblivious to the world.
The story commences a few years after the Indo-Pakistan divide when the Governments decided that it was time to segregate the lunatics, based on their family status and religion, in other words, their “identity”. Bishan Singh was called by the lunatics as ‘Toba Tek Singh’ because of Bishan’s failure to remember his name due to his identity crisis, which is a parallel construction to the confusion in the outside world. How the people in the Lahore Mental Asylum differentiated him from the crowd by the name of his beloved town, clearly reflects the perception of identity that society upholds.
The news of the partition, upon reaching the asylum, initiates a heated discussion amongst the inmates and the guards. No one knew about where the two countries were situated, and this made the inmates more aggressive and emotional at the same time towards each other. The ‘fire-eating newspaper Zamindar’ clearly represents the attention-seeking gimmicks of media houses, creating panic and chaos among the masses. People prefer reading exaggerated pieces, gossip and hot-topics rather than the plain straight-forward truth in a simpler sense, and therefore we can say that people have an equal role in causing conflicts.
The ignorance surrounding this situation shows how people were blinded by the roots of religion and the hunger of power in politicians for individual gain led to the creation of a chauvinistic society. Those inside the mental asylum did not even know where Pakistan and India were but formed their opinions and decisions based on rumours and the embellished news articles, which shows how gullible the population is when it comes to religion. Bishan Singh’s family was complemented by an equally caring friendship with a Muslim family, now getting split. No love, friendship, brotherhood could conquer the gravity of the case. The Anglo-Indians had their concerns to take care of, as they fit neither of the two sides.
Bishan Singh begged God to tell him where his town Toba Tek Singh was, sitting in the Lahore Mental Asylum. On receiving no response, he concluded that God over there had more important matters to address and said- “You don’t answer my prayers because you are a Muslim God. Had you been a Sikh God, you would have surely helped me out.” This shows how Bishan was starting to get influenced by the moral notions surrounding him.
In the final transition of the story where the lunatics are taken to the Wagha, the dividing line of Pakistan and India, we have painted a small picture of the greater riots that took place. Focusing on how Bishan was tired of hearing that no one knew where Toba Tek Singh was, in India or in Pakistan, he took one last resort of asking a Pakistani guard at the Wagha border about the same. Finding humour in the concern raised, the guard blurted out that Toba Tek Singh was in Pakistan, even though he had no information about it. Bishan Singh’s first move was to run, but the guards had overpowered him. This insanity of ignorance and division made Bishan Singh declare that the no-man’s land was Toba Tek Singh and then and there, his story ended, making the insane take the sanest decision in the situation.
The India-Pakistan rivalry still exists, in the same essence, maybe more aggravated than how the story accounts it to be. The author has beautifully described the atrocities that were faced by the common man, differentiation no longer existing between the sane and insane, all in the same boat. Indians had been successfully divided, losing its strength, its unity in diversity, at the hands of the power-driven government officials as a last act of the British Government. Waging communal wars and instilling in the minds of the people that they’re Hindu and Muslim first, and no longer just Indians, the politicians accomplished their mission of dividing the power of Hindustan, loosening the everlasting thread of brotherhood.
The most appreciable aspect of the book is how ethical and moral code of conduct has been captured in the most sensible way possible through the protagonist’s embodiment of both conducts at several different occasions. Bishan Singh did not care about what the others said about him and kept living his way when he was in the mental asylum. He does get deviated towards the perception of the society of the divide when he gets frustrated about not getting clear information as to where Toba Tek Singh was and blames the Muslim God for not helping him out, but we soon see that he was so tired of the communal war that he collapsed on the land neither belonging to India nor Pakistan.
The partition was such a measure that even a lunatic could comprehend the insanity of it, but the minds of the “sane” were taken over and they were, and still are, no longer able to differentiate the right from the wrong.
Bishan Singh has left in our minds a very strong message of intolerance towards such acts and makes us rethink what the purpose of life actually is, and how we identify ourselves ethically, not morally.
(The writer is a 2nd-year student in
Shaheed Rajguru College, DU pursuing BFIA.
She’s the Editorial Head of GirlUp Nayaab, a campaign under the UN Foundation.)