Toba Tek Singh- By The Indo-Pakistani Author Saadath Hasan Manto – A Review

SEVENTY YEARS AND MORE since Partition and while, like every other event that ever shaped
humankind, it should have become by now “only another event in the long history of the
subcontinent”, one finds oneself coming back to it over and over again, to mourn over, to
criticize, to comment on, or perhaps simply to sing about the wounds that Partition inflicted,
wounds that cut through the deepest emotions of the peoples of the two independent dominions
that had now come to exist, wounds that are still to heal.

Saadat Hasan Manto remained controversial all his life – controversial for his outspokenness, the
highly unconventional and often taboo subjects that he chose for his stories and for the directness
with which he treated them. While Critics, and there are a lot of them, write pages debating
whether Manto should have been treated the way he was, whether his works were fantastically
ahead of his time (making him a visionary) or simply blasphemous (making him quite the
opposite), whether his aim was to bring the society out of the narrow conservatism that plagued
his country or to corrupt the superior culture the nation had been taught to believe they
possessed, little light has been thrown on the fact that Manto had been witness to and a part of
the largest mass migration that the world had ever seen. Born in Ludhiana (British India) and
emigrating to Pakistan following the Partition of the country, Manto’s legendary work “TOBA
” reflects on the pain, the confusion, the mayhem, the fear that haunted the minds of
millions of people who suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of the border.

The opening lines of the original text (in Urdu) reads:
“Bantware ke do-teen saal baad Pakistan aur Hindustan ki hukoomaton ko khayal aya ki ikhlaki kaidiyon ki tarah pagalon ka bhi tabadla hona chahiye”

Khalid Hasan translates it this way:
“A couple of years after the partition of the country, it occurred to the respective governments of
India and Pakistan that inmates of lunatic asylums, like prisoners, should also be exchanged.”

It was anticipated long back that should there be a partition, the general populace would migrate
to safer lands. What was not anticipated, however, was the fact that Lunatics, of all people, would
fall victim to it. The opening lines show, if not anything else, the level of insanity that had
gripped the masses, their leaders – the two countries in general. The tone of the opening lines is
almost mocking.

Irony pervades the story. It portrays the Insane to have turned out Sane in the Insanity which had
made the Sane Insane. There could be no logical argument behind the decision to partition the
country, to displace millions out of places they had been living in for hundreds of years. The
feeble logic of “The Muslims are a nation” had clearly failed to register with the inmates of the
lunatic asylum who, if one may take the liberty to state, had, at that moment, a greater presence
of mind than the greatest of Statesmen in the now divided country. This is evident when one inmate, confused with this whole India-Pakistan ‘rigmarole’, climbed up a tree and declared: “I
wish to live neither in India nor in Pakistan. I wish to live in this tree.”

Through the progression of the story, one encounters many other inmates with myriad mindsets
like the one claiming to be the Quaid-e-Azam (Mohammad Ali Jinnah) himself, or the one who had “gone off his head after an unhappy love affair”, realizing Partition had turned him into a
Pakistani and his beloved into an Indian – two nationalities built upon mutual hate and mistrust.
The part that deals with Bishan Singh are perhaps the most interesting – Bishan Singh, a native of
Toba Tek Singh, a district in the Punjab Province of Pakistan. In the story, whenever he gets
irritated, he mutters a mix of Punjabi, Urdu and English, which, though nonsensical, is indirectly
pejorative of both India and Pakistan – “Upar di gur gur di annexe di bedhiyana di moong di
daal of di Pakistan and Hindustan of di durr phitey mun.” (Translated roughly as: “The
the inattention of the annexe of the rumbling upstairs of the dal of moong of the Pakistan and India
of the go-to bloody hell”). His mutterings are, as one would say, delirious, but it does not take
one long to arrive at the conclusion that Bishan Singh is deeply disturbed by the present political
scenario. He gets disturbed further when he is said he would be, due to his obvious Sikh identity,
sent to India, a land which is unknown and almost foreign to him. He is, to make matters worse,
told his village, Toba Tek Singh has become a part of Pakistan. It was painful as it is, almost a
heart-wrenching tragedy for the millions who took part in the cross-border Exodus – millions of
“sane”, well to do families who had to see their loved ones butchered, raped and burnt by their
militant, enraged and deluded counterparts who had probably suffered a similar fate. One cannot
imagine, therefore, the pain of this “insane” inmate, who, unlike others, had no clue as to why he
had to move all of a sudden, why he had suddenly become a foreigner in a land where he was
born and had spent all his life in.

No words than that of Manto’s can better describe what happened when Bishan Singh, adamant
not to leave his birthplace and knowing he was not welcome there anymore, knowing also that
there was still a “Promised Land” he could go to, opted for an alternative certainly no “Sane”
man would dare think of:

“There he stood in no man’s land on his swollen legs like a colossus.
Since he was a harmless old man, no further attempt was made to push him into India. He was
allowed to stand where he wanted, while the exchange continued. The night wore on.
Just before sunrise, Bishan Singh, the man who had stood on his legs for fifteen years, screamed
and as officials from the two sides rushed towards him, he collapsed to the ground.
There, behind barbed wire, on one side, lay India and behind more barbed wire, on the other
side, lay Pakistan. In between, on a bit of earth which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh”.

While to every “Sane” individual, this was just another “madman’s tantrum” that eventually
caused his death, curious and sensible readers of the text would know better. They would know
Bishan Singh’s death was not one that he inflicted on himself due to him being, as one would say
“out of his mind”, but one that he inflicted on himself as a sacrifice to Humanity for Order,
Sanity and Rationality to return. Bishan Singh was, standing at that juncture between the two
newborn countries, probably the sanest person alive.
Coming to the translation of this masterpiece by Khalid Hasan, as Navdeep Kaur put it in “Toba
Tek Singh” in English: An Assessment of Khalid Hasan’s Translation,

“Hasan omits certain details that form essential elements of character portrayal. While
referring to the main character Bishan Singh, he leaves out “veh din ko sota that na raat
ko” and “veh let ta bhi nahi tha”. These lines give the reader important insight into
Bishan Singh’s world and at the same time this information is very crucial to appreciate
the ending of the story. Manto’s “Ajeebo-gareeb Alfaaz” (strange or quaint words) is
translated as “mysterious gibberish”. This translation is questionable as Bishan Singh’s
words are neither meaningless nor nonsense. Saadat Hasan Manto, while defending
himself in a court case for obscenity charges against his story “Thanda Ghost” argued
that a rustic character like Ishar Singh would use the language that he uses. Extending the
logic to “Toba Tek Singh”; Bishan Singh, a lunatic, convincingly speaks incoherently.
His utterances and his thoughts may be incoherent but there is certainly logic behind this
incoherence. Whether the lack of coherence leads to utter lack of sense is a contestable
claim. Moreover, a translator overshoots his brief when he tries to interpret and analyze
the source text for the reader and tries to improve upon the original writer.”

While it can invariably be admitted that the real flavour of reading a literary masterpiece is
reading it in its language of composition, and while it can also be agreed to that Khalid Hasan
may have, on occasions, improved upon (and in the process, degraded) the feel of the story from
how it was intended to feel like, one cannot deny that had it not been for translators like Hasan,
the story would not have had the global reach that it enjoys now.

The Partition of the Subcontinent has been heavily neglected, and if not, greatly treated with
indifference by the world. Partition has never been just an event in History. It has always been an
emotion, a passion, a part of us, and writers like Manto and translators like Hasan have kept the
fire burning and, one hopes, shall continue to do so for generations to come. Our story needs to
be told, needs to be heard, and needs to be felt!

About Souranil Paul

Graduating from St. Xavier's College, Calcutta with Honours in English, Souranil is presently a student of Linguistics at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad. Besides Academics, he likes to spend his time exploring the past, debating and keeping a keen eye on Kashmir.

View all posts by Souranil Paul →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *