Toba Tek Singh

11 November 2016

Tek Singh is a satire on partition and its repercussions. The narration is reliable but not omniscient as the narrator is unaware of the motives and unspoken thoughts of various characters in the story. The story is set up in a time frame of two or three years after partition. The language is simple and deliberately repetitive. Toba Tek Singh is one of the most famous stories by Manto on partition and is among his last ones. It was published in Maktab-e-Jadid in Lahore in 1955. Toba Tek Singh is a district in Punjab Province of Pakistan. The town and district is named after a Sikh religious figure Tek Singh.

Legend has it that Mr. Singh, a kind hearted man served water and provided shelter to the worn out and thirsty travellers passing by a small pond (“TOBA” in Punjabi) which eventually was called Toba Tek Singh, and the surrounding settlement acquired the same name.

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There is also a park here named after the Sardar Tek Singh. Every reader at once realizes that it is a powerful satire, and also a bitter indictment of the political process and behavior patterns that brought up the Partition. But Manto`s magic lies in the fact that there is not a single word in the story that tells us so directly.

Manto just ushers his readers onto the road and leaves the rest to their vivid imagination. The first sentence of the story tells us that it takes place two or three years after the partition, dropping us abruptly to a very long flashback. The Narrator at the end locates Bishan Singh (Toba Tek Singh) in a No-Man’s-Land between the barbed boundaries of the two nations. As the story takes place after two three years of Partition, it seems highly unbelievable that not only the lunatics, but the people around as well can’t figure out where the place is now.

That’s the irony of the partition, where things got so mixed up was that no one in fact knew well where India ends and where Pakistan begins. The point to be taken into account is that “partition” came up with “independence”. But arguably if there was any “independence” it was on a political front, but was “Man” ever independent? Was he given a choice? Was his voice heard? I am reminded of a couplet from Meer. He says Na Haq Hum Majburoon Pe Tohmat Hai Mukhtari Ki. Chahtay Hain So Aap Karay Hain, Hum Ko Ibbas Badnaam Kiya The story draws a distinction between the two extremes. Either here or there.

No in-between exists. Logically speaking, one can’t be in two states at once, just as, in other modes of social distinction, one can’t have two religions or two color skins. Bishan achieves ultimate marginality by dying on the border between two states, thus opting for neither. Set in a madhouse it uses madness as a metaphor for sanity. That if you were sane enough you would have not gone ahead for such division that has lasting effects. The helpless lunatics in the madhouse are unable to perceive the reconstruction happening on the geo-political scene of “India”. They seem to be speaking in a Ghalibian voice.

Bazeecha-e-Atfaal Hai Duniya Mere Aagay. Hota Hai Shab-o-Roz Tamasha Mere Aagay. The World is but a game that children play before my eyes. The Spectacle that passes night and day before my eyes With a touch of sardonic humour the author portrays the confusion when this news reaches the madhouse in Lahore . Therefore the comments and reactions of the various madmen present there must not be dismissed as ludicrous. The metaphor of madness works at different levels. At the most basic level, the madness of the asylum is a metonym for the madness that wreaks havoc in the nation at large.

In an ironic manner, the mad are seen as saner than the sane whose ‘reason’ led them to divide a nation into two. Also, the perspective of the mad, those who are at the margins of the society, occupies centrestage and in an inverted manner challenges the rationale of the dominant politics of those at the centre of power. Further ,when the action is set against bizarre scenes of pillage and plunder one becomes aware of the underlying irony in the peace and harmony of the madhouse and the sanity of the madmen pointing to insanity of the so-called “sane” politicians.

The ambiguity of the nationhood is expressed when we are told that one madman got caught up in this whole confusion of Pakistan and Hindustan and Hindustan and Pakistan that he ended up considerably madder than before. The madmen in the Lahore asylum are a microcosm of the society. Through them all sections of the society and targeted and satirized and amidst them is Bihsan Singh who successfully resists all such identities thrust upon them by choosing something that belongs to no one. Manto therefore is not just questioning the two-nation theory but also the ery idea of nationhood as the basis of one’s identity which later creates an ironic personal identity crisis and shatters the sense of belonging. It is worth noticing that Manto has personified a place as a character who happens to be the main protagonist of the story- Toba Tek Singh convincingly signifying the degree of attachment and love he possesses and despite of being far away, Alas! Bishan Singh is indistinguishable from Toba Tek Singh as if they account for the same. He seems to be saying. Mat Pooch K Kya Haal Hai Mera Tera Peechay. Tu Dekh K Kya Rang Hai Tera Mere Aagay.

You need not to ask how I feel when I am away from you. See for yourself how you feel when you are before my eyes. Toba Tek Singh is given a very absurd choice. To choose between two beloveds that he loves equally. Caught in the act, Bishan Singh does not know what to do and his mind experiences the exertion of forces from opposite ends. Torn by this nonsensical but incumbent choice he has to make, he seems to be murmuring the following line of Ghalib. Eeman Mujhe Rokay hai To Kheenchay Hai Mujhe Kufrr. Ka’aba Meray Peechay Hai Kaleesa Mere Aagay. My Faith Restrains me, while the lure of unbelief attracts me.

That way the Ka’aba and this way the Church, Before my eyes. Bishan achieves ultimate marginality by dying on the border between two states, thus opting for neither of the two and therefore not compromising on the unclear existence of Toba Tek Singh. Jaan Tum Par Nisaar Karta Hoon. Mein Nahin Jaanta Dua Kya Hai. I would lay down my life for you. For I do not know what praying for you means. When fiction writes history, literature becomes a unique source of historical data. Fiction records violence; but it also hints at the unnamed and often unnameable guilt and shame of it all.

It does more. In its human embodiments of history, it considers the possibility – and the impossibility – of coming to terms with partition, borders, lines, parameters, maps, insiders, outsiders, us and them. If Saadat Hasan Manto could return to Wagah today, he would find that his dream of a subcontinent where people live as people, not members of a religion or caste, remains a dream still. He may recall Faiz’s words: This mottled dawn This night-bitten morning No, this is not the morning We had set out in search of. Or he may wake up Toba Tek Singh, help him stand on no man’s land again.

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