Thursday, November 15, 2018

Manto- Toba Tek Singh

Toba Tek Singh
Sa’adat Hasan Manto

translated by
Mustansir Dalvi

Around two or three years after partition, it dawned on the governments of Pakistan and India that, like other common prisoners, the madmen too should be exchanged. This meant that Muslim madmen, currently housed in asylums in India, had to be sent over to Pakistan, and Hindu and Sikh madmen from Pakistan’s asylums should be handed over to India.

Whether justified or not, based on the opinions of minds smarter than us, several high level conferences were convened in several places, and finally a date for the transfer of madmen was scheduled. 

Proper investigations were made. Those Muslims, who had near and dear ones in India, were allowed to remain in India. The rest were to be ferried to the border. Here in Pakistan, since almost all the Hindus and Sikhs had already left, there was no reason to hold anyone back. All the Hindu and Sikh madmen were, in the custody of the police, to be brought to the border in safety.

I’ve no idea about the other side, but here in the asylums of Lahore news of the impending transfer spread and generated a lot of interesting gossip and banter.

One Muslim madman, who had,  for the last twelve years, consistently subscribed to the daily Zamindaar, was asked by a friend: “Moulbisaab! What is this thing called Pakistan?” To which, he answered with great gravitas and concern: “A place in India that manufactures razors.” That shut his friend up.

In a similar vein, one Sikh madman asked another Sikh madman: “Sardaarji, why are they sending us to Hindustan? We don’t even speak their language.” The other man smiled: “I know the language of these Hindustanese… they are a devilish lot- they walk around with their noses in the air.”

One day, while taking a bath, a Muslim madman shouted “Pakistan Zindabad!” with such fervour that he slipped on the wet floor and was instantly rendered unconscious.

And then there were some madmen who were not mad at all. This lot were made up of cut-throats, whose relatives had bribed the higher-ups to grant them lunatic asylums instead of the noose. They had some understanding of why India was sub-divided and what this Pakistan meant, but even their knowledge of current affairs was hardly complete. 

They learnt nothing from newspapers and could derive no conclusions by talking to their guards who were, by and large, illiterate and ignorant. All they knew was that there is this man- Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who is also known as Quaid-e-Aazam. He had made a different homeland for Muslims called Pakistan… but where it was, where  its boundaries were, they had no clue at all. Which is why those inmates who had not completely surrendered to insanity were possessed by the thought of whether they were in India or Pakistan… if this was India, then, where was Pakistan? And if they were in Pakistan, how was it possible that just a while ago they were in India as well?

This business of what was India and what was Pakistan so perplexed one madman that as the level of his insanity rose, instead of carrying on his chores of sweeping floors, he clambered up a tree, made himself comfortable on a branch and for the next two hours gave a convoluted oration on the delicate matters between India and Pakistan. When his jailers asked him to come down, he climbed up a higher branch. When they threatened him with dire consequences, he said: “I do not wish to live in India or Pakistan… I will remain on this tree.” After a lot of effort, when he was made to cool off and brought down from the tree; he embraced his Hindu and Sikh friends and broke down completely. His heart was overwhelmed with the thought that they would leave him and go to India.

A Muslim radio engineer with an M.Sc. normally kept himself aloof from the other inmates, and each day walked a solitary path in the asylum garden in silence. On hearing news of the transfer he divested himself of all his clothes which he handed over to the warden, and continued his lonely walks in the garden in the buff.

A stout Muslim madman from Chiniot, once an active clerk with the Muslim League, who bathed fifteen or sixteen times a day, suddenly stopped. His name was Muhammad Ali. Consequently, one day he announced to all in his ward that he was the Quaid-e-Aazam, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Following his lead, another madman now started calling himself Master Tara Singh. There was speculation that their proximity in that ward might lead to bloodshed, so both were declared dangerous and locked up separately.

Failure in love had driven a young Hindu lawyer from Lahore insane. When he heard that Amritsar had been given to India, he was immensely saddened. He was once in love with a girl from that city. She had rejected him, but even in his madness he had never forgotten her. As a result he would, in the vilest terms, abuse all the Muslim and Hindu leaders who had conspired together to break India into two, making his beloved Hindustani and himself Pakistani. When talk of transferring inmates began, the madmen consoled the lawyer not to take it to heart, for he would be sent to India. The India of his beloved. But he did not wish to leave Lahore, as it was his considered opinion that his practice would not flourish as well in Amritsar.

In the European ward, there were two Anglo-Indian madmen. They were traumatised by the news that India had become free and the Englishmen had gone back. For hours they would murmur amongst themselves, wondering what their status in the asylum, now in an independent country, would be. Would the European ward remain, or would it be dissolved? Would breakfast be served, or not? Would there be bread, or would they have to swallow both their pride as well as bloody Indian chapatis?

Then there was a Sikh, an inmate for the last fifteen years. He would always be heard spouting the same nonsense: “Ooper the gugud, the annexe, the bay-dhyaana, the moong the daal of the laaltain.” The guards would always say that he never slept a wink during his time there. Never even lay down. But he would lean against a wall from time to time.

His feet were swollen from all that standing. His calves puffed up, and despite this discomfort to this body he never rested. But he would listen intently whenever there was talk of India, Pakistan or the transfer of madmen in the asylum. If someone asked him for his opinion, he would gravely reply: “Ooper the gugud, the annexe, the bay-dhyaana, the moong the daal of the Pakistan Government.” 

But after a while, the phrase “of the Pakistan Government” was replaced by “of the Toba Tek Singh Government”. Now he would ask the other madmen about the location of Toba Tek Singh, of which he was a resident. But no one knew whether it was in India or in Pakistan. Those who tried to explain soon fell into a quandary themselves- Sialkot was earlier in India, but we now hear it is in Pakistan; who knows if Lahore, today in Pakistan, could tomorrow become part of India? Or the whole of India become Pakistan? And who could put his hand on his heart and confidently assert that both India and Pakistan would not, one day, vanish off the face of this earth?

The man’s hair had thinned, and because he would bathe only infrequently, his beard was matted, which made him appear quite terrifying. But he was a harmless soul. In fifteen years, he never had occasion to fight with anyone. The old bearers of the asylum knew about him, that he owned much land in Toba Tek Singh. He was once a well-off zamindar whose head suddenly turned. His relatives had brought him chained in some very heavy manacles and had him admitted in the asylum. 

Once a month, they would put in an appearance, ask about his general well-being and leave. This went on for a while. But after the troubles of India and Pakistan began, they stopped coming altogether.

His name was Bishan Singh, but everyone called him Toba Tek Singh. He had absolutely no idea what day it was, what month it was or how many years had passed. But once every month, he would come to know all by himself if his relatives were due. He would then inform his warden of the impending visit. On such days, he would bathe well, rubbing his whole body with soap; he would oil and comb his hair, don such clothes he would normally not wear and come to meet his visitors well turned out. If they asked him anything, he would normally remain silent or occasionally blurt out: “Ooper the gugud, the annexe, the bay-dhyaana, the moong the daal of the laaltain.”

He had a daughter who grew the width of a finger with each visit, and had in fifteen years become a young woman. Bishan Singh did not recognise her. Ever since her childhood she would look at her father and weep. Even when she was older, her eyes would fill with tears of hope.

When the India-Pakistan episode started, Bishan Singh began to ask the other madmen about Toba Tek Singh. The itch to find out became all the more severe when he did not get a clear response. 

And now, he no longer had visitors. Earlier he would know inside of himself when they were due to arrive but now the voice in his heart had fallen silent. He longed for them to come, to be with him, to show him sympathy, and to bring him fruit, sweetmeats and clothes. Could he not ask them where Toba Tek Singh was?  He was sure they would tell him if it was in Pakistan or in India, for in his mind they all came from Toba Tek Singh, where he was a landowner.

In the asylum, there was also one madman who called himself God. One day, when Bishan Singh asked him if Toba Tek Singh was in India or Pakistan, God burst out laughing, as was his wont, and replied: “Neither in India, nor in Pakistan. For we have not yet decreed it so.”

Bishan  Signh  entreated this God several times to make his decree so that the matter could be settled once and for all, but he was always preoccupied for he had so many  pending decrees to be made. One day, in frustration, Bishan Singh vented out all his anger on him: “Ooper the gugud, the annexe, the bay-dhyaana, the moong the daal of Vaahe Guruji da khalsa and Vaahe Guruji ki fateh... jo bole so nihaal, Sat Sri Akaal!” Maybe this is what he meant: You are the god of the Mussalmans. If you were the god of the Sikhs, you would not have been so uncaring.

A few days before the scheduled exchange of madmen, Bishan Singh had a visitor, a Muslim friend. He had never come to the asylum before. When Bishan Singh saw him, he turned away to return, but the guards stopped him: “This is your friend Fazal Deen… he has come to meet you.”

Bishan Singh looked at Fazal Deen once again and began to mutter to himself. Fazal Deen reached out and put a hand on his shoulder: “I had been thinking a long time to come to meet you but I could not make it… all your relatives have safely migrated to India… whatever help I could give them, I did… but your daughter Roop Kaur…”

Fazal Deen fell silent. Bishan Singh tried to remember: “Daughter? ... Roop Kaur?”

Fazal Deen spoke hesitatingly: “Yes… she… she’s all right too… she went with them.”

Bishan Singh said nothing. Fazal Deen began again: “They asked me to find out if you are well… now I hear that you are going  to India too… please give my salaams to Bhai Balbir Singh and Bhai  Vaghava Singh… and to Bahen Amrit Kaur as well… tell Bhai Balbir, Fazal Deen is fine…  the two brown buffaloes he left behind are fine too, one had a calf, the other did too but did not last beyond six  days… and… tell me should you need anything, I am always at your service… and here are some plums for you.”

Bishan Singh took the bag of plums and passed it on to the guard standing beside them. Then he asked Fazal Deen: “Where is Toba Tek Singh?”

Fazal Deen, bewildered, replied: “Where is… it is where it has always been.”

Bishan Singh persisted: “In India or in Pakistan?”

“In India… no, no, in Pakistan.” Now Fazal Deen was confused.

Bishan Singh walked away muttering to himself: “Ooper the gugud, the annexe, the bay-dhyaana, the moong the daal of Pakistan and Hindustan of the door phittay mooh...”


All the arrangements for the exchange were complete. The list of madmen was finalised and the day fixed.

It was bitterly cold, when lorries carrying Hindu and Sikh madmen from the Lahore asylum, along with a police escort, took off. The relevant officers accompanied them as well. At Wagah, Border Superintendents from both sides met and got into official formalities. Then the exchange began, which went on through the night.

Getting the madmen out of the lorries and handing them safely to the opposite side was no easy task. Many simply refused to come out. Many who consented to emerge were difficult to control because they went wandering off all over the place. Many who wore nothing were forcibly clothed, but before long they tore the clothes away from their bodies. Some were abusive. Others sang songs. Some fought with each other. Some cried, or keened in agony. They would not listen to instructions. And then there was the wailing of the madwomen. It was so cold that even the noise of chattering teeth could be heard above the general hubbub.

Most of the lunatics were not in favour of the exchange, as they could not understand why they were being uprooted from their own place. Those who could comprehend a bit started to raise slogans of “Pakistan zindabad!” and “Pakistan murdabad!” Some Muslims and Sikhs took offence and rioting had to be prevented two or three times.

When it was Bishan Singh’s turn, as the relevant official tried to write his name in his register, he asked: “Where is Toba Tek Singh? In Pakistan, or in India?”

The relevant official sniggered: “In Pakistan.”

Hearing this, Bishan Singh jumped away and ran to join his earlier companions. The Pakistani guards caught him and tried to take him to the other side, but he refused to budge: “Toba Tek Singh  is here…” He began to scream: “Ooper the gugud, the annexe, the bay-dhyaana, the moong the daal of Toba Tek Singh and Pakistan!”

They tried to convince him that Toba Tek Singh was now in India… or if not it would soon be, but Bishan Singh did not relent. 

When they tried to physically shift him he stood up on his two swollen feet and planted himself in a manner as if no power on earth would be able to move him. But because he was harmless, force was not used. They just let him stand there as the rest of the exchange went on.

Just before sunrise, a shriek pierced the sky. This came from the otherwise silent and steadfast Bishan Singh… officers from both sides came running to find the man, who had once stood on his own feet without resting for fifteen years, now fallen on his face. 

On one side, behind barbed-wire lay Hindustan. On the other, behind similar wire, Pakistan stretched out into the distance.

Between them, on a piece of land that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.

© Mustansir Dalvi, 2018. All rights reserved.