A Short Story by the Great Urdu Chronicler of the Partition of India
Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955-Samrala, Punjab, India) was a very prolific writer but it his work the literary chronicler of the terrible human consequences of the 1947 Partition of India into the two countries of Pakistan and India that will bring him to the status of an immortal. (There is a very good article on Manto in Wikipedia). The country of Bangladesh also arose from this partition. At least 500,000 people died as a result of the mass migrations that the partition caused.
Manto began his literary career translating the works of Victor Hugo and Oscar Wilde into Urdu. Urdu is one of the two official languages of Pakistan (the second is English). It is a subdivision of Hindustani and is intelligible to speakers of contemporary Hindi. Linguistics do not see Urdu as a fully independent language but, I believe, for political reasons many insist that it is. Readers of Hindi can read Urdu and vice versa. He was born into a Kashmiri Muslim family of barristers. He is best known for his short stories and "Toba Tek Singh" is considered by all his greatest work. His stories are about the real life of the ordinary person. In the course of his career he was tried six times for obscenity but never convicted. I really urge you to read the Wikipedia article on him (the author of the article is very much an admirer of Manto and has written one of the best of the of the many author articles I have read there).
"Toba Tek Singh" (the title refers, I think, to a city in India) deals with what happens in a mental hospital when the governments of Pakistan and India decide a few years after the partition that all those living in mental hospitals should be sent to their proper country (Muslims to Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs to India). The result creates absolute chaos in the hospital in the story. This is just a hilarious story. I am actually surprised that the story did not get Manto in serious trouble with the government as some of the conversations of people in the mental hospital seem to mirror the views of leading politicians of the time.
I have to quote a bit from the story as it is just so funny and so well done.
Two or three years after Partition, it occurred to the governments of India and Pakistan that lunatics, like prisoners, should also be exchanged -- that is, Muslim lunatics in asylums in India should be sent to Pakistan, and Hindus-Sikhs in asylums in Pakistan transferred to India.Whether or not this was a reasonable idea, high-level conferences were held here and there, as decided by the learned, and finally one day a bill was passed for the exchange of lunatics.
"Some inmates were not really insane. A majority of them were murderers whose relatives had bribed the officials to admit them into the asylum so that they could escape the noose.
They had a bit of an idea as to why India had been divided and what this Pakistan was, but as for the actual events, they too were clueless. They could not glean much from the newspapers. The guards were illiterate and ignorant and their conversations weren't very illuminating and edifying either.
They only knew that there's a man named Mohammed Ali Jinnah, called the Quaid-e-Azam; who'd created a separate country for Muslims, called Pakistan.
Where this Pakistan was, what its geographical location was, about this they did not know anything. Which is why all those lunatics, who were not completely mentally-imbalanced, were confused whether they were in Pakistan or in India. If they were in India, then where was this Pakistan? And if in Pakistan, then how could it be that they, sometime back, living in the same place, were in India?
One lunatic got so caught up in this whirl of India-Pakistan, Pakistan-India, that his condition worsened. One day, while sweeping, he suddenly climbed on to a tree and sitting on a branch, declaimed non-stop for two hours on this delicate matter of India and Pakistan.
When the guards asked him to climb down, he went up even more. When threatened, he said, "I don't want to live in India, nor in Pakistan ... I'll remain on this tree."
After quite some time, when his fit of madness subsided, he climbed down, and started crying, hugging his Hindu-Sikh friends. He was overwhelmed with the thought that they would leave him and go away to India.
In an M.Sc-pass Radio Engineer, who was a Muslim and a bit of a stay-away, given to taking long walks in the garden by himself all day, such a change manifested itself that he took off all his clothes, handed them over to an attendant, and took to parading around stark naked.
A fat Muslim from Chaniot, who had been an active worker of the Muslim League, suddenly stopped bathing fifteen to sixteen times a day as he used to. His name was Mohammed Ali; but now he proclaimed from his cell that he was Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Inspired by this, a Sikh lunatic became Master Tara Singh. Apprehending blood-shed, both were declared dangerous and locked up separately."
Normally I do not quote a lot from the works I read, but this, to me, is a brilliant incredibly funny and for the times very bold story. I am sure it managed to offend people all over India and Pakistan.
I am glad I ventured outside of my comfort zone into the realm of Urdu literature. In any language "Toba Tek Singh" is a wonderful story that way transcends its setting. If you can read this without laughing out loud you must be in a very bad mood! If Jonathan Swift lived in India in the mid-20th century he might have written a story like this.
I think this story belongs in the canon and I urge all to take the time to read it.
You can read it online HERE in just a few minutes.
If anyone has any suggestions for short stories written by authors from Pakistan or Bangladesh please leave a comment. I am venturing into new to me reading areas and I would welcome guidance from the many readers of my blog with more experience in this area. I am open to a joint venture on an event on short stories from the Indian subcontinent.