Partition: A Study on Insanity in Sadat Hasan Manto’s “Toba Tek Singh”

By Sampurna Biswas, Kolkata, India

While researching about the theme of Insanity during the Partition of 1947 and 1949, a number of translations, web journals, articles as well as thesis have been found which talk about the theme in an elaborate manner. Most of the writers represent the theme from a new light which widens its horizons. The aim of this paper is to study and interpret the text from a new lens with the support of the articles and journals collected through the research process.

The event of Partition has caused immense trauma as well as horrors into the minds of the people in the form of gruesome murders, loathsome rapes and molestations. Several families has been uprooted and displaced the memory of which still lingers in their subconscious minds. The memories of intolerable violence they have witnessed resulted many to either turn insane or permanently numb or to commit suicides. It became a big question whether the town or village was important or the nation state was to be preferred over the other.

According to medical science, the term “trauma” (Singh 02) can be referred to as physical damage and injuries. Physical trauma is simpler and can still be cured unlike the psychological trauma which conceal themselves into the subconscious mind which persists for a long span of time and are hard to be solved. The subconscious mind is generally repressed by the conscious mind by adopting the policy of rejection. After a certain lapse of time it bursts out in a dangerous way by escorting its victims towards “insanity, horror, violence, death” (Caruth).

Sadat Hasan Manto’s “Toba Tek Singh” deals with the theoryof trauma and the subject of insanity with an open-minded attitude. The story is influenced by the real exchange of the lunatics over India-Pakistan border in 1949. A report appeared in the “Indian Express” on 19 November 2012 where Dr. Alok Sarin (a senior consultant psychiatrist at Sitaram Institute of Science and Research) shared: “When I was researching in the Teen Murti library as a fellow I discovered that there was actually a problem about mental patients after Partition, when it was decided to send Hindus and Sikhs across from the asylum in Lahore to India” (Indian Express) .Sarin said, “the intention was both to look at this traffic in asylum inmates,” and “to see what it can tell us about the nature of a society’s understanding of mental illness, and its attitudes towards the mentally ill”.

After an overt reading of the story one of the dominant theme – the theme of insanity strikes the minds of the readers which compels them to inspect the psychological and political aspects of madness – madness as a living ailment or madness as a momentary termination of human rationalization under the influence of trauma. A close reading of the related articles can stitch up the fragmented incidents to support the concept of insanity. Insanity is deeply related to the trauma of Partition which has left deep scars on the victimized minds.

“Two or three years after Partition, the Governments of India and Pakistan decided that just as there had been a cordial exchange of prisoners, there should now be a similar exchange of lunatics” (Manto 02).  This joint declaration of the Governments to exchange the “insane inmates” (Singh 04) of the asylum generates a course of reactions which are at the same time “tragic, hilarious and melodramatic” (Singh 04).The very opening lines of the story “Toba Tek Singh” yields a sardonic realization that firstly it is completely legitimate to exchange the time of Partition and then the second thought follows – if such an act of exchange is legitimate, then who actually are the lunatics – the patients of the asylum or those Government officials outside the asylum. The difference, however, ironically seems to dissolve at this point and everyone stands at the same level of victimization in the hands of Partition. This point is further clarified in the story where the lunatics of the asylum assume the roles of various renowned personalities. It seems to be a quest on their part to enter into the world of the sane which ironically has turned more insane as compared to the lunatics of the asylum.

“Opadh di gudh gudh di annexe di bedhayana di mung di dal of the laltain” (Manto 04). Through the blabbering of this incongruous empty talk (beyond the reach of logic or force) the perplexity and agony of the insane characters have been disclosed. Bishen Singh’s(the protagonist of the story) utterance of the nonsense talk which is “neither Punjabi nor English nor Hindi nor Urdu” (Kumar 48) may suggest that not a single person appears to know and tell confidently whether Toba Tek Singh belongs to India or Pakistan. It may also reflect the same plight of the people who has become similar victims of insanity (even without their awareness) during Partition on a macrocosmic level. The insanity of the protagonist (Bishen Singh) mirrors the principal craziness of  “maps and nations” (48).

The setting of madness has allowed Manto to assign into the freedom which insanity grants. He has brilliantly reviewed Partition of the motherland from a mad man’s viewpoint. From the asylum to the “no-man’s-land” (Singh 06) belt, Toba Tek Singh(Bishen Singh) represents a figure who goes beyond all category. He emerges as the improbable champion engaged in a continuous struggle who possesses the “tragic courage and tragic enterprise” (06) to fight and prevent the practice of “categorization and stereotype” (06).

Amongst the recent artists, Manto’s short stories allow the readers to delve deep into the psychological realm. Even an apparent study of Manto’s own life implies that he has spent most of his life “battling inner demons” (Hashmi 05). Manto frames his characters which reflect his own psychology in some way or the other. Like a “camera” (09), Manto observes and presents the records through his short stories. He reveals his inner turmoil via his work of arts. “Toba Tek Singh” is such a story that highlights the inner upheaval through the insane protagonist, Bishen Singh and instill the same among the readers. It has been assumed that this story somehow can be linked with the real life experience of Sadat Hasan Manto. Studies have found that “Toba Tek Singh” which is considered a masterpiece composed by Manto is inspired by Manto’s own experience during his visit to the mental hospital. The senility of the insane Bishen Singh in the story very subtly reflects the image of the imperishable Lear in “King Lear” by William Shakespeare thereby presenting a strong metaphor that accommodates a web of responsibility, especially those that are subjective and thus has ubiquitous disposition. “Toba Tek Singh” serves as an answer of the South Asian front to the senile man of the Western front, William Shakespeare’s “King Lear”. Bishen Singh consideres the functioning of the Governments to be inconceivable and arbitrary which is expressed by his gibberish and incoherent words. Partition has affected everyone during that moment of crisis. The perpetratrors as well as the victims has become equally insane though in different ways. At the end of the story, most of the lunatics have been successfully taken to the other side of the border except for Bishen Singh who cannot be moved from the “no-man’s-land” (Kumar 50) inspite of several forceful attempts to move him. Thus, he symbolises the meaning of Partition. Though Partition has dragged him to the extent of insanity, he still acts like a sane person denying the actual insane decision taken by the Governments. Bishen Singh through his insanity fights harder and tries to defy the concept of insanity. His rigid denial to cross the border reflects the fact that he still wants both the nations to reunite. With his microcosmic insanity he wants to stand against and stop the macrocosmic insanity.

“When they tried forcibly to send him across, he dug his swollen heels at a point in the middle of the border...” (Manto 10). These lines clearly suggest that Bishen Singh acts as a bridge with a desire to reunite both the  nations even at the cost of his life. “Before the sun rose, a piercing scream broke from the throat of a rigid Bishen Singh... ..., lying face down” (Manto 10). The lines convey Bishen Singh’s forceful rejection of Partition and its adverse effects on him (as well as on others). However, he is ultimately defeated in his attempt which is shown by “lying  face down” (10) and it reflects the universal defeat of all the common mass who fell victims in the monstrous hands of Partition thereby suffering traumas which ultimately engulfs each and everyone’s innocent lives.

“There, behind barbed wires, was India. Here, behind barbed wires, was Pakistan. In the middle, on a nameless piece of earth, lay Toba Tek Singh” (Manto 10). The ending of the story with the insane man and the repeated emphasis on the “barbed wires” (10) may suggest that the Partition has pricked the conscience of even a mad man but has failed to bring the whole nation into consciousness. The insanity of the event of Partition has been magnified through these lines whereas “barbed wires” (10) signify the pain which Partition has brought forth. Another interpretation can be that the image of Bishen Singh who becomes synonymous with Toba Tek Singh lay entrapped in the middle which may suggest a desire for the reunion of the two nations but at the same time this very possibility of reunion is denied by the presence of the “barbed wires” (10). Here the microcosmic insanity of Bishen Singh is ultimately defeated by the macrocosmic insanity of the event of Partition.

In the story “Khol Do” or “Open It”, Manto has explored and dexterously displayed the interplay of both physical and psychological trauma during Partition. The story shows another aspect of insanity through the character of Sakina, a girl who has been “continually raped by soldiers” (Matthews 999) during Partition. Here the condition of Sakina is akin to that of Bishen Singh in “Toba Tek Singh” and the soldiers as the perpetrators can be parallelled with that of the Government officials in “Toba Tek Singh”. Both parties are insane but in a hugely different way. Sakina’s alienated condition reveals her detachment from the public sphere of language. The trauma of sexual violence has made her “crumble into shocked silence” (Bhalla 3120) which can be considered to be another side of insanity. The distinction between her perpetual numbness and her father’s joy on seeing her still alive is highlighted in such a manner that it evokes painful sympathy. At the time of Partition the soldiers had lost their virtues and aims and engaged into heinous crimes.

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