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Twentieth-Century Fiction
Prof. Avishek Parui
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Madras
Lecture – 53
Toba Tek Singh – Part 5
(Refer Slide Time: 00:13)

So, hello and welcome to this NPTEL course entitled Twentieth Century Fiction. We were looking at Sadat Hasan Manto’s short story Toba Tek Singh, which I am hoping to conclude in this lecture today.
So, we have seen how this short story covers many aspects, the chief among which is a trauma and the entire the disturbance and unsettling of partition which takes away all human agency and how we have seen the madhouse in Lahore which is the setting in a
story – how that becomes paradoxically the only possible site of agency, the only possible site of resistance which is obviously, you know inverting the entire rational mad you know binary. So, we find that a madman over here they end up acting more rational, they end up acting asking more rational questions compared to the bigger spectacle of madness which is partition in the first place.
So, the point at which we stopped in the last lecture is a point where someone called Fazal Din who is a Muslim who comes from Toba Tek Singh and he comes to visit you know Bishan Singh who is a protagonist in the story. And, we find that how that little episode, little conversation, little exchanged they have Fazal Din and Bishan Singh. It is full of human empathy, it is full of very intimate conversations about little things like a buffalo giving birth to two calves, one of which has died etcetera.
So, very local, very intimate knowledge which is sort of delivered to Bishan Singh and, we find that how this intimacy of knowledge is completely consumed completely obliterated and completely taken over by the bigger knowledge narratives in the moment which is about India and Pakistan, which is about the formation of states of India and Pakistan.
So, among other things as I mentioned in my last lecture, I may have mentioned that what partition did was it brought about an entire violence, an entire idea of violence, an order of violence at a level of the epistemic knowledge, epistemic narratives. So, your awareness of reality, your knowledge of reality, your navigation of reality that gets truncated that gets interrupted that gets you know terribly unsettled by the violence of partition.
So, your knowledge of your of your address of your birth place of your location of your experience around you, all that gets you know very unsettled with the partition coming in. So, the partition was obviously, a massive spectacle of physical violence, but also and equally it was a big violence on the mental health of people on you know it brought out trauma obviously, the trauma lingered on for generations and that is something which Toba Tek Singh also points at.
Now, we find that despite the intimacy in the in the conversation of Fazal Din has with Bishan Singh, there is one little episode in that conversation where things get a bit cryptic and there is a sinister quality about that little bit as well. When he is reporting to Bishan Singh that all your family members are fine you know your brother is fine, your wife is fine and when he comes to his daughter he says well she too and there is a moment of hesitation and she says she too is safe in India.
And, you know the hesitation obviously, holds the key to the ambivalence over here, it could mean many things. It could mean that she may have been murdered or you know taken away or you know something terrible happened to him happened to her sexually, maybe she became a victim of abuse we do not quite know, but the hesitation is a pointer to all kinds of possibilities which are never spelt out in this short story.
So, again this is a very classical trope of all great short stories, the things are never really spelled out things are suggested, hinted, insinuated. And, we as readers need to unpack the insinuations, we as readers need to unpack the hints and suggestions the entire economy of suggestions which are there in the short story. And, then of course, this little episode about the brown buffalos giving birth to calves one of them dying etcetera.
And, you know just come back to this point and this should be on your screen where he is telling Bishan Singh – Say I think of them often. So, when you meet your family you should convey my best wishes to them – Say I think of them often and to write to me if there is anything I can do. So, again we can see how these human beings are separated by this completely brainless or mindless activity of partition. They suddenly just decided to demarcate people on the basis of religion and as a result of which people who have been neighbours, for years, for generations they suddenly find themselves across you know each other in two different parts of the world, two different nations.
There is suddenly a border has been created between the houses suddenly you know, a boundary has been created between the houses and obviously, these borders and boundaries are not just physical sites they also become mental you know situations where there is always this border you have to cross to talk to someone to trust someone. So, among other things what partition did historically was it was the violence not just on human body not just on the corporeal human self, but also the mental human self. It was a violence on trust; it was a violence on you know relationships. So, so everything became you know suspicious after the partition, people started mistrusting the neighbors, etcetera.
So, again the question of trust becomes very important, the question of empathy becomes very important here. So, you know and this conversation continues and I come back and this should be on your screen – Then he added, Here, I’ve brought some plums for you. So, he is bringing some fruits again as a token of intimacy, a token of human kindness and care and concern that he has sort of come all the way to meet Bishan Singh from Toba Tek Singh and he is delivering him the news about his family, he is delivering him local news about buffalos giving birth to calves and then of course, at the end he gives him to very simple, but very humanely loaded and rich gifts.
Bishan Singh took the gift from Fazal Din and handed it on the guard handed it to the guard. Where is Toba Tek Singh? He asked. That is the key questions. So, again look at the way in which the intimate narratives about buffalos, about family members all these little things in the villages those get subsumed completely under this big grand question, the meta question where is Toba Tek Singh? Is Toba is Toba Tek Singh in India or in Pakistan, that is the big thing that is the big question, that is the big narrative of knowledge that everyone’s wanting to know where is my location, now where is my address and which country does it belong to.
So, again coming back to the point I have already spoken about, is that how intimacy goes away, how trust goes away, how little narratives local narratives go away completely we have instead is a big grand narrative about the nation formation that becomes the whole narrative that becomes the only narrative that people are interested in.
So, where is Toba Tek Singh? Where? Why it is where it has always been. So, again look at the dramatic irony of it - they do not seem to understand each other you know immediately because when Fazal Din is asked where is Toba Tek Singh he thinks of it as a physical location he say well, it is not changed. It is where it is always been, it is the same place.
(Refer Slide Time: 07:22)

In India or in Pakistan? In India o no, in Pakistan. So, again the ambivalence here is interesting, the confusion over here is interesting. He first says in India and then he said it is Pakistan. So, the confusion in the response, the confused response over here holds the key to the existential dilemma in this people’s mind. So, they do not quite know where the place of birth is, it is just some random decision taken for them and some random ritual with which the whole mapping has happened.
So, he first says India and then he says Pakistan seemingly unsure. So, again he is trying to probably he is trying to comfort Bishan Singh to sudden exchanges like he had tried to comfort him with the news of his daughter. He did not want to tell him perhaps the gruesome bad thing which has probably happened to her we do not quite know, but he had hesitated for a moment before telling him that you know she too is safe in India. Likewise, when he is asked you know question about Toba Tek Singh o, yes in Indian then he says o, maybe it is in Pakistan.
So, again the confusion over here is cognitive, it’s political, it’s existential, it’s emotional and all that comes together all that coalesces together into form this big massive confusion about your identity, about your location, about your existential situation as a human subject. Without saying another word, Bishan Singh walked away murmuring. Again, the seemingly nonsensical thing that he says uper the gur gur the annexe the bay dhayana the mung the dal of the Pakistan and India dur fittey moun.
So, again the crux of this nonsense lyric is well we do not quite know what is in India what is in Pakistan and the gods up above do not care just like they never cared about the quality of dal deteriorating. So, again the deteriorating dal becomes a very symbolic thing, a very symbolic object over here because that is the reflective of the greater deterioration and greater rot that is happening all around. Rot at the level of human knowledge; rot at the level of political knowledge, rot at the level of human location, about human conditions etcetera.
So, the mung ki dal which is deteriorating in Toba Tek Singh is again it is a bit like you know if you read Eugène Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros or you know any of the plays by Ionesco, there is always a deteriorating, a rotting thing. It is a dead body which is rotting and growing nails with this rhinoceros which are bellowing away and in very rotten metropolis. So, there is a similar absurd quality, I mean Ionesco obviously, belongs to the school of absurd theatre.
There is a similar absurd quality about Toba Tek Singh, but like Ionesco’s play. The absurdity of this particular story is what makes it so profoundly political in quality. So, the absurdity is not an irrational absurdity, it is not an escape from rationality rather it is a reflection of rationality, rather it is a reflection of the rot of rationality that what we consider and consume to be rational is actually becomes rotten to the core that you know the consumption of rationality itself has become pathological in quality.
So, rationality is rotting away and so absurdity since it is the only way in which we can engage with rational questions because rationality the way it is operative now is a rotting mechanism is at its core are very rotting structure. So, absurdity over here becomes not an escape from rationality, but a deeper engagement with rationality and that is the ironical message in Toba Tek Singh there and when you have a moment like partition when you have a traumatic moment, a traumatic experience and event like partition, then absurdity paradoxically becomes the only possible engagement with rationality because rationality itself becomes so rotten to the core.
So, and then we come we cut back into the present time where you know the big day of exchange has been decided, has been settled and the you know lunatics have been transported to the bazaar, to the to the border in a van you know and again there is something very absurd about the whole setting. All lunatics are dressed up in uniforms presumably and two vans are going to come from across India and Pakistan and they are going to meet across the border and they will release the lunatics you know chain presumably.
So, it is quite spectacular and there is also a darkly comic quality about it which is also making it very political in quality because what has been done over here essentially is that two sets of madmen, quote unquote madmen across the borders would be swapped across each other because that seems to be the politically correct thing to do right under the given circumstances where partition has wrought the you know such destruction in so many people’s lives. In order to make it mathematically complete, in order to give a closure to this whole politics of division even the madmen will be swapped across the borders just like the lunatics had been, we are told at the beginning of the story.
So, we now know that this is again part of the text which should be on your screen – At long last the arrangements with exchange were complete. The lists of lunatics who were to be sent over from either side were exchanged and the date fixed. So, each party, each country sent a list of lunatics to the other country and they would just tally and match the lists in terms of getting the lunatics from the other side. Again, there is something very bizarrely bureaucratic about the whole movement which makes it very absurd. So, again this came back to the same thing - absurdity becomes a deeper engagement with rationality whereas, rational bureaucracy becomes a true absurdity in this situation.
So, on a cold winter evening truck loads of Hindu and Sikh lunatics from the Lahore asylum were moved out to the Indian border under police escort. So, again there is a you know it is very cinematic everything about it. A truck loads of excuse me, Hindu and Sikh lunatics were being transported from the asylum excuse me, from the Lahore asylum and they are taken towards the border the Wagah border presumably where you know India and Pakistan states would exchange their mad men.
Senior officials went with them to ensure a smooth exchange. So, again the bureaucrats are going to ensure there is there is a smooth exchange that all the boxes are ticked, the tally is kept you know the names of madmen are matched against each other, there is a list etcetera. The two sides met at the Wagah border check-post, signed documents and the transfer got underway.
Now, if we take a look at this sentence over here the two sides met, signed documents and the transfer got underway. There is something automatic, something perversely automatic and perversely non-human about this movement over here. So, it is almost as if two switches are switched on and the swapping mechanism begins to happen like a vending machine; you press a switch the function happens. So, trucks are gone, trucks go to the border you know, documents are signed and the prisoners are released and they began swapping each other.
So, you find that this that the stillness, the clinical quality about this whole exchange is what makes it so perverse in quality. Now, against this perverse stillness, against this perverse automatic quality of exchange what we have is an act of resistance by madmen. So, the lunatic movements, lunatic limb movements, motor movements, emotional swings, the mood swings of the madmen they become the only available human resistance against its clinical bureaucratic exchange. So, we find in this description given right away where the madmen’s you know movements of resistance that are described to us.
And, obviously, it is very tragic, very sad and also it seems funny and very superfluous kind of a way. They began to run away, they began to remonstrate, they began to protest, they do not want to go across the borders because you know no one obviously had consulted them, no one obviously had taken their consent in terms of agreeing to transfer them. But, then they carry on and they are forced to do it. It is a spectacle of coercion in that sense. So, all these madmen are coerced into crossing the borders according to their names and religious affiliations. So, the Hindus will come to India, the Muslims will go to Pakistan.
So, again it is very mathematical perversely rational kind of a swapping and that again obviously corroborates the point. The rationality becomes diseased over here, rationality becomes a true absurd phenomenon over here. We are told that the resistance of the madmen becomes quite palpable and quite spectacular in quality.
Getting the lunatics out of the trucks and handing them over to the opposite side proved to be a tough job. Some refused to get down from the trucks. Those who could be persuaded to do so began to run in all directions. So, again the running over here in different directions becomes the complete contrast of the linear sequential and automatic quality of the transfer movements that were done by the bureaucrats.
So, again the disarray of the madmen becomes in a way an act of resistance against this perverse sense of order, a perverse imposition of order that has been done or been executed with a neat exchange according to religious affiliations right. So, the madmen running away, the madmen becoming hysterical quote unquote, the all these become almost political in quality in the form of resistance given against this grand narrative of exchange.
So, some refused to get down from the trucks those who could be persuaded to do so began to run in all directions. Some were stark naked. So, again the nakedness becomes an act of subversion. You are taking off the clothes, you are running in all directions and that is obviously, undercutting and the very clean clinical manoeuvre which has been done with the bureaucrats over here – dress them out in a particular way, chain them up in a particular way and then swap them across the borders and tick the boxes, tally the names against the people coming in very bureaucratic, very cool, very clinical, very automatic in quality. So, the heartlessness of it is something which is very palpable, the human, the nonhuman, inhuman quality of the whole thing becomes very palpable over here.
So, some were stark naked. As soon as they were dressed they tore-off their clothes again. So, again the tearing of the clothes becomes in a way an act of subversion, an act of rebellion. They swore, they sang, they fought with each other. So, again, we find this is completely undercutting or attempting to undercut the neat, clinical, closure that the two governments wanted to have now.
And, the fact that the madmen are swearing, running against each other, they are singing together, they are exhibiting all kinds of quote unquote hysterical reactions. And, the hysteria over here paradoxically becomes the only available agency that they can exact they can enact under the circumstances.
Others wept. Female lunatics, who were also being exchanged, were even noisier. It was pure bedlam. Their teeth chattering in the bitter cold. So, bedlam obviously, becomes you know it is nice it is an archetype, it is the original madhouse and it goes back to classical times; bedlam is medieval, is classical. So, you know this Lahore asylum madhouse is connected to an archetype of madness which is bedlam which has become synonymous to confusion, synonymous to turmoil, a complete topsy-turvy etcetera. But, originally it was on it was a big madhouse in classical times and also in medieval times bedlam. So, you know it was pure bedlam. So, this word becomes interesting in terms of its dialogue with a local and the mythical.
So, most of the inmates appeared to be dead set against the entire operation. So, this is where the agency-less-ness of the madmen comes into play. They do not want to be moved, they do not want to be swapped, they are absolutely against it. They are dead set against the entire operation. The word operation obviously, gives it a clinical, cold, detached, bureaucratic quality which is non-human.
So, the human consent is not taken. The human will is against this operation, but this operation has to be executed because that is what the governments have decided very Kafkaesque centres have decided this exchange. So, the human beings have to abide or conform to it, otherwise there would be dissidence and obviously, madmen would be dealt with differently.
They simply could not understand why they were being forcibly removed to a strange place. So, the strangeness becomes important and obviously, strangeness over here bear some resemblance to the Freudian understanding of the uncanny right uncanny being strange, uncanny also being unhomely outside the home. So, they were actually been made to leave their home in some sense. So, Lahore being the home, their asylum was the home for a longest time. So, they were now asked to leave the home and to enter the uncanny.
So, India to these people despite their Hindu affiliation, despite the Sikh affiliation, India is a strange country. India in the sense that has been newly formed the state of, the new state of India is a strange country to them and they do not want to go there because they were born in Lahore. They were born in different parts of what is Pakistan and they want to be there because that is where they grew up and that is where that is the identity they have, the spatial extension of their identity.
Now, that spatial extension is being amputated over here and or terminated and now they are being sort of pushed into a different kind of spatial identity which is imposed upon them without their consent whatsoever. So, we are told that they simply could not understand – it is cognitive confusion to them as well why is this happening, where are we going, what are the political implications of these movements. So, these are questions to which no one can give any answer to them. So, they are completely confused, cognitively confused, politically confused etcetera.
They simply could not understand why they were being forcibly removed to a strange place. Slogans of Pakistan Zindabad and Pakistan Murdabad were raised. So, again long live Pakistan and death to Pakistan both were raised together, almost simultaneously by different people, and only timely intervention prevented serious clashes right.
(Refer Slide Time: 20:43)

So, intervention by the police, intervention by the military, by the observing officials that that was the only way that any clashes could be stopped otherwise people were just coming to blows almost regularly. And, also this whole idea of Pakistan Zindabad, Pakistan Murdabad – long live Pakistan, death to Pakistan they all have been clamored almost together and that obviously, goes to show that you know that all these affiliations is very random in quality. So, what is to one person a death wish can also be, a life wish to this to some other person, the same event the same space can have a life wish and a death wish by two different people depending on which perspective you are choosing to take.
When Bishan Singh’s turn came to give his personal details to be recorded in the register, he asked the official Where is Toba Tek Singh? In India or in Pakistan? So, again the only detail which matters to him, and this is the complete discrepancy in details because of the officials the more interesting detail is whether he is Hindu or Sikh or Muslim, a country which that in the movement will be done the movement will be determined depending on his religious affiliation. But, to him the only question is where is Toba Tek Singh. So, he does not really care about the Sikh affiliation over here, does not really care about this you know anti-Muslim affiliation over here. All he wants to know all he needs to know at this point is where is Toba Tek Singh in India or in Pakistan.
The officer laughed loudly. In Pakistan, of course. So, this was meant to be a joke perhaps in Pakistan of course, but what that does to Bishan Singh is that it gives an impression that he is being made to forced to leave and leave Pakistan and go to a strange country which is India right. So, he is concerned about Toba Tek Singh, the village from which he is from and does not really matter to him whether it is in India or Pakistan he just needs to know where it is. Now, someone you know half jokingly tells him that it is in Pakistan which gives an impression that he is about to be sent off from his own land and obviously, that is a very dramatic moment for him, that is a moment of epiphany for him that you know I am about to lose my home I am about to lose my place of birth.
Hearing that Bishan Singh turned and ran back to join his companions. So, he just refused to go because he was told he is in Pakistan and he realized he is about to leave Pakistan in a sense he is about to leave his home so he will never go back to his home that is what is you know playing in his mind. So, he runs back he turns back and ran back to his companions. The Pakistani guards caught him hold of him and tried to push him across the line of line to India. Bishan Singh wouldn’t move. This is Toba Tek Singh, he announced. Uper the gur gur the annexe the be dhayana the mung the dal Toba Tek Singh and Pakistan.
So again, the nonsense lyric about, the nonsense line about the quality of dal deteriorating and how Pakistan and Toba Tek Singh are the same thing, that has been uttered by him right. And, obviously, he refused to go because he is told that this is in Pakistan and you know this is being, this being Pakistan he realizes why would he go to India if going to India means losing Toba Tek Singh. So, again look at the way in which the spatial identity has prerogative in his mind over his religious identity. He could not really care so much about his religious identity, but what he does care about is his spatial identity, how the space becomes an extension of the self and that extension quality is important for us to understand ok.
It was it was explained to him over and over again that Toba Tek Singh was in India or very soon would be, but all this persuasion had no effect. So, again people are trying to just get rid of them. So, they are telling him that Toba Tek Singh is in India; if it is not in India now, it will be India in some point of time, but that had no effect.
Now, the point here is to understand that what are the two spatial parameters at play over here. So, to Bishan Singh the only spatial parameter which is meaningful is Toba Tek Singh, to this officials the two other grand meaningful parameters are India or Pakistan. So, Toba Tek Singh would be completely insignificant in their radar, in their cognitive radar. It does not really matter, it does not really feature in their cognitive radar at all. What does feature the only thing that features is whether this person is Hindu in which case he will go to India or if he is Muslim he will go to Pakistan.
So, two spaces that with matter only are India and Pakistan and it is almost like an emptying out of a space. Toba Tek Singh has been disappeared, has been made to disappear has been made to vanish from the face of India or Pakistan. So, you know now they are trying to persuade him into telling him that it is actually in India you are going in right direction and if it is not in India, it will be in India at some point of time. So, the obvious thing happening over is they are trying to cajole him into just going over to India, after which their job will be finished, their duty will be finished.
So, again look at the way in which a human being is mapped purely on the basis of his religious affiliation. It has got absolutely nothing to do with the spatial affiliation, it has got nothing to do with his cultural affiliation, but he just happens to be a Hindu or a Sikh. So, he has to go to India even if he wants it or does not want to, it has got no effect whatsoever, all this persuasion had no effect.
They even tried to drag him on the other side to the other side, but he it was no use. So, again they are trying to control him corporeally, they are trying to coerce him corporeally, they are trying to drag him his body down to the other side, but that too is useless. Why? There he stood on his swollen legs as if no power on earth could dislodge him. So, again the swollen legs become important that is almost is a close up to the swollen legs.
We are told that he had not slept or sat down no one has ever seen him non-standing for 15 years as a result of which his feet has swollen his feet have swollen. It is almost like as I mentioned an accumulation of time which is gone into his body. So, it is almost like a corporealization of time or a temporalization of body whichever way you want to look at it. So, all the time has got into his body and it sort of gives him some kind of a density which is producing stillness, which is producing immobility and he is just transfixed there, he does not move at all. So, every effort to move him it does not work because he just stands there like Atlas, the statue because his feet have swollen over the years.
No power of earth could dislodge him. Soon, since he was a harmless old man, the officials left him alone for the time being and proceeded with the rest of the exchange. So, because he was a harmless old man, the officials left him alone and he just stood there forever while the rest of the exchange took place. Again, exchange over here being a very you know bureaucratic manoeuvre, a mindless manoeuvre where these boxes are ticked, the people are sent and pushed across the borders as per decisions taken by two big centers ok.
So, the proceeding goes on, the swapping goes on forever. Just before sunrise, Bishan Singh let out a horrible scream. As everybody rushed towards him, the man who had stood erect on his legs for fifteen years, now pitched face-forward on the ground. On the one side, behind barbed wire, stood together the lunatics of India and on the other side, behind more barbed wire, stood the lunatics of Pakistan. In between, on a bit of earth which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.