‘Where do we belong?’: Exploring the absurdity of partition through selected short stories of Sadaat Manto Hasan
Junaid Shah Shabir
The partition of the Indian subcontinent was an iniquitous act that created a humanitarian crisis at a very large scale and led to the perpetual division of people along seemingly irreconcilable communal lines. This study explores the absurdity and incongruity of partition through two short stories Toba Tek Singh and The Dog of Tithwal by Saadat Hasan Manto. The essay reads the two works as a depiction of absurdity and madness on the part of the executioners of the partition and portrays its dark and inhumane side. These works of fiction satirize the act of partition and showcase caricatures of the people who planned and paved the way for the implausible splitting of a community. These writings also elicit the reader’s shocked response to the absurdity of partition which forced people to choose nations when they had no idea why such choices were important, or even, how to choose. In both stories, ordinary human beings are made unwitting perpetrators of crimes, fighting a war of which they have little understanding.
Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-55) is the most significant cultural icon in the world of Urdu short stories. Influenced first by writers like Oscar Wilde, G. B. Shaw and Victor Hugo (whose works he translated into Urdu), Manto has also been compared to Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham, D.H. Lawrence, O. Henry for his magnificent craft of blending realism and symbolism together to chronicle the social and political happenings of his time. Since he belonged to the Progressive Writers Association, it is obvious that his pen wouldn’t have romanticized or painted the narration in colours; rather he produced art that was true to life and depicted the social and political realities of the times he lived in. His themes were largely social, before the partition of the subcontinent, when he would debunk the hypocrisies of the society that he lived in by talking about what was otherwise seen as taboo. He exposed the pretences and moral standards set by society by exposing social restrictions in his writings. Soon after partition, Manto could not help but vehemently criticise this inhumane act of bifurcating a big nation into two and butchering the collective consciousness of the people into two unjustified halves – the ‘us’ and ‘them’. While not slipping into simple narrations of facts and incidents, Manto skilfully brings forth a different perspective that not only acquaints readers about the collective trauma suffered by millions at the time of partition but also lets his readers dive into the psychological realm of his characters to depict the hidden realities which historians could not showcase. His stories are timeless and are still of crucial importance for scholars in that they help in “generating an understanding of the significance of partition violence, not in explaining a ‘holocaust’ . . . but in touching its complex topography, in reading its silences” (Severns. 200-201). Perhaps there can be no other way of commemorating this legend than quoting his own epitaph that he wrote some months before his death, to mark his grave:
Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing… under tonnes of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greatest short story writer; God or he. (Sandhawalia: 2015)
Manto’s writings criticise as well as resist the idea of nationalism that had gained pace in the then- Indian subcontinent. Manto possessed a rare gift of imagination that allowed him to create timeless fiction which would interweave human emotions with political and social appraisal in such a profound way that readers are always left in awe. Urdu literature has witnessed no other short writer who could create characters that are true to life and portray the dark side of human consciousness while maintaining an artistic distance.
Toba Tek Singh (1955) displays Manto at his artistic height. It would not be a mistake to call the story one of the best political satires of all times which not only makes the reader aware of the insanity of partition but also engages them in the very action of the tale. To use a lunatic asylum as a microcosm of a nation to bring forth the insanity that the people of the newly formed countries were driven into and satirize the insane act of partition showcases Manto’s craft and talent. He uses the lunacy of the inmates to mirror the lunacy of the external world and employs characters from different walks of life –ranging from a farmer to an engineer – to add different dimensions to the story. The main character Bishan Singh is a symbolic representation of the loss, pain, heartbreak, confusion, and chaos experienced by the people who helplessly witnessed their motherland being torn apart. He symbolizes both the people and their mental state simultaneously. In a very few pages, this iconic piece of literature reveals the psychological effects of partition, the arbitrariness of borders, the madness of the act and the helplessness of people.
First published in 1987, The Dog of Tithwal is yet another masterpiece of Manto that uses symbolism and imagery to depict yet another disastrous effect of the partition which was the loss of identity and sense of belonging. While in Toba Tek Singh Manto shows the insanity of partition through the lens of the ‘insane’, The Dog of Tithwal portrays the savage and brutal face of man when unmasked. Set in the mountains of Tithwal (between India and Pakistan) in “pleasant” summer days, the story is a microcosmic view of the hatred filled confrontation between the people of the newly formed states. The Indian and Pakistani soldiers are frustrated at not being able to kill each other even though they exchange firing for hours together on a daily basis as they hunker down, waiting for the slightest sign of trouble. This frustration and thirst to spill blood makes them kill a friendly dog who is caught between the two military posts of opposing countries and struggles to find companionship with one of the two military groups.
Wrapped in heart wrenching episodes, Manto employs natural imagery in The Dog of Tithwal and communal harmony at a microcosmic level in Toba Tek Singh to convey the message of the commonality of human beings. In Toba Tek Singh, the inhabitants in the asylum are the epitome of community brotherhood and harmony where people of different religions coexist peacefully. Manto uses this community inside the asylum to frame an opposing mirror image of the world outside the asylum that was hell bent on dividing humanity on religious and communal lines. When this rigmarole of partition left the inmates in chaos and confusion, one inmate climbed a tree and fixed himself on a branch. On being asked to climb down by the guards, he declares, “I wish to live neither in India nor in Pakistan. I wish to live in this tree” – when fed up with worldly chaos and bewilderment, man seeks refuge in the nature to which he originally belongs. The organic connectivity between people of Pakistan and India is further brought out in natural imagery. The weather which “was extremely pleasant”, the air “that was heavy with the scent of wildflowers”, and the nature that “seemed to be following its course, quite unmindful of the soldiers hiding behind rocks” was shared not only by the soldiers serving two different nation states but also by the people living in those states. By reminding men of the nature which they share and find refuge in, the story ridicules the unfounded act of partition in the very first paragraph. Manto, as a vocal social critic, viewed not only the idea of partition as irrational but also called the people supporting and helping divide a nation into two either as criminals or just mad. The ‘insane’ Bishan Singh in Toba Tek Singh is one such example of a person who stands in stark contrast to the ‘sane’ people outside who proclaim themselves the rightful cartographers and proceed with dividing people on communal and regional lines. Manto packs the agony, suffering, trouble, perplexity, stupefaction, trauma, and devastation caused to people by partition in this one character. As Foucault notes in Madness and Civilization, “madness creates its own meaning in an attempt to find the truth.” (Foucault 30). The characters in many such stories of partition have to necessarily go through ‘madness’ and ‘insanity’ to explore truth and remain sane amid chaos, disarray, and pandemonium. Bishan Singh, who is later famously called Toba Tek Singh, holds up a mirror to a vile and self-serving society. In his poem ‘Toba Tek Singh’ the famous Urdu poet Gulzar rightly says:
I’ve to go and meet Toba Tek Singh’s Bishan at Wagah
I’m told he still stands on his swollen feet Where Manto had left him,
/He still mutters: Opad di gud gud di moong di dal di laltain
I’ve to locate that mad fellow/ Who used to speak up from a branch high above: “He’s god He alone has to decide – whose village to whose side.”1
In The Dog of Tithwal, Manto employs the symbol of a dog to expose the pent-up sense of anger and frustration of soldiers who are waiting to wage war on those who were their brothers just days before. The brutal treatment of the dog by Indian and Pakistani soldiers portrays the helplessness of the people who had to go through unthinkable trauma due to partition and its ensuing violence. The story throws light on how innocent and naive people were first compelled to don an imposed national identity and later asked to prove this forced identity. The work also ridicules those who wanted to thrust identities on naïve people and enjoyed unleashing terror and madness upon them. “‘Even dogs will now have to decide if they are Indian or Pakistani’, one of the soldiers observed.” Manto calls the act of partition a game which the people at the helm of affairs enjoyed playing at the cost of human lives, and that led to a huge psychological trauma borne by innocent masses:
It soon became a game between the soldiers, with the dog running round in circles in a state of great terror. Both Himmat Khan and Harnam Singh were laughing boisterously. The dog began to run towards Harnam Singh, who abused him loudly and fired. The bullet caught him in the leg. He yelped, turned around and began to run towards Himmat Khan, only to meet more fire, which was meant to scare him. ‘Be a brave boy. If you are injured, don’t let that stand between you and your duty. Go, go, go,’ the Pakistani shouted. (Manto. 24)
The dog is a symbolical representation of the confused people who struggled to make sense of partition but were still caught up in a quandary when it came to decide which ‘country’ they had to show loyalty to. For many who wanted to stay but were forced to migrate or wanted to migrate but felt compelled to stay behind, the decision was heart wrenching.
While history can only convey superficial events, art dwells deep into the human psyche to bring out truths which cannot be factualized. Manto blends facts with realistic fiction to document the depth of human suffering caused by the partition of the subcontinent in a way that historians have failed to do. According to Sandhawalia, Manto “crafted stories that gave more immediate and penetrating accounts of those troubled and troubling times than most journalistic accounts of partition. He excelled in capturing the human dimensions of a nation being butchered in the name of religion”. This just makes us ask whether Manto was a better historian.
Both these stories, like all other works of Manto, evoke pity, fear, and despair in readers as the characters not only criticise the foolishness of the partition plan and execution but also resist the act of being split by an external agency against their own will. Throughout Toba Tek Singh, Bishan Singh keeps on asking ‘Where is Toba Tek Singh?’ which is relatable to every single person affected by partition and can be interpreted as people seeking their identity and place. At the end, Bishan Singh resists the soldiers’ urge to pin him down and dies in no man’s land, with India on one end and Pakistan on the other. Similarly, the dog in The Dog of Tithwal, kept running between both borders, not unlike the humans who were as confused and traumatized.
The literary responses to the partition of the Indian subcontinent are major sources to revisit partition politics and violence. Manto’s short stories are inarguably some of the best portrayals of the pain and horror of this painful chapter. His fictional narratives draw our attention to the tremendous impact of psychosocial suffering caused to the masses during and after the act of partition that remains underexplored in historical and journalistic accounts. Fiction stands true to life and depicts reality in ways that not only acquaint the audience with what had happened but forces them to shake the fragile walls surrounding their comfort zone.
- Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. Richard Howard. London: Tavistock Publications, 1971. Print
- Manto, Saadat. Kingdom’s End and Other Stories. Translated by Khalid Hassan. Verso, 1987
- Sandhawalia, Jasmine. “Manto’s undivided people & divided us.” The Tribune, 05 Sep. 2015, https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/archive/features/manto-s-undivided-people-divided-us-129280. Accessed 09 Oct. 2021
- Severns, Keith. Witnessing Violence: Perspectives on Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s “Khol do” and Rajinder Singh Bedi’s “Lajvanti”. Annual of Urdu Studies vol. 13 (1998).
Junaid Shah Shabir is just an ordinary human being with extraordinary ambitions. He is presently pursuing graduate study in English Literature at NM State University, USA. Through the short fiction and poetry, that he seldom finds himself writing, he tries to speak truth to the power and bear witness to the plight of ordinary people in contemporary occupations and political conflicts.