Only a few works could surpass the era in which they were written and can still hold relevance. Undoubtedly, “Toba Tek Singh” written by Sadat Hasan Manto is one. Toba Tek Singh, one among the 15 stories in the book make use of powerful satire to tell the story of displacement and mayhem caused by the partition.
The cut was through the heart of both the countries. A couple of years after the partition, the respective governments decide to exchange the inmates of lunatic asylums in both the countries. The situation was such that nobody, not even the guards could tell exactly where both countries are situated. One day, an inmate who was fed up with the India - Pakistan - Pakistan - India rigmarole climbs up a tree and declares “ I wish to live neither in India nor in Pakistan. I wish to live on this tree.” It’s certainly a gibberish of a lunatic but without any prejudice. With his simple but powerful language, Manto portrays explicitly, the dilemma of thousands who were once caught in a no man’s land.
It is a strange paradox that even when Manto speaks about the displacement all through his stories, both countries still clamour to own him. Nandita Das who is directing a movie based on the life of Manto says “ Pakistanis says he is a Pakistani writer and Indian says he is an Indian writer.” For her, Manto is a South Asian writer who could be a perfect conduit for both countries to come closer.”
Bishen Singh, whom the author calls Toba Tek Singh is introduced as an old man who had not slept in 15 years. Occasionally he would rest against the wall but most of the time he was found standing. On a cold winter evening, the Hindu and Sikh lunatics were taken to Wagah border to be transferred to India. When his time came, Toba Tek Singh refused to budge from where he is standing. The swelling on his legs got worse as he was standing for a prolonged time. He stood there firmly as a rock until he fell dead in a no - man’s land.
Like Toba Tek Singh, thousands had lost their lives in a no man’s land whose stories will never be heard.
The significance of these stories could not be undermined by confining it to the backdrop of partition. Because there lay “ Stark naked emotions” everywhere.
“ Colder than Ice”, the story of Ishwar Singh made me go stoic for a while. Frantic to erase some memory which was gnawing at him, he engrosses himself in a love game with his lover Kalwant Kaur but fails miserably. Why? He was in a “Muslim Mohalla” to kill several in the community and plunder to seek vengeance. He had broken into a house and starts eliminating one by one in the family barring a little girl. The little thing was so beautiful that he could not bring himself to do away with the child until he ravishes her. He carried her on his shoulders until he found a suitable place to commit the task.
“ first I thought I would shuffle her a bit… but then I decided to trump her right away”
“ I threw the trump...but but she was dead…..I had carried a dead body...a heap of cold flesh,” Ishwar Singh confesses to his lover.
It’s strange that the living could not evoke any kind of emotions in a man but the dead.
I wonder why Kalwant Kaur's hand became colder than ice when she placed her hands on his.
In " Bitter Harvest", Manto evoked the darker side of a man when he is pushed beyond his limits. But does that justify his action? The answer can be only in the negative. A father molests a little girl to take vengeance against the rape committed against his daughter, Sadly, the little girl was in no way connected to his daughter’s murderers’. The partition had literally opened a ‘ pandora box’.
The story named “ A woman for all seasons ” is about a silent manipulative woman. And we can see many of them still living with their heads held high amidst us.
I would like to call it as “ The story of a seductress.” Besides, it also reminded me of the poem - La belle Dame Sans Merci ( The beautiful Lady without Mercy).
The uniqueness of Toba Tek Singh is that every story stands independently whether it is regarding the backdrop, portrayal of emotions, characters and what not. Sometimes, you are so enamoured by certain movies and books that you do not want it to end forcing you to put intermittent gaps while watching or reading them. Toba Tek Singh did that to me.
- Shalet Jimmy