March 24, 2021KR OnlineNonfiction

The Freedoms of Toba Tek Singh

At school in Pakistan, we talk about the partition of the Indian subcontinent all the time. Our teachers emerge victorious from these sessions, heads held high in the afterglow of a battle won once again.

In primary school, they tell us how we can pray freely only because of 1947. In middle school, they tell us how brave we are as a nation by making us memorize a list of the significant martyrs of 1947 who made it possible for us to pray freely. In high school (when most of us stop praying) the conversation tilts towards the British, and the fact that they brought us railways, which makes them much better than the Hindus of India, those terrible Hindus, who—exclusively, said my teacher one day—murdered, pillaged, destroyed, and said our Arabic names with a Sanskrit sprinkle (the reverse happens on the other side of the border). The idea here is to encourage us to exercise our freedom to pray, albeit this time with the claim that our god is, undoubtedly, superior, that he runs in the veins of the pious exclusively on this side of the Radcliffe Line.

And what a line it is! One of the most important ever drawn in the history of the modern world, but we gloss over it in these conversations. We do not talk about this line and we do not talk about the person who drew it, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, or the desperation with which he held on to the pen that caused a fissure on the map of South Asia, costing millions their lives and their homes. We definitely do not talk about the fact that Cyril paaji was a lawyer who had never been west of Europe beyond Paris, who knew nothing about the region whose fate he was assigned to define. Presented with a plate of biryani and asked to determine what was in it, he would have, in all likelihood, fainted spectacularly. No one ever told me Cyril paaji was given only five weeks to partition the entire subcontinent, to draw the strange T. rex that represents my country on a political map.

And this line, for us, even now, is considered a victory of freedom. This is the baseline we established in this country for the concept of “choice.” We will forever convince ourselves that we have what we have because we chose it. Rather than investigate the harrowing denouement—that our colonial superiors did a number on us, that our present is determined by their choices, not ours—we would rather spend our time asking boys in schools to fasten their collars, then looking on in amazement as they grow up to slap each other senseless in lines at the grocery store, perhaps in lieu of release that real freedom could offer.

• •

In college, however, if one is lucky, one gets to read Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story “Toba Tek Singh.” It is a story about the aforementioned denouement: it takes place in an asylum in Lahore, two or three years after partition, when the “wise men” of the infant states of Pakistan and India suddenly realize that while they have successfully distributed people across the new border, they have done nothing for the “lunatics” in the asylums across both countries. One day, they simply make their decision: Hindu and Sikh madmen will live in India, Muslim lunatics will live in Pakistan.

Confusion erupts in an asylum in Lahore (which, amusingly, Radcliffe once remarked to Kuldip Nayyar was a city he almost gave to India), as inmates hear about this distribution—and partition—for the first time. They have no say in it, are left wondering what Pakistan is, where exactly it can be found, and how can it be that a place that was once in India is now, suddenly, in Pakistan?

Some satisfy themselves with strange answers, like perhaps Pakistan is a place in India where razor blades are made. Some Muslim inmates suddenly develop a nationalist streak, including one who shouts “Long Live Pakistan” in the shower one day, then slips and hits his head on the floor. One inmate—and how I long to be his friend!—climbs up a tree and refuses to come down, declaring he has no wish to be in India or Pakistan, that he’d rather identify as a citizen of the tree. One inmate discovers that the partition means that his beloved who lives in Amritsar is now in India, while he is in Pakistan. He curses the leaders of the nations; they have torn him asunder by drawing an imaginary line between him and eternal love.

The inmates are, of course, us. The partition had very little to do with them, just like it had very little to do with the disempowered among us, which was—and is—most of us. Their “freedom” was chosen for them. Our current “freedom” is decided for us—all of us have stared open-mouthed at those videos of ballot boxes being emptied and restuffed with prefilled ballots. Voter intimidation is served for breakfast. The army exists a little too much.

Our protagonist, though, the eponymous Toba Tek Singh (named after his town of origin) has only one concern: Where is Toba Tek Singh? No one can tell him whether it has been moved to Pakistan, or India, because no one can comprehend this movement of places to begin with. After partition—which he did not know about—his daughter has stopped showing up, and if she is his sole link to reality, he has nothing holding him to the real world. He is, then, another slave to the whims of those who have gotten to make decisions without consent. He has lost himself, he does not care for politics and ownership; he simply wants to find his home, to remember who he is and where he belongs.

Uper di gur gur di annexe di bay dhayana di mung di dal of the laltain—loosely translated as “above of the rumble of the annex of the careless of the lentil of the lantern”—the utterly nonsensical chorus of this piece, repeated again and again by Toba Tek Singh in slight variations, accentuates this madness. This is probably my favourite element of the piece: I imagine this is what our leaders hear when we speak to them of how we long to be understood.

• •

I am Toba Tek Singh. I am thirty and I have voted once, because the candidate used a magic lamp as his symbol and I wanted to appreciate his creativity. I know nothing about and care nothing for mandates and slogans because they have, time and again, without fail, proven to be lies. What happens is what always happens—a strangely feudal system masquerading as democracy, the same families on the news in different guises, whiffs of the army sprinkled over every decision. Someone in the National Assembly has a lion, I do not remember who. Our Instagram activists are strong and loud and revolutionary, but they too exist in the echo chambers of the middle class and spend a lot of their time abroad, sometimes by force. They are much stronger than me, so this is not criticism—they are indubitably better people.

But there is no power outside the echo chamber. Not yet.

• •

I had a flat tire three days ago. There’s a giant pothole right outside my apartment, it has been there for four years, under the jurisdiction of two different political parties. My area tends to vote for the party that never happens to win. Ergo: there will be more flat tires.

• •

My vote, then, to me, means nothing. I am like the “Anglo” inmates in the asylum, worried about tomorrow’s breakfast, resigned to the world spinning out of control.

I love the way all hell breaks loose in this story as soon as the inmates are brought to the border for the exchange. They scream, take off their clothes, run and run and run and refuse to be corralled. They will not have it, this decision being made for them. They oscillate between Long Live Pakistan and Death to Pakistan. They put up a fight, but it is a very short one. It is earnest and it is powerful and it is loud and the guards do nothing about it and the inmates just tire themselves out, and are then sent wherever they were supposed to go.

When Toba Tek Singh finds out that he is being sent to India by virtue of his Sikh faith, and that he is being given the freedom to exercise this faith, he ignores it, and immediately asks for the location of his beloved home.

He is told it is Pakistan.

He roars. He runs away from the guards. They try to get a hold of him, to push, cajole, even drag him across the line into India, but he cannot be moved. He stands, superman of the border, right in between the two nations, and they forget about him.

Uper di gur gur di annexe di be dyhana di mung di dal of Toba Tek Singh and Pakistan.

Hours later, a scream issues from him, and he falls dead, right there in no man’s land, and that is his victory, that is our victory.

He has finally gotten to choose his destiny, and what a sorry sight it is.

• •

The main question then, perhaps, may not be about whether we can choose our destinies here. It is about the choices at our disposal at the moment.

Faced with these choices, I am Toba Tek Singh.

I find my fight is better fought in making sure the undergraduates I teach grow up to have the loudest voices of any generation. Because when the coast clears—and it will, it will have to—when these powerful families are knocked off their pedestals one by one, in several years, in decades, in a generation, by those engaged in struggle now and by those preparing for future struggle, there need to be people ready to take their place. And these people will start their adult lives knowing the difference between freedom and illusion.

They will know to not take the first compromise as victory, they will understand how we got to where we are, and for them I will be the first one in line at the polling booth.


Recommendations: It is very difficult to recommend Pakistani writers to readers of other languages. Most of our best contemporary writing happens in Urdu and goes untranslated. Manto is one of the few who have been translated widely into English—his entire oeuvre is magnificent and revolutionary. A collection called “Mottled Dawn” contains some of his best stories about the partition. Ismat Chugtai (“The Quilt”) should also be spoken of in the same breath as Manto—her Marxist outlook and work on sexuality made her the prime candidate for censorship, just like Manto, but these stories are stronger than the powers that seek to repress them. They, along with other giants like Intizar Hussain and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, have been adapted by languages all over the world. Some of my favourite Pakistani artists working currently are designer and illustrator Shehzil Malik (@shehzilm) and essayist Sadia Khatri (@saraswatibythesea).