Conflict, Culture and Creation

An Artistic Interpretation of Religious Challenges in South Asia

Toba Tek Singh- Explanation

Filed under: Uncategorized — alana at 2:09 am on Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Although in class the logistics of the partition of Pakistan from India was not a central topic, the reverberations of this schism have echoed through South Asia ever since. The partition has had a major political as well as cultural effect on the people of these two countries and in doing so, it too has effected my own understanding of the region as a student in this course trying to get a picture of the situation without much context. Besides scholarly journals and books, and even better than news articles and accounts, it is my opinion that stories often tell the best tales of history or of conflict, for good reason. For though a story is assumed to be fiction, this phrase “fiction” is just a ruse. As in the case of Saadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, a story can be both timely and telling. Manto is able to paint an incredibly realistic picture and simultaneously make a quite profound statement about his opinion of the partition, all through short, unusual and very human tale of a man in an insane asylum in what was originally Hindustan and now Pakistan. The story of Toba Tek Singh, the title character, is that when the asylum of which he is a resident must separate and deliver its Muslims to Pakistan and its Hindu and Sikh residents to the border with Hindustan, chaos ensues. The residents don’t understand what is going on, and they don’t understand the basis of the division of India into Pakistan, and can’t fathom how the country they knew can now be a different place entirely. All Singh wants to know is where his home is located, and keeps muttering nonsense, and the phrase, “Where is Toba Tek Singh?” When he finally learns it is in Pakistan, at the same moment that he is being taken to the border with Hindustan, he refuses to cross and leave his home. The story ends with Singh’s death in the small gap between the barbed wire fences separating Pakistan and Hindustan. Chaos of the asylum and the exchange of residents symbolize Manto’s opinion of the lack of care, oversight and understanding that went in to the partition of India into Pakistan.

Singh was only concerned with his home. He couldn’t understand why no-one could tell him where he belonged, and he had no sense of discrimination of other residents of the asylum based on religion, or location, or anything at all. For my creative response to Manto’s piece, I wanted to create my own story that re-emphasized the themes of confusion of the exchange and symbolically of the partition, as well as allude to the utter lack of necessity for labels concerning place of origin, or religion, or occupation. The emphasis is that Toba Tek Singh was known for and died for his refusal to cross a border, to leave a place he thought was his home, but in reality this home was the name a country, of a place that meant nothing to him.

I decided to set my short story a few days after Singh’s death. It takes place from the perspective of his friend, Fazl Din, who comes back to visit the asylum after Singh’s date of transport. Din finds the place in shambles, as many of the people had been moved into Hindustan and had resisted. When he finally meets an employee in the building, and inquires where his friend is, the man does not recognize the name Bhishan Singh, and proceeds to ask Din many defining questions about Singh to try to identify him. I wanted to make these questions indicative of the profiling and the “othering” that had become so common during the partition: either you are Muslim or Hindu, wealthy or poor, belong in India or Pakistan… When Din finally repeats the phrase that was shouted by Singh himself so many times, “Where is Toba Tek Singh?” though the words are uttered in a different context, the asylum assistant immediately recognizes who Din is looking for and informs him of what happened. The story ends with Singh’s daughter traveling back once again to visit the asylum, this time to place a sign where he died, labeling that un-named patch of land, “Toba Tek Singh is here!” The place of his death is finally given meaning. For an action, a life, is more deserving of a title, of a story and of an understanding than is a wire fence that only stands as a symbol of bloody division.

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