At Home in the Asylum

Seventy-five years later, the fiction of Saadat Hasan Manto still speaks to the madness of India’s Partition

Illustration by Eric Hanson
Illustration by Eric Hanson

In August, Salman Rushdie was repeatedly stabbed in front of a crowd of terrified onlookers who had come to Chautauqua, New York, to hear the novelist speak. Though the assailant’s motives remain vague, his characterization of Rushdie as “someone who attacked Islam” echoes the words of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who in 1989 famously issued a fatwa against the writer for the way the Prophet Muhammad was depicted in The Satanic Verses. Rushdie did not think of the novel as a criticism of Islam but as a work about “migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay,” as he wrote in a 1989 New York Times article. And like Midnight’s Children—Rushdie’s seminal 1981 novel—it cannot be divorced from Rushdie’s experience growing up in a Muslim family in India in the aftermath of Partition.

Rushdie may be the most famous writer to fictionalize the cataclysmic events of August 1947, but he is by no means the only one. In 1997, Rushdie and Elizabeth West edited an anthology of post-Independence Indian writing (Mirrorwork), and it is perhaps telling that the only work in translation that they chose to include was Saadat Hasan Manto’s 1955 short story “Toba Tek Singh.” For Rushdie, Manto was the “undisputed master of the modern Indian short story.” Manto had, moreover, the advantage of proximity: he experienced firsthand the aftermath of Britain’s decision to divide the subcontinent, and he began writing about it less than a decade later.

“Toba Tek Singh” takes place not long after Partition, when Hindus and Sikhs who found themselves living in the new country of Pakistan moved to India as Indian Muslims headed in the other direction—all of them fearful of becoming a religious minority in a newly created state. The story satirizes this confusing, maddening upheaval, captured in the deceptively dispassionate tone of the opening lines:

A couple of years after the Partition of the country, it occurred to the respective governments of India and Pakistan that inmates of lunatic asylums, like prisoners, should also be exchanged. Muslim lunatics in India should be transferred to Pakistan and Hindu and Sikh lunatics in Pakistani asylums should be sent to India. [tr. from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan]

The problem is that these so-called lunatics can’t understand what is “India” and what is “Pakistan.” Nor do they know why they are being forced to move to a land in which they have no roots. “I wish to live neither in India nor in Pakistan. I wish to live in this tree,” one inmate announces. When he finally descends from his perch to the ground, he weeps at the prospect of losing his Hindu and Sikh friends, who, he fears, are about to leave him forever. This is the fate confronting each of the story’s characters: that they will be forced to move to a new place with a new name that means nothing to them.

The question of whether British India would become a single independent country or split along religious lines persisted until the spring of 1947. Widespread sectarian violence had already erupted—this after Britain had spent 150 years solidifying divisions among its subjects. The Hindu-dominated Congress Party and the Muslim League could not agree on power sharing in a new India. So the British devised what they thought would be the easiest, least violent solution: two countries, separated by a border that was announced only four weeks before the date of independence.

Pakistan was created on August 14, 1947; India, the next day. Extensive violence followed, with angry crowds engaged in beatings, killings, and rapes. News of the violence led to acts of revenge, with estimates for the death toll ranging from 200,000 to two million. About 15 million people were displaced in the immediate aftermath of Partition.

According to Sarah Waheed, professor of South Asian history at the University of South Carolina, Partition “inaugurated an era of enduring dispossession and displacement which continues to play out in deadly ways all over the region.” Delhi, then a city of 900,000, saw 326,000 people leave for Pakistan and 435,000 arrive, completely transforming the city’s demographics. In 1941, the population of Karachi was 51.1 percent Hindu; by 1951, it was only 1.7 percent.

Had Partition not occurred, Manto might well have spent his life as a Bollywood screenwriter. When violence broke out after Partition, he initially hoped to stay in Bombay, where he was enjoying a budding career in the film industry. But when a Hindu friend admitted that he might have beaten Manto to death had the two encountered each other during one of the city’s anti-Muslim rallies, Manto knew that he had to go. He reluctantly moved to Lahore, where he would live the rest of his life, barely getting by as a short story writer.

Benedict Anderson, the 20th century’s most influential theorist of nationalism, writes in Imagined Communities that nationalism is a thoroughly modern concept, made possible by widespread literacy and “print capitalism.” For him, nationalism can teach us to love the strangers, sometimes millions of them, who make up our nation. Manto, from a Muslim family in Punjab, saw it in a far uglier light. His stories bear blunt witness to the violence committed against those who are deemed by the majority not to be part of a nation.

Since 1947, India has increasingly fallen under the influence of those who question the secular nature of the state. The widely protested 2019 amendment to the country’s citizenship law, for example, allowed large numbers of recent Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Buddhist, and Jain immigrants from neighboring countries to claim Indian citizenship, but it denied Muslim immigrants the same opportunity. It was the first time that religion was used as a basis for Indian citizenship. The amendment’s architects, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, have advanced a form of right-wing Hindu nationalism, known as Hindutva, that has encouraged anti-Muslim violence. But Manto’s work shows that the question of who belongs in India has always been coupled with violence, and “Toba Tek Singh” mocked the sanity of those who thought a line on a map would solve such division.

I first encountered Manto as a master’s student in London, when a friend from Pakistan took me to a theatrical rendition of  “Toba Tek Singh.” Directed by a Polish undergraduate and performed in Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, and English by students from South Asia and the diaspora, the production fittingly refused to stick to strict ethnic and linguistic boundaries.

The main character of “Toba Tek Singh” is a Sikh lunatic named Bishan Singh, who has spent the past 15 years in a Lahore asylum on his feet, refusing to sit or lie down. When Partition forces his family members to end their visits and move to India, Singh becomes obsessed with the question of where Toba Tek Singh—the city where he owned property—has ended up. He can’t seem to get a straight answer from anyone. And even if he could, how could he rely on that answer, if a place can be in India one day and in Pakistan the next? What is to keep it from moving again? What’s crazier, Manto seems to be asking: the world within the asylum or the world without?

In the end, Singh escapes his captors while being transferred, along with his fellow non-Muslim inmates, from Pakistan to India. He runs onto a small piece of no man’s land where, for the first time in 15 years, he lies down. Then he dies. His last words declare that he has found Toba Tek Singh.

The moral of the story, according to Ayesha Jalal, a professor of South Asian history at Tufts University, is that “we err in assuming that those who belong, belong because they have passports.” Bishan Singh dies on a piece of land between a barbed-wire fence and another fence, but to him, it’s home. “No state-drawn boundaries can contain that,” Jalal said. “It is a more human understanding of belonging.”

Manto’s work has stuck with me for years, and it seems sadly more relevant than ever—both to the current state of India and to all the many parts of the world (including here in the United States) where virulent strains of nationalism have taken hold. Three-quarters of a century after Partition, Manto’s asylums continue to hold lessons for a world being driven mad.

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Michael Haack is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. He has a master’s degree in comparative political thought from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.


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