about the story

"Toba Tek Singh" is surely the most famous story about Partition, and very possibly the best one. I'd argue that it is in fact the best, and that most of the other good candidates are also by Manto. This story was one of his last ones; it was published in "Phundne" (Lahore: Maktabah-e Jadid) in 1955, the year of his death.

Every reader at once realizes that it's a powerful satire, and also a bitter indictment of the political processes and behavior patterns that produced Partition. But the author's brilliant craftsmanship lies partly in the fact that there's not a single word in the story that tells us so. The story presents itself as a deadpan, factual, non-judgmental chronicle of the behavior of certain lunatics in an insane asylum in Lahore. It thus shares the conspicuously effective technique of Jonathan Swift's *"A Modest Proposal"*.

The story is told by a reliable but not omniscient narrator who speaks as a Pakistani, and seems to be a Lahori. The narration is for the most part so straightforward that the narrator's voice seems even naive (or faux-naif, depending on how we want to read it). The narrator reports to us with apparent matter-of-factness a series of events that are not quite as straightforward as they appear. The time frame, for one thing, is oddly jagged. The first two paragraphs take us to the Wagah border itself, where the lunatics are described as having already arrived. Then we drop abruptly into a very long flashback: we return to an earlier time, when the inmates in the Lahore asylum first learn of the proposed exchange. We follow their reactions and behavior, until at the very end of the story we once again arrive at the time and place of the first two paragraphs.

A much greater oddity is that the whole story, as we're told in the first sentence, takes place "two or three years after Partition," so it seems highly implausible that not only the lunatics, but the people around them as well, can't figure out where Toba Tek Singh is; the district isn't even anywhere near the border, so after "two or three years" there could hardly be any confusion. But it's a tribute to Manto's narrative skill that on the first reading, this question doesn't even occur-- and perhaps not on the second or third reading, either.

We don't meet the main character until well into the story, when we've gone through an illustrative sequence of other lunatics. The narrator reports that everyone calls the main character "Toba Tek Singh" (though in the whole course of the story we never actually hear anyone doing so); but the narrator himself always refers to him by his full name, Bishan Singh. Does he do this pointedly, as a sign of respect, and to differentiate himself from the others? And when he seeks to interpret Bishan Singh's outbursts, he always qualifies his suggestions with a respectful "perhaps," to show that he is not privy to Bishan Singh's inner life, but is only speculating.

Whatever the reason, the narrator's carefulness in this respect enables him to set up a wonderfully elegant, haunting, ambiguous conclusion. After Bishan Singh gives a single loud shriek and collapses, the narrator locates him in a no-man's-land between the two new nations' barbed-wire borders. My translation is entirely literal: "In between, on that piece of ground that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh." We know of course that the person Bishan Singh lay there. But since the narrator never calls this person by that name, he's able to force us to the additional reading that the real location of the village Toba Tek Singh is between the two new states' sharply demarcated borders. But if the village is there, then in what sense exactly, and in whose eyes? Is Bishan Singh sane or mad, conscious or delirious, alive or dead? With wonderful subtlety and literary restraint, the author allows us-- and thus also forces us-- to invent our own ending.

Because of its simple and deliberately repetitive use of language, the story also provides excellent reading practice for students learning Urdu. For more on the Urdu text, see *About the Text*. My translation is almost as literal as it can possibly be. This is partly for the convenience of students, and partly because I love translations that try to bring you right up against the very grammar, the very sentence structures, of the original.

And my translation is literal also as a form of reaction against Khalid Hassan's extremely free one, which is widely available in print; see for example Mottled Dawn: Fifty Sketches and Stories of Partition (New Delhi, Penguin India, 1997, pp. 1-10). Khalid Hassan, who wrote such a fine and sympathetic *memoir* of Manto, apparently felt quite free to "transcreate" his literary idol's greatest story. As only one example, though a particularly irritating one, here is the start of section [08]. The original is, like the whole of the story, stark and simple in almost a minimalist way; my translation reflects those qualities, as you can easily check for yourself in the Urdu text:

He had one daughter who, growing a finger-width taller every month, in fifteen years had become a young girl. Bishan Singh didn't even recognize her. When she was a child, she wept when she saw her father; when she'd grown up, tears still flowed from her eyes.

Khalid Hassan, by comparison, takes away some information that the author wanted us to have (the poignant emphasis on the daughter's gradual growing up over the years, and her continuing silent grief), and adds a fair amount of other "information" that he himself invents (including a whole final sentence of obtrusive padding):

When he was first confined, he had left an infant daughter behind, now a pretty young girl of fifteen. She would come occasionally, and sit in front of him with tears rolling down her cheeks. In the strange world that he inhabited, hers was just another pretty face.

I'm sure Khalid Hassan did this sort of damage with no evil intentions, but only carelessly, and perhaps seeking somehow to "help" or please the English reader. For more discussion of this kind of work, see M. Asaduddin, "Manto Flattened: An Assessment of Khalid Hasan's Translations," in *Annual of Urdu Studies 11*.

I want to thank Sania Chaudhry for special help, and also the other members of the "Readings in Urdu Literature" class, Spring 2005, for their enjoyment, encouragement, and many good suggestions in the making of this project.



-- "Toba Tek Singh" index page -- *Platts Dictionary Online* -- FWP's main page --