Raj, Singh and Manto

May 17, 2020

With Saadat Hasan Manto’s 118th birthday passing on May 11, it seems like a perfect time to discuss an important facet of his legacy

In the seven decades since his death, Saadat Hasan Manto’s work has been remembered in many ways, whether for the controversy (both in his lifetime and after it) that it stirred or for the boldness he displayed in dealing with difficult, often taboo, subject matter through his stories or for his skill and eloquence as a writer. One of his most underrated contributions to the subcontinent was his documentation of the British Raj through his literature.

While Manto was born into a British India that had begun taking its first steps towards independence, his perspective on both pre- and post-partition India is still invaluable in understanding the effects of colonisation on the subcontinent. Through a combination of his storytelling ability and absurdist tendencies, he seemed to articulate succinctly the madness of his times, providing readers the best opportunity possible to ‘witness’ that time. With his 118th birthday passing on the May 11, it seems like a perfect time to discuss this important facet of his legacy.

In 1947, after almost a century’s worth of struggle, the Indian Independence movement had finally come to a head. The caveat, as we all now know, was that India would be divided, with the territories of the Punjab and Bengal being partitioned along religious lines. As a result, about 12 million people were made to leave their homes, hundreds of thousands died. As hard as this decision is to rationalise, imagine trying to explain it to the people who have been interned in an insane asylum. This is the topic of Manto’s Toba Tek Singh.

The allegory of the asylum is integral to the story as it signifies Manto’s actual views on the situation. In the story, Manto writes an absurd phrase using a combination of three languages (English, Punjabi, Hindi/Urdu), through the character of Bishan Singh, who is used in this way throughout the story. The reason why I chose to classify Hindi and Urdu as one language instead of two is that the Hindi and Urdu languages are mutually intelligible, meaning that both in terms of vocabulary and grammar historically there has been negligible variance, and the only difference between them is the script in which they are written.

The two languages have come symbolise the Hindu-Muslim issue overall, in that speakers of both can converse with one another with relative ease, highlighting the extent of the cultural similarities, but the Sanskrit and Arabic influences represent the ideological possession on both sides of the issue. And while both languages are currently the two most widely spoken languages within Pakistan and India respectively, it’s worth noting that this is partly due to the attempt by both states to homogenise their respective cultures. Language is integral to the way culture is transmitted from generation to generation. With the promotion of Hindi and Urdu through public education systems in Pakistan and India, several local languages have faced issues in maintaining the independence and integrity of their own cultures. It can be argued that studying what has happened to Punjabi in the Punjab province of Pakistan is a prime example of the effect on a population that alienation from language has.

Through his storytelling ability and absurdist tendencies, Manto seemed to articulate succinctly the madness of his times, providing readers the best opportunity possible to witness that time.

From a historian’s point of view, the emergence of Urdu and Hindi as separate languages nearly overlaps with the annexation of the Punjab by the British Empire in 1849. It can be noted that soon after the colonisation of the Punjab and the establishment of formal state infrastructures, such as state-run schools, universities, courts, and the like, a pattern seems to emerge. The schools enrolled children based on whether they were Hindu or Muslim, as was the linguistic medium in which study was conducted; Hindi for the Hindus and Urdu for the Muslims. This seemed to create a divide within the two populations within the country and that divide has been a catalyst for all that happened in the region since then. This is not to say that the divide is only because of these reasons, but it is important to note that the culture that Manto was critiquing, was moulded by these events.

Manto was an individualist and a contrarian and remained so for the entirety of his life. This was evident in his writing but manifested itself even more clearly in his demeanour, and encounters with his contemporaries. He recognised the primacy of storytellers in a culture; their exceptional ability to draw focus to something through the allure of a story, to subtly convey profound meaning and wisdom through narrative. The unique thing about him which separates him from other post-colonial writers is that he is able to treat his own culture with the dignity it deserves.

Toba Tek Singh is a bit Kafka-esque. It is hard to say whether it’s because of the absurdity of the times and the setting in which the story is told, or a deliberate device.

Upar di gur gur di annexe di bedhiyana di moong di daal of di Pakistan and Hindustan of di durr phitey munh

The mixing of languages in a lot of Bishan Singh’s ramblings might have several layers of meaning. At one level of representation, the inconsistency in the use of the vocabulary from three languages and the random nature of certain vernacular leads even a reader who may be fluent in all three languages to come to the conclusion that these (his ramblings) are nothing but gibberish. This could be parallel to the writer’s actual view on the Partition, which appeared to him manic and nonsensical.

The selection of the languages could be explained by the locality of the writer himself; although ethnically Kashmiri and writing mainly in Urdu, Manto was born in Ludhiana in the Punjab and Punjabi was his native tongue. By the 1900s, Manto’s era, India had been colonised for long enough for the English language to seep in.

So it would make sense for Manto to select these languages, but on another level of representation they may be symbolising the major parties to the Indian Independence movement; English symbolising the British and Urdu symbolising the Muslims and the Hindi symbolising the Hindus, while the Punjabi symbolising the bewildered subcultures of India that did not get much autonomy or attention in this tug of war.

The last line of the story seems to encapsulate what an essay titled “Manto on the Partition” would have read like: “there, behind barbed wire, was Hindustan. Here, behind the same kind of wire, was Pakistan. In between, on that piece of ground that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.”


The writer is an editor and researcher with a Bachelors in Law from the University of Buckingham. He can be contacted at [email protected]

Raj, Singh and Manto