Playing Manto

I first encountered Saadat Hasan Manto by playing one of his characters. In 1994, I was doing fieldwork for an ethnographic thesis on social life in the Pakistani city of Lahore, where Manto lived, worked, and socialized from 1948 until his death in 1955. A local theatre company was mounting an adaptation of Manto's story "New Law" ("Nea Qanun"), and they needed somebody to play the British soldier.

First published in 1937, "New Law" tells the story of Ustad Mangu, a Lahori tonga (horse-drawn taxi) driver who hates the British raj. Driving around Lahore, Ustad Mangu overhears several of his passengers discussing the 1935 Government of India Act, which was intended to give limited self-government to Britain's Indian subjects (but was never implemented due to opposition from the Indian princes, who argued that it gave too much power to the Congress party). Ustad Mangu is under the false impression that the Act will instantly eliminate British rule. The tonga driver discovers his error when he beats up a British soldier on April 1, 1935, the day when the law is supposed to take effect. He is instantly dragged off to prison by native policemen. When Ustad Mango protests that there is a new law, the policemen scoff at him: "What are you talking about, new law, it's the same as the old law."

Manto's soldier embodies colonial arrogance, which is more or less the opposite of the cultural sensitivity that I tried to maintain in my everyday life as an ethnographer. As a tall white man, I looked the part, and the costume was easy: jodhpurs, riding boots, a white linen shirt, and a swagger stick. But at first, I found it difficult to really get inside my character. In rehearsals, the director would urge me to act more arrogant. "Remember, you're a sahib," she would say. "These people are your servants!" She encouraged me to ad lib abuses such as "you bloody insolent black bastard," which started rolling off my tongue with alarming fluency as the rehearsals progressed.

I think Manto would have appreciated the complex irony of my situation. He was a miserable student who failed high school Urdu but went on to become the leading Urdu short story writer of his time. He spent his happiest years in Bombay but was forced to emigrate to Pakistan when anti-Muslim prejudice cost him his job as a screenwriter. He was a consummately humane artist whose best work deals with inhumanity, particularly the horrors of Partition. In the story you're about to read, Manto recounts an exchange of lunatics between asylums in Pakistan and India that takes place just after Partition. This fictive lunatic exchange comments on the historical madness of Partition itself, when around a million people were slaughtered during the great communal migrations of those days.

Manto's hero, Bashan Singh, is a Sikh lunatic who lives in the Lahore Mental Asylum until the authorities decide that he belongs in India. He speaks a fractured, seemingly nonsensical private language drawn from Punjabi and English. In the madhouse, Bashan Singh is known as "Toba Tek Singh," the name of a district in southern Punjab where he owns land. Unsure how Partition has affected his property rights, Bashan Singh repeatedly asks the other lunatics whether Toba Tek Singh is in India or in Pakistan. None of the lunatics can answer his question because they don't understand that Pakistan and India are two separate countries. At the frontier, a Pakistani official finally tells Bashan Singh that Toba Tek Singh is in Pakistan. Bashan Singh cries, "Toba Tek Singh is here!" Then he collapses on the border itself, between India and Pakistan, "on a piece of land that had no name."

There is almost an infinite regress of ironies here. The lunatic from Toba Tek Singh, whom others call Toba Tek Singh, collapses in a nameless place that he calls Toba Tek Singh. Concerned for his property, he dies (if he dies) on land that is strictly speaking not property at all, having no owner, in a space between the spaces demarcated by contemporary South Asian nationalism.

Bashan Singh's fate resonates with at least one event in modern European history, the philosopher Walter Benjamin's 1940 suicide on the border between France and Spain. Benjamin was a German Jew who had lived in France for much of his adult life. In September 1940, he fled Paris ahead of the Nazi advance and joined a group of refugees heading for Portugal via Spain. At the Spanish border, a bribe-seeking Spanish official claimed that the refugees would be forced to return to France. Believing that he would be turned over to the Gestapo, Benjamin took an overdose of morphine and died during the night. The next morning, everyone else in his party was allowed to proceed through Spanish territory to Lisbon.

In a sense, Benjamin is the inverse of Bashan Singh, who dies on the Indo-Pak border after refusing to leave Pakistan. In a world of bureaucratic nation states, however, both figures are anomalous. Legally speaking, one can't be in two states at once, just as, in other modes of social distinction, one can't have two religions or two skin colors. Like Benjamin, Bashan Singh achieves ultimate marginality by dying on the border between two states, thus opting for neither.

Manto might well have chosen the same fate, given the opportunity. Both as a man and a writer, he was constantly in revolt against the binary choices that religion and politics impose on human beings. But he died in Lahore, of alcoholism and, some say, a broken heart.

For a complete introduction to Manto's life and work, see:

Fleming, Leslie A., and Tahira Naqvi. The Life and Works of Saadat Hasan Manto. Lahore: Vanguard Books, 1985.

Manto, Saadat Hasan. Manto kai nemayenda afsanai. Lahore: Maktaba Urdu Adab, n.d.

———. A Wet Afternoon: Stories, Sketches, Reminiscences. Translated by Khalid Hasan. Islamabad: Alhamra Publishing, n.d.

For a full account of Benjamin's life and work, see:

Demetz, Peter. Introduction to Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, by Walter Benjamin. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.