Pakistani director Madeeha Gauhar on why Manto’s Toba Tek Singh must be staged everywhere.
“Two or three years after Partition, it occurred to the governments of Pakistan and Hindustan that like criminal offenders, lunatics too ought to be exchanged: that is, those Muslim lunatics who were in Hindustan’s insane asylums should be sent to Pakistan, and those Hindus and Sikhs who were in Pakistan’s insane asylums should be confined to the care of Hindustan.” So begins Sa'adat Hasan Manto’s famous Urdu story 'Toba Tek Singh'. In Manto’s inimitable style, the entire story is presented as a poker-faced account of the events at the Lahore asylum, leading up to the moment of actual exchange at the border, when the story’s central figure refuses to budge in either direction, insisting that his birthplace, Toba Tek Singh, is right there, in the no man’s land between the two countries. No authorial comment is made – and none is needed.
“There can be no better metaphor for the insanity of Partition,” said Madeeha Gauhar, founder and director of Pakistani theatre troupe Ajoka, which has been invited to stage their theatrical adaptation of the story in Delhi on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of Independence – and of Partition. “Manto exonerates no-one. You are left with the question of who were the actual lunatics– the inmates of the mental hospital or those who made the decision to divide a country into two. It’s a very powerful comment.”
Powerful it certainly is, but don’t the economy and subtle irony of Manto’s literary style make him an extremely difficult writer to dramatise? “It is very difficult to do Manto,” agreed Gauhar. “There are many things in the subtext for which you have to create dialogue, to give the piece some body – and yet not deviate from what the author intended. But Shahid Nadeem’s adaptation is a very good one.” Nadeem’s script also incorporates other work by Manto: excerpts from the anecdotal Siyaah Hashiye (Black Margins), as well as a stylized enactment of the chilling story “Khol Do”. “In Toba Tek Singh, the characters are all men. We added “Khol Do” is because it brings in the experience of women. And we insert it at an appropriate juncture, where the neighbour comes to meet the protagonist. When he mentions the daughter, he hesitates. That moment of hesitation makes clear that something has happened to her, as it did to thousands of women across the subcontinent.”
Ajoka has been performing Toba Tek Singh since 1992, but the establishment’s view of the story as “anti-Pakistan” meant that it was impossible to get a proper venue. “All good auditoriums in Lahore are government-owned. So we staged the play in smaller, less public spaces. The first time we did a properly public show was three years ago, at the Lahore Arts Council,” Gauhar said. Ajoka’s persistence in this case is an example of its commitment to doing socially relevant theatre, even if it pits them against the official line. Their 2006 production, Dukh-darya, based on the true story of a woman in Azad Kashmir who is raped and gives birth to a child, engages with the continuing effects of Partition in terms of the question of identity: who is a Indian and who is a Pakistani? More recently, ten Ajoka members were part of a Kewal Dhaliwal-directed production called Yatra 1947, which emerged out of an NSD workshop in Amritsar and draws on post-1947 poetry from both sides of Punjab.
In a small way, the group’s efforts have managed to break the conspiracy of silence. Toba Tek Singh is today a play performed in colleges – and even schools – in Lahore. Ajoka has even taken the play to what one might think of as its birthplace – Toba Tek Singh, in District Shekhupura in the Pakistani province of Punjab. “Toba means talaab, a pond. The town is named after a Sikh philanthropist who built a source for water there,” said Gauhar. “And unlike everywhere else in Pakistan, the portrait in the District Collector’s office there was of Toba Tek Singh – not of Jinnah or Iqbal. It was strange. And very moving.”
Published in Time Out Delhi, Aug 2007