Out of the twentieth century’s great calamities have come some of our most memorable satires: Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk from World War I and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 from World War II. Their equivalent in the Indian subcontinent is a short story titled “Toba Tek Singh” by the Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto. At first sight the comparison looks absurd; Hašek and Heller created entire worlds in long and densely peopled novels (Hašek conceived Švejk in six volumes, though he completed only three). Manto’s story stretches to only nine pages. But his intention was the same—to expose the effects of a great calamity on those trapped inside it—and for sixty years his story has been widely read in India and Pakistan as a resounding parable of the partition that accompanied India’s liberation from the British Empire.
India was divided by the withdrawing British in 1947, when a headcount of the population by their religious identity roughly decided which territory would fall to the new state of Pakistan. The estimates of the dead in the convulsion that followed vary from one to two million. Somewhere around 14 million people felt they had no choice but to migrate, Muslims to the new state and Hindus and Sikhs going the other way. In Bengal, a part of which became East Pakistan, fewer people left and the violence was relatively low.
It was the division of the southern region of Punjab that traumatized both countries with its bloodiness as columns of refugees moved east and west. Manto was a Punjabi. He wrote:
Now before our eyes lie dried tracks of blood, cut up human parts, charred faces, mangled necks, terrified people, looted houses, burned fields, mountains of rubble, and overflowing hospitals. We are free. Hindustan [India] is free. Pakistan is free, and we are walking the desolate streets naked without any possessions in utter distress.
Beyond the physical savagery, and stretching far into the future, lay confusing feelings of displacement—where are we and how did we get here?—that Manto knew firsthand as a Muslim who had chosen to leave India for Pakistan. Many Muslims did not: of the 100 million in undivided India, 40 million remained in the truncated Indian state. The other 60 million became citizens of Pakistan, which was united by religion and divided by everything else—by language, climate, diet, and the thousand miles of Indian territory that separated East and West Pakistan. The situation made it plain, in the words of Ayesha Jalal in The Pity of Partition, “that if Indian Muslims had a common faith and a shared religiously informed cultural identity, they were not a geographically distinct or homogeneous community with a coherent or united political worldview.”
Where better to situate a story of the human…
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