His rebellion was directed at the demarcations that remain the curse of India-Pakistan relations even to this day
Bishen Singh, the protagonist of Saadat Hassan Manto's most famous story “Toba Tek Singh” insisted that he wanted to be neither in Pakistan, nor in India, but in Toba Tek Singh. The story was a satire on the absurdities imposed by Partition, captured in the hapless confusion of a group of lunatics from Lahore who had to choose whether or not they wanted to go to India. May 11, 2012 marks one hundred years since the day the world welcomed Saadat Hassan Manto, the man who paused long enough in the fervid, heady intoxicating moment of the birth of two countries, to question the sense of their severing, the limiting of loyalty to location and geography to belonging.
Manto wrote the short story “Toba Tek Singh,” two or three years after Partition rendered him eternally homeless, yearning for Bombay in Lahore and Lahore in Bombay in the pining way of all migrants assaulted by such choices. In both Pakistan and India, this past week leading up to Manto's centenary has been devoted to paeans to the deceased author; the versatility and foresight of his work; the timelessness of his pithy observations. But even as these words of praise for Manto inhabit slim side columns of newspapers in the two countries who are claimants to his legacy; massive unembarrassed others twice their size and length are devoted to fomenting hatreds that every word Manto wrote deigned to expose.
Sir Creek issue
Six days ago, the governments of Pakistan and India announced that talks to tackle outstanding issues between the two countries would be held between May 14-16, 2012. One of the thorny issues they had planned to discuss was that of Sir Creek; an errant rivulet that has over the years of its parched existence in the Rann of Kutch, got the guts to move 1-1.5 kilometres from its original location dislocating thus the position of the border that lies somewhere inside the creek bed. Just when India and Pakistan seemed geared up to discuss the issue of the naughty troublesome Sir Creek whose course has been disrespectful of national boundaries, the plan fell apart. Citing “unforeseen circumstances” the talks were called off, some said it was because the more pressing issue of establishing a line of control on a melting glacier was deemed more important; requiring priority over the matter of the wayward creek.
Like many gripes between India and Pakistan; the issue of Sir Creek, has a history and a present. The history, a predictable story of contested claims and arbitral awards (one from 1968 numbering a weighty 579 pages) can be summed up in five words Manto ever the frugal wordsmith, would have appreciated: “it's ours…no its ours.” Caught in the midst of the Sir Creek squabble, impoverished fishermen from either side, the unlucky poor of Pakistani Sindh or the hardscrabble mariners of Indian Gujarat routinely wander into the wrong side of the border somewhere deep inside the creek; and end up in Indian or Pakistani prisons. So captured, they become like the confused lunatics asking for Toba Tek Singh in Manto's story, the human fodder for continuing experiments in nation building. Life imitating art, a resurrected Manto might say or absurdity transformed by time and clever rhetoric into history.
In one event held to commemorate the Manto centenary in Pakistan, a group of writers were asked why Manto, if he was doing well in India, moved to Pakistan. Their conclusion does not matter; but the question and its insistent insertion of Manto into the project of dividing up creeks and glaciers and fictional lunatics and dead writers is perhaps the saddest truth of the world Manto lamented then and we accept now. Saadat Hassan Manto's rebellion was against this very demarcation; his words a revelation of the futility of having to choose India or Pakistan as better or worse, right or wrong; a task now sold as the central tenet of patriotism to millions on either side. Taking a moment to remember Manto on his hundredth birthday means considering, even if only for a scant, fleeting instant in our carved up, suspicious present, that there was once a united past where a writer loving both and all did not believe that one had to choose.
(Rafia Zakaria is a PhD candidate in Political Theory/Comparative Politics at Indiana University, Bloomington. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)