Bordering insanity

In a city of migrants, a play based on Saadat Hassan Manto’s “Toba Tek Singh” — arguably his finest short story based on the exchange of the mentally challenged between India and Pakistan — is bound to attract an audience. Despite being presented in an open air-theatre on a rainy night, the seats at the Akshara Theatre were full. The play however will be remembered for the laudable performance of an amateur cast, rather than its grasp of Manto’s genius.

The central character of Manto’s story is Bishan Singh (played by Maganveer Singh), a patient at the Lahore Lunatic Asylum. Singh is the best-behaved inmate but would constantly utter a nonsensical sentence and end with asking where village Toba Tek Singh is. As a result, he comes to be known as Toba Tek Singh.

A couple of years after Independence, India and Pakistan decide to exchange the inmates in their mental health institutions, since their families had shifted during Partition. The news of the exchange excites the inmates of the asylum. Play director Sunil Rawat does a commendable job of bringing to life the absurdist debate among the lunatics, with characters taking on the roles of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Tara Singh, Lord Mountbatten and God to face trial for the crime of Partition.

But Rawat falls prey to post-partition clichés of the communal Pakistani soldier, an opportunist Jinnah and a Machiavellian Mountbatten — who collectively bear the burden of all sins of South Asia. Manto’s writings on the other hand, steered clear of scoring political points for either side, choosing to give words to the emotions and pain of Partition. Manto revealed the hollowness of ideologies, Rawat chose to attribute reasons and fix the blame.

The play features a trial conducted by a lawyer (played by Vikramaditya) driven mad by unrequited love. His beloved shifts to India, while Partition renders him a Pakistani. An Anglo-Indian patient is declared Mountbatten, and the lawyer asks for him to be torn to bits for dividing the country. Vikramaditya played his role of a once revered advocate — a don of the courts of Lahore now reduced to a lunatic holding court in an asylum — splendidly. He projected his passion for debate, the rage and intellectual arrogance in the same breath as his hopelessness and angst.

The best performers were the two characters of scriptwriter Vidhya Shankar’s own imagination: two militants who escape capital punishment, for assassinating a British official, by pleading insanity. One is a poet played by Himanshu Barola and the other a folk singer played by Aryan Chaudhary. The duo artistically infuses humour with satirical poetry and folk music, which really engaged the audience.

The play ends with Bishan Singh falling down on the Radcliffe line which divides the two countries, reminiscent of the closing lines of the short story, which, translated into English, are: “On one side, behind barbed wire, stood together the lunatics of India and on the other side, behind more barbed wire, stood the lunatics of Pakistan. In between, on a bit of earth which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.”

While retaining the freshness of an amateur cast, Saksham gave its audience an enjoyable performance but buried Toba Tek Singh.

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Printable version | May 16, 2021 12:50:45 AM |

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