Authors: Khushwant Singh
Tags: #Literary, #Fiction
L I B R A R Y O F
SOUTH ASIAN LITERATURE
Library of South Asian Literature
is an ongoing endeavour to publish
in English an eclectic selection of some of the finest writings from
the rich diversity of South Asian Literature. It attempts to bring
together books regarded as landmarks in their language, for having
won literary awards or critical acclaim, or having been a major
influence in their genre, creating a new narrative style or simply
representing an outstanding writer’s art.
‘IS THERE anything distinctive about writers born in the land of the five rivers? I believe there is.
Male writers try to project a macho image of men — macho with a touch of
simplicity a modified version of the
But even within this stereotype they have plenty of variations. No such Punjabiness is visible in the stories written by Punjabi women or by men writing on feminine themes. They paint on a larger canvas and are, oddly enough, less inhibited in expressing their emotions. Fortunately the perennial theme so common in stories in other Indian languages of a woman wronged, ever tearful, is largely absent in Punjabi writing.
Although I have picked up the best known writers from the Punjab, I am fully aware that a lot of good Punjabi writers have come up in recent years to them I tender may apologies.’
KHUSHWANT SINGH, novelist, storywriter, historian, editor, essayist and translator, is one of the best known contemporary writers of the Indian subcontinent.
Bankim Chandra Chatterji
Umrao Jan Ada: The Courtesan of Lucknow/
Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa
Yayati: A Classic Tale of Lust/
V S Khandekar
The Second Wife/
For Manjushri Khaitan
‘A joint dedication from my wife and me for befriending us.’
Land of Five Rivers
© Mala Dayal
(A division of Vision Books Pvt. Ltd.)
Madarsa Road, Kashmere Gate, Delhi-110 006
Electronic edition produced by
I have translated a large number of stories from Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi into English. They were published in various Indian magazines largely
The Illustrated Weekly of India
during the nine years I edited the journal. Some were subsequently retranslated and published in Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali. I am not sure what provoked me to make a special compilation of stories written by Punjabis. There was nothing exclusively Punjabi about their themes and they had written in three separate languages and scripts. I am still not sure why this collection should be branded Punjabi because not all the stories are about the Punjab and some of the authors like Abbas, though born in the State, did not live there nor could speak or understand Punjabi. However, there it is and there is nothing I can do about it now.
Is there anything distinctive about writers born in the land of the five rivers? I believe there is. Male writers try to project a macho image of men of their state — macho with a touch of
simplicity a modified version of the
But even within this stereotype they have plenty of variations. Perhaps that is why my two all time favourites have been Khwaja Ahmed Abbas’s Sardarji (named by me as
The Death of Sheikh Burhanuddin)
and Saadat Hasan Manto’s
Toba Tek Singh
(translated by me as
Exchange of Lunatics).
Both plots are utterly contrived and yet manage to portray Punjabi character and the tragedy of partition which so cruelly divided Punjabi Mussalmans from their brethern, Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs. No other short story or novel has been able to do so in so short a space and with such poignancy.
No such Punjabiness is visible in the stories written by Punjabi women or by men writing on feminine themes. They paint on a larger canvas and are, oddly enough, less inhibited in expressing their emotions. Fortunately the perennial theme so common in stories in other Indian languages of a woman wronged, ever tearful and driven to suicide is largely absent in Punjabi writing. In this collection, I have introduced two new Punjabi women writers, Ajeet Caur and Usha Mahajan. Ajeet Caur has emerged as among the best of Punjabi writers writing with irony, wit and sarcasm, on a wide range of topics. I describe her as new only because it is in the last few years that I translated some of her stories. Usha Mahajan’s name will be new to most readers. When she came into my life some years ago, she had not written anything. She was a harassed and frustrated housewife who wanted expression outside her home. I persuaded her to try her hand at writing, because I suspected she had it in her. Her Hindi stories translated by me were published in
The Illustrated Weekly of India.
Thereafter she has appeared in most prestigious Hindi journals and has had a collection of her stories published.
Although I have picked up the best known writers from the Punjab for this anthology, I am fully aware that a lot of good Punjabi writers have come up in recent years. They do not appear in this collection for the simple reason that I no longer have the time or the energy to translate their works. And translations sent to me seemed to be inadequate; to them I tender my apologies.
xchange of lunatics
Saadat Hasan Manto
couple of years or so after the Partition of the subcontinent, the governments of Pakistan and India felt that just as they had exchanged their hardened criminals, they should exchange their lunatics. In other words, Muslims in the lunatic asylums of India should be sent across to Pakistan; and mad Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan asylums be handed over to India.
Whether or not this was a sane decision, we will never know. But people in knowledgeable circles say that there were many conferences at the highest level between bureaucrats of the two countries before the final agreement was signed and a date fixed for the exchange.
The news of the impending exchange created a novel situation in the Lahore lunatic asylum. A Muslim patient who was a regular reader of the
was asked by a friend,
what is this thing they call Pakistan?’ After much thought he replied, ‘It’s a place in India where they manufacture razor blades.’ A Sikh lunatic asked another, ‘Sardarji, why are we being sent to India? We cannot speak their language.’ The Sardarji smiled and replied ‘I know the lingo of the Hindustanis.’ He illustrated his linguistic prowess by reciting a doggerel.
‘Hindustanis are full of shaitani
They strut about like bantam cocks.’
One morning a mad Mussulman yelled the slogan ‘Pakistan
with such vigour that he slipped on the floor and knocked himself senseless.
Some inmates of the asylum were not really insane. They were murderers whose relatives had been able to have them certified and thus saved from the hangman’s noose. These people had vague notions of why India had been divided and what was Pakistan. But even they knew very little of the complete truth. The papers were not very informative and the guards were so stupid that it was difficult to make any sense of what they said. All one could gather from their talk was that there was a man of the name of Mohammed Ali Jinnah who was also known as the
And that this Mohammed Ali Jinnah alias
had made a separate country for the Mussulmans which he called Pakistan.
No one knew where this Pakistan was or how far it extended. This was the chief reason why inmates who were not totally insane were in a worse dilemma than those utterly mad: they did not know whether they were in India or Pakistan. If they were in India, where exactly was Pakistan? And if they were in Pakistan how was it that the very same place had till recently been known as India?
A poor Muslim inmate got so baffled with the talk about India and Pakistan, Pakistan and India, that he got madder than before. One day while he was sweeping the floor he was suddenly overcome by an insane impulse. He threw away his broom and clambered up a tree. And for two hours he orated from the branch of this tree on Indo-Pakistan problems. When the guards tried to get him down, he climbed up still higher. When they threatened him he replied, ‘I do not wish to live either in India or Pakistan; I want to stay where I am, on top of this tree.’
After a while the fit of lunacy abated and the man was persuaded to come down. As soon as he was on the ground he began to embrace his Hindu and Sikh friends and shed bitter tears. He was overcome by the thought that they would leave him and go away to India.
Another Muslim inmate had a Master of Science degree in radio-engineering and considered himself a cut above the others. He used to spend his days strolling in a secluded corner of the garden. Suddenly a change came over him. He took off all his clothes and handed them over to the head-constable. He resumed the peripatations without a stitch of clothing on his person.
And there was yet another lunatic, a fat Mussulman who had been a leader of the Muslim League in Chiniot. He was given to bathing fifteen to sixteen times during the day. He suddenly gave it up altogether.
The name of this fat Mussulman was Mohammed Ali. But one day he proclaimed from his cell that he was Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Not to be outdone, his cell-mate who was Sikh proclaimed himself to be Master Tara Singh. The two began to abuse each other. They were declared ‘dangerous’ and put in separate cages.
There was a young Hindu lawyer from Lahore. He was said to have become unhinged when his lady-love jilted him. When he heard that Amritsar had gone to India, he was very depressed: his sweetheart lived in Amritsar. Although the girl had spurned his affection, he did not forget her even in his lunacy. He spent his time cursing all leaders, Hindu as well as Muslim, because they had split India into two and made his beloved an Indian and him a Pakistani.
When the talk of exchanging lunatics was in the air, other inmates consoled the Hindu lawyer with the hope that he would soon be sent to India — the country where his sweetheart lived. But the lawyer refused to be reassured. He did not want to leave Lahore because he was convinced that he would not be able to set up legal practice in Amritsar.
There were a couple of Anglo-Indians in the European ward. They were very saddened to learn that the English had liberated India and returned home. They met secretly to deliberate on problems of their future status in the asylum: would the asylum continue to have a separate ward for Europeans? Would they be served breakfast as before? Would they be deprived of toast and be forced to eat
Then there was a Sikh who had been in the asylum for fifteen years. And in the fifteen years he said little besides the following sentence:
‘O, pardi, good good di, anekas di, bedhyana di, moong di dal of di lantern.’
The Sikh never slept either at night or in the day. The warders said that they had not known him to blink his eyes in fifteen years. He did not as much as lie down. Only on rare occasions he leant against the wall to rest. His legs were swollen down to the ankles.
Whenever there was talk of India and Pakistan, or the exchange of lunatics, this Sikh would become very attentive. If anyone invited him to express his views, he would answer with great solemnity,
‘O, pardi, good good di, anekas di, bedhyana di, moong di dal of the Pakistan government.’
Some time later he changed the end of his litany from ‘of the Pakistan Government’ to ‘of the Toba Tek Singh government’.
He began to question his fellow inmates whether the village of Toba Tek Singh was in India or Pakistan. No one knew the answer. Those who tried, got tied up in knots when explaining how Sialkot was at first in India and was now in Pakistan. How could one guarantee that a similar fate would not befall Lahore and from being Pakistani today it would not become Indian tomorrow? For that matter how could one be sure that the whole of India would not become a part of Pakistan? All said and done who could put his hand on his heart and say with conviction that there was no danger of both India and Pakistan vanishing from the face of the globe one day!
The Sikh had lost most of his long hair. Since he seldom took a bath, the hair of the head had matted and joined with his beard. This gave the Sikh a very fierce look. But he was a harmless fellow. In the fifteen years he had been in the asylum, he had never been known to argue or quarrel with anyone. All that the older inmates knew about him was that he owned land in village Toba Tek Singh and was a prosperous farmer. When he lost his mind, his relatives had brought him to the asylum in iron fetters. Once in the month, some relatives came to Lahore to find out how he was fairing. With the eruption of Indo-Pakistan troubles their visits had ceased.
The Sikh’s name was Bishen Singh but everyone called him Toba Tek Singh. Bishen Singh had no concept of time — neither of days, nor weeks, nor of months. He had no idea how long he had been in the lunatic asylum. But when his relatives and friends came to see him, he knew that a month must have gone by. He would inform the head warder that ‘Miss Interview’ was due to visit him. He would wash himself with great care; he would soap his body and oil his long hair and beard before combing them. He would dress up before he went to meet his visitors. If they asked him any questions, he either remained silent or answered, ‘O,
pardi, anekas di, bedhyana di, moong di dal of di lantern.’
Bishen Singh had a daughter who had grown into a fullbosomed lass of fifteen. But he showed no comprehension about his child. The girl wept bitterly whenever she met her father.
When talk of India and Pakistan came up, Bishen Singh began to question other lunatics about the location of Toba Tek Singh. No one could give him a satisfactory answer. His irritation mounted day by day. And now even ‘Miss Interview’ did not come to see him. There was a time when something had told him that his relatives were due. Now that inner voice had been silenced. And he was more anxious than ever to meet his relatives and find out whether Toba Tek Singh was in India or Pakistan. But no relatives came. Bishen Singh turned to other sources of information.
There was a lunatic in the asylum who believed he was God. Bishen Singh asked him whether Toba Tek Singh was in India or Pakistan. As was his wont God adopted a grave mien and replied, ‘We have not yet issued our orders on the subject.’
Bishen Singh got the same answer many times. He pleaded with ‘God’ to issue instructions so that the matter could be settled once and for all. His pleadings were in vain; ‘God’ had many pressing matters awaiting ‘His’ orders. Bishen Singh’s patience ran out and one day he let ‘God’ have a bit of his mind.
‘O, pardi, good good di, anekas di, bedhyana di, moong di dal of wahi-i-guru ji ka khalsa and wahi-i-guru di fateh! Jo holey so nihal, sat sri akal!’
This was meant to put ‘God’ in his place as God only of the Mussalmans. Surely if He had been God of the Sikhs; He would have heard the pleadings of a Sikh!
A few days before the day fixed for the exchange of lunatics, a Muslim from Toba Tek Singh came to visit Bishen Singh. This man had never been to the asylum before. When Bishen Singh saw him he turned away. The warders stopped him: ‘He’s come to see you; he’s your friend, Fazal Din,’ they said.
Bishen Singh gazed at Fazal Din and began to mumble. Fazal Din put his hand on Bishen Singh’s shoulder. ‘I have been intending to see you for the last many days but could never find the time. All your family have safely crossed over to India. I did the best I could for them. Your daughter, Roop Kaur...’
Fazal Din continued somewhat haltingly ‘Yes... she too is well. She went along with the rest.’
Bishen Singh stood where he was without saying a word. Fazal Din started again. ‘They asked me to keep in touch with you. I am told that you are to leave for India. Convey my
to brother Balbir Singh and to brother Wadhawa Singh...and also to sister Amrit Kaur... tell brother Balbir Singh that Fazal Din is well and happy. Both the grey buffaloes that they left behind have calved —one is a male, the other a female... the female died six days later. And if there is anything I can do for them, I am always willing. I have brought you a little sweet corn.’
Bishen Singh took the bag of sweet corn and handed it over to a warder. He asked Fazal Din, ‘Where is Toba Tek Singh?’
Fazal Din looked somewhat puzzled and replied, ‘Where could it be? It’s in the same place where it always was.’
Bishen Singh asked again: ‘In Pakistan or India?’
‘No, not in India; it’s in Pakistan,’ replied Fazal Din.
Bishen Singh turned away mumbling
‘O, pardi, good good di, anekas di, bedhyana di, moong di dal of the Pakistan and Hindustan of dur phittey moonh.’
Arrangements for the exchange of lunatics were completed. Lists with names of lunatics of either side had been exchanged and information sent to people concerned. The date was fixed.
It was a bitterly cold morning. Bus loads of Sikh and Hindu lunatics left the Lahore asylum under heavy police escort. At the border at Wagah, the Superintendents of the two countries met and settled the details of the operation.
Getting lunatics out of the buses and handing over custody to officers of the other side proved to be a very difficult task. Some refused to come off the bus; those that came out were difficult to control; a few broke loose and had to be recaptured. Those that were naked had to be clothed. No sooner were the clothes put on them than they tore them off their bodies. Some came out with vile abuse, other began to sing at the top of their voices. Some squabbled; others cried or roared with laughter. They created such a racket that one could not hear a word. The female lunatics added to the noise. And all this in the bitterest of cold when people’s teeth chattered like the scales of rattle snakes.
Most of the lunatics resisted the exchange because they could not understand why they were being uprooted from one place and flung into another. Those of a gloomier disposition were yelling slogans ‘Long Live Pakistan’ or ‘Death to Pakistan.’ Some lost their tempers and were prevented from coming to blows in the very nick of time.
At last came the turn of Bishen Singh. The Indian officer began to enter his name in the register. Bishen Singh asked him, ‘Where is Toba Tek Singh? In India or Pakistan?’