Toba Tek Singh

Where is Toba Tek Singh? A question that historians and countless others have asked down the years. A story without which any book on Partition is incomplete...

Toba Tek Singh

Two or three years after Partition, it occurred to the governments of India and Pakistan that lunatics, like prisoners, should also be exchanged — that is, Muslim lunatics in asylums in India should be sent to Pakistan, and Hindus-Sikhs in asylums in Pakistan transferred to India.

Whether or not this was a reasonable idea, high-level conferences were held here and there, as decided by the learned, and finally one day a bill was passed for the exchange of lunatics.

A thorough investigation was undertaken — those Muslim lunatics who had relatives in India were allowed to stay on; others were to be despatched to the border. Since almost all the Hindus and the Sikhs had left Pakistan, there was no question of keeping them there; all the Hindu-Sikh lunatics were to be sent to the border in the custody of the police.

It is not known about what happened out there, but here, when the news of this exchange reached the Lahore asylum, it provided interesting grist for gossip.

One Muslim lunatic, who for twelve years had been a diligent reader of the Zamindaar, when asked by a friend, "Maulvi Saa'b, what is this Pakistan?" replied, after due deliberation: "A place in India where razors are made..."

On hearing this profound observation, his friend was suitably reassured.

Similarly, a Sikh lunatic asked another Sikh lunatic, "Sardarji why are we being sent to India? We do not know their language..."

The other smiled, "I know the language of these Indians-Shindians. All they do is strut about, these wicked, puffed up pieces of pomposities!"

One day, while bathing, a Muslim lunatic shouted "Pakistan Zindabad" so forcefully that he slipped on the floor, fell and fainted.

Some inmates were not really insane. A majority of them were murderers whose relatives had bribed the officials to admit them into the asylum so that they could escape the noose.

They had a bit of an idea as to why India had been divided and what this Pakistan was, but as for the actual events, they too were clueless. They could not glean much from the newspapers. The guards were illiterate and ignorant and their conversations weren't very illuminating and edifying either.

They only knew that there's a man named Mohammed Ali Jinnah, called the Quaid-e-Azam; who'd created a separate country for Muslims, called Pakistan.

Where this Pakistan was, what its geographical location was, about this they did not know anything. Which is why all those lunatics, who were not completely mentally-imbalanced, were confused whether they were in Pakistan or in India. If they were in India, then where was this Pakistan? And if in Pakistan, then how could it be that they, sometime back, living in the same place, were in India?

One lunatic got so caught up in this whirl of India-Pakistan, Pakistan-India, that his condition deteriorated. One day, while sweeping, he suddenly climbed on to a tree and sitting on a branch, declaimed non-stop for two hours on this delicate matter of India and Pakistan.

When the guards asked him to climb down, he went up even more. When threatened, he said, "I don't want to live in India, nor in Pakistan ... I'll remain on this tree."

After quite some time, when his fit of madness subsided, he climbed down, and started crying, hugging his Hindu-Sikh friends. He was overwhelmed with the thought that they would leave him and go away to India.

In an M.Sc-pass Radio Engineer, who was a Muslim and a bit of a stay-away, given to taking long walks in the garden by himself all day, such a change manifested itself that he took off all his clothes, handed them over to an attendant, and took to parading around stark naked.

A fat Muslim from Chaniot, who had been an active worker of the Muslim League, suddenly stopped bathing fifteen to sixteen times a day as he used to. His name was Mohammed Ali; but now he proclaimed from his cell that he was Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Inspired by this, a Sikh lunatic became Master Tara Singh. Apprehending blood-shed, both were declared dangerous and locked up separately.

One young Hindu lawyer from Lahore, who had lost his mental balance after being unrequited in love, became depressed when he heard that Amritsar had gone to India. He was in love with a Hindu girl from Amritsar who had spurned him, but he had not forgotten her even in his madness.

He had taken to cursing out all those Hindu and Muslim leaders who had been responsible for splitting India into two pieces, turning his beloved into an Indian and him into a Pakistani... When talk of the exchange began, this lawyer was consoled by many lunatics: he would be sent to India, they said, the same India where his beloved lived. But he did not wish to leave Lahore. He felt his practice wouldn't flourish in Amritsar.

There were two Anglo Indian lunatics in the European ward. When they came to know that the English had left after making India independent, they were deeply shocked and went into surreptitious, huddled conversations for hours on the important subject of what their status in the asylum would now be. Would there be a European ward or would it be done away with? Would they get breakfast or not? Would they be forced to eat the bloody Indian chapati instead of sliced bread?


There was a Sikh who had been in the asylum for fifteen years. All he would speak was this weird gibberish: "Oper di, good good di, annexe the, bedhyana di, mung di dal of the laltain...".

He would neither sleep at night nor in the day. The guards maintained that in this period of fifteen years, he had not slept even a wink. He wouldn't even lie down, though at times he would lean against the wall. His feet and legs had swollen as a result, but despite physical pain he wouldn't lay down to rest.


Whenever there was talk of India-Pakistan and the exchange of lunatics in the asylum, he would listen very attentively. If anybody asked what he thought, he would solemnly say, "Oper the good good the annexe the bedhyana the mung di dal of the Pakistan government".

Later, "of the Pakistan government" was replaced by "of the Toba Tek Singh government" and he took to asking other lunatics where this Toba Tek Singh (where he was from) was — in India or Pakistan?

Nobody knew. Those who tried to answer him, would get caught up in knots themselves. Sialkot, which used to be in India earlier, was now, they had heard, in Pakistan. Who knew that Lahore, which today was in Pakistan, would not go to India tomorrow? Or couldn't all of India become Pakistan? ... And who could say this with his hand on his heart that both India and Pakistan would not disappear from the face of the earth itself some day?


The hair of this Sikh had thinned out and very few remained. Because he used to bathe very rarely, the hair of his beard and head had become matted, giving him a frightening look. But the guy was harmless — he had never fought with anyone or created a scene in those fifteen years. Old employees of the asylum knew only this much about him that he owned a lot of land in Toba Tek Singh. He was an affluent land-lord who had lost his head suddenly. His relatives had brought him bound and fettered in thick iron chains.


Once a month, those people would come and visit him. They would find out about his well-being and leave. This had continued for a long time, but when the India-Pakistan trouble started, their visits had ceased.

His name was Bishen Singh but everyone called him Toba Tek Singh. He didn't have a clue what day it was, which month or how many years had passed, but each month when the time for the visit from his close ones approached, he would come to know, as if by a sixth-sense.

He would then tell the attendants that his meeting was approaching. That day he would bathe real well, soap his body, oil and comb his hair, dress up in those clothes which he didn't otherwise use and be well groomed to meet his visitors. If they asked him anything, he would remain quiet or sometimes, occasionally, would come up with, "Oper di, good good di, annexe the, bedhyana di, mung di dal of the laltain..."


He had a daughter, who gradually, over the months of those fifteen years, had grown up. Bishen Singh didn't recognise her — when she was a child, she would cry on seeing her father; as a grown up, also, tears would roll out of her eyes.

When the Pakistan-India shebangle started, Bishen Singh began to ask other lunatics where Toba Tek Singh was. Not getting satisfactory replies, his irritation mounted day by day. The meetings too had stopped. Earlier he used to come to know that the visitors were coming. But now, as if, his sixth sense, the voice of his heart, which, in the past, would inform him about their arrival, had also become silent.


He missed and yearned for those visitors who expressed empathy and brought fruits, sweets and clothes for him. If only they would come so he could ask them about Toba Tek Singh. They would definitely tell him whether Toba Tek Singh was in Pakistan or India — he thought they certainly came from Toba Tek Singh, where his land was.

The asylum had a lunatic who called himself God. When one day Bishen Singh asked him whether Toba Tek Singh was in Pakistan or India he, as was his wont, just laughed. "It is neither in Pakistan nor in India, because we have not yet issued our orders on the subject".


Bishen Singh would time and again beg and plead with God to issue his orders on the subject so that the whole thing would be settled, but God was very busy, because he had to give a whole lot of other orders.

Fed up, one day, Bishen Singh really lost it and let God have it, "Oper di, good good di, annexe the, bedhyana di, mung di dal of wahe guruji da khalsa and wahe guruji di fatah jo boley so nihal sat sri akal". Which perhaps was meant to imply that he was only God of the Muslims, for surely had he been God of the Sikhs, he would have listened to Bishen Singh.


A few days before the exchange, one of the Muslims of Toba Tek Singh, who was a friend of Bishen Singh, came to meet him. That Muslim friend had never visited before. On seeing him, Bishen Singh turned away to go back but the guards stopped him. "He's come to meet you ... he's your friend, Fazal Din"

Bishen Singh caught a glimpse of Fazal Din and began to mumble.

Fazal Din stepped forward and put his hands on Bishen Singh's shoulders. "I had been thinking of meeting you for many days, but remained caught up. Didn't get free .... all your folks left for India safely ... I helped all I could ... your daughter Roop Kaur ..." He paused mid-sentence.


Bishen Singh strained his memory. "Daughter Roop Kaur..."

Fazal Din said haltingly, "Yeah, yeah... she too is safe ... went with them only ..."

Bishen Singh was silent.

Fazal Din began to speak again. "They asked me to enquire after you see to your welfare ... now I have heard you are going to India ... Say my Salaams to bhai Balbir Singh and bhai Wadhawa Singh... to behan Amrit Kaur too ... tell bhai Balbir SIngh that Fazal Din is well and safe... two brown buffaloes they left behind, one of them gave birth to a male calf ... the other one had a she-calf, but she died after six days.. and... if there's anything I can do, I am all the time ready .. and, here, I brought you some rice-crispies..."


Bishen Singh took the bag of rice crispies and handed it over to one of the nearby guards and asked Fazal Din, "Where is Toba Tek Singh?"

Fazal Din was surprised. "Where? Why, it is where it has always been!"

Bishen Singh asked again, "In Pakistan or in India?"

"In India....nah, nah, in Pakistan," Fazal Din was perplexed.

Bishen Singh turned away, mumbling, "Oper di, good good di, annexe the, bedhyana di, mung di dal of the Pakistan and Hindustan of the dur phite muNh"

The arrangements for the exchange were complete. The lists of the lunatics to be transferred from here to there and there to here had been swapped. The date for the exchange was fixed.


It was bitterly cold when the lorries filled with Hindu-Sikh lunatics left the Lahore asylum under heavy police escort. Concerned officials were also on the way. The superintendents of the two sides met at the border at Wagah and after the necessary procedures, began the exchange which carried on throughout the night.

To take the lunatics out of the lorries and to hand them over to the other officials was a very difficult task. Some wouldn't come out of the lorries, and those who agreed to were difficult to control, as they would start running helter-skelter.


Those that were naked had to be clothed, but no sooner would the clothes be put on that they would tear them off their bodies. Some were hurling abuses, some were singing, some were fighting, some were wailing and weeping — one could not make out a word, such was the racket they created.... The din created by the women lunatics was something else.

And it was bitterly cold, so cold that teeth clattered.

Most of the lunatics were not in favour of this exchange because they could not figure out why they were being uprooted from one place and flung into another. The few who could think and understand a bit, started hurling slogans such as "Long Live Pakistan" or "Death to Pakistan". Two or three times a riot was prevented just in the nick of time as some Muslims and Sikhs had got worked up over the slogans.


Came the turn of Bishen Singh and the concerned official from the other side of Wagah began to enter his name in the register. He asked, "Where is Toba Tek Singh? In Pakistan or in India?"

The officer laughed. "In Pakistan"

On hearing this, Bishen Singh jumped to the other side and ran towards his remaining friends.

Pakistani soldiers caught hold of him and tried to take him back to the other side, but he refused to move. "Toba Tek Singh is here" He started yelling out at the top of his voice, "Oper di, good good di, annexe the, bedhyana di, mung di dal of the Toba Tek Singh and Pakistan..."


They tried reasoning with him. "Look, see, now Toba Tek Singh has gone to India...and if it hasn't gone, it shall be sent forthwith". But he wouldn't agree. When it was tried to take him across to the other side by force, he just planted himself on his swollen legs in the middle in such a manner as if no force could move him. Because he was considered harmless, not much force was used. They let him be, left him standing, while the rest of the exchange-work carried on.

Before sunrise, without any movement, a sky-piercing scream came out of Bishen Singh's throat.


Many officers came running from here and there and they saw that the man who had stood, days and nights, on his legs for fifteen years, was lying collapsed on the ground, face down.

There, beyond the barbed wires, lay India, and here, behind similar wires, Pakistan.

In the middle, on that piece of land which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.

Originally written and published in Urdu. Hurried, pathetic translation by Sundeep Dougal