Our Fight Club
- Pakistan sends back 50 stray dogs in response to one Indian stray reaching Lahore
- School texts encourage children to ridicule and hate each other
- Indo-Pak border guards engage in daily, ritual brinkmanship at the Wagah-Attari border
- Absence of a ‘pet-protocol’ stops Indians and Pakistanis from bringing back pets they adopt
Through his celebrated stories on Partition, the inimitable Saadat Hasan Manto mocked the policies and decisions of nation-makers, imperialists and political grandees by looking at common people. Put them under the lens, and they continue to wink at the various absurdities of their progeny. Toba Tek Singh, a story published in 1955 and which is now emblematic of Manto’s canon, is a literary crystal ball which still throws light on the oddities of India-Pakistan relations.
Manto’s story is about Bishan Singh, a Sikh inmate in a Lahore asylum who had to be transferred to India after 1947, in an exchange of ‘mad men’ of the two new nations. Bishan refuses to leave, since his hometown, Toba Tek Singh, lay in Pakistan. In the famous closing section, Bishan lies in no man’s land on the border. “There, behind the barbed wire, was Hindustan. Here, behind the same kind of barbed wire, was Pakistan. In between, on that piece of ground that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.”
Today, nearly 60 years after Manto dreamt up the episode, new ‘lunacy’ at the Attari-Wagah border proves that officialdom continues to be mad in every possible way.
Every evening, to the sounding of retreat and lowering of flags of both countries, Pakistan wins the battle of a bizarre pantomime—credit that to the size of its personnels’ trousers!
Indian soldiers can bang their gates shut with ferocity while sporting warlike grimaces, but when it comes to throwing legs high up in the air—part of a weird, well-synchronised exercise—Pakistanis easily manage to swing their lower limbs above the line of the heads of their Indian counterparts.
The reason is simple. Indian soldiers wear western khakis which do not allow them to lift their legs beyond a moderate height, while the roomy dark-grey shalwars of Pakistanis afford an easy, unfettered swing. Unbeknownst to them, they all have bit roles in Manto’s world of absurdities.
The writer must have had a quiet chuckle when someone suggested the Indians should take to wearing dhotis, to rival the shalwar’s flexibility. Someone reacted: “Even the birds would start to blush and stop flying over the border, if that were to happen in the greater national interest.”
A report published in Islamabad’s new daily, The Spokesman, shows how obsessively fraught and fragile relations between the two countries are. Travellers embarking on the Samjhauta Express in Lahore and Amritsar have to look around for four-legged fellow-passengers, as the neighbours are glowering at each other over, literally, dogs.
Outlook spoke to journalist Amir Mateen, 46, a volunteer writer in The Spokesman. “I was at the border and overheard a strange story narrated by an assistant commissioner of the Indian Customs, Balwinder Singh, at Attari. It seems that a stray dog got on the Samjhauta Express while it was standing at Attari and eventually detrained at Lahore, being largely undetected. After all, it was only a dog,” says Mateen.
But nothing can be taken for granted about anything involving India and Pakistan. The matter was taken seriously in the land of the pure, where ‘sending’ an Indian dog to Pakistan was percieved to be a ‘slight’ by those who guard the country’s frontiers. It was now a matter of national honour. A plan was made for a fitting reprisal. Thus, 50 ‘napak’ (unclean) stray dogs were rounded up and starved for a day before being put on the Samjhauta Express towards Amritsar. All the better, the Pakistani masterminds must have thought, that the hungry 50 could bark their heads off at the Indians on arrival.
“We have it from confirmed sources that it was discussed at ‘very serious’ levels in Lahore and Islamabad, even Rawalpindi,” says Mateen. Balwinder Singh, says Mateen, has confirmed the episode of a dog crossing Attari.
“It was the sweet will of the dog, who perhaps wanted to check the veracity of elders who rave about Lahore all their lives. This has nothing to do with the Indian foreign policy,” adds Singh, who has reported the affair to his higher-ups.
How will India react, now that 50 dogs from Lahore have landed up at Amritsar? Will customs authorities seek Maneka Gandhi’s help to round up the Pakistani ‘strays’, given her legendary love for dogs? Or would India, imitating the horrors of Partition ‘train killings’ return the bodies of the culled dogs in the next train to Lahore? Would it send double the number?
Kishwar Naheed, one of Pakistan’s literary celebrities, shakes her head resignedly. “I am really not surprised to hear this tale of dogs from both countries and how it is being seen as a slight to national pride. After all, the two countries were born on the basis of ‘hate’, and this plays a large role in the lives of both nations. Have you seen how hate infiltrates elementary textbooks that students on both sides study at a very early age?” she asks.
Yet, Toba Tek Singhs exist on both sides, not least among Indians living in Pakistan. In fact, ‘nuttiness’ leads many of them to develop an inordinate love for Pakistani cats. Outlook can vouch for at least two Indians who have had two dozen pet cats at a time. Bureaucratic oddity ensues if an Indian wants to take home a Pakistani cat.
“There is no protocol for exchange of pets between India and Pakistan. I had to approach the foreign office once when an Indian friend wanted to take home a Pakistani cat. A kind official told me that it was better not to approach him officially, as there was no standing ‘cat protocol’, but to smuggle it across with someone going to India. With great difficulty I found someone and sent a Paki cat across,” recalls Mateen.
In a world where Manto is relevant as ever, be prepared to see the Pakistani foreign office and India’s South Block having their hands full with fur, dog biscuit crumbs and what not. Pakistan awaits the next Samjhauta Express from Amritsar with bated breath.
By Mariana Baabar in Islamabad