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Conflict, Culture and Creation

An Artistic Interpretation of Religious Challenges in South Asia

Creative Portfolio- An Introduction

Filed under: Uncategorized — alana at 2:37 am on Wednesday, December 9, 2015

When Wilfred Cantwell Smith defined religion as, “an ideology of difference,” I’m not sure this phrase could resound any louder than in the South Asian region. With a population so large that religious minorities account for hundreds of millions within a people, I feared creating a portfolio of creative works might be impossible when trying to represent the immense diversity among these people. In deciding which topics to cover, I debated the questions of what framework of analysis do I try to use when representing this region: one of my own primarily unrelated background, one of a Hindu, a Muslim? But even these terms have a million different definitions depending on the community or the singular person one might ask. I also wondered how do the contemporary ideologies evolving from the rise of colonialism and nationalism effect these different groups perceptions of each other, and who among these groups has the most powerful voice among the public, and among the world’s perception of them. Is it the wealthy Hindu ruling elite, or the working class rick-shaw driver? Is it the wild fundamentalist, the local Imam, or the hijab wearing Muslim woman?

With all of these questions, I realized I could not arrive at just one answer, and that this, in fact, is what should be understood when studying South Asia. There are countless varying and equally as important voices that come together, though often not in unison, to form both the colorful and conflict-riddled region. And in creating my portfolio, I knew I needed to include as many of those voices as I could. Thus, using this “cultural studies” approach, I tried not to focus on just a singular topic in South Asian history, or in current events, but rather consider the influence of both religion and politics as a dynamic and ever changing one.

In discussing the topics of this course there seemed to be contradictions at every corner. Whether it was consideration of Mughal Emperor Akbar as the nation’s hero in India, and the nation’s enemy in India, to scholarly debates among Muslims as to whether visiting Sufi shrines should be considered idolatry, as it is a cultural practice shared by both Hindus and also Muslims, there are not many definitive historical or spiritual narratives to be found. Besides being a land of contradiction, sadly, and perhaps in large part on account of this, South Asia has also been a land of conflict. To follow the vein of this struggle, I dedicated the first section of my portfolio to the theme of “reality and conflict”.

Although there has been war, and religious differences, and forced conversion, and reversing of those conversions, etcetera, etcetera, much of the same issues of violence and of repression of rights still exist in India and Pakistan today in many of the same forms. So to represent this theme of conflict, I found it more powerful to respond creatively to all topics relevant and continuing in the 21st century. The pieces I chose include two set in Pakistan, and the third in India all in relation to physical struggles amongst Hindus and Muslims, and ideological battles fought in the flesh between Muslims of varying schools of thought. The first of these three works is That Question Mark by Ziauddin Sardar offering an insightful look on the problems the young country has encountered politically, economically and religiously, and offering thoughts on how the people can find hope for their continued survival as a nation. Secondly, I chose the expansive work by Farhat Haq covering the struggle for women’s rights in the region: Women, Islam and the State of Pakistan. And finally, now turning to India, I picked the frighteningly honest and eerie work of Rakesh Sharma, The Final Solution, covering and comparing the outbreak of violence in Gujarat to the atrocities of the Holocaust, also using as a second source Jo Johnson’s piece Radical Thinking.

For my work in interpreting Sardar’s essay, what impressed me most was the sweeping nature of his writing and of his interpretation of the story of Pakistan since its birth in 1947. The nation seemed to swing from one regime to another, from modern to traditional, from a complete military state, to one with more freedoms and back again. And through all of this transition, Sardar poses the question that all of us have asked, which is how do they continue to survive despite such odds? He cites a few up and coming hopes of an immerging literary scene, and developing of a cultural identity. I saw the story Sardar tell of Pakistan as one like a musical score, with varying movements, many harsh, yet some sweet. To represent this I wrote a piece for piano divided into three parts, using crescendos and diminuendos to illustrate the successes and failures of the nation. As for the second piece concerning Women in Pakistan, I was struck by my personal yearning, amongst all the historical and scholarly sentences from Haq, for first hand accounts from Pakistani women on what their life is like and what they hope for their futures. So in a creative exercise to feed my own intellectual desires, I made a brochure for a fictional event that could happen at Harvard. The brochure describes a panel of leading female Pakistanis including Malala Yousafzai, Fatima Bhutto, and Riffat Hassan who would gather to speak on “A Female’s Fate in Pakistan”. And finally for the creative piece following Sharma’s The Final Solution, my work turns darker, as I wanted to capture the frightening ties between the events in Gujarat and those in Eastern Europe in the 1930s and ‘40s. So I found a propaganda poster from WWII that I re-drew in the context of the similar radical and violent rallying that took place in 2003 in the Indian region.

Although it cannot be denied that South Asia has had an overarching tide of struggle and conflict throughout their history, equally as steady has been the current of art and literature that has flowed throughout time. There seems to be a theme in the region that always present are struggles, but right by its side are artists either expressing their own opinions and criticisms through words or paintings, or using these same mediums to offer advice or hope to their people. Art can be an instrument of peace. At the very least it is a tool for explanation, a spark to bring about critical thinking among the masses. There are countless examples of the beneficial effects of art such as the aged Sufi tradition of writing songs of worship that lower class people could sing while they worked. One can also cite such famous poets as Iqbal and Bulle Shah. In the case of Iqbal and his critically acclaimed, Complaint and Answer, he succeeded in writing a piece with mass appeal, but which gave critical commentary on his opinion on the state of Muslims while imparting his own more progressive thoughts on his religion. And as for Bulle Shah’s poems, though often times they sound quite secular, they are claimed equally as fervently both by Hindus and Muslims alike. If writers and works such as these have withstood the test of time, and can continue to draw mass appeal from all the differing religious peoples in South Asia, then I can’t help but think there is a great potential for using works such as a means to tear down the walls that have been built up between these communities. Even if overlooking this hope for the future, one cannot deny the power over the centuries of these artistic works influencing the audiences they were intended for, and for helping today’s scholars and students see a picture both literally and figuratively of what the region was like in the days long gone.

Being inspired by the power of this lens into the past, the second theme I chose for this creative portfolio is “interpretation and art”. Where the first section of my work focused on more current times, in order to get the full picture of the region, this half of the project focuses on the past. For the first creative piece, I chose the essay by Professor Asani on The Bridegroom Prophet in Medieval Sindhi Poetry. Both impressed and also confused at first by the style of these writings, I was intrigued by how devotional Islamic poetry was written in the voice of a young woman going to a wedding with the Prophet Muhammad surrounded in Hindu traditions. So in an attempt to see how burning, pious love for the prophet can be expressed in this way I wrote my own poem using the events described by Asani’s essay, entitled “Fire in Medina”. For my second artistic piece I was inspired by the influence of light imagery used in music for religious purposes during the Mughal period, as expressed in Catherine Asher’s A Ray from the Sun: Mughal Ideology and the Visual Construction of the Divine. Following the tone of acceptance that rang clear during this period in South Asian history, I wrote a song in what today would be considered to sound like mainstream Christian acoustic music, but which follows the stylistic themes, specifically light symbolism, used by such writers as Amir Khushrau in Islamic poetry and songs. And to conclude this “interpretation and art” section, I skipped forward in time to the era of partition and the creation of Pakistan. Using the powerful satire on the dividing of these two countries and two peoples: Saadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, I attempted to expand on his criticism of the partition by continuing his short story now from the perspective of Singh’s friend Fazl Din returning just after his death.

It is works like those of Manto and Khushrau that both entertain and also serve a purpose which have been proven to uplift people’s spirits, and tell amusing tales of the moments in time during which they wrote. However even with all of these positive pieces of art and the insightful thoughts they present, art only paid attention to by a small or homogeneous audience will never be enough to effect real change. Indeed there are many conflicts yet to be resolved involving principally religious differences and the problem of “othering”. These issues arose during the British colonization of India, and continue to plague the different sects of Muslims, mainly Sunni and Shi’a, particularly potent in today’s Pakistan. Still it is through the publication of different artistic mediums as well as the rising presence of media outlets that allow the people living among these conflicts to have a voice, and to use that voice to inform others around the world of what they are feeling and experiencing in a very poignant and personal way. Art is a powerful tool for storytelling, especially when the stories are all too real.

That Question Mark

Filed under: Uncategorized — alana at 2:34 am on Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The piece That Question Mark by Ziauddin Sardar concerning the past politics, present struggles and future progress of Pakistan was one of my favorite readings of the semester. In the essay Sardar discusses the labels forced on the young nation by other countries like the U.S. as that of an unstable theocracy, separated by divides within the Muslim community of beliefs, prominently Shi’a and Sunni, and that would be better off fragmented into sections so that it might be, “easier to police and economically develop”. (Sardar 3) Besides Pakistan’s religious complexities, its history of government has been equally fragmented and troubled. Sardar outlines problem of the over-prevalent role of the state military, and the dysfunctional feudal system for agriculture, both causes of economic hardship for the people and the nation. Yet these negative forces have yet to be fixed due to the constant rotation of power and governing philosophies. Pakistan has swung from a democratic nation with only a common religious culture, to an Islamic Republic, to a more strictly religious system, and has leant along the way towards a more modernist approach and has even been ruled by a woman. So in all of this turmoil and conflicting schools of thoughts, Sardar poses the question that all of us have wondered: How has Pakistan survived and will it continue to?

In my interpretation of his work, Pakistan is surviving and shows glimmers improvement from one source of hope that is common among all people and crosses all cultures: art. With a rich literary history, and vibrant story-telling future, and popular music programs on television and YouTube, today’s Pakistanis have a joyful way to connect their future with the past. This was the theme I put to music.

I decided to create an original piano piece to represent my interpretation of That Question Mark and the topics of Pakistan it covers. The piece is in three short parts all with similar chord progressions and melodies, but each with its own distinction, particularly in the last section. For the first part of the piece notes within chords alternate, beginning chords being major, later being minor and each of the two series being played ending with a burst of notes. In the second portion of the song, a similar variation of chords starts, but crescendos and transitions back to major chords at the end of this next series. These two parts represent the struggles of Pakistan. The first section with it’s major then minor transitions and more quiet tones are the changing governments and political ideals of the nation, that swing from more modern, to theocratic and back again. The second section is the more boisterous portion representing the military and economic struggles, the chords are similar because these hardships too are linked with poor leadership from the theme in the first section, but the chords are played with more force. In the third and final section of the piece, the chords from the second section are begun again, but now with notes an octave higher giving a lighter, more intricate sound. With an altogether different melody in the right hand played on top of the similar chords from the first two sections in the left, lower octave, the music shifts to a more peaceful tone. The increased intricacy and lighter, happier notes of the right hand symbolize the positive aspects of Pakistan’s future that include it’s blossoming literary and musical national passions. The musical score ends as Sardar’s essay does, in a more optimistic tone, but not with any prominent finish. This quiet ending still leaves room for a question mark: will these artistic influences be enough to overcome the tumult of the country’s history?

Women, Islam and the State of Pakistan

Filed under: Uncategorized — alana at 2:31 am on Wednesday, December 9, 2015

female’s fate in pakistan brochure

Having covered much of the histories of conflict and struggle in the South Asian region, there is still one battle being fought of particular interest to me: rights for Muslim women in Pakistan. Admittedly, as a Christian, Caucasian American there were fewer things I could relate to in this course than many others who had a deeper background in the subject than I. But what I could understand was the struggle outlined in Farhat Haq’s piece, Women, Islam and the State of Pakistan, of the trials and tribulations of the women’s movement in the Indian subcontinent, as a woman in general and also as female entering a career in the military where until very recently access for us was very limited and it is still an environment riddled with prejudice and judgment. In Haq’s paper he outlines phases of the efforts of Muslim women from strides toward better education and social reform, to a positive response from the modernist government of Ayub Khan in the 1960s, back to the loss of ground from the attempted “Islamization” in the 1980s by Zia Ul Haq’s government, and finally to speaking up and banding together of urban professional women. (Haq 158) Haq explains how to many western ladies, Muslim females in conservative garb confined more or less to the home represent the: “unchallenged patriarchal systems supported by religious fanaticism.” (Haq 159) And to some Muslim modernists these women are the epitome of fanatics “backwardness”, yet to other fundamentalists the women are symbols of the battle being won against the corrupt West. The variety does not end in opinion, but also in action. With such seemingly positive steps as the Charter of Women’s Rights, the creation of the Women’s Action Forum, and even a female Prime Minister, it is difficult to understand how incidences arising from the ‘Hudud Ordinance’ such as the Safia Bibi case continue to occur.

In all of these accounts, I was wishing I myself could just talk with some of these women, one like Bibi, one from the WAF, maybe one of the urban elite, or even a content, traditional wife…What is it really like to be Muslim woman Pakistan and what are the challenges one faces, and what are the hopes one has for the future? So from my own craving of first hand accounts, I decided to come up with an ideal fictional panel presentation of leading Pakistani women, who would best provide insight on “The Female’s Fate in Pakistan” to Harvard students wanting to know more. I chose three leading women to represent this theme including Malala Yousafzai who I imaged could speak on her efforts to improve education for young girls in the region, followed by Fatima Bhutto, niece of Benazir Bhutto and popular author, who could speak on the intersection of art and activism, and finally the Quranic scholar Riffat Hasan who might explain how a modern interpretation of Islam should afford women more freedoms.

For the artistic aspect of this idea, I designed a brochure highlighting the topic and importance of the event, and the reasons for each woman’s presence on the panel. I include a quote by Malala Yousafzai: “When the hole world is silent, even one voice becomes more powerful…” with the following phrase: “this evening three voices come together to be echoed from Harvard’s halls to all corners of the world.” I truly believe too many people, just as I was before this course, are completely deaf to the true situation of these Muslim women, and that a powerful gathering of voices such as this would help enlighten students and citizens everywhere.

The Final Solution

Filed under: Uncategorized — alana at 2:28 am on Wednesday, December 9, 2015


For this creative response I was inspired by the shocking images and sentiments expressed in Jo Johnson’s piece on “Radical Thinking” and in the documentary “The Final Solution” made by Rakesh Sharma, both concerning the riots and massacres that took place in Gujarat in 2002. Johnson and Sharma illustrate a time in India’s history where pure and systematic hatred for a particular religion, was displayed through horrific acts of violence, and what some to be consider genocide against Gujarat Muslims. More than an outbreak among only the region’s citizens, the violence was overlooked and even encouraged by the party leadership at the time, coming from the newly elected BJP member Narendra Modi. As Sharma uncovers in his documentary, Gujarati Hindus’ unrest was being fueled by this nationalistic government, spreading ultra-traditional Hindu messages coming from the re-emergence of stories of Ram and great Hindu power, and at the same time pointing towards the Muslims still residing in India as the sole blame for all of the nation’s troubles. As Johnson alludes to, and Sharma makes blatantly obvious through the title of his work, such trends of scapegoating and targeting a religious minority are eerily similar to the horrific actions performed by the Nazi party during the Holocaust.

In pondering these similarities, my mind jumped from the images of violence and the anti-Islam public rallies that flash across the screen in “The Final Solution”, back to images I had seen of high ranking Nazi party members making speeches, and spreading propaganda with anti-Semitic messages. Keeping with this theme I wanted to compare through art the frightening similarities between the events in Gujarat in 2002 and that in Germany and throughout Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 40s. Nazi war posters were a large part of the propaganda campaign that helped spread anti-Jewish sentiments, and interestingly once the U.S. got involved in the war we used similar posters depicting the horror of the Nazi’s to get Americans attention and raise support for the war effort. I chose a historic poster that I thought related most to the events in Gujarat. It was a drawing of a Nazi soldier’s hand grasping a knife that had cut into the Bible. Below the stark image was a message that stated “This is the enemy”.

I applied this image to the conflict in India by using the same hand, this time of a Hindu nationalist grasping a traditional sword that Sharma documents fighters using, and this time the sword is cutting through a Holy Quran, with the phrase “Gaurav Yatra” written across the top. The phrase “this is the enemy” from the WWII poster applies in two different ways in connection with “Gaurav Yatra” in my drawing. First, to the Hindu’s and nationalist politicians whose hand is represented, the enemy and cause for Guarav Yatra are the Muslims. Added as a quiet detail to the jacket on the arm is a button with the initials N M for Narendra Modi, as many believe, though he was never convicted of sponsoring the violence. So in one way this image could be seen as a symbol for the sentiments of many Hindus during this time. Secondly though, the “this is the enemy” can represent the hand grasping the sword, as the rest of the world should have been aware of the atrocities that were happening in India during this time, but many as they did also in the early years of the holocaust turned a blind eye. Perhaps if other nations and international organizations could have seen the Gujarat riots for what they were, as is depicted in the drawing, more could have been done to ease conflict and punish those who supported the violence.

“The Flame in Medina”

Filed under: Uncategorized — alana at 2:20 am on Wednesday, December 9, 2015

I am burning.

Not from the scalding sand on my bare feet,

Feet that ache from miles of walking.

Not from the heat’s sweat dripping down my chaste skin,

Skin that has not yet been cooled by the gentle touch of a man.

Not from the sun’s harsh rays in my eyes wet with tears,

Eyes fixed on Medina.


I am burning with love for You.


I cry out for you on this journey.

Such a pilgrimage is hard on a poor country girl.

Such a voyage made harder by the yearning I feel

Makes my body weaker and weaker.

But the fire that destroys my frame sparks embers in my soul,

And I travel onward to that beacon, Oh Medina!


I am inflamed with love for You.


At last the light of the shining city gleams brighter

I am beckoned by your majestic home;

To think you will soon be with me here!

I sigh with the joy of relief,

For I have arrived.

Yet my heart cries out

For I still must wait for my Ahmad.


I am ablaze with love for You and will not live to wait much longer.


The angels send their gaze from the heavens

The women watch eagerly from their balconies,

I stare straight once again,

Eyes fixed to the road on which you will come.


I wait no more. For your journey too has ended.


Galloping in on a golden saddle,

An aurous answer to my prayers.

The gilded altar awaits us,

Though far more precious is your presence.


My body,

My heart,

My soul,

Are engulfed by an inferno of passion.

A desire,

A faithfulness,

A flame,

That will never ember.

The Bridegroom Prophet in Medieval Sindhi Poetry-Explanation

Filed under: Uncategorized — alana at 2:19 am on Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Throughout this semester, I found I particularly enjoyed the heavy influence of art, music and literature that supplemented the learning of the course. In the reading topic involving “Boundaries in South Asian Muslim Literatures” I was particularly surprised and enlightened by the different styles and themes of poetry used to venerate or express devotion to the Prophet Muhammad. My interest was particularly peeked by the piece by Professor Asani on The Bridegroom Prophet in Medieval Sindhi Poetry. I struggled with understanding why a Muslim male author would take on the voice of a young woman expressing romantic yearning for a Muhammad. Furthermore, why this literary style would be set around a Hindu wedding, considering the great turmoil between and distancing of Muslims and Hindus. In analyzing the works of Bhatti, Asani came to the conclusion that the poetry emanated from popular Muslim folk traditions, but also was heavily influenced by the local culture. Though some of these writings may not have agreed with the teaching of “official” Islam, it was understandably popular among Muslims in India who believed in a more esoteric and mystical interpretation of their faith. Beyond an influence of local culture, more dramatically in medieval Bengal the Prophet became comparable in literature to symbols of Hindu tradition such as the concept of the avatara, where Muhammad was presented as the most powerful avatar.

Taking all of these Hindu influences into consideration, and paying close attention to the stylistic and thematic elements of this Sindhi poetry such as that of the works of Bhatti, I challenged myself to writing my own piece in the style of this Bridegroom Prophet poetry. I chose the theme of the young woman on a journey to Medina, awaiting her wedding with the Prophet. I wanted to have the concept of the viraha, or: “The burning, consuming longing of the soul for union with God,” (Asani 214) to play an important role in my poem as it typically did in the works of such authors as Bhatti, and interestingly as similar themes did in works from many other religious sects from the Sufis to the Hindus themselves. Thus my poem is entitled “The Flame in Medina” and is the voice of a young woman traveling through the desert to reach Medina in order to have her wedding with Muhammad. Exemplifying the style of speaking out to the audience and to the Prophet himself, the woman speaks of the pain she feels from her journey, but more so from the longing she has for her lover, and this refrain of “burning love” is echoed throughout the piece. When the woman finally reaches Medina she witnesses the angels and townspeople awaiting her union with the prophet, and though she is relieved she still yearns to see Muhammad. And when he finally arrives, it is a magical and completely fulfilling moment in which the woman’s love and devotion to her new husband are made even stronger. The powerful themes of longing and suffering that emanate from the poem with a more romantic undertone are the same themes that devout Muslims feel in a prayerful sense when reading this Bridegroom Prophet poetry. And though from an outsider’s perspective its style may seem unusual, the emotions such writing triggers are both raw and effective in producing devotion.

A Ray from the Sun: Mughal Ideology and the Visual Construction of the Divine

Filed under: Uncategorized — alana at 2:17 am on Wednesday, December 9, 2015

In many of the readings of this course authors and scholars have described the links between art forms and forms of worship. In Catherine Asher’s piece A Ray of Sun: Mughal Ideology and the Visual Construction of the Divine she outlines the origins of the Mugal affinity for light imagery and the heavy presence of religious symbolism associated with light imagery that appears in architecture such as the Taj Mahal, or the “Illumined Tomb”, but also in art as well as in poetry and music. Asher explains the major forces in inspiring this affinity for light included devotion to the Chistiyya order of Sufi Saints, a connection with a concept of worship popular among Hindus and Zoroastrians known as darshan, and fire veneration, and finally a presence of court scholars versed in divine illumination. (Asher 161) Years before Akbar’s prolific reign he developed a connection with one of the most popular Chishti saints, Khwaja Mu’in al-Din after being enraptured by the sound of a devotional song in the Sufi tradition. This link between Akbar’s Muslim faith and his reverence for the Chistiyya both boosted his popularity and served him well as a uniter of peoples. The powerful influence of music continued in connection with Mu’in al-Din, as historical sources point to al-Din’s doctrine as being one of intense love of God represented as a burning desire, and practiced through sama or music used to discover mystical union with God. (Asher 163)

Being inspired by how inspired Akbar and the Mughal Empire was by music, I wanted to create a piece of music with similar aspects of light imagery and devotion to God that famous writers of the time such as Amir Khusrau used in his songs of worship. Khusrau’s works were sung for Akbar’s son Jahangir and are still performed today in sama sessions, so to learn the style of his work I chose a piece called “What a Glow Everywhere I See” that talk about a mystical occurrence and the presence of God and the Prophet Muhammad included in the story with light and candle associations. Having written music before for a devotional setting, but for that of my personal Catholic faith, I thought it would be interesting, in the spirit of inclusion that Akbar and the Mughal Empire embodied, to compose a song with these Sufi and Chishti influences of light imagery and love for their God in the style of a more Christian popular worship song. The piece played on guitar is a fairly catchy and simple chorus played between two verses that were inspired by events described in Khusrau’s poem. The first verse of the chorus, “God is the light of the heavens and the Earth,” is taken directly from the chapter “Light” from the Quran. There are many other aspects of light within the song including more candle imagery, and a flame representing God’s love. I like to think that this song, entitled “God is the Light” is a modern representation of what Akbar stood for during his reign in South Asia. That Sufi traditions can be the theme of a song composed in a 21st century style, and if a listener did not know beforehand, would be just as likely to interpret the lyrics as Christian than as Muslim, is a testament to the religious diversity and acceptance prominent in the Mughal period. Traditions and peoples of all religions are not as different from one another as we force them to be.


“What a glow everywhere I see”

I wonder what was the place where I was last night,

All around me were half-slaughtered victims of love,

tossing about in agony.

There was a nymph-like beloved with cypress-like form

and tulip-like face,

Ruthlessly playing havoc with the hearts of the lovers.

God himself was the master of ceremonies in that heavenly court,

oh Khusrau, where (the face of) the Prophet too was shedding light

like a candle.

Toba Tek Singh-The story continues

Filed under: Uncategorized — alana at 2:12 am on Wednesday, December 9, 2015

In the days following Toba Tek Singh’s death, Fazl Din went once again to check in and make sure his old friend has made it safely to Hindustan, not knowing what had happened.

The asylum much to his surprise and discomfort was in shambles. Chairs were overturned, pills spilt on the floor, robes flung on tables, patient files were scattered about, and one could easily spot the stamps on tops of pages marking location for transport. Green for Hindustan, red for Pakistan.

After wandering the halls, Din finally came across a young assistant who was gathering a few remaining papers to be signed off on.

“Excuse me sir, I am enquiring about the whereabouts of my good friend Bhishan Singh?

He replied, “You were good friends with one of these lunatics?”

“Well in the days well before the partition I was indeed. That was before he was a lunatic too. Could you tell me of his whereabouts? His family is trying to contact him in his new residence in Hindustan.”

“Ahh before the partition, things certainly were different then, I feel like we are living in a whole country of lunatics now. Or at least where we’re standing, we’re straddling two countries of nuts. The halls of this place got even more insane when we tried to make these men leave the home they’ve known for so long. Especially since there’s not much else they know about anything, except for each other. They could never understand why the Muslims left for one place, and Hindus must return to another. They were all just the crazy residents of a tiny unified nation of this asylum.”

“I suppose you’re right. I’m not sure my friend understood why he had to be transported, that’s why I’m here. I want to make sure he got there without any trouble.”

“Oh trouble is an understatement, men were running around naked, screaming, what a mess.” The assistant shook his head and sighed.

“Sir, can you just answer me this and I will leave you be. I need to know for his family…”

“I don’t have all the answers here, they left me to clean up the mess-”

“Where is Bhishan Singh?”

“I’ve never heard that name. It will be hard to help you…. Let me think: was he Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, an Englishman or Other?”

“What does that matter?”

“Well you should at least know where his homeland was. Did he come from the Pakistani region or India?”

“In Pakistan—no, no in Hindustan… Or was it the other way around? Um-”

“Okay if you can’t answer, what did he do before his arrival here? Had he ever been able to work?”

“You assume my friend was always crazy, no, no! He has a lovely wife and a beautiful daughter! He was a wealthy landlord before his mind broke down.”

“Hmmm don’t recall anyone who would mumble about money or property, you say he had a wife and daughter… Haven’t seen many of those types around here lately either-“

“Well after the partition, they had to move, they haven’t come to visit in a while. This is what I have been trying to tell you. I have been in touch with his family, they want to visit him now that he should be in Hindustan where they are.”

“Well if you know he has been moved to Hindustan why are you here? Why haven’t you been answering all my questions? He must not be a Muslim, that narrows it down…”

“You assume all these things, sir. There are many Muslims remaining in India, many who serve our society well. And you continue to misunderstand me. You say the transport of these men was a wreck; nakedness and screaming, I want to know if my friend made it. Where is my friend?”

“I’m telling you I don’t know this man-“

“Where is Bhishan Singh?”

“Again, I don’t recognize this person you speak of-”

“Where is Toba Tek Singh?!”

And with the uttering of this phrase the asylum assistant’s eyes opened up, and he was silent for a moment.

“Toba Tek Singh you say? He was Sikh was he not? White beard, swollen feet… I don’t think I ever saw him lay down, that is until—”

“You know him then! Finally! Until when, though? What are you trying to tell me? What does this matter?”

“Sir, please pardon my prior harshness.”

“Yes of course, if you’d only tell me where he is now. Has he arrived at the new asylum in Hindustan?”

“No, he is not in Hindustan.”

“Well then he is still in Pakistan? There must have been a mistake, his family is in India now!”

“No he is not in Pakistan either.” The assistant quietly replied.

“Don’t’ play games with me boy, this a man’s life! Where is Toba Tek Singh?”

“When you arrived here, you must have come from the Hindustani side, but did you see the barbed wire fences?”

“Yes of course… There was a small gap between the two where I crossed, why is there not one fence for the border at that one spot? Anyway, what does this have to do with anything?”

“It has everything to do with your friend. You see he was from the land called Toba Tek Singh, was he not? That’s why we called him that.”

“Yes-” Din replied, puzzled.

“And as perhaps you too were confused by this, Toba Tek Singh is now in Pakistan, but as you say, Mr. Singh belonged in Hindustan. Having heard that his home was in what today is Pakistan he refused to cross the boarder, and stood on those swollen feet like a statue as the other residents of the asylum were exchanged. We let him stay there during the night, unguarded, but he was found later lying in that spot between the fences you mentioned. Dead.”

With this news Fazl Din made the journey himself to see Singh’s wife and daughter. His child, Rup Kaur, a beautiful young woman now, traveled herself again to the place she where she used to visit her father and weep, but she wept now not for the loss of his mind, but the loss his body too. And at the place of his death, that space between fences, Rup Kaur gave that ground a name.

To this day a small wooden sign is posted. It reads:

“Upar di gur gur di annex di be dhyana di mung di dal of Toba Tek Singh and Pakistan!”

–Translation- “Toba Tek Singh is here!”

Toba Tek Singh- Explanation

Filed under: Uncategorized — alana at 2:09 am on Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Although in class the logistics of the partition of Pakistan from India was not a central topic, the reverberations of this schism have echoed through South Asia ever since. The partition has had a major political as well as cultural effect on the people of these two countries and in doing so, it too has effected my own understanding of the region as a student in this course trying to get a picture of the situation without much context. Besides scholarly journals and books, and even better than news articles and accounts, it is my opinion that stories often tell the best tales of history or of conflict, for good reason. For though a story is assumed to be fiction, this phrase “fiction” is just a ruse. As in the case of Saadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, a story can be both timely and telling. Manto is able to paint an incredibly realistic picture and simultaneously make a quite profound statement about his opinion of the partition, all through short, unusual and very human tale of a man in an insane asylum in what was originally Hindustan and now Pakistan. The story of Toba Tek Singh, the title character, is that when the asylum of which he is a resident must separate and deliver its Muslims to Pakistan and its Hindu and Sikh residents to the border with Hindustan, chaos ensues. The residents don’t understand what is going on, and they don’t understand the basis of the division of India into Pakistan, and can’t fathom how the country they knew can now be a different place entirely. All Singh wants to know is where his home is located, and keeps muttering nonsense, and the phrase, “Where is Toba Tek Singh?” When he finally learns it is in Pakistan, at the same moment that he is being taken to the border with Hindustan, he refuses to cross and leave his home. The story ends with Singh’s death in the small gap between the barbed wire fences separating Pakistan and Hindustan. Chaos of the asylum and the exchange of residents symbolize Manto’s opinion of the lack of care, oversight and understanding that went in to the partition of India into Pakistan.

Singh was only concerned with his home. He couldn’t understand why no-one could tell him where he belonged, and he had no sense of discrimination of other residents of the asylum based on religion, or location, or anything at all. For my creative response to Manto’s piece, I wanted to create my own story that re-emphasized the themes of confusion of the exchange and symbolically of the partition, as well as allude to the utter lack of necessity for labels concerning place of origin, or religion, or occupation. The emphasis is that Toba Tek Singh was known for and died for his refusal to cross a border, to leave a place he thought was his home, but in reality this home was the name a country, of a place that meant nothing to him.

I decided to set my short story a few days after Singh’s death. It takes place from the perspective of his friend, Fazl Din, who comes back to visit the asylum after Singh’s date of transport. Din finds the place in shambles, as many of the people had been moved into Hindustan and had resisted. When he finally meets an employee in the building, and inquires where his friend is, the man does not recognize the name Bhishan Singh, and proceeds to ask Din many defining questions about Singh to try to identify him. I wanted to make these questions indicative of the profiling and the “othering” that had become so common during the partition: either you are Muslim or Hindu, wealthy or poor, belong in India or Pakistan… When Din finally repeats the phrase that was shouted by Singh himself so many times, “Where is Toba Tek Singh?” though the words are uttered in a different context, the asylum assistant immediately recognizes who Din is looking for and informs him of what happened. The story ends with Singh’s daughter traveling back once again to visit the asylum, this time to place a sign where he died, labeling that un-named patch of land, “Toba Tek Singh is here!” The place of his death is finally given meaning. For an action, a life, is more deserving of a title, of a story and of an understanding than is a wire fence that only stands as a symbol of bloody division.