Saadat Hasan Manto and the Exploration of Madness

In his short story 'Toba Tek Singh', set against the background of the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent, writer Saadat Hasan Manto provides a literary narration of the socio-political imbrications of madness.

In his short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’, set against the background of the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent, writer Saadat Hasan Manto provides a literary narration of the socio-political imbrications of madness. Through an exploration of a lunatic asylum in Lahore, he shows how the discursive structure of madness, despite being embedded in the landscape of ruling institutions, carries an element of excess that is not only irreducible to its material context but also resistant to its objectifying operations. Before conducting an analysis of Manto’s short story, we need to locate its theoretical coordinates by taking a detour into René Descartes’ ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’.

Securing the Cogito

In his attempt to search for an absolutely secure foundation of knowledge, Descartes proceeds through the exclusion of various sources of human delusions, which include errors of sense perception, the illusions of insanity and dreams. This doubt regarding the different forms of knowledge culminates in a type of radicalised doubt, where the individual suspects that the entire world is an illusion. With this universal doubt – denoting a state of total madness, wherein apparently opposing concepts, reason and unreason, meaning and nonmeaning, converge – the cogito is born: even if the entire world is an effect of my illusions, I can still be sure that I think. This means that madness is not excluded by the cogito.

The metaphysical madness that leaves nothing in doubt can’t be understood and communicated by others. This is so because it represents the intermingling of meaning and nonmeaning, the destabilisation of every form of significatory stability in the form of universal doubt. Therefore, the voice of metaphysical madness must be silenced for the initiation of language and history. In order for the cogito to be communicated and made to appear to another self like my own, the space of discourse must conform to certain common rules of reasonableness. These common rules, in turn, can function as the basis for language and meaning only if they are internalised by the cogito, only when the cogito starts to speak and reflect upon itself.

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As a zero point that ensures the condition of possibility of history and language, metaphysical madness is present in every historical age. However, reflexive cogito uses the discursive logic of logocentric certainty to suppress its subversive effects, to conceal it beneath a layer of symbolic certitude. Here, some comments on the nature of language can help clarify matters. Language is a system of general differentiation in which each signifier establishes its identity only in relation to other signifiers. These other signifiers themselves are caught in a similar web of difference. Hence, the signified (meaning) of a particular signifier is constituted by an ever-extending chain of other-relations, which delay its arrival; even a finite signifier is infinite with regard to the possibility of a final closure or determination of its signified. Jacques Derrida coined the neologism “differance” to denote this conjunction of difference and delay, explaining how the movement of meaning precludes the presence of a pure order of intelligibility lying outside the play of differences.

Metaphysical madness, as the enactment of generalised doubt about everything, shows the contingent nature of language, denaturalising any hegemonic suture of the infinite chain of symbolic differences. As the abyssal pit of meaning and nonmeaning, pre-reflexive cogito exposes the essential foundationlessness of language. This perpetual threat posed by pre-reflexive cogito to the symbolic architecture of language requires that the rationality of history constantly imprison the excess of hyperbole in closed totalities.

Toba Tek Singh

What Manto talks about in his short story is not the metaphysical madness of pre-reflexive cogito but the clinical madness that is governed by the discursive rules of psychiatric institutions. The status of clinical madness is afflicted by ambiguity. Unlike metaphysical madness, it is not the explosive underside of language; it is situated within various institutional discourses, acting as their object of analysis and regulation. However, within these various discourses, clinical madness is described by its inability to fully align itself with the protocols of enunciation found in rational language.

This means that clinical madness is neither the non-language of metaphysical madness nor the language of rational discourse. It lies in an in-between zone that constantly troubles the neat division between the logocentric closures of reflexive cogito and the hyperbolic audacity of pre-reflexive cogito. Marked by the failure to extricate itself from the metaphysical madness of pre-reflexive cogito and transition into reflexive cogito, clinical madness contains traces of hyperbolic doubt in the form of indeterminate words that are not sure of the certainty of sovereign thinking and logocentric sutures.

In Manto’s literary narrative, the fundamental ambivalence of clinical madness is emphasised through the turbulences experienced by the inmates of the Lahore lunatic asylum upon their discovery that they will be exchanged by the Indian and Pakistani governments. This decision to initiate the exchange of inmates of lunatic asylums denotes the forcible entrance of a violent symbolic authority into the domain of clinical madness, which by its very nature is resistant to political impositions of heavily fixed meanings. When a Sikh lunatic asks another Sikh about the rationale behind their transfer to India, he replies, “I know the language of the Hindostoras. These devils always strut about as if they were the lords of the earth.”

The communicative actions of the Indian political class dedicated to neatly dividing people along territorial lines are shown to be mere vocabularies of self-assured interests that are falsely universalised as metaphysical truths invulnerable to any form of critical questioning. Proponents of partition have manufactured a political discourse wherein their particularistic motivations are elevated as fully formed, proper names that preexist the tumult of significatory displacements, that emerge as absolute knowledge unconditioned by the inherent incompleteness of language.

Given that the subjective structure of clinical madness is ultimately marked by the inability to gain the linguistic capacities of reflexive cogito, Manto shows that an event as logocentric as partition – geared toward the carving of semantically separate religious communities from the complex life-world of Indian civil society – can’t be properly registered by the lunatics of the Lahore asylum. He writes of how “a Muslim lunatic, while taking his bath, raised the slogan ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ with such enthusiasm that he lost his balance and was later found lying on the floor unconscious.” Here, the slogan is tied to a historical happening that has a character of a sovereign truth. Consequently, its internal structure is wholly subordinated to the simplification of polysemic words for the sake of politically producing a univocal meaning. Clinical madness, unable to assemble a coherent language that can delimit the excess of metaphysical madness, finds the logic of logocentrism to be deeply burdensome, so much so that it can lead to the psychological collapse of the subject.

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The incompatibility between logocentrism and clinical madness is brought out more fully in the case of an inmate who “got so badly caught up in this India-Pakistan-Pakistan-India rigmarole that one day, while sweeping the floor, he dropped everything, climbed the nearest tree and installed himself on a branch, from which vantage point he spoke for two hours on the delicate problem of India and Pakistan. The guards asked him to get down; instead he went a branch higher, and when threatened with punishment, declared, ‘I wish to live neither in India nor in Pakistan. I wish to live in this tree.’”

The attempt to close the basic indeterminacy that inhabits clinical madness fails as the inmate finds himself unable to assume the position of a linguistically coherent subject. India and Pakistan, two territorial entities that negate the concrete ethos of interreligious interaction in favor of siloed national projects, are easily accepted by many as substantive bodies with an inbuilt theological presence. However, for clinical madness – which has not transitioned into the rationalist language of reflexive cogito – India and Pakistan are words that contain within themselves multiple words, composed of an infinity of traces that can’t be compressed into an object with readily observable properties. This attentiveness to the inevitable multifariousness of words leads to the inmate’s rejection of both India and Pakistan, and the wish to live in the tree, which, by its very semantic vagueness, acts as a placeholder for the ambiguous nature of language, its radical emptiness as a contingently constructed set of communicative practices.

Among the group of inmates in the Lahore asylum is Bishen Singh, a Sikh, who has been confined for the last 15 years. He speaks a nonsensical language which is actually a mixture of three different languages – Punjabi, Urdu, and English. When translated, his gibberish turns out be a stance of anti-colonial opposition to the British and their local puppets. For instance, “Uper the gur gur the annexe the bay dhayana the mung the dal of the laltain,” translates into “On the surface, the territorial possession of India by the British seems sweet, but those who do not pay attention become cooked like lentils by the government”. In this context, the gibberish spoken by Bishen is representative of the hyperbolic excess that manifests itself in clinical madness in the form of incoherent words. Manto uses the anti-colonial message of this hyperbolic gibberish to indicate how the subjectivity of clinical madness is antithetical to the logocentric structure of partition. When Bishen came to know of the forthcoming exchange of Indian and Pakistani lunatics, he began enquiring whether his native village Toba Tek Singh belonged to India or Pakistan. Nobody provided a definitive reply. On the contrary, the response was even stamped with the epistemological extravagance that is typical of clinical madness: “And who could say if both India and Pakistan might not entirely vanish from the map of the world one day?”

Ever since Bishen had begun asking his fellow inmates where exactly Toba Tek Singh was, without receiving a satisfactory answer, he had grown “increasingly restless, but more than that, curious.” The highlighting of curiosity is important because clinical madness – patterned by an uneven break with metaphysical madness – carries elements of universal doubt that foreground the socio-historic temporality of politically sedimented relations. Rationalist language, with the suppression of metaphysical madness, comes to erase the dependence of logos upon the movement of hyperbole, the dependence of language upon the excess of differance. Clinical madness, as the suspension of the division between pre-reflexive and reflexive cogito, reminds one of the open-endedness of history, the essential incompleteness of language. What seems as an event of complete closure is shown to be dependent upon a relational movement of differing, and deferring that makes such event possible through a chain of other-relations. Positive presence thus unfolds into a complex network of mediations that bring to visibility the myriad presuppositions forming the base for any form of logocentric immediacy.

One of the inmates in the Lahore asylum had declared himself God. Bishen asked him one day if Toba Tek Singh belonged to India or Pakistan. The inmate chuckled. “Neither in India nor in Pakistan, because, so far, we have issued no orders in this respect.” The self-declaration of the inmate as God seeks to create an onto-theological authority that can provide clear answers to Bishen’s question. However, this oracle of absolute presence can’t supply such a clear-cut answer because Toba Tek Singh itself is a territorial symbol of absence and undecidability. It names the impossibility of conclusive or total truths, the blind spot at which onto-theological regulators of metaphysical presence encounter obstacles to their totalising and reifying gaze. Toba Tek Singh, the piece of land whose status has not been subjected to the official judgment of God, is the zone of differance where words are displayed as structures of traces, traces which complicate the internal composition of words and refuse any simple theoretical ascription.

With the finalisation of exchange agreements, the day of transfer arrived. Hindu and Sikh lunatics of the Lahore asylum were transported in buses towards Wagha, the dividing line between India and Pakistan. Characteristic of logocentric and undemocratic institutions, there was a deep sense of fixity during the exchange process. “Senior officials from the two sides in charge of exchange arrangements met, signed documents and the transfer got under way.” But this appearance of bureaucratic calcification was soon belied by the behaviour of the inmates: “It was quite a job getting the men out of the buses and handling them over to officials. Some just refused to leave. Those who were persuaded to so began to run pell-mell in every direction. Some were stark naked. All efforts to get them to cover themselves had failed because they couldn’t be kept from tearing off their garments.”

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Nakedness is an important trope in Manto’s stories. He once noted: “If you cannot bear these stories then the society is unbearable. Who am I to remove the clothes of this society, which itself is naked. I don’t even try to cover it, because it is not my job, that’s the job of dressmakers.” For Manto, nakedness functions as a symbol of his society’s barren absence that is hidden by the clothes of superficial presence. While the clothedness of society tries to project a positive substance of inner presence, nakedness exposes a radical negativity – the groundless movement of differance – which is shunned by authoritarian assertions of logocentric metaphysics. The lunatics of the Lahore asylum kept tearing off their garments because the subjective mechanisms of clinical madness refuse to construct beliefs in the metaphysical substance of one’s identity. Theirs is the choice of absence rather than presence, whereas the bureaucratic officials of the exchange process choose an investment in the lie of presence.

When Bishen went out of the bus to give his name so that it could be noted in a register, he asked the person behind the desk about the territorial status of Toba Tek Singh. The man replied that the village was in Pakistan. On hearing this, Bishen tried to run, but he was stopped by the Pakistan guards who attempted to send him across the dividing line to India. Despite strenuous efforts, Bishen did not budge, remaining fixed in no-man’s land. “This is Toba Tek Singh,” he announced. The fact that Bishen got an answer to his question about his native village does not alter the fact that Toba Tek Singh functions as a symbol of undecidability and absence. When Bishen is told about the village’s location in Pakistan, he immediately negates this territorial identity be identifying Toba Tek Singh with the piece of land on which he is standing – no-man’s land.

It is also important to note here that most people in the Lahore asylum used to call Bishen Toba Tek Singh. So, the name and place of origin of this Sikh man merge with the pure un-belongingness and undecidability of no-man’s land. This type of territory defies any sense of proprietorship and definiteness – troops can’t claim this area even as they subject it to their militaristic gaze. As such, it represents the logic of clinical madness, which, despite being subjugated by psychiatric discourses, is opposed to the workings of logocentric events, refusing to utter words that possess a supposedly sovereign power over the world. It always inhabits the space of doubt, circling around the hole of structurally inscribed uncertainty. Bishen continued to stand in no-man’s land until sunrise, when he screamed and collapsed to the ground. At the end of the story, Manto writes, “There, behind barbed wire, on one side, lay India and behind more barbed wire, on the other side, lay Pakistan. In between, on a bit of earth, which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.”

Yanis Iqbal is a student and writer based in Aligarh, India.