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A Semiotic Approach to Manto’s Toba Tek Singh

Maithili Phatak

The Indo-Pak Partition was both a personal and a communal horror for Saadat Hasan Manto. The trauma that the Partition inflicted on Manto left a lasting impact on him, influencing several of his works. Toba Tek Singh is considered one of his best literary pieces on the Indian Partition.

There are multiple details made available in the text for one to dive into and analyse. This essay is an attempt at deconstructing and analysing it using three simple tools of binaries, modality and alternative interpretations.

Set against the backdrop of the Indo-Pak Partition, the text follows the story of Bishan Singh, also known as Toba Tek Singh because of his obsession with the location of the same name. He is a patient in a mental asylum in Lahore, who has given up on sleep, speaks only gibberish, and is soon going to be sent to India with the other inmates. The story shows him trying to figure out where Toba Tek Singh is-- in India or in Pakistan, and after being dissatisfied many times he finally gets an answer from a military officer at the site of the exchange of the inmates. He refuses to go to India and refuses to leave behind his hometown of Toba Tek Singh in Pakistan. The story ends with Bishan Singh fallen in between barbed wires that define both the countries, on no man's land, where Toba Tek Singh now lies.

The short story enables the suspension of disbelief as it gradually progresses from fact to fiction. Manto constructs believable absurdity through the setting of the asylum and the psyche of the characters. The unreliability of the characters makes it possible for them to utter dialogues seemingly insensible yet the reality of the era enables the reader to search for and find profound meaning and wisdom in this chaotic absurdity.

Toba Tek Singh proves to be a powerful text, conveying not just the insanity of the Partition but also of the notion of identity. The story has an autobiographical hint since Manto too was flummoxed by the question of his identity. The personal torment of the author grounds the story in reality.

Although it is not known whether such an exchange of “lunatics” took place during the Partition, this text has been associated with its narrative enough for it to have become a common myth. The medium of the short story enables strong impact in a short time, though this limited length may restrict the use of multiple central characters and subplots at times. We can see that the only personal narrative that is being explored is that of Bishan Singh. The written medium offers a tool for the narrator or author to communicate directly with the reader without the need for a dialogue even. An example would be the end of the story wherein the author writes--

As everybody rushed towards him, the man who had stood erect on his legs for fifteen years, now pitched face-forward on to the ground. On one side, behind barbed wire, stood together the lunatics of India and on the other side, behind more barbed wire, stood the lunatics of Pakistan. In between, on a bit of earth which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh (Toba Tek Singh).

Recognising Bishan Singh’s character by his nickname ‘Toba Tek Singh’ is crucial for the end, where the reader is free to see ‘Toba Tek Singh’ as a place, a person or both. The end propels the story to a new height. The written medium enables this.

Manto makes us feel and understand his emotions towards the Partition with the help of nothing more than gibberish from the mouths of the “lunatics,” and their words seem to convey the emotion without having to make sense: "Uper the gur gur the annexe the bay dhyana the mung the dal of the Pakistan and India dur fittey moun” (Toba Tek Singh). Manto adeptly employs tonality and the sound of words rather than their meaning to convey emotion. Manto takes us through the experiences of common people in the context of Partition, without directly commenting on the events or the political nature of things. In this story it is more than evident as he consciously refuses to let his characters speak about the event, allowing their gibberish to convey his feeling of horror and speechlessness instead.

There are some overarching binaries that the author uses as well, and challenges through his depiction of the same. The binary of India-Pakistan can be seen being propelled by the binary of Hindu and Muslim or to be more accurate to the context, Muslim and non-Muslim. In the temporal context of the story, this binary seems to be between the signifiers, ‘India’ and ‘Pakistan’, rather than the signified objects. Since the process of separation was a prolonged transition, the objects of these representamens can be questioned. The apparent dissociation of the insane from the rest of the world as well as their isolation from it because of the asylum makes the sheer existence of Pakistan as a separate entity from India a questionable idea. The binary is challenged through the naivety and simple-mindedness of the inmates and by their inability to comprehend the location of said Pakistan and their own location with regards to it. Seen in the excerpts:

All that these inmates knew was that there was a man by the name of Quaid-e-Azam who had set up a separate state for Muslims, called Pakistan. But they had no idea where Pakistan was. That was why they were all at a loss whether they were now in India or in Pakistan. If they were in India, then where was Pakistan? If they were in Pakistan, how come that only a short while ago they were in India? How could they be in India a short while ago and now suddenly in Pakistan? (Toba Tek Singh).

A Muslim "lunatic", a regular reader of the fiery Urdu daily Zamindar, when asked what Pakistan was, reflected for a while and then replied, "Don't you know? A place in India known for manufacturing cut-throat razors." Apparently satisfied, the friend asked no more questions (Toba Tek Singh).

This ignorance about the meta-narrative enables the isolated inmates to make sense of the events on their own terms and through immediate exchanges with their environment. Seen in the excerpt:

“Most of the inmates appeared to be dead set against the entire operation. They simply could not understand why they were being forcibly removed to a strange place” (Toba Tek Singh). Manto further shows the ludicrousy of the myth of nationalism by staging well-accepted performances of patriotism, at the hands of the said “lunatics”. Seen in excerpt: “One day while taking his bath, a Muslim lunatic yelled, "Pakistan Zindabad!" with such force that he slipped, fell down on the floor and was knocked unconscious” (Toba Tek Singh). The lunatics actively declare themselves Muhammad Ali Jinnah or master Tara Singh or even God himself. The general acceptance of these declarations within the asylum makes the myth of identity evident. Labelling themselves as these powerful people distinguishes the person and their name (the signified and signifier) making us realise the enormous yet completely virtual significance of such labels despite their arbitrary nature.

Another binary that is questioned is that of the sane and the insane.

Set in a mental asylum, the story categorises the characters as ‘lunatics’ or insane. Set against the partition, the reader may find the insanity inside nothing less than a reflection of the insanity outside the walls of the asylum. At some points in the story, one might actually find these lunatics to be making more sense than one might care to believe, while the actions outside in the real world seem more and more absurd. Seen in the excerpt:

One of the lunatics got so bewildered with this India-Pakistan-Pakistan-India rigmarole that one day while sweeping the floor he climbed up a tree, and sitting on a branch, harangued the people below for two hours on end about the delicate problems of India and Pakistan. When the guards asked him to come down he climbed up still higher and said, "I don't want to live in India and Pakistan. I'm going to make my home right here on this tree (Toba Tek Singh).

We question this binary as the story blurs the line that divides these two groups as well as flips the roles by depicting the chance escape of the lunatics from mass indoctrination. Not having any clue about the happenings outside of their asylum the “lunatics” seem way more capable of having unbiased logical thoughts that are not muddled by

propaganda than the public outside the asylum.

Although the story geographically unfolds in a post-Partition Pakistan, it is clear that the madness portrayed in Toba Tek Singh is a commentary on the Indo-Pak Partition as a whole and is not a critique of any particular side. The assumptions that the writer holds about his audience form the foundation for the meaning of the text, which when nullified, can give out a distinct interpretation of the same text as described above.

Toba Tek Singh demonstrates anguish in a comical way. It illustrates a vital perspective to the partition. Looking at it through the lens of semiotics makes one appreciate the nuances of the text, and the uses of different elements, thereby sensitizing one to details and connotations of the same, enabling a more thorough meaning-making.


Semiotics: the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation.


Signifier: a sign's physical form (such as a sound, printed word, or image) as distinct from its meaning.

Representamen: a sign or signifier, whether physical or otherwise, which points to an object


● Cobley, P. A. U. L., and L. I. T. Z. A. Jansz. "Introducing Semiotics, 1999." Allen and Unwin Pty. LTD., PO Box 8500.83: 1-175.

● Dalrymple, William. “The Bloody Legacy of Indian Partition.” The New Yorker, 9 July2019,www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/06/29/the-great-divide-books-dalrymple.

Manto, S., 2020. . [online] Sacw.net. Available at: <http://www.sacw.net/partition/tobateksingh.html> [Accessed 30 December 2020].

● Manto, Saadat Hasan, and Saʻādat Ḥasan Manṭo. Mottled Dawn: fifty sketches and stories of partition. Penguin Books India, 1997.

● Manṭo, Saʻādat Ḥasan. Bombay Stories. Vintage, 2014.

Maithili is a Film student currently studying at The National Institute of Design. Her interests lie in contemporary indigenous narratives which she tries to communicate through the medium of visual art, text and video. Through her work, she attempts to explore and engage with alternative perspectives of dominant narratives.