Almost seventy years after Sadaat Hasan Manto’s seminal short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’, Ludhiana based psychiatrist, Anirudh Kala explores the impact of the Partition especially, on the mental inmates of the two countries and the ongoing consequences of the cataclysmic event in his book The Unsafe Asylum—Stories of Partition and Madness, published by Speaking Tiger in 2018.
Urvashi Butalia, who uncovered the hidden voices of the marginalised especially women, children and Dalits in her book The Other Side of Silence , believes humaneness and compassion are essential requisites of Partition literature. Twenty years after Butalia’s book, Kala’s humane but, at times unsettling collection of stories, contains a streak of the absurd. It is worth pointing out that the Theatre of the Absurd movement was deeply influenced by the traumatic experience of the horrors of the Second World War, which like Partition, showed the total impermanence of any values, shook the validity of any conventions and highlighted the precariousness of human life and its fundamental meaninglessness and arbitrariness. Thus, Kala’s humane universe is speckled with absurdist elements.
This collection of interlinked short stories with its resurfacing characters and locations take place almost equally in what is now Pakistan, in India with some overlap between the two countries, and occasionally England. The narrative is at times straightforward, but flashbacks, diary notes and monologues are more often used to capture the myriad ways Partition has scarred the psyche of the two nations. There are also stories within a story as Sami recounts the tale of a famous spy who later turns out to be himself in ‘A Spy Named Gopal Punjabi’ and in ‘Smart Aleck’ where an elderly lawyer narrates his client’s love story which is doomed by bureaucratic hurdles. In the end, the lawyer admits that he was talking about himself thus, problematizing the narrative. This brings to mind Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which is a “novel in the form of variations. The various parts follow each other like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a theme, the interior of a thought, the interior of a single unique situation…” Kala assails his theme from different sides and situations but fails to dive into its depths; instead, he ends up swimming in circles. He gets trapped in a room of mirrors. Also, his attempts get refracted by superfluous stories like ‘Three Passports’ and ‘A Spy Named Gopal Punjabi’.
The collection begins in Lahore Mental Hospital in June 1947. The campus housed more than twelve hundred seriously disturbed mentally ill patients, amongst them Rulda Singh whose village is near Rawalpindi and Fateh Mohammad (Fattu) whose village is beyond Hoshiarpur. Both of them had been discharged a month ago but no one came to take them home, so they were supposed to make themselves generally useful to the staff. Their families ‘might even have speculated amongst themselves that a mental hospital was a safer place than the world outside in that summer of 1947. On that particular rainy evening, Iqbal was in absolute agreement with that point of view.’ In the meantime, talks are going on for the exchange of inmates in view of the imminent Partition of the country. Dr Iqbal Junaid Hussain is one of the two Deputy Medical Superintendents at the hospital.
The time of Partition is equivalent to that of insanity as Ramneek Singh, who kills Dr Iqbal that fateful June morning says twenty years later: ‘the man who did “that” was me. But this is not who I am.’ Although Kala does dwell on madness per say in his stories, he raises questions that defy labels of madness and sanity. Consider this conversation between Rulda and Fattu:
‘Have the outsiders gone mad? Rulda wanted to know.
Fattu chuckled, ‘Yes, they have.’… ‘we are predictably unpredictable. Outsiders are unpredictably unpredictable. That makes us more predictable. They should be inside and us outside.’
Rulda objected. ‘So many people cannot be mad… Because if most people were insane, the world would come crashing down.’ ‘Maybe it is crashing down as we speak.’ Fattu observed.
Fattu : ‘You know the big sign over the gate which reads Mental Hospital, Lahore? We should take it down and put it up inside, so that everybody is clear which side of the gate is the actual mental hospital.’ (Pg. 17)
This exchange between Rulda and Fattu belongs in the realm of the absurd. Also, the grotesque is always lurking in the shadows ready to spring on the unsuspecting protagonists: ‘The marketplace was full of swirling clouds of dust. The street had emptied suddenly. It was surreal, the stage of a fast-moving macabre play emptying itself between acts.’
This scene in ‘Love During Armistice’ seems to come straight from a play belonging to the absurd tradition: “Sunil’s Fiat refused to start. He tried a few times more and then as if re-enacting a practised drill, Brij jumped out briskly, went to the rear, pushed the car, his head down and cheeks puffed out. When they reached a downward slope, he ran back to get in, as Sunil pulled back the handbrake…The car glided down and the engine spluttered.”
When Sami is about to begin narrating his story about Gopal Punjabi, ‘Huma puts on her glasses as if she is watching a movie rather than listening to a story.’ This feeling is shared by the reader as the scene cuts from one locale, time and space to another during the space of a story. This is particularly true for ‘Sita’s Bus’ as the story begins with Firdaus Cheema walking home from school. The scene cuts to the past when she was Harpreet Cheema and this technique continues throughout the story. A few years after Partition, the two countries decided to rehabilitate the abducted woman from both sides. The plan lacked both consent and sensitivity. Abandoned by her husband Harpreet agrees to marry the likeable Aslam after waiting for a few years. To her horror, Harpreet is forcibly returned to India and has to undergo an abortion too. The callousness of the two governments makes Harpreet cry out, ‘Am I a possession which can be dragged anywhere and then cut up to throw away parts of me which they don’t like…And isn’t abortion illegal for God’s sake?’ Miss Sarabhai said weakly, ‘When the state undertakes such missions, maybe it is not.’
In ‘Belly Button’ we are introduced to Dr Prakash Kohli, a psychiatrist from Chandigarh who ardently wishes to visit Pakistan. He gets his chance do so during Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary as the government of Pakistan issues visas, an otherwise scarce commodity for Sikh pilgrims, to visit the sacred site on his birthday. During the trip, “Prakash noticed how the meaning of the word ‘other side’ had reversed in the last two hours.” Dr Prakash is a constant, appearing in no less than ten of the thirteen stories in the collection.
The much-delayed exchange of mental inmates between the two countries finally takes place after a gap of three years in ‘Partitioning Madness’. As Rulda says, ‘This is weird, even by the standards of madness.’ Preparations are being made for ‘the hospital’s biggest send-off in the fifty years of its existence.’ Amidst all this, Fattu explains to Rulda, ‘Mentals are the rear end of mankind…Of course we count. Even the tables and chairs count. The horses count. Everything that can be counted counts and has to be meticulously counted and fairly divided between the two countries. Even us.’
Kala further problematizes the difference between sanity and insanity when Rulda asks, “You mean people outside understand the implications of everything they decide to do…The ones who stabbed and shot men, women and children must also have weighed the pros and cons, and coolly turned around ‘implications’ in their minds, before they killed or raped.”
Dr Prakash is bewildered and plagued by the fact that half the patients that were supposed to be sent to India had died during the three years between Partition and the actual exchange. How? The Lahore hospital report of 1947 says it was cholera. He wonders would cholera kill just one religion?
After a gap of four stories, Prakash’s tour of Pakistan continues from where it was left off in ‘Belly Button’. The Impala is still stuck in Gawal Mandi when Prakash expresses a desire to meet a Pakistani Psychiatrist in ‘The Mad Prophesier’. His hosts introduce him to Dr Asif Junaid Hussain, the son of Dr Iqbal Junaid Hussain. Dr Asif provides an answer of sorts to Prakash’s question. He quips. ‘Who gained by the deaths of one million people? Where was the logic? The partition of mental hospitals was an extension of the Partition of India…Only difference was the modus operandi and the cold-bloodedness.’
Although written in an understated manner some of the stories are loud and garish. During his meeting with Dr Asif, he encounters Mr Haq who believes he is joined to Amitabh Bachchan at the hip. This introduction of Mr Haq is an unwanted appendage to the story as its sole purpose is to point out that the trauma of Partition continues to haunt the psyches of people across generations. The story becomes even more jarring when Prakash meets Fattu who has become famous for his prophesies and politicians flock to him. Fattu tells Prakash that he has a hot-line with Rulda and that he had spoken to him that very afternoon. Similarly, In ‘Love During Armistice’, 15 year old Brij Bhushan falls in love with Benazir Bhutto, daughter of then President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as she visits India with her father for Simla agreement in 1972. The story ends with Sunil’s question when will the Partition of the two countries leave us alone?
In ‘Folie a Deux’ a middle- aged woman passes on a recurring delusion of being chased by murderous mobs to her children. The story is in the form of a long monologue a la Camus’s The Fall. Dr Prakash says, ‘I was aware that mental illness often ran in families and bred true to type. I also knew you three lived with your lives intertwined physically and emotionally. There was a need to believe in the ‘reality’ of the others, howsoever bizarre it might appear to an outsider. The French called it folie a deux or felie a famille when it extended to a whole family, although the former is the generic term used for all shared psychoses. The delusion of Muslim men baying for blood and honour had been passed down through the family like a cursed heirloom.’
The Partition of the country remains a recurring nightmare as is evident in the following conversation in ‘Refugees’: “‘Is it Partition time again?’ Ma asked when I drove her to the station to put her on a train. Feeling her heart pounding against my chest, I patted her on the back and said, ‘Don’t be silly. Partitions do not happen every day.” Kala links the Partition of the country with the militant call for another ‘land of the pure’, the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the subsequent riots. Kala seems to say first time it is a tragedy the second time it is a ‘grotesque parody of life’.
The collection comes full circle with ‘Rulda’s Discharge’. The year is 1984 and Indira Gandhi has been assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. It has been thirty-four years since Rulda was last at a railway station. Fanatical mobs are hunting down Sikhs in Delhi and the vast universe has been engulfed by the absurd again. Rulda realises this is no ‘madness’; this is what they called ‘reality’ at the seminars he was presented at. The story ends with a frightened, desperate Rulda asking a taxi driver, ‘Is there a mental hospital in this city?’
Right from ‘Toba Tek Singh’ madness has been used as a metaphor in Partition literature. Kala follows the enduring tradition but also explores madness per se. Human beings constantly live in close proximity of the border between sanity and insanity. It is only a few millimetres away and a puff of wind is enough to find oneself on the other side of it.