Partition, Literature, and History: a Personal Reflection on ‘Toba Tek Singh’ and ‘If They Come for Us’

by Amaani Khan

CW: Some discussion of violence

Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story Toba Tek Singh and Fatimah Asghar’s debut poetry collection If They Come for Us are two texts which interact with themes of the Partition of India and have been crucial to me for understanding and relating to the subject. It is these texts which have not only informed me on Partition but have also been the most refreshing and personal reflections on this event I have ever come across. When reading these texts, I was struck by their ability to capture Partition in such a personal, profound, and unique way and it was this that inspired me to write this piece. I feel strongly that these two texts should be valued hugely, both as amazing works and also texts which explore Partition and its associated literature I wish I’d been taught at school. I hope this piece will encourage people to read these texts and value the richness of their artistry. I will be analysing the characterisation of Bishan Singh in Toba Tek Singh, the themes of Fatimah Asghar’s poetry, the personal impact both texts have had on me, as well as their absence from the British curriculum and their importance in shaping histories of Partition.

Toba Tek Singh

Saadat Hasan Manto

Writer and playwright

Works include: Toba Tek Singh (1955), Thanda Gosht (1951), Dhuan (1941), Manto Ke Afsanay (1940)

There he stood in no man’s land on his swollen legs like a colossus.

Saadat Hasan Manto, Toba Tek Singh, 18.

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.

Toba Tek Singh, 18.

Toba Tek Singh is a satirical short story published in 1955, set during the years immediately following the Partition where some inmates in a Lahore asylum were required to transfer to (now) Indian territory. The story is deliberately obtuse on the details, which heightens the affect of disorientation for the reader. Manto writes about the inmates and their lives in an intimate way, but specifically focuses on Bishan Singh, a Sikh inmate from Toba Tek Singh, who is referred to by his township name by fellow inmates. Bisha Singh refuses to go to India, as his hometown Toba Tek Singh will now be in Pakistan, a country he could not return to under Partition once he has left. His response to being forced to transfer to India could be seen as ‘insane’. He repeatedly asks ‘Where is Toba Tek Singh? In India or Pakistan?’ and mutters constantly phrases such as ‘Uper the gur gur the annexe the be dhyana mung the dal of Toba Tek Singh and Pakistan’. These could be seen to be symptoms of his eroding frame of mind, or at best, a denial of the reality of his lack of freedoms as an inmate. Yet to me his reaction is truly human. It feels like the natural reaction of confusion and denial follows such a traumatic event. His reactions mirror many of those who were displaced by the Partition and perhaps reflect the rawest thoughts of those who had  to transport their lives to totally alien regions whilst being confronted with violence from many angles. His seemingly distorted speech is actually quite profound; Manto uses a fusion of English, Punjabi and Urdu in his speech, combining in language various constructions of identity. It highlights the most painful conundrum: where do people go now that India has been divided, and what happens to those wanting to be in both spaces, and also neither?

If They Come For Us

Fatimah Asghar

Poet and screenwriter

Works include: If They Come For Us (2018), Brown Girls (2017), When We Were Sisters (2022)

1947: in Jammu the railway staff hose
blood off the platform.

it has been an unusual rain this year
they say, the bloodwater

spraying onto the grass. the stray dogs lay
about, bloated with flesh.

it has been an unusual rain this year
says a Muslim general, machete in his hand,

his troops surrounding a sleeping Hindu
village, as the sky above Rawalpindi wakes.

Fatimah Asghar, Partition, 20-24.

If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar is a poetry anthology published almost seven decades after Manto’s work, in 2018. While covering themes of race, sexuality, identity, belonging and the experience of coming of age as a young Pakistani Muslim in America, Asghar also writes personally and delicately about Partition. Their poems concern the imagining of events, reflections on the experiences of individuals, and are ultimately portrayals of how Partition and its legacies have wounded people and aspects of their life decades after the event. Asghar manages to capture the interconnected nature of post-9/11 America, the experience of being othered, and her Kashmiri identity, explaining how these elements have shaped her life. The poems are linked well by tentacles of reflections concerning Partition and coloniality. Of the forty-four poems in this collection, seven are named ‘Partition’ each taking different forms.

While reading Asghar’s collection, I found her poems reminiscent of war poetry similar to works such as War Photographer by Carol Ann Duffy. We didn’t read these kinds of poems from poets like Fatimah Asghar at my UK school English classes, and we certainly did not associate Partition history with the violence of the wars we were taught and re-taught. We discovered these texts ourselves, beyond school. These kinds of texts were on the margins of the curriculum’s awareness. Our standard texts were poetry written by white people, often men, whose experiences we rarely related to. Asghar’s poetry is raw, personal, tender, delicate. Reading her collection felt refreshing and cathartic – I was finally reading something I related to and it made me feel passionate. Not only does her poetry explore Partition but her works are a joy to read. Finding this collection felt like finally being understood.

Partition Literature

Manto’s short story is also a text we would never have had the opportunity to read at school. I believe his writing is worthy of praise and deep analysis. His use of satire is masterful yet also reads like precious classics. It feels unjust that they are rarely spoken about in public discourses I am aware of. It feels unfortunate that I had to seek these texts out myself and had only heard about Manto when I was older.  I was first introduced to Toba Tek Singh through hearing Riz Ahmed’s song Toba Tek Singh from his Album The Long Goodbye which prompted me to read the short story. The album itself draws on many of the themes in the short story as well as a criticism of empire. Texts like Manto’s and Asghar’s feel necessary for everyone to read and have access to but specifically those interested in Partition and young South Asian people, as it can inform and enrich our understanding of ourselves. They are encompassed by the loose category ‘Partition Literature’, a growing and evolving canon of literature which includes talented writers such as Salman Rushdie and Bapsi Sidhwa. Before finding Manto and Ashgar’s works, the existence of Partition Literature was unknown to me; it’s not a category favoured by the UK reading lists. These works are written by South Asians on their own terms –  it’s crucial that people who have been silenced and marginalised are able to write and share their experiences. This literature allows for a new account of the impact of these historical events. It accounts for the experiences of those at the centre, relying less on the accounts of the ‘victors’. I hope this canon can be more defined and explored further in the future, in the same way war poetry is so revered in the UK. This event which has garnered rich literature should be afforded its own space in the teaching of students today, which values and celebrates its excellence.    

Toba Tek Singh by Riz Ahmed (2020). CW: Contains explicit language
A railway station in the city Toba Tek Singh, Pakistan. Source: thewire.in.
Fiction’s Place in History

Placing value in these moving and masterful pieces of literature enriches the experiences of young people and their perceptions of their own identity, but it is also a crucial source for informing us on history. Manto and Asghar write about Partition delicately and create vivid and authentic characters whilst also including satire and criticism in their works. If these works feature on reading lists and in syllabi, students would have the chance of finding a meaningful connection with histories of Partition. Not only could they bring awareness and emphasis to Partition, finally educating people on the event and its colonial nature, they could transform literature entirely and how historians view literature of this kind.  These personal stories and poetry have a key role in shaping interest and critiques of historical writing and our ‘popular’ view of history. Whilst facts and figures are valuable, these works are inherently personal and therefore convey the sentiments which surround historical events and their echoes in the decades and even centuries following. This reinforces the importance of valuing testimonies, lived experiences and personal stories and highlights the power of literature in helping to inform historians on events of collective trauma, such as Partition. This is the power of storytelling, and what is history if not the exploration and contextualisation of personal stories?

In an interview, Asghar said ‘Partition is always going to be a thing that matters to me and influences me. When your people have gone through such historical violence, you cannot shake it’.[1] Asghar’s words feel representative of my feelings when reading Partition Literature. It is crucial we keep reading and it is imperative that we keep on telling these stories. Though it’s been some months and even years since I’d first read these works, I have not stopped thinking about them, wanting to talk about them. Hence the inspiration for this piece. These works left a mark on me, and I wanted to share how special they are. As a history student I also found these pieces to be a fascinating medium to explore historical events. Whilst they should be valued in their own right and as a way to express subjects such as intergenerational trauma, I believe these pieces can be of historical use and can allow us to become aware of our own history.

The cover of the poetry collection
If They Come For Us, 2018.

[1] “How Fatimah Asghar turned the traumas of colonialism and diaspora into poetry,” HelloGiggles, accessed April 4, 2022, https://hellogiggles.com/reviews-coverage/books/poet-fatimah-asghar-if-they-come-for-us-life-after-diaspora/.

Asghar, Fatimah. If They Come For Us. Little, Brown Book Group, 2018.
HelloGiggles. “How Fatimah Asghar turned the traumas of colonialism and diaspora into poetry”. Accessed April 4, 2022. https://hellogiggles.com/reviews-coverage/books/poet-fatimah-asghar-if-they-come-for-us-life-after-diaspora/.
Manto, Saadat Hasan. Toba Tek Singh. Translated by Khalid Hasan. Penguin Books, 2011.

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Amaani Khan


Amaani is a first year BA History student at SOAS. She has an interest in the impact of colonialism, the unheard stories and perspectives within historical writing. She also has an interest in poetry and literature.

SOAS History Blog, Department of History, Religions and Philosophy, SOAS University of London

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