The Classic, or Institutionalization part II

Roanne Kantor // What happens when different kinds of institutions meet? When I asked that question this winter, the answer focused on the unevenness between various types of things that get theorized very abstractly as “institutions.” Can there be any use in exploring “institutionalization” and “de-institutionalization” in both medical and educational contexts?

Within this larger question lies a more focused one about the tensions between two academic fields – medical humanities and postcolonial studies – as they go through different moments of the “institutionalization” process.  It turns out that tension was even more thickly knotted than I originally imagined, meeting and tangling within a single text. Ironically – or perhaps predictably, knowing me – the text itself is also about institutionalization: Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story “Toba Tek Singh.”

Any anxieties I might have about academic institutions crystalize in that dreaded form, the survey course. I’m teaching one right now: “The Indian Novel.” Next week I’ll guest-lecture in another survey course, “Intersectionality in Global Health.” And, lucky me, I’m teaching Manto in both of them!

The survey course crystalizes what always lies in tension at the center of “institutionalization” debates. Deciding what few pieces will represent the whole forces one to confront the conflict between, on the one hand, expanding the scholarly archive by “recovering” new literatures, and on the other “reviewing” the classics. Even as I present them here, the assumption is that these processes are at odds. But they are also deeply intertwined. That is why the first step in any typical “recovery” project usually begins by offering a “review,” a critique of the classics. This is what Mitchell and Snyder do for Shakespeare, for example, and why their book was so necessary to make space the recovery work of more contemporary disability scholars.

But what happens to this typical push-and-pull of institutionalization at the place where two very different fields meet? What happens when a text is well established and ripe for review in one field but still waiting to be recovered in another? Is this not a bit like the intersectionality I’m tasked with teaching global health students, where existing narratives about marginalization are complicated by the meeting of multiple subject positions?  

Manto is the very definition of a classic, one of the best known writers in Urdu of the 20th century. And he wasn’t shy about it, either, writing for his epitaph:

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short-story writing…. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is greater short-story writer: God or He.

Within South Asian studies, Manto is one of the most frequently taught writers in a number of fields, and “Toba Tek Singh,” is far and away his most popular story in these institutional contexts.  A sharply written allegory for the partitioning of India and Pakistan in 1947, “Toba Tek Singh” acts as a testing ground for the claims Manto makes above. After all, who has the greater sense of absurdism, a distant God in whose various names violence and displacement erupted on an unfathomable scale, or the writer who found a way to cut the tragedy down to size? Manto’s story has been equally welcome in history or political science classrooms as those dedicated to literature (Merrill). Indeed, Rosemary George has persuasively argued that it is this dual cargo of partition stories which facilitated the consolidation of a national literary canon after 1947 (2013). 

Here’s where things get complicated. “Toba Tek Singh” takes place in a mental hospital in the newly created Pakistan. After partition, it is decided that the Muslim and Sikh inmates in Lahore should be transferred to Indian institutions. The inmates themselves struggle to make sense of the (il)logical partition, as well as their own places within these new nations. These anxieties come into focus through the inmate Bhashan Singh, who is known through the synecdoche of his village, Toba Tek Singh. In incoherent but increasingly anxious rants, we sense Toba Tek Singh’s terror that the inmate transfer will forever separate him from his ancestral home. Permanently divorced from the social relations that rationalize the partition,  Toba Tek Singh ultimately falls dead in the no-mans-land between the two newly-formed countries.

Manto was known for closely-observed and sympathetic portrayals of marginalized subjects. Like other writers we might describe as “modernist,” Manto used new literary techniques to explore psyches at the edge (c.f. Davidson 2017).  “Phundane” (Tassels), for example,  traces the perspective of a woman slowly undone by alcoholism.

But here he shows no particular interest in the textured experience of mental illness or institutionalization. Madness (pagalpan), the madman/lunatic (pagal) and the institution of the madhouse (pagalkhana) appear in Manto’s story in classically “prosthetic” ways, shoring up ableist definitions of sense and its opposite. The mental asylum acts as a microcosm of the nation rather than a real place. It stands as a clear allegory for the governmental institutions through which the partition of the subcontinent was decided and carried out.

“Toba Tek Singh” has been read as a transparent allegory for the the arbitrariness, the bloodless detachment alternating with violent frenzy that characterized both the legal process of and the popular responses to partition. This strange mix of hyperrational and irrational, and the unpredictable movement between them, is what Manto uses “pagalpan” to signify. At the same time, Toba Tek Singh’s prophetic grumblings, “Upri gur gur di annexe di be-dhiyan o mung di daal of di lalteen” might also be seen to operate according to Ato Quayson’s typology of disability “inarticulable tragic insight,” in which  Toba Tek Singh’s madness is the only appropriate response to a senseless world. Indeed, Merrill has shown how successive English-languages translators have made various kinds of sense out of these phrases depending on their own orientation to the politics of the story. 

From a South Asianist perspective, where this figure and this story are both “classics,” it is high time for a critical “review” that accounts for Manto’s limited engagement with pagalpan as a social category. But for a more general audience of undergraduates in the United States, Manto is still an unknown writer. More often than not, Partition is an unknown event. These things must first be recovered before they have a chance to be reviewed.

It has never occurred to many of my undergraduate readers that geopolitical borders might not be natural and ancient, but were often produced randomly in the very recent past. That, in this case, the departing powers left everything from the location of the border to the date of independence intentionally obscure, suiting their own political ends while leaving millions in the lurch (Chester 2008). Who among us would not feel a loosening of their grasp on reality when the ground beneath their feet shifts overnight? For these students, there is still magic in Manto’s revelation: that the social experience of bordering can actually make you crazy.

And perhaps that craziness is not only an ill-conceived metaphor. Nowadays, when I teach “Toba Tek Singh,” I do so in tandem with Saiba Varma’s ethnographic essay “Where There are Only Doctors: Counselors as Psychiatrists in Indian-Administered Kashmir.” The title intentionally calls up that classic tome of rural health work, Where There Is No Doctor was written to “vernacularize” basic medical knowledge and help ordinary people in impoverished circumstances understand how to care for themselves and when to seek outside help. Varma’s use invokes a situation of improvisation outside of the “best practices” of normal medical training: in this case, the “epidemic of trauma” and limited services in an area of India riven by ongoing border conflict. As Colin Halverson showed in his contribution to “translating medicine,” Varma notes that “translating” trauma into a “public health crisis” makes it available for interventions from the medical community. It also enables the translation of Kashmiri categories of “pareshani” (troubles) and “mot” (madness) into biomedical diagnoses. The article then tracks the ambivalent, inconsistent medicalization of mental distress among both doctors and patients in Kashmir. 

Is there, I wonder, a way to talk about translation that brings Merrill’s and Varma’s analyses together? Certainly there is a strange commonality between Manto’s portrayal of the inmates of the pagalkhana and Varma’s informants at the psychiatric hospital. Both writers suggest a particular logic to be recovered in the way that ordinary people respond to the chaos produced in the toggle between hyper-rationality and irrationality in border conflict. Mental health is generally understood as a purely, well, mental state, and an an internal one. Varma, like Manto, emphasizes the role of physical location on mental health and its somatic manifestations. “Even people with minor heart and kidney problems routinely go to Delhi,” says one of her interlocutors, Dr. Ahmed. “Why do they go to Delhi? Because they don’t get better here. Tensions are high, so illnesses are also high.”  Border conflict is both the root of mental distress (even unto madness) and its “location.”


Chester, Lucy. “Boundary Commissions as Tools to Safeguard British Interests at the End of Empire.” Journal of Historical Geography, vol. 34, no. 3, July 2008, pp. 494–515. Crossref, doi:10.1016/j.jhg.2007.11.003.
Davidson, Michael. “Paralyzed Modernities and Biofutures: Bodies and Minds in Modern Literature.” The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability, edited by Clare Barker and Stuart Murray, 1st ed., Cambridge University Press, 2017, pp. 74–89. Crossref,
George, Rosemary Marangoly. Indian English and the Fiction of National Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Merrill, Christi. Riddles of Belonging: India in Translation and Other Tales of Belonging. Fordham University Press, 2008.
Varma, Saiba. “Where There Are Only Doctors: Counselors as Psychiatrists in Indian-Administered Kashmir: COUNSELORS AS PSYCHIATRISTS.” Ethos, vol. 40, no. 4, Dec. 2012, pp. 517–35. Crossref, doi:10.1111/j.1548-1352.2012.01274.x.

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