Review: Tales of 1947

Guest post by Qurratulain Zaman


“Pakistan ek aisi jagah hai jahaan gale katne wale usture bante haiN,” an inmate in the hospital tells Bashan Singh when he asks, “What is Pakistan?”

Toba Tek Singh is one of the most celebrated works of Saadat Hasan Manto. Set in post-partition Lahore’s Central Mental Hospital, it is the story of an asylum inmate called Bashan Singh, whom everyone calls ‘Toba Tek Singh’ after the town he hails from.

Photo credit: Abeer Shaukat

Photo credit: Abeer Shaukat

Manto’s story was recently adapted for the London stage in a production called Tales of 1947 – a play in Urdu, Punjabi and English performed by students of the School of Oriental Arts and Sciences (SOAS). Directed by Marta Schmidt, a Polish student in her final year of BA Politics and South Asia, the production combined music, dance and shadow play. The play premiered in March this year and due to its tremendous success it was performed again recently to a jam-packed audience.

The narrative begins a few days after the partition of the subcontinent. Indian and Pakistani authorities have decided to divide among themselves, like many other things, the lunatics living in the Lahore asylum on the basis of their religion.

Photo credit: Elif Sipahioglu

Photo credit: Elif Sipahioglu

Toba Tek Singh and his fellow inmates are not happy with the decision. Wanting to stay together in Lahore, they cry and fight with each other and call their Gods names for dividing them. A Sikh lunatic asks another Sikh, “Sardarji, why are we being deported to India? We don’t even know their language.”

Bashan Singh of Toba Tek Singh escapes the asylum with a sense of confusion and displacement. He asks everyone he meets, “Where is Toba Tek Singh? In Pakistan or in India?” He encounters different people on his way and witnesses the turmoil faced by them during the partition. One of these people is Bahadur Singh, who shares his memory of honour killings of women from his village. The narrative here is very touching. Bahadur recounts how the women of his village aged between 10 and 40 were killed by their own brothers or fathers to save their honour. The families feared that the Muslims would rape them or force them to convert.

Shadow play 1947

Photo credit: Elif Sipahioglu

This particular scene as enacted on stage was powerful and very emotional. As background music, Schmidt decided to use the song ‘Saada Chirya Da Chamba’, a famous Punjabi folk song popularized by the late Surinder Kaur and Prakash Kaur, which is traditionally sung during the formal departure of a bride from her parents’ home. In the play it was employed to depict the departure of the women of Punjab to another world. The version sung for stage in Raag Churaksi by twin sisters Hernoor and Sukhman Grewal was very moving and highlighted the wider displacement and suffering of women during the partition of 1947.

Similarly, ‘Aj Akhan Waris Shah Nu’ a poem written by Amrita Pritam (1919-2005) was recreated by Amrit Kaur Lohia for a rape scene in the play. Amrit Kaur, the singer and music director of the play, is definitely a gifted young musician. Her pure, deep voice seemed to take the listener back in time.

Photo credit: Abeer Shaukat

Photo credit: Abeer Shaukat

Further into the play, Bashan meets Javed who has lost his lover Husna during the partition. Javed longs for her and cries day and night. Marta Schmidt re-enacted this scene on stage with a breathtaking semi-classical dance on ‘Husna’, a song by Piyush Mishra sung in Coke Studio India.

All the actors in the play were amateurs but their performance was exceptional. It was obvious that the subject really touched them. Like the characters of the story, they too were of different backgrounds: Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Zain Haider, a British-Pakistani who played a Hindu, expressed the troupe’s wish to travel with the play to India and Pakistan. “We would like to go to the colleges and schools in Pakistan with Tales of 1947,” he said.

At a time when Manto’s work is being rediscovered in Pakistan, this innovative interpretation by an excellent British student troupe could definitely serve as an inspiration.


Q. Zaman is a Pakistani journalist. She divides her time between Bonn and London. She tweets @natrani.

The Reading Revolution Starts Here – DWL Readers’ Club

by Farheen Zehra


Reading is a solitary activity, whether you’re doing it on a crowded beach, in an airplane, on a train, in a queue or curled up on your sofa at home. It’s only once you’ve pored over the book that you get the itch to share your excitement, disappointment or frustrations about the story. And for book aficionados, there is a certain high in having an intelligent conversation about a piece of literature.

Enter the DWL Readers’ Club. This is no ordinary book club – consider it a sort of reading movement. We’re coming across too many people who want to be great writers and barely any who want to be better readers. We’ve noticed that more and more people (including us) are falling back on the “I don’t have time to read” excuse. We’re fed up of hearing hours of detailed analysis of TV shows but scattered conversation on books. Don’t believe us? Next time you go to a regular social gathering, ask someone what they are reading these days, then ask them what they’re watching these days.

Our manifesto is simple – read more, read widely, read better, and learn from it. We want to become more critical readers and we want to use this to become better writers. If you’re an aspiring writer, then this will be especially useful for you because many of us practice the craft too. Many new writers search high and low for creative writing courses, not realizing that books are one of the best sources of both inspiration and technique. If you’re in Karachi, come over to the Readers’ Club meet and dissect plots, characters, writing styles, voice, pace, themes and more.

The Readers’ Club officially started as an offline DWL activity on 6th June 2013. A few of us met at The Second Floor (T2F) and talked about Nabokov, sci-fi novels and movie adaptations over tea and brownies. After throwing a few names around the table we finally decided to read ‘American Gods’, an award-winning novel by Neil Gaiman. Most of us had not read Gaiman before, so we welcomed this chance to push ourselves out of our reading comfort zones.

Besides making reading ‘fashionable’ again, we are using this platform to raise funds for Desi Writers Lounge. We will charge a small fee of Rs.200 per session which will go towards DWL’s various online and offline activities.

Our next meet is on 21st June, at the Roadside Café behind Boat Basin, at 7:00 pm. Come over and join us over a cup of tea for an hour or two of literary catharsis.

Review: ‘And the Mountains Echoed’ by Khaled Hosseini

Guest post by Hareem Atif Khan


‘Out beyond ideas

Of wrongdoing and right doing,

There is a field.

I’ll meet you there.’


And the Mountains Echoed‘And the Mountains Echoed’ begins with a Rumi quote. Khaled Hosseini keeps this promise and does indeed usher the reader into a field where there is no right and no wrong, where ‘cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same color.’ Many readers want to know: “How is this third novel different from his previous two?” Well, one big difference is that unlike the ‘Kite Runner’ and ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ there is no untarnished hero, no irredeemable villain. There is only life, and circumstance, and the reader is set up to ponder over rather than judge each character.

Part of Hosseini’s brilliance lies in the firmness with which he pulls together the strings of the Mashreq and Maghreb until, in flat defiance of Kipling’s prophecy, that twain finally meets. He uses English as the deft medium but the novel defies the classical western tradition of the ‘story arc’. That is, there is no simple “exposition, conflict and resolution”. Instead, from his very first chapter, Hosseini proceeds in the timbre of the ancient storytellers of the east, spinning many different tales, sometimes leaving the listener at the clutching throes of one before tumbling headlong into a totally different other. Of course the tales are connected. A character from one tale sometimes appears in another (as in the Ramayana or the Arabian Nights). And they all emerge from a common womb.

That womb is Afghanistan. Protagonists may spill in from Greece or spill out into France and America, but a merciless Kandahari wind blows through their lives wherever they are. Though it is about Afghanistan, this is not a book about war. In the voice of one of his characters, Hosseini explains: “I need not rehash for you the those dark days. I tire at the mere thought of writing it, and, besides, the suffering of this country has already been sufficiently chronicled…” The war may thunder on in the background but the real stories are of separation and pain, of sibling rivalry and forbidden love, of duty, identity and complicated parent-child relationships that span a lifetime.

The reader will meet leg-revealing, cigarette-smoking Nila, who rebelliously scratches down erotic poems with her pen and also Parwana, who bears none of the lightness that her name implies. The reader will meet humanitarians who rush in to heal Afghans from the war and watch how they manage, in the process, to heal themselves. Above all, the reader will question, whether a little girl whisked off to Paris or a little boy pampered in an ivory tower were better off than children who faced the poverty and war. As we can expect from life, and from the great literature that mimics it, there is never an easy answer.

Yes, it is possible to find flaws in ‘And the Mountains Echoed’ starting with the clumsiness of the book-title itself. Readers who are used to plots that provide instant gratification or satisfying resolutions will have a bone to pick with Husseini’s refusal to create neat little endings to the wounds he gashes open. The multiple sub-plots can feel distracting, especially to readers who prefer to finish their novels in one sitting. And of-course readers who dislike crying will be downright mortified. By the time she reached the last sentence, this reviewer had raw eyes.

How many stars for this book? As many as shine down on the deserts of Afghanistan.


(Hareem Atif Khan is a teacher and a curriculum expert who lives in Islamabad. She blogs at Follow her at @overtaketrucks.)