In 1955, when Manto published Toba Tek Singh , it pierced through the silences surrounding the transfer of a population that had no agency over its fate. In the wake of the millions who had dragged their lives across the bewildering borders of two newly formed countries, a few hundred in mental asylums hardly merited attention. Until Toba Tek Singh gripped the attention of both nations with its sheer aching absurdity, the mental asylums of Lahore and Amritsar were the last thing on the minds of a people reeling from the madness in their immediate presence. More than half a century later, one hopes there would be something groundbreaking in a novel that purports to dive deep into the subject of asylum transfers during the Partition. Anirudh Kala’s Unsafe Asylum falls completely flat on that count.

My primary grouse with the book is possibly its cover. When it declares that its subject is the Partition and madness with the telling, if clichéd, silhouette of a man’s head and a tunnel going into it, one expects to find more than a perfunctory engagement with the psychological impact of the divide. But the novel, despite its engaging structure, falls into the trap of writing for an easy read.

In Toba Tek Singh , the madness that afflicts the patients at a mental asylum is at once debilitating and empowering. Empowering because the patients undertake to understand what the Partition entails and what their role in the face of the impending uncertainty is. Manto acknowledges their personhood in more ways than Unsafe Asylum ever does. There is a familiarity and absurdity that perhaps had to do with Manto’s own struggle with his mental health. Bishan Singh’s refusal to be removed from his land is an exercise of self-will that none of Kala’s characters, barring one, is allowed. Instead, we are constantly led to its protagonist, the psychiatrist Prakash, whose interest in the Partition transfers is academic at best and disengaged curiosity at worst. The book begins promisingly, in a tone reminiscent of Khushwant Singh’s writing in Train to Pakistan .

We are introduced to the Lahore Mental Hospital, and its two recently discharged inmates Rulda and Fattu, who keep making cameo appearances in the book. But we learn nothing about these two characters beyond the rather melodramatic way in which they hold on to a friendship sans communication.

Fattu and Rulda are textbook madmen. But then there are all kinds of madnesses that the book showcases, rather like a museum artefact: ‘Look, don’t touch’. There is the madness of Ramneek Singh, who kills a man in a vengeful fit and is cursed to live with its guilt. There is the madness of Prakash’s own mother, who anxiously asks whether it is “partition time again” when the Khalistan movement grips Punjab. There is the madness of the Khalistani separatists. Then there is the inherited madness of a whole family that Prakash treats for shared delusions of being followed by rioters. Or the madness of the boy who writes love letters to Benazir Bhutto. These are the madnesses of an inherited trauma that permeates the book.

Prakash, however, is a tepid sutradhar for these stories. We move merely in an unfulfilling montage. The characters keep crossing the borders as if in a symbolic representation of the intertwined lives of these two nations. Their memories and traumas follow them from a land left behind, as Prakash’s life unfolds over three generations of witnessing and discovering the wounds ravaged by the divide. The exposition, however, is found wanting. We would not have begrudged Kala a couple of hundred more pages had he taken the trouble to emerge out of the familiar romanticising of India and Pakistan while looking aghast at their violent histories. We explore no lives, no character arcs keep us hooked. As soon as we discover one life that interests us, we have moved on to the next.

We instead keep wondering why we must witness Prakash’s son marrying a Pakistani woman and an immigration officer exclaiming at their interesting family with three different citizenships. Or why there is the story of a spy awkwardly thrust in what would otherwise stand perfectly well as a short story on its own, but is simply confusing, placed as it is towards the close of the book.

One cannot help but feel that Kala has done his work injustice. There is much to be explored in Unsafe Asylums . What indeed did happen to the nearly hundred patients in Pakistani asylums who allegedly died of cholera? What happened to those who had to live both with the guilt of murder and the grief of death? How did the violence of the Partition create collective psychoses that took entire families? Who were these few hundred people whose lives were taken over by the State? Where were their families?


Unsafe AsylumAnirudh KalaSpeaking TigerFictionRs 350


Kala raises all these questions but settles into the banal comfort of maudlin Partition fiction that refuses to challenge with conviction what is already known. When a book is written, one must ask, why. Is Unsafe Asylums important? Yes. But it is so wanting in fulfilling the expectations it raises that one wishes Kala would go back and begin all over again, and this time write a book that does its subject justice. What needed to be said about the Partition and the traumatic transfers of asylum patients was said in a single short story. Anything else must have the courage to devastate us with its knowledge.

Farah Yameen is an oral historian