A Reading: Anirudh Kala’s “The Unsafe Asylum : Stories of Partition and Madness”, Speaking Tiger Books


“Two or three years after the 1947 partition, it occurred to the governments of India and Pakistan to exchange their lunatics in the same manner as they had exchanged their criminals. The Muslim lunatics in India were to be sent over to Pakistan and the Hindu and Sikh lunatics in Pakistan asylums were to be handed over to India. It was difficult to say whether the proposal made any sense or not.”
                                           Opening lines of ‘Toba Tek Singh’, a short story by Saadat Hasan Manto (1955)

Anirudh Kala in his recent collection of short stories The Unsafe Asylum : Stories of Partition and Madness has once again triggered the same non logistical implications of partition that Saadat Hasan Manto evoked through the above mentioned sentence several years ago. Partition had hardly led to any single positive outcome except for few politicians who surprisingly defended the rational side of it. It yielded into the nightmare that brought communal riots, mass casualties, genocide and a colossal wave of migration. Religion incited separation, both of land and people, with Muslims migrating towards Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs towards India. Since then, the sense of abomination that partition created has been chronicled in many fictional and non-fictional narratives. Similarly, Anirudh Kala has tried to lay bare the narratives of the forced bartering of the mental patients and also the reciprocal role of partition in creating madness.

Dr Iqbal Junaid Hussain, a Deputy Medical Superintendent of the Lahore Mental Hospital is on his night duty, aided by two earlier inmates of the hospital, Fateh Mohammed and Rulda Singh. Fattu and Rulda are inseparable friends since long and are living in the hospital premises as they have not been received by any of their relatives after their discharge. Dr Iqbal, three years after partition, is told to make a directory of the Hindu and Sikh patients of the hospital as now it is the time to disown them and make spaces for their muslim counterparts from India. It has hinted towards the separation of Fattu and Rulda as well. The story shifts almost thirty-years afterwards where Dr. Iqbal’s son Asif, in search of the lost history of his father, unfolds many layers that Dr. Iqbal left unanswered. However, in the meantime, Fattu and Rulda will surprise the readers at many points with their sanity to understand the real scenario and will compel them to question the real sanity of the people living outside of the asylum.

The position that the character Prakash Kohli carries is of seminal value. He works as a linking thread between other characters and is the only person to put loose the tight edges of the narratives bit by bit. In the story of “Partitioning Madness”, we get to know about Rulda’s terrible journey from Lahore Mental Hospital to the Amritsar Mental Hospital only when Rulda narrates it to Prakash. During his first visit to Lahore, Prakash realizes his keen connection with the place as he discovers the story of his “Belly Button” after meeting with the midwife Rasheeda, with whom he spent the first forty days of his infancy. Later, Prakash gets acquainted with a Pakistani psychiatrist, Dr. Asif Junaid Hussain and during the night visit to the Lahore Mental Hospital with Asif he meets Fattu who has turned into “the mad prophesier”. After talking to Fattu Prakash realized that Fattu is still inseparable from Rulda.

Prakash’s sense of curiosity as a psychiatrist and his proximity to the land leads him to be a frequent visitor to Dr. Asif in Lahore who has now become his lifelong friend. During one such visits, he encounters a lawyer named Juffer who is still struggling to come out of the emotional wound (in shape of a ruined love life and lost identity) that partition bestowed upon him. Prakash, being both an Indian psychiatrist and a regular visitor to the Lahore Mental Hospital, provides the readers with the madness stories of both the sides of the border and it is remarkable to know how there is no essential line of demarcation that in any way makes pakistani patients different from the Indian ones or vice versa. Interestingly, we have both the Indian and the Pakistani perspectives on the life-shuttering consequences of Partition. It were only few mental patients, including Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, who survived the exchange, Prakash realizes.

The Indian perspective is reflected in the stories “Folie A Deux” and  “Love During Armistice” where Partition continues to cast a malevolent effect on the psyches of Prakash’s patients. A middle-aged woman’s frightful dream fantasy, of being chased by a group of religious zealots, is transferred to almost all the family members one by one. The delusion kills the entire family. Similarly, a young school-going boy Brij Bhushan dreams of his romantic conversations with Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of Pakistan’s President to whom he frequently writes love letters in school. His madness grows to such extent that he is at last admitted to the Amritsar Mental hospital. In “Sita’s Bus”, the story of the conversion of a woman (who lives in Sialkot, Pakistan) is providing a Pakistani perspective. Harpreet is twice deserted by her helpless partners and at last her sensitive human emotion is charred to death in the flames of Partition. The anecdote of Pakistani spy in “A Spy Named Gopal Punjabi” is also not an isolated one.

Anirudh Kala has seamlessly weaved his anecdotes into the bigger narratives of Partitions that has no longer been limited to the only historical event of 1947. The notion of partition has a larger context in contemporary world where the prevalent extremism and hatred around can incite partition in no time, as witnessed in the last story of “Rulda’s Discharge”. At the question of his mother, Prakash also wonders if Partition can happen again. But the regret is that we are promoting partition without thinking about its inescapable consequences as represented in stories “Refugees”, “Three Passports” and “Smart Aleck”.

Apart from these, Anirudh Kala’s  The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of partition and Madness is a timely literary invention at an hour when the working of asylums, shelter houses, monasteries and religious convents has come under the scanner and entered into the larger terrain of public discourse across the nation. Being a psychiatrist Anirudh Kala has explored the inevitable role of the social climate in forming a group called ‘mental patients’. Are they patients in the real sense of the term? Are they mentally incapable of comprehending and observing things and people around them as people generally believe? Do these mental hospitals create a more crippling tensions in them than treating them properly? Are the inmates of asylums given the freedom of expression which was denied to them in the outside world? Readers will surely get to know the answers.

While portraying the Institutional culture, Erving Goffman in his book Asylums asserts that the common feature of the most of the “total institutions” is to serve the ritualistic function of ensuring that the inmates as well as the staffs should know their function and role inside the institutions. Similarly while portraying the insides of the mental hospitals as seen in “The Diary of a Mental Hospital Intern” and in other stories as well, Anirudh Kala has addressed some predictable and regular behaviours that mental patients are assigned to learn and maintain further.

Indeed, Anirudh Kala’s stories are working on multiple levels and have layers of contemporary relevance. Alongside being narratives of partition, these stories can be read as captivity narratives or as the narratives depicting cross-border relationship or also as  stories unveiling the scandals of Institutional culture.This alarming collection of interlinked stories is sharp and lucid in approach and is eminently readable.

Prity Barnwal

An avid reader and researcher, Prity is pursuing her doctorate degree in English from IIT (ISM) Dhanbad.
She can be reached at pritybarnwal93@gmail.com

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