Writers on Art – The Art of the Word

Reading it, it struck me as strange that someone whose life is so centred around the power of words should have looked away from words. Was it just my great-aunt’s language that I thought wasn’t up to the challenge of conveying everything the letter symbolised, or was it language itself that falls short?

It is worth mentioning here that it’s widely believed that the greatest piece of writing – indeed, the greatest piece of art – created about Partition is a short story, called ‘Toba Tek Singh’, just a handful of pages long, by the Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto. The story is about the (and I’m using the language of the time) inmates of a lunatic asylum in the district of Toba Tek Singh, near Lahore. When Partition takes place, the lunatics must be divided between India and Pakistan. It ends with one of the inmates lying down in no man’s land, muttering nonsense words: ‘Upar di gur gur di annexe di be-dhiyana mung di daal of di Toba Tek Singh and Pakistan’. A rough translation would go: ‘Upstairs the rumbling the annex the heedlessness the lentils of Toba Tek Singh and Pakistan’. A man speaking nonsense words in a world where reality is beyond what words can convey – that is part of the effectiveness of this story. The Partition of word and meaning. The inability of language to make sense of what is going on, except through conveying senselessness.

Kamila Shamsie

Writers on Art – The Art of the Word




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