The Assignment written by Saadat Hasan expresses the fear, the agony and the pain of those who have experienced the chilling sensation of communal riots.
The Assignment is set against the backdrop of Partition – a period that saw various unnatural happenings and intolerable sufferings. People felt the pain and the agony but they did not relent and humanity was lost forever. The situation was very grim and people lost faith on others. Like the general view of Amritsar, the retired judge Mian Abdul, had a strong feeling that the riots could not last long. He was absolutely confident that the thunderstorm would blow over and things would return to normal soon and this gave him the assurance that there was no reason to worry. And so though the Muslims living in Hindu vicinities began to depart towards safer places and Hindus in Muslim majority areas followed the same, Mian Sahib decided not to move his family. With his small family comprising of a daughter of seventeen, a son of eleven and a servant in his seventies, Mian Sahib stuck to his obstinate decision of not moving to any safer destination.
His daughter Sughra was apprehensive of the situation as from the topmost floor of their three-storey building she had seen fires raging everywhere followed by the ringing of the fire engines. She had seen “too many fires in too many places” and the “sky was always lit by conflagrations like giants spitting out flames” and has understood the gravity of the situation. The nights had become frightening with slogans like “Allaho Akbar, Har Har Mahadev” but Sughra did not express her fear to her father as she did not want to shatter his confidence which assured that there was no reason for anxiety. Finally when even the power and water supplies were snapped, she expressed her nervousness to her father and apologetically suggested to him to move to a Muslim dominated area. But nothing could move Mian Sahib‘s unwavering resolution.
Things disproved Mian Sahib‘s predictions and the situation worsened day by day. During such a traumatic circumstance, Mian Sahib suffered a stroke and the family was in a state of distress. There was no doctor available as all the dispensaries and clinics were closed. Mian Sahib‘s condition deteriorated day by day and Sughra became so desperate that she even sent her small brother out to find some rescue. Having witnessed a blood drenched body Basharat returned immediately and Sughra was happy and thanked the almighty for his safe arrival. Sughra helplessly watched her ailing father, her young frightened brother and the useless seventy-year old servant who mainly kept himself to bed, coughing and fighting for breadth. Finally one day she couldn‘t keep her composer and burst out at the old servant criticizing him for being good for nothing. Later she felt very bad for her harsh words and when she went to his room with food he was nowhere to be found. The brother and the sister searched for him and Sughra prayed for his safe return, but he was gone forever.
The festival of Id was just a day away and Sughra remembered the past celebrations that they used to have. Suddenly there was a knock at the door and though they felt it might be Akbar, their servant, they realized that it was not he but someone else. When Basharat came and said that it was a Sikh Mian Sahib immediately understood that it must be Gurmukh Singh whom Mian Sahib had done a great favour by getting him acquitted in a false legal suit. From that day onwards Gurmukh Singh had felt indebted to Mian Sahib and every Id he had shown his gratitude by bringing some homemade food for the family. But this time it was not Gurmukh Singh but his son Santokh Singh, assigned to carry out this errand by his departed father. It was to fulfill his father‘s farewell wish that Santosh Singh had come all the way from his village to deliver the siwwaiyaan to Mian Sahib on the occasion of Id, as his father has always done to register his lifelong gratefulness.
Having fulfilled his paternal assignment, Santosh left the house. But outside the door he was surrounded by four veiled men, sarcastically wanting to know whether he had appropriately carried out the errand his father had entrusted upon him; whether the token of gift from his father has been successfully delivered. With burning oil torches with cans of kerosene and explosives they set themselves ready to carry out their job.
It is considered as one of the most remarkable stories of Manto which brings alive the most traumatic happenings during the Partition of the subcontinent and its aftermath. Undoubtedly the actual tension and violence is not portrayed but the hint of the tragedy is so well depicted that the reader‘s imagination knits the unsaid words into a profound connotation.