HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksReview: Two and a Half Rivers by Anirudh Kala

Review: Two and a Half Rivers by Anirudh Kala

We grew up reading the history of the losses of the Partition of the Punjab. Anirudh Kala’s novel Two and a Half Rivers tells the story of the Punjab’s immense losses since Partition. Making good use of his own training as a psychiatrist, he spins a yarn that weaves together the various political and cultural schisms that have affected the north-western province and its people with a variety of ailments. Civilizational loss and guilt seems to weigh heavy in the air. This is personified in the title itself, where the Indian Punjab, once a land of the mighty five rivers, retains only two and a half — Sutlej, Beas and often only one bank of the Ravi, with Jhelum and Chenab passing into Pakistani Punjab without touching its Indian counterpart. Indian Punjab is recognised as a pale shadow of itself, having been internally partitioned to give way to Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, becoming perhaps the only province of India to have its capital outside of its boundaries, in Chandigarh, and governed by Delhi. Independence for India meant a rule from its heart, its dil, Delhi, but the dirge here is sung for a state ruled from outside of it. Its rulers untouched, like the British were, by the problems of the territory they rule over.

202pp, ₹395; Niyogi Books

The novel gives us three main characters whose psyches seem to be affected not only by their personal lives but their social and political fates, their civilizational losses in this divided land. The narrator is a depressed doctor who has shifted to an isolated house on the banks of a river that sees bodies flow in it during the Khalistan movement. He is kidnapped twice, once by the police, and once by the militants; his house is used without his knowledge as a hideout. This is everyday life for Punjabis in the early nineties.

One of his patients is the second of the three prime protagonists, Shamsie, a young village Dalit girl, who grows up and runs away with the third main character, her childhood friend and soulmate, Bheem. They leave their caste-ridden village for Bombay (as Mumbai was still called) to fulfil her dreams of becoming a dancer. Bheem, like his original namesake, is well-built and becomes a bouncer, but misses singing in the fields and at the canals.

The Beas at Kullu. The Beas rises in the Himalayas and flows through Himachal Pradesh to Punjab. (Shutterstock)
The Beas at Kullu. The Beas rises in the Himalayas and flows through Himachal Pradesh to Punjab. (Shutterstock)

But it is not just Punjab that is conflict-ridden or full of social ills, regional nationalism catches up with Shamsie and Bheem in Maharashtra and they are forced to return to Punjab. Still, it is high militancy and counter-insurgency time there. Shamsie and Bheem continue to face the brunt of sexism, casteism, and wanton violence that they had tried to flee with limited success.

Kala has his eye trained on all the important social phenomena of his land, and the powerful deras or communes of various spiritual leaders do not escape his ken. Shamsie and Bheem enter one such with the promise of relative peace. But we are well introduced to the dera’s internal workings, its murderous hypocrisies and corruption, its power over the people and sway over the state.

The insurgency is questioned and critiqued with interesting if not radically innovative devices. The doctor sleeping under pills has complex dreams of bodies floating in the river, giving the text a surrealistic texture. His erstwhile Welsh colleague, Enid, from his time in the UK doing post-mortems, guides his analysis of the bodies in his dream. The insurgency is not the first time that bodies have flown in the Punjab. Rivers of blood have flown in living memory at Partition in these parts, and possibly since the earliest of human civilisations in the region, and Enid deduces this in the dream from the long decomposition of some of the bodies.

The obsession of Punjabi writers with their rivers and death floating upon them is not unique to Kala, of course. Soni Mahewal, where Soni swims daily across the Chenab to meet her lover Mahiwal, using a pot as a float, until her jealous relatives sabotage the pot so that she drowns in the river, is one of the four famous tragic love stories of the Punjab. Fikr Taunsvi, the satirist, called his Partition memoir, Chhata Darya, or The Sixth River, adding the river of blood and fire, he says, to the five of Punjab.

Author Anirudh Kala (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Anirudh Kala (Courtesy the publisher)

Kala’s tragic novel is not just premised on the momentary violence in the Punjab of the nineties, but of a land divided many times over, living a colonial legacy, in a society fraught with prejudice, where his protagonists struggle against the zeitgeist, most often in vain. His Punjab, unlike that of the Sufi-Bhakti greats before Partition, is no longer the grand province of flowing golden fields, it is at best a bowdlerised version of that former glory. Jerry Pinto, who calls Kala the Graham Greene of Punjab, is not far off the mark, as Kala captures adroitly the present of our tragic province in dis-/continuity with its past.

Maaz Bin Bilal is the translator of Fikr Taunsvi’s The Sixth River: A Journal from the Partition of India. He teaches at O P Jindal Global University.

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