Contrary to what may be implied by the term “contemporary Indian literature”, India is not a geographic or political monolith. Rather, India is a composite of very strong regional identities cultivated by and among its provinces. Indian fiction is only now increasingly exploring these regional stories that have somewhat been eclipsed by the larger grand narrative of the idea of India. Anirudh Kala’s Two and a Half Rivers is a debut novel about the region of Punjab in India that works brilliantly as a voice reflecting the diversity, and even conflict, within that idea of India.
Indian Punjab has been in the literary limelight or “darklight” for the representation of the violence and trauma it has undergone since the partition of the subcontinent. It stands out as a region that stands testimony to the human costs of political fissures. In Two and a Half Rivers, the Punjab story gets a macro view of all things the region has been suffering from—the casteist violence, crime and law and order issues, religious extremism, a separationist movement funded by the Sikh diaspora in the West, and consequences of the 1984 violence against the Sikhs at the hands of the government.
Set in the 1980s but stretching back to at least a hundred years at various points in the story to thread the different strands of problems the region faces today, it is a novel with two voices. One voice speaks of the lives of three characters—a doctor and a couple (Bheem and Shamsie)—who are caught up in the chaos unleashed from the socio-political turmoil that have turned Punjab into a hellhole. The other voice is also that of the doctor but its texture is not that of a story or action but that of commentary drawn from news reports, current affairs, and the history that informs these affairs. While the first voice puts a human face to the tragedy of things as they are, the second voice is a narrative of context to the tragedy. The coming of the two together in Kala’s rendition comes across as if Kala were attempting to give a contemporary and postcolonial twist to John Steinbeck’s character-and-times approach in The Grapes of Wrath.
The doctor is a patient being treated for depression and his bizarre reaction to everything around him is a commentary on the fact that it is the times indeed that are insane. His conversations with his psychiatrist are a case in point:
Imagine if some other patient had come to me for the first time today, and said he felt anxious, had palpitations, and worried that he might die whenever he goes out. Earlier, I would have diagnosed him with Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia, prescribed him medication and reassured him. I would have told him he could not die out of the blue, when he had no physical illness… Now, I cannot do it. Panic Disorder would sound so much of a fraud, because these days perfectly healthy people go out for a walk in a park and die. Totally out of the blue! Without having any illness!… Before this, if a patient said that he feared he would be taken away by the police, I would tell him that he was paranoid. That there was no reason to worry since he had done nothing wrong. Now I cannot do that, because the police is in fact taking away people, even those who have done no wrong. So, tell me what do I tell him?’
The doctor has his own brush with the crazy system: the police who would not do anything to find his car stolen by the terrorists and who are ready to torture him on suspicion of aiding the terrorists.
Bheem and Shamsie are childhood sweethearts who share the fate and humiliation of being born in lower-caste families. They attempt to escape the burden of their background in search of a decent livelihood but are caught up in the conflict of being lower-caste outsiders in the Punjabi society and as “outsiders” in other regions of India. They run out of options in their attempts to survive — as a wedding orchestra company, and as dancer and bouncer in a dance bar, as trusted managers of a dance bar. The two characters live the paranoia that the doctor finds himself discussing with his psychiatrist. While the doctor’s story is bizarre, theirs is unbearable.
It is the second voice explaining the history—and even geography—of Punjab that helps in making sense of the lives of the three characters.
Geography first: the name of the novel is a take on the region. Punjab, which means the land of five rivers, is only “half a Punjab” with just “two and a half rivers” left to it since the partition. Kala makes an audacious attempt to explain the “freak arrangement” that contemporary Indian Punjab is:
The original Punjab (let us call it P-1) was divided in 1947 at the time of the Partition of India. Pakistan got the bigger chunk and the rest, say P-2, became the Indian Punjab. This, as historians would tell us, also contained the future states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. Shimla was the capital till 1960, while a new capital for P-2 designed by a French architect was being built. The location of that capital was based on pragmatic considerations that it would be roughly central for all the areas in P-2, which extended from the HImalayas in the north to the dusty plains bordering Delhi in the south.
However, barely six years after the P-2 government had moved into its new capital, Chandigarh, it was time for another split.
The second split was self-inflicted. Some Sikh leaders wanted a state of their own. Since they could not have asked for a religion-based state in a secular country, they used the pretext of language. They projected themselves as leaders of all Punjabis, which they were not. Nor were they leaders of all Sikhs for that matter. But stridently vociferous they certainly were. There were protests and hunger strikes. They stopped trains, burnt buses, and held seminars in the gleaming conference rooms of their new camptial with maps of P-2 and pointed at the hills in the north and the area around Delhi in the south, and asked, ‘Why are those people with us? They do not speak Punjabi, do they?’…
The leftover rump (let us call it P-3), the current Punjab at the time of this story, had its capital not just outside the boundaries of P-3, but also under another government. A capital in exile became the seat of a government in exile of P-3.
It gets weirder and increasingly macabre with each turn in the game among the religious extremists, the criminals, the police and the terrorists-turned-police-helpers-turned-criminals. As a result of all the chaos, dead bodies begin to surface in the river that the doctor can see from the window of his house. In a very moving moment in the novel, the senselessness of all that haunts this half-a-Punjab becomes clearer and one understands that it is the region as a whole that is the subject and the character of the novel. The river carrying the dead seems to be “a bloody Louvre” of some sorts: with a million dead at one go during the Partition, the corpses also contain blacker bodies that are
the works of Persians, Mongols, Greeks, and Afghans. This is the route invaders have taken since the beginning of time… this river of mine has been busy for thousands of years.
It helps to read Kala’s novel in the context of new writing about regions within the political and geographical landscape of India—gradually challenging the nation-centredness of the Indian fiction that since Midnight’s Children has come to be associated with a preoccupation with all things located in a scope far above and beyond the regional. It is with such writings that Indian fiction is coming home to its roots.