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Review

A Sagacious Tale of Oppression & Turmoil

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Two and a Half Rivers

Author: Anirudh Kala

Publisher: Niyogi Books, 2021

How do we understand a land and its people? How do we look at its history, at a phase of turbulence which once ravaged the lives of its people? At the social structures rarely talked about? And how do we make sense of it? Can the perception be whole if only selective truths are voiced?

The Partition of India in 1947 had left Punjab with only two and a half rivers out of a total of five. From the early 1980s onwards, a state which had witnessed much violence and bloodshed at the time of Partition, began to be devastated by the spread of militancy again. This period of unrest spanning almost a decade was the time when common people, who had yet not recovered from the trauma of partition, faced the torment of not only terrorism but also counter insurgency. And though there are numerous reports on the violation of Human rights during counter insurgency in Punjab, both the Central and the State Governments have continually refuted such reports.

Two and a Half Rivers is a fictionalised account of those troubled years of Punjab through the lives of three main characters — a clinically depressed doctor, trying to take on life one day at a time, and Shamsie and Bheem, both Dalits, struggling to make their dreams a reality. Writing with keen perception, the author, Anirudh Kala, not only offers a striking account of the many ordeals that people went through that period and the solidarity which helped them keep afloat but also of the less addressed issue of oppression of lower castes and their sufferings.  

Kala is a psychiatrist by profession. His aim is to educate people about mental health and mental illness, focusing on eradicating stigma, labels, and prejudice. His debut fiction The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition and Madness was published in 2018. Two and a Half Rivers published by Niyogi Books is his second work of fiction.

In this novel, he juxtaposes the situation of state with that of the mental illness of the doctor who is also the narrator. As the fog of depression descends on his mind, the state is also veiled by the layers of sorrows and anxieties from which no escape seems visible. With the increase in terrorists activities, the rivers start filling with the dead again as if to devour those who had somehow survived the Partition. An increase in extortion, abduction and killing by the terrorists leads to the nabbing of common people on doubt by police. The custody, seldom resulting in the release of those apprehended. Jails become torture centres and those captured subjects of experiments for effective torturing. The unrest that follows compels Shamsie and Bheem to shift to Bombay in search of a peaceful life only to return back few years later in the aftermath of a crackdown on Dance bars.

Following the timeline of those difficult years, the author looks at the tragic events which made the ‘Punjab problem’ worse in succeeding years. He takes into account Operation Bluestar, the assassination of the Prime Minister (who he names as Durga), the pogrom of November 1984 and counter insurgency. The novel offers a commentary upon the inept tackling of the situation by the state including ruling dispensation and police. The narrator minces no words while observing that the State and Army had conveniently forgotten that there were to be a large number of pilgrims in the Golden Temple at the time of that operation as it was the celebration of the martyrdom day of a Sikh guru or that more common people began disappearing after the police chief announced incentives and rewards to curtail terrorism.

While the narrator narrowly escapes the custodial torture after being picked for alleged connection with militants, Bheem isn’t that lucky. His identity becomes the final noose around his neck. Shamsie suffers assault too, a punishment for escaping advances of an upper caste boy in her teenage. Whilst common people die and more disappear, Punjab is steeped in sorrow of losing loved ones from which only the tears of grief bring some respite. We are told that more than eight thousand young people have not come home, and never will.

With the poignant telling of this tale, the author also prompts the reader to ask why the lives of those from lower castes are far more easily dispensable, why are they inconsequential, why this malaise is so deeply ingrained in the minds of upper caste and why is it a normal way of life. In a religion which believes “Awwal allah noor upaya qudrat keh sab banday, aik noor toh sab jag upjaiya kaun bhale ko mande” (All humanity was born from a single divine light, and everybody is born equal. All are the children of nature, and no one is good or bad), how can there really be a discrimination based upon caste?

Sensitive is one word that can be best used to describe Kala’s writing. He writes not only from a place of awareness but perhaps also pain and anguish. His description of the distressed years of Punjab carries a rare sensitivity which warrants a deeper understanding of the place as well as its people. That he chooses to tell it through the lives of two Dalit characters, also bring forward his focus on the otherwise lesser talked about issue of caste discrimination in Punjab. The narrative voice is subtle and sometimes seems distant, which works well for the reason that it gives the narrative a sagacious tenor, making it compelling and very moving.

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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