Realism Books

Madness in the air: Review of Anirudh Kala’s ‘Two and a Half Rivers’

In the 1980s, the Congress’s desire for political gains in the Punjab region created a Frankenstein monster called the Khalistan movement. Its henchmen, whom Anirudh Kala calls “The Boys” — “warriors in a religious war” — in Two and a Half Rivers, started wreaking havoc. In a land whose wounds from Partition hadn’t yet healed, what followed was madness for which no one had any explanation. But fiction allows us the possibility of exploring reasons that reality often precludes. Two and a Half Rivers constitutes such an exploration.

Set in the wake of the Punjab insurgency, which lasted over a decade, Kala’s impeccably layered story has three principal characters: a Dalit couple, Shamsie and Bheem, and a psychiatrist in the middle of a marital separation.

Disturbed by personal and political crises, the psychiatrist, who is himself taking psychiatric help from a devout Christian, Dr. Mustafa, starts living outside Chandigarh. His regular patient, Shamsie, a dancer, returns to the insurgency-stricken land from Bombay, where she had secured a job in a dance bar. She and her boyfriend Bheem are driven out of Bombay by the unruly behaviour of the “Maratha Army”.

You smell not only the gunpowder in the air but also the stench of religious fanaticism. Indeed, one cannot be distinguished from the other, just as you cannot untangle the policeman from the hooligan in the ensuing bloodshed.

As Dr. Mustafa observes, reality itself is losing contact with reality in the quest for an imagined homeland, which one of the characters describes as the P-3 region — a Punjab with two and a half rivers: Satluj, Beas, and half of Ravi. But the rest of India quickly labels the unrest as the ‘Punjab Problem,’ “as if it were a stubborn crossword puzzle.”

While most of us know about the insurgency, the discriminations against Dalits in Punjab are hardly discussed. Be it in the description of the vehras — courtyards of “low-caste dwellings,” which are constructed in such a way that Jat homes get unpolluted sunlight — or in the record of the multiple ways in which caste identity is used to inflict violence on people, Kala’s narrative renders voice to the voiceless, expertly weaving together the personal and the political.

In more ways than one, Kala is a natural heir to the acclaimed Punjabi novelist, Gurdial Singh.

Two and a Half Rivers; Anirudh Kala, Olive Turtle, ₹395

The reviewer is a Delhi-based queer writer. Instagram/ Twitter: @writerly_life

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 1:26:05 PM |

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