There is so much to come away with from Anirudh Kala’s novel, Two and a Half Rivers. It is a moving account of the caste system, loneliness, and mental health, and even though the books is set against the backdrop of the “Punjab problem”, it is clear that at the heart of all the stories it narrates is a search for a space for oneself. That space could be a nation for a people, acceptance as an equal, freedom and a feeling of emancipation that financial independence brings, or just simple empathy. However, it is one word from this novel that is going to stay with me for quite some time now: “disbelong”.
Two and a Half Rivers is set in the (Indian) Punjab, literally the land of five rivers – a situation Kala explains quite ingeniously by dividing the original Punjab into three parts – P1, P2, and P3 – and showing how P3, the Indian state of Punjab, is left with just two-and-a-half of those five rivers. The action takes place sometime in the 1980s, at the peak of the Khalistani movement, the subsequent militancy in Punjab, and the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Kala tells the intertwined stories of three people affected by the events that unfold: a doctor, recently divorced and suffering from depression, who belongs to a caste high enough to enable him to “hate identities”; and a young Dalit couple, Gurshamsheer and Bheem, and the rewards this society has for them for belonging to a caste where they cannot even claim to hate identities. Bheem’s father was a Communist and Bheem was named for BR Ambedkar.
The word “disbelong” appears in the context of an ancestor of Gurshamsheer’s trying to escape his caste and the accompanying humiliation – and failing in his endeavour. This is the part where Kala’s strength in recounting history and juxtaposing it against current events comes to the fore, setting the stage for a visceral, heart-rending read.
He recounts the dilemma of the men from the Chamar caste who had joined the British Indian army so that they might shed “their Dalit ancestry” but the British, holding the opinion that “ethnicity-based battalions fought better because of the sense of belonging so created,” set up a separate Chamar Regiment. It perhaps escaped the British that “while the Dogras, Sikhs, Jats, and Gorkhas (who had regiments named after them) had wanted to belong,” the Chamars could not, as belonging would only give them further humiliation – hence, the desire to disbelong.
Another aspect of the caste situation in the Punjab is shown through the history of a dera (commune), where faith and an eye for business somewhat diluted the notion of caste. The dera was supposed to be “at least one hundred years old, perhaps older” and had evolved from the mazaar of a Sufi singer which was founded by three men whose identity would by default be considered alien: two Muslims and a Hindu from the Chamar caste.
Over the years, through Partition and other events in the history of Punjab, through the massacre of Muslims and the exodus of others to Pakistan, Gopal Chamar – a progeny of the first Chamar man from the mazaar days – became the head of the dera. He adopted the name Guru Gopal Ram and became so powerful that the followers of the dera called him Mahaprabhu.
Caste and communes
The sections about the dera are quite in contrast to the situation faced by the men from the Chamar Regiment of the British Indian Army. The prowess of the latter in the battlefield, even the fact that they chose to lay down their lives, was perhaps not enough for them to be seen as equal to others.
On the other hand, so powerful was the faith associated with the dera that its followers – from all over the world, from every community, religion, and caste – did not question (or were perhaps not even bothered by) the fact that the man they revered could be of a caste lower than theirs. Why didn’t caste matter for the dera (or, rather, when it came to who ran a dera or how a dera was run) when mattered nearly everywhere else?
Despite the unfairness of the entire situation, the dera still gave hope of being an equalising space, cutting through origins and background. For example, Gurshamsheer and Bheem were assured of a place in the dera after they being turned away wherever they went. However, as Bheem said about the dera, “This place is even worse than communism, because while there the centre is an ideology, here it is a man, a man like you and me.” The all-accepting façade of the dera just crumbled and what remained was the overpowering aura of a man who may have created the commune for reasons not exactly benevolent.
The doctor’s situation is a study in loneliness – or abandonment, or indifference – or maybe a study of the system. Eager to leave his past behind, he chose to stay in a “small house on the beaten down road along the bank of Satluj, miles away from any city, or for that matter, from any village” and was, at regular intervals, picked up both by the police and the militants, each side accusing the doctor of being an ally of the other.
On one occasion, the doctor was picked by the police and kept in custody for a period that could have been either “[two] days or two weeks”, something he was unable to understand because of his depression and deteriorating mental health. There was no one to look out for him except his milkman and his psychiatrist.
The section about the doctor’s detention was harrowing to read, but that is how Two and a Half Rivers is. Even though I am familiar with caste discrimination and the components mentioned in this novel – Chamar women employed to clean Jat houses but not cook in their kitchens, Chamar boys made to clean the houses of their high-caste teachers without pay, etc – there is just so much more this book has to say. There is mental health, there is isolation – each of which is timely and vital, be it the 1980s or the 2020s. Anirudh Kala’s novel is one to be read and mulled over, because images from this novel are – like the word “disbelong” – going to stay on in the mind for quite a long time.
Two and a Half Rivers, Anirudh Kala, Niyogi Books.