TWO, GULZAR’S FIRST NOVEL
Renowned for his poetry and films, Gulzar belongs to the generation of great writers who witnessed the Partition and worked in the Bombay film industry—Ismat Chughtai, Saadat Hasan Manto, and Bhisham Sahni among them.
It is fitting, therefore, that Two, Gulzar’s first novel, translated from the Urdu and also published in Devnagari as Do Log, is about the Partition and narrated as a series of vivid cinematic vignettes.
The story follows a group of Hindu and Sikh refugees being driven in a truck by Fauji, a Muslim, from their hometown of Campbellpur (now Attock in Pakistan) in the winter of 1946-47. Some have paid Fauji to drive them to safety. Others Fauji has taken on for personal or humanitarian reasons. But the main reason Fauji has undertaken this dangerous mission is to drive his best friend Lakhbeera to safety across the border—of course no one knows where or what the border is!
As the trip goes on, Gulzar offers vignettes from the varied pasts of the passengers and their families, some of whom are left behind. Towards the end, similar vignettes follow the survivors into the future, leading to the genocide of Sikhs following Indira Gandhi’s murder. For a short novel, Gulzar manages to cover a lot of ground, largely by employing a technique that is clearly cinematic.
“The roots of the Partition were buried deep, its branches reaching out,” writes Gulzar towards the end of the novel. In this sense, Two is not just a novel about history, home and refuge, but about a constant search for meaning.
Gulzar claims in an afterword that we have engaged with the Partition far less than others have engaged with the Holocaust or World War II. But this is not our main failing. In typical post-colonial fashion, we have found and blamed the usual suspects: the divide and rule policy of the British and the vested interests of some politicians. But we have not faced up to our own culpability.
Bad things happen not because they are instigated by others, but because enough of us want them to happen—and, even more, allow them to happen. This comes across in Gulzar’s moving novel from beginning to end. “If Fazal was being hounded [out of his birthplace] by a Verma or a Sharma,” he writes early in the book, “Rai Bahadur had a Rahim or Karim after him.” And in the end, a mother kills her son because he starts resembling his father—the man who raped her. It’s a warning to harken.
TWO by GULZAR HarperPerennial `399; pp 179