Multifaceted genius Gulzar’s enriching experience as a scriptwriter gives him an advantage when writing a novel: he is able to create a number of realistic characters and, what’s more, move easily from one story to another within a single volume as he does in Do Loag. But these are not separate stories. Most of them are linked together.
The setting is Gulzar’s beloved Punjab and the time period is Partition. Smeared in bloodshed and the uprooting of millions, the upheaval has haunted the novelist as indeed it has many who went through the calamity 71 years ago. Most of them are no more, but even their descendants — particularly their children — have not been able to shrug off what their parents or grandparents narrated to them.
It seems Gulzar has borrowed some of the plots as well as some of the characters from real life. His command over prose is amazing. He paints vivid pictures and infuses life in his dramatis personae. His narration, of silence broken by the sound of Hindus and Sikhs walking in a single file in the dead of night and the viewing of the heart-rending scene by Muslims who feel helpless against rioters, makes one feel as if one is a witness to the poignant moment. The scene could have been set in any part of Punjab, but the writer confines the story to Campbellpur, so named by the British. Thirty-one years after the colonial powers left the subcontinent, the town regained its original name, Attock.
Gulzar’s first novel is set in his beloved Punjab and traces familiar themes of grief, senseless violence and displacement during Partition
Gulzar describes Campbellpur as a coat with several pockets, which is what one can say about most towns also.
Back to the novel’s characters. There is a man called Fauji, but not because he had anything to do with the army. It’s just that he wears a second-hand military coat which he acquired years ago. Except for its shiny metallic buttons, every square inch of the garment is faded. The novelist does not reveal Fauji’s religion except towards the end of the first half of the novel when one learns that he is a Muslim. His best friend is Lakhbeera, a Sikh who runs a roadside dhaaba. Fauji spends most of his waking hours in the modest restaurant-bar, drinking country liquor and eating fried liver.
Two other bosom buddies are Master Fazal, vice principal of a government school, and a teacher in the school called Kartar Singh. When Master Fazal infuses anti-colonial feelings among his students and they raise a slogan in favour of the freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose, the principal, an Englishman, has him arrested on the fabricated charges of involvement in making bombs. The vice principal is sacked and subjected to what appears to be unending lashes on his naked back.
When Kartar appears on the scene, he is just not able to see his friend’s agony. He covers him and takes the brunt of the lashes on his own body. This is too much for the crowd comprising Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. They invade the ground and set Master Fazal free. However, this is not the end of Fazal’s sufferings — he loses his job and starts giving tuitions, but his earnings are nowhere near the salary that he used to get. Kartar Singh quietly pays the school fees of his friend’s children.
Fazal, an incurable optimist, is often heard saying that a mountain can be split into two, but people will remain one unit. When someone queries, “If the country is divided where would Lahore go?” Fazal reminds you of Saadat Hasan Manto’s classic short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’, when he answers, “Lahore will stay where it is.”
Another character in the novel is a truck driver known by the registration number of his vehicle, “paintees chhattees” [35-36]. He brings news from different villages and towns, not always correct, about the rift between the two communities — Muslims on one side and Hindus and Sikhs on the other. He thus adds fuel to the fire.
Rai Bahadur, an affluent Hindu who has a palatial bungalow and is used to a luxurious life, is forced to huddle on the truck Fauji has hired to take his chum Lakhbeera safely across the newly carved border. Most refugees consoled themselves by hoping to return to their homes once the riots ended; this is illustrated by Rai Bahadur asking his wife if she has brought the keys to their house. She nods her head in the affirmative.
On the way to India, the truck full of refugees stops at a deserted house to get some water to drink. There they find two young girls who were locked by a Sikh rapist and raped for days. A kind Pathan requests Fauji to take the girls, Sanjeet and Manjeet, away, but he is also afraid that their tormentor will hold him responsible for their escape. Fauji informs him that the man who had employed him would have escaped from what is now Pakistan.
On the last leg of their journey, Fauji finds that two armed Sikhs have blocked the road. They have run out of fuel. Fauji hands them a canister when they promise they will return the container half full. But they empty it, much to Lakhbeera’s rage. He goes to tackle them, but is shot to death before they drive away. A helpless Fauji is driven to total despair. He leaves the truck and its passengers and disappears into the wilderness. The remaining refugees join a procession which is walking towards the border.
In most works of fiction about Partition, the narrative ends with the people crossing the border and seeking refuge in camps, but in Do Loag, a new chapter narrates their ordeal once they are in another country. At times it is heart-wrenching, such as the moment when it is discovered that one of the sisters had conceived a child when she was raped by her co-religionist. The kind, matronly woman who takes the girls under her wing is told that the father of the child was killed during the riots. The story ends with the young mother killing her infant son. She ends up in a solitary cell.
Gulzar picks up the threads of different characters who had migrated from Pakistan. Some of them are exploited by those who were supposed to offer them refuge. Their fate is no different from those who had moved in the opposite direction. In this context, do loag — two people — become one.
The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of four books, including Tales of Two Cities
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 12th, 2018