In the course of his first-ever novel, the legendary Gulzar had to fight many demons. Some were infused into his prose while some he battled within the confines of his memory. The fictional account of a group of people crushed beneath the feet of the “arrogant, conceited history” that strode ahead with her head in the clouds after the news of the impending partition of India gained momentum, Two is also the much celebrated poet-writer and filmmaker’s attempt to try lay to rest the horrors of the cataclysmic event of 1947 that have haunted him ever since.
Two begins in Campbellpur, Pakistan, where words such as ‘border’, ‘refugee’ seep into the lexicon of people far removed from the politics of Delhi. It follows the lives of men, women, and children who find themselves in the confines of a truck that is headed for ‘Hindustan’ and even though they make it to the border, the journey that these souls set out on never ends. The narrative spans from the time when ‘Pakistan’ had begun to take shape in the minds of the people and tracks their odyssey till the summer of 1999 when Kargil witnessed the fourth time the two countries carved out of one came to blows.
Gulzar is not unaware of the fact that some would wonder why such a book and why now, but Two had been in the making for a long period. Gulzar sahab has been re-living the trauma of partition for decades and his lyrics have often explored the yearning of the displaced to find a home, to settle down somewhere, somehow… such as the couplet in Machis, ‘Ek chhota lamha hai jo khatm nahin hota, main laakh jalaata hun, wo bhasm nahin hota’ or ‘Ek akela iss shahar mein’ from Gharonda—‘Din khaali-khaali bartan hai, aur raat hai jaise andha kuan, in suni andheri ankhon mein, aansu ki jagah ata hai dhuan, jeene ki wajah to koi nahin, marne ka bahaana dhundhata hai.’
With India celebrating its 70th year of Independence, Gulzar, as he mentions in an after-note, found the reference to the Partition, separation, be more pronounced than Independence. For him, this was perhaps the reason that unlike the Second World War or the horrors of the Holocaust, the Partition of India refuses to become ‘history’.
What can one say about Gulzar sahab’s writing? When it comes to masters such as Gulzar, it’s more important to comment on what the work achieves than the work itself. In Two, the characters, situations or even the words are something that we might have experienced elsewhere but if anything familiarity here doesn’t breed contempt.
Translated from the Urdu by Gulzar sahab himself, the prose is vintage Gulzar: “People kept mushrooming on terraces, watching in silent remorse. It was hard to believe the unfolding tableau. Was this the face of freedom? Did freedom entail such trauma?”
There has been some pointless banter about Two being a novella and not a novel. In an introduction to Two, Pawan K Varma evokes quotes from Stephen King and Ian McEwan to rejoice the novella and is ‘glad’ that Gulzar sahab didn’t write a ‘full-length’ novel but these are terms that hold little meaning for the reader.
The one thing that the traditional novel prides itself is its ability to stay for in the minds of the reader for slightly longer than the novella but Two is in the glorious tradition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Albert Camus’ L’Etranger and Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea; it lingers on days after you are finished and perhaps might never leave you. Two is an insightful and elegiac account of uprooted people who never cease to travel physically and metaphorically in search of a place called home.