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Come, before Evening Falls (Manjul Bajaj)

(Hachette, 2009)

Manjul Bajaj’s Come, Before Evening Falls is a haunting story of forbidden love. Set in the Rohtak division of British India’s Punjab province, the story takes place in the early 20th century. Yet what is terrifyingly disturbing is that, take the dates away, and it would ring just as true in the present day.

In the rigidly traditional society of Kala Saand in the Jat heartland, Jugni, poised on the brink of womanhood, knows that falling in love is not an option for her. Yet she finds herself increasingly fascinated by the dashing Raakha, the young schoolmaster hired by her uncle. Raakha, with his tormented past, has his own demons to bear, but is equally powerless against the mutual attraction that grows between them.

Well aware that defying the strict social norms of marriage and kinship will incur the wrath not just of the khap panchayat (caste council) that dictates such rules, but also decimate the family’s “honour”, Jugni and Raakha are irresistibly pulled towards each other, fostering a relationship that can only end in tragedy and despair.

The story alternates between the perspectives of the two main protagonists. Raakha is the quintessential “angry young man”, fuelled by a festering hatred for his father and a need to prove himself. His mother’s words, “Become something then,” drive him towards seeking meaning from his life.

Jugni is a typical village girl, caught at the awkward phase when one is neither a child nor an adult. The deeply traditional society she inhabits has her place and her future mapped out for her. As the favourite neice of her affluent Tau (uncle), Jugni stands to make a “good marriage”, but unlike others in her position, she finds herself questioning such givens, even if only to herself. She is deeply apprehensive of her entry into womanhood. She finds it “a bottomless well” (p.29) she does not want to fall into, ever, especially having seen what it did to the girls and women around her.

She grieves for Ballo, her cousin, and Lakhi, once her best friend, for their broken spirits, and has no illusions that marriage will make life better:

Ballo… each time she came home there was a new baby in her belly… There were bruises under her eyes from lack of sleep and bruises on her neck and arms from god knows what else. Nothing remained your own after you got married. Not your body, not your sleep — not even your tears…

And Lakhi?… There wasn’t a tree left in Kala Saand in whose branches Jugni and Lakhi had not hidden… But now Lakhi had a broken leg. Her husband didn’t approve of the way she skipped when she walked.

The price for rebellion is very dear — the retribution of the khap panchayat for breaking their laws is absolute. This fear is palpable in Jugni even as she worries about what the knowledge of her relationship with Raakha will do to her beloved Tau, who values honour above all else:

A family was like a tree [he explains to Jugni], it’s honour was not to be violated like this. Honour was the main trunk. If you struck at it, everything else — the branches, the leaves, the fruit — they just fell, collapsing in a deep heap around it. A tree is more than the sum of its parts… it’s a whole living system.

Manjul Bajaj’s writing style is lucid and in Come, Before Evening Falls she has perfected the art of “show, don’t tell” quite flawlessly. As Jugni watches and wonders about the power play that takes place among the women in her family, her innocence coupled with her keen intelligence give her a perspective that helps us, the reader, piece the background together. Raakha’s tormented past is none more evident than in the way he conducts himself. The narration literally takes you under their skin till you can feel the rustle of the grass against your ankles, smell the cowdung cakes, hear the temple bell.

Coming at a time when a spate of honour killings shocked the nation, and the media probing into and questioning this regressive practice, the theme of the story is as contemporary as it must have been a hundred years ago. However, as the novel winds itself to an explosive end, we are left with a few shocks and twists, and, unfortunately, some misgivings. Overall, the finish is a little disappointing, not in the actual sequence of events, but in the philosophy that underlies it. Jugni learns that honour goes much deeper than what people think; it isn’t about what family or society expect, but that it is what one owes one’s soul. “Womanhood,” she also discovers, is not a bottomless pit after all, but “the ability to plumb the darkest recesses… and find sweet, life-sustaining water within” (p.238). She finds that women’s way is resilience and affirmation of life, whereas violence is the choice of men. It is also contradictory in terms of the lessons that life gave to the other women in her family, who chose violence.

A disappointing ending often tars a perfectly good book, but it would be unfair to let that happen for Come, Before Evening Falls. Gripping and difficult to put down, the story enmeshes you completely. It is a perfect excuse to stay home on a cold winter evening.

RATING: 7.5/10