Come, Before Evening Falls takes place in the village of Kaala Saand in Punjab in 1910, and features characters belong to the Jat(t) community, an agrarian sect with a long tradition of working in the armed forces. I was agreeably surprised by this novel setting—most contemporary Indian writing in English is remorselessly urban, as is media reportage; it’s all too easy to forget that seven in every 10 Indians live in a village. Bajaj writes about the period knowledgeably and with affection, and the book gives a real feel for village life a century ago. I’ve learnt a recipe for a poultice involving charred garlic in mustard oil on a half-baked roti, and I also now know how to make a cowpat; let my knowledge never require translation into action, Lord. Seriously: Bajaj has done some impressive research, and this reader is the richer for it.
Of course, none of this would count if the story didn’t grab me.
Jugni is eighteen, beautiful, and possessed of a calm good sense that flies in the face of her feelings for Raakha, the new school teacher. For Raakha is the bastard son of a second wife, landless and poor, while Jugni is rooted deep in her prosperous family and community. But the deadest fly in this rustic stew is gotra, the Hindu custom of assigning patrilineal clans at birth. Those with the same gotra, like Jugni and Raakha, are considered siblings, even if there isn’t a single shared ancestor over the past twenty generations. (Yes, it’s whack, especially considering the culture welcomes other consanguineous marriages.) But gotra laws were considered immutable, and the village would view Jugni and Raakha’s love as incest. Will this relationship die unrealized, caught in a stasis between love and honor? Not if the headstrong Raakha has his way.
Bajaj’s touch is painterly when describing the minutiae of her characters’ lives; when the canvas broadens to include, say, riffs on the British government, or the nature of human kind, she’s much less assured. But there’s some top quality writing here, and the author’s passion and sincerity shine right through, invigorating potential clichés at every turn. The burden of family honor has traditionally (and unreasonably) been placed upon womenfolk in such narratives, but Bajaj subverts that notion; Jugni realizes that honor isn’t gendered, but is simply “what we each owed our own deepest soul.” Jugni and Raakha are utterly convincing, strongly defined and beautifully fleshed in, and Jugni in particular is charming, child-like yet possessed of a surprising maturity. And oh, the secondary characters aren’t half-bad either.
Now for the (minor) bad stuff. I had two issues with this book. One, Bajaj isn’t as disciplined in describing Raakha’s romantic feelings as she is with Jugni’s, so some of the writing (in his POV) veers into romance novel territory. “He had tried his damndest to stay out of her way, to let it not come to this, but the further he had tried to retreat, the clearer her voice had grown in his head.” And on Jugni’s eyes: “If he could just sit and gaze into them uninterrupted he would be redeemed.” Ooogh.
My other nit is with this book is the mixing of Punjabi and English. (Wait, it’s not the nit you expect.) Now, the characters obviously speak in Punjabi, and, equally obviously, Bajaj is trying to impart the flavor of the language in her writing. All good; I don’t mind Punjabi words peppering the text though I don’t speak the language, and I don’t even have a problem with the Hinglish (Pinglish?)spoken by the characters. “I’ll buy you sliver toe-rings at the mela [fair], I promise, and I’ll always steal the best ambis [young mangoes] for you,” says a young cousin. But then, I came across “According to the boys, Tau [uncle] was only satthyao-ing…” The last word makes a gerund of the Hindi word Satthya, meaning to go senile, by adding the English “ing”. Now, this portmanteau word is very clearly Bajaj speaking, for none of the boys could coin such a word–they wouldn’t know how to. The intrusive authorial voice all but broke the spell of the book for me; I saw the author sitting with a Macbook at a Barista typing that line. Get me back to Kaala Saand village and the cowpats, I cried, and Bajaj did, but it was a close thing. As I said earlier, it’s just a nit, but this work is otherwise so strong that the nits might as well be clothed in neon. Please change this when the book goes into reprint, please, please.
UPDATE: A note from the author informs me that the “satthyao-ing” is gone from the second edition. And that the book is now available on Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007VXRT3K Buy it, y’all!