When love conflicts with ‘honour’
Reviewed by Aradhika Sharma

Come, Before Evening Falls
By Manjul Bajaj.
Rs 295. Pages 238.

THE theme of the book is honour—of men, communities and the honourable choices that we do or do not make. The question that Manjul Bajaj raises is, is it OK to compromise your honour even if it is for the most beautiful, noble end? Should honour be sacrificed under any circumstances? She manages to convince you that it is not.

Jugni’s (the heroine’s) Tau had once told her that "honour was everything, the main trunk of the tree of life." But for Jugni, and it seems for the author too, "honour went much further than that—honour was what we owed our deepest soul."

This is the love story of Jugni and Raakha, two young people passionately in love with each other. But their love is doomed because tradition will never allow them to marry, both being from the same ‘gotra.’ The story is set in the village of Kaala Saand, in what is now the Haryana hinterlands, where bloodshed for family and personal honour is not only totally acceptable but even laudable. Jugni and Raakha knew that their love would never come to fruition, knew that if they were spotted during their sector assignations, they may well be found hanging from the strong branches of a tree one morning. But yet, he would ring the temple bells and she would come running to meet him.

Raakha was a stranger to Kala Saand. The new teacher who came to take over the village school. A bitter young man with a history that he longed to shrug off but could not. Raakha was the bastard son of a zamindaar, and had spent his childhood and youth being treated as the illegitimate son by both his father and the father’s legitimate family. Insulted and reviled, yet hushed by his mother, whenever he tried to revolt, Raakha’s soul was branded with the resentment of his birth.

Jugni, on the other hand, belonged to the leading family of Kala Saand. Tau, her uncle was one of the panches, and a leading voice in the region. His family, thus, was expected to set the tone in matters of manners, conduct and the safeguarding of heritage. It was a large family, with many boys and a few girls. Jugni was the only unmarried girl left and the hunt for a suitable bridegroom was on. The household was ruled by Dadi, the matriarch, who ruled the hearth and conducted the business of the home and family.

Raakha came to the village with new ideas for the school, new activities were introduced, talk of the Jat pride and heritage started doing the rounds. He was a frequent visitor at Jugni’s home. Dadi was fond of him because he set her the task of compiling the Jat lore, and Tau had respect for his ideas. After his coming, the village started humming with a new energy, the boys went willingly to school and discovered that learning was actually fun.

Raakha and Jugni felt the chemistry almost at the first meeting. But for all her love for him, Jugni was not willing to flout the familial rules for him. If Raakha said to Jugni: "come with me, I need you by my side. I don’t care about values or traditions." She would say: "Then I must care doubly so, your share and mine also." Raakha’s mother had beseeched him to "want less" but he had never learnt that lesson. He wanted Jugni and he wanted her bad.

Set in the Rohtak Division of the erstwhile Panjab, The story is an engrossing one. The mood and the time are nicely captured. Manjul etched out the characters carefully, but the person who seems to be overwhelming in her creative consciousness seems to be the brooding, beleaguered Rakhaa. He feels sinned against, life has blunted his conscience and once he fell in love, he would go to any lengths to possess the demure Jugni.

Such overwhelming love that cannot seemingly come to fulfilment, must lead to tragedy. And it does. The climax of the book is full of high drama, as the reader is hurtled along with the protagonists, towards the inevitable tragedy waiting to happen. And yet, it’s more a tragedy of character than circumstances and not at all as obvious as one may expect. That’s where it scores over regular love stories. The book is more engrossing because of the different milieu that it explores, the echoes of which sadly regularly hit headlines even now.