Manjul Bajaj etches a portrait
of life in rural Punjab, a century
ago, through her recent novel,
and highlights the role
of the controversial
khap panchayats in this interview
India Abroad July 30, 2010
with Vaihayasi Pande Daniel.
Illustrations: Dominic Xavier
Delhi-based Manjul Bajaj’s first novel, Come, Before Evening Falls, is an early 20th centu- ry tale of a Jat girl divided between love and family loyalty, whose boundaries were set by the diktats of the Khap panchayat, even as they are today.
Set in Rohtak division of the Punjab of 1909 (now
Haryana), her heart-warming ‘story of love as compelling as it
is doomed’ is more than a novel but a gentle exploration of a
rural psyche that manifests itself much more uglily today, one
hundred years later, in sporadic but brutal honor killings
across north India.
An environmental economist, with a degree in rural management, Bajaj has worked in the field of rural development
and collected material for her novel through interactions with
She says: “I’m forty-something, a
mother of two boys aged 18 and 10,
and live in Gurgaon with my economist husband. I grew up in Lucknow in a large, extended, business family and my parents were originally from
West Pakistan. I read and write compulsively. Apart
from that I love taking long, solitary walks and I do yoga
and breathwork regularly. Most people would find my
life very dull but I quite like it the way it is.”
Why did you decide to write a novel that revolves
around honoring the system of gotra and the diktats of
the khap panchayat? What set you on this track?
I didn’t really start off writing a story about khap panchayats. When I began working on Come, Before
Evening Falls in 2008 the khaps weren’t headline news
yet. I wanted to write a story about romantic love and
explore why in large parts of the world (across various
communities in India, other countries in South Asia
and the Middle East) societal rules are firmly aligned
Love is one of the greatest impulses known to man. In
a sense, desire is at the root of all our creativity, the
source of all life on earth as we know it. If human beings
fail to feel attraction towards each other all of life would
Yet there is this huge fear and disapproval of it in our part of
the world. At a societal level we find love threatening. This
was the theme I set out to explore.
I was aware of the existence of gotra rules and khaps and
decided that since I now live in Haryana and was interested
in the ethos and culture of the state I would set my story right
here. Haryana, I felt, had been almost totally ignored in
English language writing about India.
Why were you moved to write a novel, rather than say a news
article or through some other form?
Why a novel? Well because fiction interests me deeply. It
probes the complexities of the human heart and mind in ways
that other methods of inquiry and presentation simply can’t
When you undertake to write an article or do a sociological
study you zero in and isolate the one or two variables you are
interested in and exclude the rest from purview. Life and good
fiction don’t allow you that luxury. Everything has to unfold
together – character and circumstances, motivations and con-
straints, conscious beliefs and sub-conscious conditioning –
within the framework of the
narrative. It is infinitely more
challenging. I’ve also written
articles and poems on the
issue of honor and honor
killings around the world.
life as well as life in
Much of my research was desk
research to begin with. I was aware of
certain Jat customs and they were an
integral part of my plot-line.
So I began by browsing the Internet for specific information
on those. This led me to several books on the subject and I
borrowed these from libraries. One or two of those books I
read from cover to cover several times over to immerse myself
in the society and period I was writing [on]. And then I just
wrote the first draft.
After it was done I sat down with people who had grown up
in rural Haryana, made them read my draft and spoke to
them at length about their childhood memories, youthful
escapades, family stories, attitudes, beliefs, values — everything really — to see if I could better fill in the details and flesh
out the story. The other thing that helped a lot was [digging
out] out local proverbs and folk tales. I tend to do that a lot in
my writing — use proverbs, sayings, stories to get into the
mindset of the community I’m writing about.
Basically, I read lots of books and I talked at length to two-three people from the region. Apart from that I’m a relatively
well-traveled person and during the course of my work have
lived in villages for extended periods. Also, I took care to keep
the descriptions simple and to leave place in the narrative so
the reader could fit in his/ her own images of village life and
the olden days, without creating any dissonance.
Was there a reason for choosing 1909 as the year for this
book? India’s obsession with honor is age old. And these pan-
chayats have been around for centuries.
The year 1909 really chose me. I did have this notion that I
didn’t want to set the story in current times as I wanted to
explore the love versus honor conflict in a purer, more pristine
I wanted the choices facing Jugni and Raakha, the lovers in
my story, to be absolutely stark and simple. A modern setting
with its faster modes of communication and transportation
would have added unnecessary clutter to the basic story –
which is essentially a story of emotions and loyalties.
So I knew from the start that I wanted an isolated, somewhat historic, village setting for the story.
But to get back to how 1909 happened — while I was
researching the backdrop I found an interesting story about
the 10th Jat Regiment [the Jats are a fierce martial race] and
there was this particular incident involving a revolt in the regiment which I wanted to incorporate into the climax of the
story. That particular incident took place in 1909. The fact
that the book was slated for a December 2009 release made it
an even more compelling choice — since it was a full hundred