Manjul Bajaj’s debut novel is a strong, passionate story well told. The author offers insights into the culture, history and psyche of the Jat people of northern India’s heartland. Set in a Jat hamlet near Delhi in 1909, this is a tale of proud, upright men and women who will die to uphold the honor of family, community and country. The subtle feminist approach works well with full blooded women juxtaposed against well fleshed out and likeable male characters. The novel begins as a smoldering love story, with the threat of deadly social taboos simmering in the backdrop. The author interweaves social practices which sadly continue even today in pockets of rural India, such as the terrible practice of honor killings.
Bold and reckless Raakha cannot bring himself to bow before tyranny and injustice. Overcoming a tormented childhood, he graduates from a Lahore college and ushers the winds of change into the prosperous village of Kaala Saand. As the village headmaster, Raakha guides each villager to new heights of self awareness and ambition. Jugni, the lovely village headman’s niece, is inexorably drawn by Raakha’s acute intelligence and powerful animal magnetism. And yet… and yet… Jugni’s dignity, her intrinsic courage to stand up for herself while being completely capable of giving and receiving love from the man of her dreams, shows her as a REAL woman.
The climax towards the ending could easily have slipped into melodrama in the hands of a lesser writer, ruining the overall effect. The affirmation of life and womanhood while getting under the skins of well-rounded and all too human men characters; the writer balances these with ease.
More historical background, more of how the Arya Samaj social and religious reformist movement influenced the lives of villagers, the politics of pre-Independence India, Daadi’s folk songs and folk traditions; greater detailing would have further enriched the story.