AUGUST 18, 2020
In this column, Saikat Majumdar discusses books from India that haven’t received due attention.
The north of India has now become its Wild West. Despite its centrality in the nation’s popular and historical self-imagination, Delhi, the capital, appears to be surrounded by economically barren expanses, especially when these are compared to the efficient southern states. But the rich history of north India, richer with the memory of an undivided country and traumatized by the violence of Partition, has produced literatures of heart-stopping beauty, written in Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi, among other languages. The writings of Amrita Pritam, Sadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, and Mirza Ghalib, to cite just a few examples, carry a breath that is as wild as it is sweet, redolent of the trauma of colonial violence as well as the poignancy of stolen romance.
The unmistakable vernacular spirit — not only of her ancestral Punjab but of much of rural north India — comes to sensual life in the English fiction of Manjul Bajaj, who, though now based in a Delhi suburb, calls herself a Lakhnavi, from Lucknow. The ability to bring the rural and the indigenous alive in the English language is, I’ve always, one of the cherished gifts of South Asian writers. Bajaj has written two novels that exploit this gift to its fullest: Come, Before Evening Falls, which is set in the blood-smeared world of honor-killings in rural undivided Punjab, and Searching for Heer, an experimental retelling of Punjab’s own Romeo and Juliet legend, the story of Heer and Ranjha. But the book that truly took my breath away was her 2012 collection of short stories, Another Man’s Wife.
The complexity of Bajaj’s empathy for the poor and dispossesed prevents it from crumbling into the sugary simplicity of sympathy. In the story “Ripe Mangoes,” the aging, cuckolded husband, a mango-farmer, tells his lovely young wife, “Begum, a wise farmer doesn’t search the wind to see from where the seed flew in, he is content that the ripe mangoes are his to claim.” He knows full well that the strapping sons his wife has given him do not come from his loins, yet his wizened, world-weary pragmatism allows him to see and look past his wife’s and her lover’s façade of secrecy. For Bajaj, romance is lit bright only to be doused in darkness or to wither in time’s sad flow. “Marrying Nusrat,” a story set in a village in Uttar Pradesh that explores the role of women in rural governance, is driven by the intense crush of Karim, a young boy, Karim, on Nusrat, the sensitive woman who has arrived from the city. Tragically, when the adult Karim returns to the village after a maturing stint in the city, he finds in the loving Nusrat a disappointing ordinariness; in his eyes, she has blended with the dull cesspool of the village. “The old world,” he realizes, “had sundered its connection with me and the new world was nothing but a fantasy. I was entirely on my own now.”
Bajaj’s tales move between the dramatic and the mundane, fusing them together: from the hidden criminal history of a domestic worker to the displacement of an aboriginal couple by the building of a dam, they offer the history of a country filtered through the irresponsible, artistic meanderings of the human heart. Short stories are missed easily, and this collection, now almost ten years old, received little notice, but I haven’t experienced a more intense, heart-tugging work of English fiction from 21st-century India.
Saikat Majumdar is the author of three novels, including The Scent of God, one of Times of India’s “20 Most Talked About Indian Novels of 2019,” and The Firebird (published in the US as Play House), a book of criticism titled Prose of the World, and a co-edited collection of essays titled The Critic as Amateur.