Deep in the dry and sandy stretches of the Malwa region, in pre-Partition Punjab, lies the sprawling village of Sahnewal; its skyline a mixture of high havelis and humble mud houses surrounded by acres of green fields and groves of dark, thorny keekar and neem — thus opens the novel Dusk over the Mustard Fields with a finely drawn portrait of a village in Punjab.
One can well take this as a period novel as it begins in the 1920s and culminates in the bloodshed and exodus at the time of Partition, but it transcends the periodicity. Its strength lies in traversing the times and evaluating what is lost and what has not changed much in some 100 years.
A mosque and a gurdwara flourish in the village where Hindus and Muslims live in a workable arrangement and lamps are lit in every household, with people joining in Diwali as well as Eid festivities.
In a village where all the major landholdings are with the Sikh and Muslim Jats, the businesses with Hindus and the majority of the workers and artisans are Muslims, the tallest haveli belongs to Zaildar Kehar Singh. The adjacent ones belong to the village moneylender Lala Beli Shah and the horse breeder Mian Ali Begh.
The Zaildar has two daughters and the older one, Nimmo, the protagonist, cannot go to school because it is five miles away from the village. But she grows up happily learning Gurmukhi, numbers and Urdu at the primer level. Her skills are weaving, embroidery and cooking like the other girls of the village. The family prestige and the promise of a good dowry bring her the match of a handsome officer of the British Indian Army. She is 16 and on the eve of the marriage she feels excited, having relegated a shared crush for Akhtar, son of Mian Ali next doors to a childhood fancy.
She wonders what her husband, Hukam Singh, will be like: Does he drink too much? Will he beat her if she makes a mistake? She prays that he should not be too foul tempered and is determined to do all that she can to please him.
However, all her determination fails when confronted with the fair and handsome Lieutenant; from her dusky skin to her rusticity, her inability to speak English, dress in style and be an asset at the garden parties and lunches organised by the commanding officer’s wife, Mrs Gillespie.
Nimmo is no memsahib and, worse, fails to conceive a child in two years. She is rejected in favour of the educated and beautiful Hansa. Left in the village home she falls prey to the sexual assaults of her husband’s stepbrother. Ironically, Hansa nearly loses out to Nimmo when the latter conceives only to give birth to a daughter who is then abandoned by the husband’s family as well as her own. The humane and heartwarming part of the story is the friendship that grows between the two wives. It is Hansa who tells Hukam Singh in the face that infertility is not her problem but his and takes the decision to adopt Nimmo’s abandoned daughter.
And what becomes of Nimmo as she wanders in the dark wanting to take a last look at her parental home in Sahnewal – a place famed for being actor Dharmendra’s village, where he grew up as his father was the school headmaster, at a time when the riots preceding Partition and massive exodus from both sides had begun.
In the story, Mian Ali’s family is escaping to Lahore in the dark of the night and Akhtar recognises Nimmo’s silhouette and asks her to accompany them. The healing touch comes when she shares everything and he takes her hand in his: Akhtar and Nimmo are married in a simple ceremony and the girl from Sahnewal, daughter of Zaildar Kehar Singh and wife of Major Hukam Singh of Raipur is reborn as Naaima Begum, her past belonging to another era and another country, torn asunder by ruthless destiny.
The saga ends on a note of hope. Not only does Ranjit tell the tale well, she also sets the mood for a forgotten era in colonial Punjab. “This I owe to my parents. My father, Lt Col Daljeet Singh, who recreated the ethos of the British Indian Army for me and my mother who belonged to Sahnewal in acquainting me with the rural culture along with its pride and prejudice and the lives of women.”
Ranjit’s paternal village is Mithapur and she lives in Chandigarh as she says with her dog Teddy. Travelling is her passion. She also runs a non-profit organisation for education and psychological counselling.
Having finished this book in one reading through the night, one awaits Ranjit’s next novel.