Paper Lions : A tale of loss and longing in Punjab

Amandeep Sandhu | Updated on October 25, 2019

Reading the past: The novel follows the fate of two generations of families through mryriad twists and turns in Punjab’s history ISTOCK.COM   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sohan S Koonar’s debut novel ‘Paper Lions’ is an expansive journey through the history of post-Independence Punjab

The story of the partition of Punjab and Bengal at the time of Independence is known to most in India through school history textbooks. These tumultuous events, however, exist as bit topics in our mind and are now under assault through a revisionist rewriting of history. It is in such times that Sohan S Koonar’s debut novel Paper Lions presents a very detailed and greatly nuanced panoramic view from the ground of the decades which saw the end of a colonial era and the beginning of the modern Indian nation state. Koonar is a multi-patent holding physiotherapist with bases in Canada, Italy and India.

Paper Lions is a novel about two generations of families in the village of Raikot near Samrala in Ludhiana district, during 1937-65. The novel opens with an educated young Bikram being denied a job because he does not have the resources to bribe an official of the transport department who could fetch him the post of a ticket clerk. Soon, upon his landlord Ajit Singh’s recommendation, he joins the British Army as an accountant, where he profits illegally during WWII. Bikram’s family becomes prosperous landowners but are psychologically scarred by the violence of the Partition. With money comes social stature and Bikram eventually enters politics.

Paper Lions; Sohan S Koonar; Speaking Tiger; Fiction; ₹599


In parallel, Singh, as a strict but benign landlord, cultivates relationships with people, and settles the nomadic community of bajigars on his land. He raises his robust son Satwant, who opts to join the military, but also pines for his illegitimate son Nasib, whom he had fathered one summer when his wife was away visting her parents. Towards the end of the novel, the two families come together in wedlock between Bikram’s son and Ajit’s granddaughter, but tragic events lead to the undoing of both clans. The novel is a Shakespearean tragedy, set in Punjab and peopled by Punjabis.

Much of the beauty of the novel lies in how Koonar portrays relationships both within the family and society. All narrative tracks between husbands and wives, parents and children, spouses and in-laws are tied up; characters big and small receive adequate space and treatment. It is the same with rituals of childbirth, marriage, funerals, political campaigns, caste and class and religious relations. The novel presents a great cross-section of feudalism and shows how money and property played a role in Partition; for instance, how distress sales affected property rates. It also notes how the women upturn patriarchy from within as the men crumble in the face of overwhelming odds.

The writer lays bare the flaws of society without passing judgement on the characters’ choices. Instead, he presents dilemmas inspiring insight on the part of the reader. For instance, when Bikram, who is in the British Army, considers corruption: “He knew he had to make a choice — to throw in his lot with them (his associates in the plan) or blow the whistle on their larceny. Joining them would make him a thief, but turning them in would make him a rat.” Similarly, Satwant is a do-gooder who helps the poor, breaking the barriers of caste. His actions are laudable as a Sikh but they are in conflict with his duties as the son of the landlord tasked with collecting taxes for the government.

While the detailing is excellent, the narrative arc of the 449-pager slackens from time to time. The brilliant details tend to overwhelm the reader and the novel starts to read as mere documentation without enough layering. While some events are depicted in great minutiae, many years pass at the turn of some pages. This imbalance between too much detail and too much glossed over could have been fixed if the writer had not shied away from weaving in his insights into characters and events as a sort of commentary.

An issue with humanising history is that though this novel is vast, history is vaster. For instance, a kothi or bungalow known as Maharaja Duleep Singh Memorial was built around 1800 at Bassian is less than five km from Raikot. It served as a British ammunition depot and it was where the young king, Duleep Singh, spent a night in 1849. No story of Raikot can miss such an important monument. Especially because, later in the ’80s, the building served as a police torture chamber. Similarly, no history of Punjab of the ’50s and early ’60s can omit the Akali Dal-led Panjabi Suba movement over the Punjabi language and the conflict with Hindi. This tussle over languages was the reason Punjab was trifurcated in 1966. But the novel does not address it.

Still, the ambition to humanise Punjab’s history is a giant one and deserves applause. I hope the writer will tell us his version of Punjab’s history in subsequent decades. Paper Lions is an important contribution to the literature of Punjab.

Amandeep Sandhu is the author of Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines

Published on October 25, 2019

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