Paper Lions

Written by Sohan S Koonar
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1937, in the village of Raikot, Punjab, India, seventeen-year-old Bikram finishes school in the first division but is unable to find employment. His father is too poor to afford the bribes required to secure a good job. However, through a recommendation from Ajit, the zaildar (tax collector), Bikram is recruited by the Royal Indian Army. Bikram, assisted by fellow NCOs, pilfers items from the stores and sells them to black marketeers, thereby accumulating considerable wealth. Bikram uses his ill-founded gains to good use.

Ajit has some secrets, which he keeps from his wife. However, he is hard-working and kindhearted, and allows a band of nomadic Bajigars to settle on a portion of his land. His son, Satwant, also joins the army and, becoming a Captain, plays an important role during India’s Partition—into Pakistan and India—and the conflicts between the Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims.

Basanti, a young daughter of a Bajigar family, had moved with her parents, westwards, to a predominantly Muslim area of Punjab. Following Partition, they have to return to the Indian side and suffer painful losses from the Hindu-Muslim skirmishes.

Sohan Koonar’s connection to his ancestral lands in Punjab shows in this novel’s intimately detailed narrative. The three main characters are created thoughtfully to portray the changes in India through different perspectives. We follow their lives, learning much along the way, from India just before WWII, the war years, the struggle for independence, the Partition, to modern India in the 1960s. This is a different novel than others normally encountered about India during these times. Rather than the usual setting in the large urban cities, such as Delhi or Bombay, here we are introduced to the people in the Punjab villages and their way of life, and peaceful existence, prior to the Partition. Recommended.