Koonar’s Paper Lions: How ‘frailties of human desire and triumph of human spirit’ fare against the turmoils of history
Book review by Gracy Samjetsabam
Title: Paper Lions
Author: Sohan S. Koonar
Publisher: Speaking Tiger (2019)
Sohan S. Koonar is a physiotherapist by training but his love for story-telling has bagged him the Judges Choice Award in the Toronto Star Short Story Contest and the first Burlington Library Literary Excellence Award. His self-published novel Karam’s Kismet got mentioned in sixteen dailies and periodicals in the US. He is a founder of a multi-clinic company and an inventor of international patents too. Koonar has lived in four continents — Asia, Africa, Europe and North America — and spends the year in his family homes in Canada, Italy and India. Paper Lions, published by Mawenzi House in Canada and Speaking Tiger in India, is a novel that explores the rich culture and history of Punjab and its role in the coming of age of India as a nation.
Paper Lions is an epic multi-generational saga of Punjab. Koonar draws on a vast canvas to present a picture in pre- and post-independent India. The novel is a five-part story of what transpires in the inchoate state of Punjab from 1937to 1965. Raikot, located a few kilometres from Ludhiana, is the locale. While the narrative revolves around three main characters — Brikram, Basanti and Ajit — and their families, it also weaves a yarn of rural Punjab in those times.
The book explores a myriad of characters — some from nomadic tribes, such as the Bajigars and some are just villagers — the dairyman, the matchmaker, the astrologer, the Giyani (Sikh wise men), the politicians, the publicists, the head of the cattle yard, the bootlegger, the snake-catcher, the Brahmins, the school headmaster and more. The characters reveal the customs and mindset of the people based on caste and clan, their religion, and the trials and tribulations that time and history brought forth.
The story opens with Bikram, an educated young man, looking for a job as a ticket clerk. He is unable to get the job because he is not able to pay a bribe to the departmental officer. Thus, Bikram young and enthusiastic and in need of a job joins the British Army under the recommendation of the landlord. His post as an accountant during the World War II brings him illegal profit and makes him an affluent landowner. The Partition brings its share of fear, dismay, and torment which lurks psychologically on the mind of all irrespective of caste, clan, and religion.
Bikram too, is plagued with psychological anguish by the crimes of others and his own. But his riches gain him social stature and he pursues politics. Koonar’s Paper Lions paints a gripping picture of the flaws of man that makes him or her human and divine together. Ajit, an honorable man raises Satwant as a good and exemplary son but his mind is never free from the distress of having an illegitimate son, Nasib. If not for this guilt, Ajit lives a fruitful life and a life of dignity with a loving wife, and a beautiful family comprising of a son, a daughter-in-law, and two granddaughters. Basanti, a nomadic woman by birth is married to a man who is jailed. Her newly born son gets lost and she reconciles to life by becoming the wet nurse for Ajit’s youngest granddaughter, Nikki. Eventually, she becomes an inseparable part of the family. Sin and secret, crime and punishment — meander and add flavour and fervour to the story.
The novel covers one of the most important phases in India’s history and in the history of Punjab. It weaves a tale of the hopes, trials and tribulations of the people of Punjab during the tumultuous and eventful periods spanning from the 1930s to 1960s. The depression, the peasant movements, the impact of the Second World War and the genesis of the Khalistan in pre-independent Punjab to the independence of India and the Partition in 1947 that left a deep scar in people’s lives, the early days of the growth of modern Punjab through provincial politics, the first Punjab Legislative Assembly Elections in 1952 and the State Reorganisation Act of 1956 is a delectable background to Koonar’s novel.
The author effectively binds his characters and history together in a way that is both informative and interesting for readers. The rural setting in Punjab, the customs, the traditions and the ways of the community are brought to life — almost Shakespearean in its intent with its “to be or not to be” or “what’s in a name” moments. The cycle of birth and death, the accompanying rituals, the language and the mannerisms are aesthetically knitted into the story, to highlight the impact that history and politics have on daily lives of the people.
Besides the portrayal of highly patriarchal male characters who are heroic, typically dominant, spoilt brats — power hungry and power wielding in the feudal setting, the portrayal of varied women characters and their plight and privileges in the novel is appallingly interesting. Relationship between Basanti and her cousin Devi, the circumstances and the sufferings that Devi went through, the sad ending of Pinki, step-wives — all comment on what was seen as a sin, a crime and imprudence in daughters and the difference the society made while judging the sons for the same actions. The murky waters of reality and fiction concealed in the story of the ghost of the beheaded girl and the prejudices and the superstitions tell plentifully on the prevailing conditions of the time.
The character of Nasib, Basanti, and the tinge of favour for women’s education expressed subtly in the characters of Amrita and her daughters, Pinki and Nikki, speak of hope and the dawn of a change from a past of “dark times” in the region. The horrors of Partition, the want of a son, the tragedies on the loss of a young son, the death of a husband, the death of a new-born and the crimes people commit in the name of love and pride are captivatingly portrayed.
People and relationship, families and emotions, love, power and politics, customs and traditions are fine ingredients in the story. One line pronounces —“Know that fate has a way to make you bend to its will”— and thus, expresses how the tale toys with the word “fate” as a reconciliatory note and often submits it to “Karma”. The humanising elements in the story finely balances the gruesome nature of man and his ways to find redemption in justification.
This novel adds to the literature on Punjab and draws from historical facts to weave a fiction grounded in the realism of the frailties of human desire and triumph of human spirit. It is worth possessing for anyone interested in a greater understanding of the social milieus of the times in Punjab and in India.
Gracy Samjetsabam teaches English literature and communication skills at the Manipal Institute of Technology, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal. She is also a freelance copy editor and copy writer. Settled in the western shores of the Arabian Sea, she loves Nature besides reading over a hot cup of tea. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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