“It’s like a Downton Abbey for India, complete with the family secrets, class struggles, and great drama for all of the characters.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
Someone called this novel the ‘Downton Abbey’ of India, though to do that is to undervalue the latter. Sohan S Koonar’s debut novel ‘Paper Lions’ is a generational novel that explores Punjab’s history post-Independence, taking in the bloodletting and tragedy of Partition.
Much of what Koonar writes about Partition is known – the trains laden with the mutilated dead, the retaliatory rapes and murders even from people one would expect to be peaceful – but he sets it as the background to the story of two families that live in village of Raikot near Samrala in Ludhiana district, between 1937-65.
The novel opens with Bikram, an educated young man desperately in need of a job to help his poor family. His application is unsuccessful because he does not have enough money to bribe the transport department official who has the power to get him the ticket clerk’s post. The son of his landlord Ajit Singh is a student of Bikram’s father’s. With Ajit Singh’s recommendation, Bikram joins the British Army as an accountant, and there reaps lakhs from black marketeering during WWII. The money raises his social stature and gets him a foothold in politics, despite the scars left on the family by Partition.
Running parallel to Bikram’s story is that of his landlord. Ajit Singh, has the money that Bikram lacks and is strict and generous at the same time, allowing the nomadic bajigars to settle on his land. He is proud of his handsome son Satwant who joins the army. Both Bikram and Satwant marry. One has a son and the other a daughter. As one might expect, fate brings the two families together through marriage but tragedy lies in wait.
The novel is densely peopled with characters and relationships. The men are young and handsome and the women beautiful. In laws, husbands and wives and children proliferate along with the other figures of a community, the priests, the teachers and the politicians. Along with these go the rituals of marriage, childbirth, funerals and sacrifice, things that we are all familiar with from Indian films. Partition adds a dose of mayhem with the graphic description of a girl being beheaded. These will certainly grab the reader’s attention, though sometimes the narrative threatens to be too much of an overload.
The women characters are strong for the most part and do their best to overturn patriarchal mores when the men show themselves unequal to dealing with overwhelming odds, proving themselves to be lion like on the outside but actually lions made of paper. Basanti rises above her circumstances to try and protect her daughter Nikki.
As in all cases of wars, money is the great equaliser between classes. Bikram profits from Partition and from the War and becomes a financial force to reckon with through a process of buying off property from those planning to cross the border and therefore forced to resort to distress selling.
The novel grips the reader for quite a while but the overload of detail goes against it. There are also rathe glaring omissions from Punjabi history like the tussle over the use of the Punjabi language as opposed to Hindi for example, or the British ammunition depot in Rajkot which later became a police torture chamber. Much of what happens in Paper Lions is very Shakespearean in concept – death begets death and tragedy leads to more tragedy, though since it is a very Indian novel perhaps it proves that karma strikes us all.
Added 15th January