Paper Lions. A Multi-Generational Story Told as India Transitions from Colony to Independent Nation
Sohan S. Koonar has constructed a compelling tale told from the perspective of three very different but interconnected individuals. Throughout the novel, Ajit, Basanti and Bikram's lives will impact and influence each other. This is a story examining the circumstances that befall our three protagonists in a changing India(gaining independence and the separation and formation of Pakistan) and their individual responses to it. Be prepared to go all in with this story, as Koonar knows how to write interesting, lovable, sympathetic, detestable and odious characters.
Bikram is a young man, just recently matriculated from secondary school, and upon failing to secure a job, becomes burdened with how this will affect his family. His father, who has been denied his inheritance tries his best to provide for his family. To do this, he must get Bikram a job. With help from a local minister, Bikram joins the Royal Indian Army. Bikram enjoys a change of fortune here and becomes addicted to the riches and influence this allows him to acquire. Gone is the respectful young man that only wanted to help provide for his family. In his place stands a man that has suckled at the breast of chance and been rewarded. On his return to his home, he continues his shady dealings and with the help of his father-in-law buys land, from which he can pull investments. The influence his money and standing award him, only enflame his ambitions and passions to go higher and spurred on by his very avaricious wife and in-laws, Bikram decides to enter politics. He continues his unscrupulous dealings to ensure his status within the local government and seeks an alliance with a very influential family through a proposal of marriage to his son.
Ajit Singh is a wealthy zaildar(landlord) of Raikot and is a very stern, distinguished man. He is very dedicated to his job, but is also fair in dealing with all that fall under his jurisdiction. Ajit lives a happy and blessed life with his wife Inder, their son Satwant and his widowed cousin Siamo. His son Satwant is a very clever boy and Ajit begins grooming him to assume the title of zaildar when the time is right. Satwant grows up to become a charming and principled young man, who believes he has a duty to serve his country and so joins the army. His father and mother arrange his engagement and upon his return on furlough, oversee his marriage. Satwant and Amrita are very happy together, but during the rebellion of the Naga, a result of rising tensions between Muslims and Hindu Sikhs, many lives are lost. This alerts Ajit to the changes that may follow and he begins taking steps to ensure his family's future. As the political landscape changes in Raikot, Ajit through his association with Bikram Singh, becomes very involved. But as we are to learn, there just might be a hidden blessing in every loss.
Basanti spent her early years in Raikot. Her family belonged to the dera of the Mukhia who had made a deal with Ajit in exchange for settling on a portion of his land. However, Basanti's father took her family to Kila Tikka Khan for a job, but not before agreeing to a betrothal between his daughter and the Mukhia's son. When the tension erupts between the Muslims and the Hindus, Basanti's clan decides to return to Hindu lands. Their journey is not safe and Basanti suffers a personal loss. Upon their return to the Mukhia's dera, plans are made for Basanti's wedding as well as that of her cousin Devi. Both young women are unhappy in their marriages, but know that they must endure, and both work alongside their mothers-in-law to support the dera. When tragedy strikes the dera, Basanti must adjust to what is now her life. She is however, given another chance at happiness in the haveli of Ajit Singh, to care for his two young granddaughters. This helps to sooth Basanti's pain and she gives thanks to her goddess.
Sohan S. Koonar has written us a beautiful, painful, engrossing tale. Resonant with humanity, family and corruption, very similar to the lives we live today. It almost seems impossible to not scream at the selfishness and utter self-indulgence of Bikram and his wife, his opportunistic in-laws and their spoilt son; commiserate and celebrate with Ajit and Basanti and laugh wholeheartedly at the antics of Pinki and Nikki. We are sure that you will enjoy this novel as much as we did.
P.S. Be on the lookout for how Koonar cleverly uses the title of his book as a descriptor.