Author Sohan S. Koonar’s new novel, Paper Lions, weaves an epic account of fictional lives into the fabric of Punjab’s history, before and after Partition. He speaks to Ritika Raj.
Q. What motivated you to write this book? Did anyone from your family witness Partition the way you have written about it in this narrative?
A. I grew up on stories of Partition. My birth village was half Muslim until 1947. Both my grandfather and father had Muslim best friends. To hear them talk one would think it was the golden age of undivided Punjab. Then calamity befell these innocents who had no role or voice in the partition of the country and province, and they witnessed the worst of humanity engaged in horrific acts, lost their cherished relationships and neighbours.
Punjabis lost their brotherhood in the bloodbath, became victims and aggressors, carved wounds on each other that still have not healed. My father tells of having witnessed a wall built of Muslim skulls in a local orchard, the site of a sacred tomb. (How do you ever unsee something so horrific?) Sikh and Hindu refugees from the other side of the divide brought similar tales. Part of my childhood was spent in East Africa and growing up I did not see colour or creed, and this part of my life has shaped me and my values. That is why in Paper Lions I offer no judgments and let my readers form their own opinions.
Q. What sort of effort does it take to write fiction about such a grand historical event?
A. The answer is research, research and more research. The Internet is like a big bag of beads for a necklace maker. The task is to select what colour and size and shape of beads to use to create the design for the necklace. The greater the amount of facts you can gather on the political, economic, social and cultural truths of that period, the better you can predict and predicate the behaviour of your characters.
For example, knowing the salary of a high-school teacher in 1937 helped me to create the circumstances of Bikram’s family at the start of the novel and set the arc of his storyline. The feudal system of hereditary titles shaped Ajit’s character, his wealth allowed him certain indulgences and placed incredible burdens on him. Fate does not distinguish the rich from the poor and twines their lives in many ways. Living in rural Punjab, I had been fascinated by the Bajigars and their exotic dress and ways. Having been able to do research into Bajigar history and culture allowed the development of Basanti as a narrator. Bajigars had no written language and are barely mentioned in literature. It required finding an elderly tribal oral historian familiar with the time period and plying him endlessly with hundreds of queries. From this mass of information the challenge was to carefully use that which applied to Basanti’s and her tribe’s storyline and not burden the reader with a plethora of information. I had to occasionally remind myself that Paper Lions is a work of historical fiction and not a history book. It is also my belief that Paper Lions is probably the only major portrayal of a Bajigar in English Literature. I have done so respectfully and I’d like to sincerely apologise if I have mistakenly taken artistic licence and offended these proud peoples in any way.
Q. Do you think that the many stories of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs dominate all historical and literary accounts of Partition, because of which we have forgotten the Partition stories of tribal peoples and nomads?
A. That is probably true in India and so sad as well. The tribal and nomadic ways helped so many survive in the harshness of life without land ownership. The Bajigars were the nomadic evolution of brave Rajputs who abandoned their settlements in Rajasthan to escape the cruelty of Emperor Akbar. They developed the Baji, a calisthenic display of acrobatic skills to entertain villagers and townsfolk, thus the name Bajigars. Other nomadic tribes became well-versed in theatre, song and dance. Some took on hunting and foraging or herding goats and sheep and moved with the seasons. Their lack of a written language left a vacuum in their centuries of history and then came settlement and access to education that has led to their assimilation into larger society.
Today’s Bajigars are unrecognisable from their grandparents and have moved far from their highly developed socio-cultural hierarchy. The old ways are gone into the mists of time and the new ones mimic the larger society, be it Hindu, Muslim or Sikh cultures. I feel so fortunate to have at least helped preserve some of the Bajigar ways in Paper Lion and I hope it inspires readers whose background is tribal or nomadic to write about their peoples and tell us their unique stories.
Q. Tell us about how you researched material for Paper Lions. Also, what are your expectations from readers?
A. Paper Lions is the first in a planned trilogy about the Punjab. Starting it just before the Second World War, Independence and Partition and the coming-of-age of a new India up to 1965 set the table nicely for the arcs of the three main characters.
My research was mostly oral stories my grandfathers and father told me. I studied census reports, maps, newspapers and archives from that period. Google is a great tool, the information can be overwhelming and digging out the nuggets a tedious process. A childhood friend found the oral historian of the Bajigars and helped compile the information. At the end I had a hundred plus facts, figures, events and rites and rituals documented as a working paper. The character development and chaptering took almost another year. It took seven revisions and the help of many readers, pre-editors and editors before the final publishable version was completed. The whole project took five years. The initial feedback from my Canadian readers, mostly non-Indians has been positive. Most find it educational. I have been invited to speak to university students as well as high-school students in Canada.
My expectation from readers is that they read Paper Lions with an open mind. The novel is a rollercoaster of emotional experiences and some readers told me that there are moments which made them cry. My prayer is that readers find it worth their precious time and their hard-earned money used to buy a copy. I hope to get more feedback as newer prints will have my contact information. Please send me your unvarnished comments. It will help with the next two books in the trilogy.