Book Review: Paper Lions

Told from three distinct points of view, Paper Lions is an epic multi-generational novel about India, set in the years from the advent of the Second World War to the beginning of modern times in the 1960s

Paper Lions, Sohan S Koonar

The writer Sohan S Koonar clearly states his intention and aspirations for the book — Paper Lions. The aim is to emulate Khushwant Singh, Shauna Singh Baldwin and Sunjeev Sahota in detailing Sikh central characters and concerns furthering the message of his community; that is the Sikh Panth. Two regions faced the brunt of Partition as homelands of an undivided India were cut up and made inaccessible if not uninhabitable — Punjab and Bengal. The exigencies of history have exiled us all. The stories are agonising in their similarities. Their details are always a unique glimpse into the indomitable human spirit.

The scene is the village of Raikot near Ludhiana. It is replete with crops and cots laid out while men sit sipping tea or coaxing smoke out of sulky hookahs. Yet beneath the gloss of pastoral bliss rather intricate mechanisms of violence throb throughout the story.

The novel is a rambling 400+ pages with five individual ‘books’ spanning four decades of the most turbulent era of recent Indian history. The style of storytelling is rather unique. The central characters — Bikram, Basanti and Ajit — take turns to narrate their experiences and most of it involves minutiae. From their actions and memories, a fuller picture of the events around Partition, it is hoped, will emerge. The author’s style is to describe all the horrors in rather gruesome detail. And a continuous unfolding of such acts numb the reader till all of it seems words rather than reality.

There is not only a graphic description of how Bikram beheads a pleading girl child of another community, the writing goes on to describe blood on the clothes of all the men who were hunting down their enemies with swords and how they waded into the canal to wash away the traces thereafter. The very next chapter begins with a cheerful description of how families put to death their own daughters or threw them into wells to save them from ignominy at the hands of the enemy. There is also a rather blood-curdling description of how Basanti and her cousin Devi were raped by forest guards. While these events were rather commonplace during the Partition, the retelling would have gained by being selective and not an agglomeration.

The novel is as populous as a village. Newer characters flit through the pages at will. Through Basanti and her Bajigar tribe, we see another aspect of rural life. Caste binds them together and everything is decided by community elders: marriages, ostracism and remarriages. The alcoholic Wazeer promises his comely bride Devi to the merchant Lalji in lieu of his inability to pay, thus bringing shame to his clan. He is sent away but returns later with his machete to kill Devi and in trying to rescue her, her new husband Rana splits open Wazeer’s skull with an axe. He is then sentenced to 25 years in jail.

Bikram stands for elections, wins and is offered a plum post if he defects. The enticement is so heavy that he cannot resist. His rise to power coincides with the complete breakdown of his own family, avaricious wife, and an out-of-control son. Ill luck dogs them when the most elegant wedding ends in tragedy for the bride. A murder is camouflaged and the murderer remains unrepentant. An accomplice is shot to death by an unknown assailant. The crazed murderer is on a collision course with his next victim.

As a foster mother, it is left to Basanti to plot a scheme that could keep her younger daughter Nikki safe. It isn’t a very sophisticated plot. And the end result is both awry and alarming. Tragedy spawns further tragedy. In the end, Bikram seeks relief from it all by flinging himself into a funeral pyre.

All these elements are familiar and yet a little filmy, almost unreal. The stories crisscross to create a rather unbelievable tapestry of the journeys of these protagonists. If the subject matter itself was not challenging enough, the writing itself is both uneasy and dense. Much of it is a sensory overload.

“With a blast from its horn, a bus lumbered into the bay and gave a shriek of the brakes before coming to a shuddering stop. The engine growled and died with a mighty gasp of acrid black smoke from its rear that filled the waiting room with an oily stench.”

With graphic descriptions, intense scenes, murder, mayhem and too many characters, the novel may pose an unwieldy read. Yet, it does return the reader to a village. It does return to a time in our history where much was incomprehensible.

In itself, this book is an admirable work that details the nitty-gritties of rural honour, machismo and relationships set in other times, for other sets of values. It is of significance to those seeking a record of times gone by.

 

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