Updated: Aug 31, 2022
"We will fight here." I commanded the warriors. "We are strong. We will have no fear. As Sikh warriors, we are ready to fight for justice. Vahiguru Ji Ka Khalsa! Vahiguru Ji Ki Fateh!"
—Lioness of Punjab by Anita Kharbanda
What's up, what's up, WHAT'S UP!
I'm just over here living life, and I hope y'all are too. I don't know if y'all heard yet (although it was posted on a previous blog post), but I've had my second short story published in Issue 7 of The Pandemic Post! That's right, ya girl is PUBLISHED. So, do me a favor, and go ahead and order a copy for these two reasons: 1) ALL the profits go to F12 People's Kitchen and 2) you'll be supporting me.
But, as excited as I am, this blog post isn't about me. It's about Lioness of Punjab by Anita Kharbanda, (which you should also buy, and I'll tell you why). So, let's jump into the review!
What's the novel about?
Lioness of Punjab is about Bhag Bhari, a thirteen-year-old girl who grows into the fierce warrior known today as Mai Bhago. From the day she was born, Bhag Bhari wanted nothing more than to fight for the Guru, her people, and her beliefs. Even when her Mataji (mother) told her it was unladylike. Even when her Pitaji (father) told her that her dharam (duty) was to care for the home. But destiny doesn't care about the naysayers, and when you feel it calling to you, you have to answer. So Bhag Bari does just that. She trains with her cousin Gurdas, and eventually her Pitaji as well, to fight and becomes the most skilled warrior in her village. And, when the time comes, she answers the call to war, leading forty soldiers back to Guru Gobind Singh Ji's side.
Now, normally after telling you what the novel is about, I would jump into what themes are present in the book and then tell you what I liked about it. But in the case of Lioness of Punjab a lot of what I liked about the book coincides with the themes. So, this time, I've combined the two sections together. (Please don't hate me.) So, here it is, the main theme of the book and what I liked about it:
What themes are present in the book? And what did you like about the book?
I had a hard time deciding what theme to discuss for this book because there were sooooo many good choices. But, in the end, I narrowed it down to one: If your purpose is clear to you, then you should follow it.
If your purpose is clear to you, then you should follow it.
While I was reading this book, the words that kept coming back to my mind were destiny, purpose, duty, and expectations, among others. All of these words have one thing in common: they refer to a person's place in society.
I don't know much about Sikh culture, but what I gathered about it from reading this book is that one's dharam, or duty is determined at birth. And, as with most societies, in the year that the book takes place in, men and women follow traditional gender norms where women tend to the home and children while men go to work, whether that work be selling items in a marketplace or heading off to war.
"Yes, because I am a female, I cannot die in battle. I suppose you think a woman's life is more important than a man's!"
The majority of the book discusses this through Bhag Bhari's upbringing, where she mentions several times that she wants to be a warrior, but her family is against it because it is not what a woman is supposed to do. One of my favorite scenes that embodies this takes place in Chapter Four when Bhag's cousin Gurdas is training her to wield a sword, and her father appears.
Pitaji balled his hands into tight fists. "Gurdas, how can you call yourself a veerji if you are training your bhen to die?" Pitaji stormed over to me and grabbed me by the ear to drag me home.
I was utterly humiliated. "Yes, because I am a female, I cannot die in battle. I suppose you think a woman's life is more important than a man's!" I wasn't making much sense. I yanked myself free of Pitaji's grip...
I will admit, when I first read this scene, I was a bit confused about Bhag Bhari's words as well. I actually thought it was a typo.
But, after I thought about it, I understood her thoughts exactly. When Bhag Bari points out that her Pitaji thinks a woman's life is more important than a man's, she's saying that men and women aren't treated equally in their society. She's saying that if a man can give his life up for the Guru, then a woman should be able to do the same. That she should be able to do this same. This book may take place in a different time period, but the sentiment gives full-on Disney 1998 Mulan vibes because the themes are so similar. (Both feature strong women who take on the gender norms in their communities and come out better for it, while also maintaining their version of what beauty means to them.)
Throughout Lioness of Punjab there is NEVER a moment where Bhag Bhari questions who she is or what she's supposed to do with her life, and this was something that I really appreciated in the novel.
"I will never stop wanting to fight. That is what I was created for.
Although there were certain points where Bhag Bhari's words become repetitive (and she becomes slightly annoying), I like that she never falters in her conviction. Which, is definitely the main point of the book. You see, there are many sections where she talks about how being a Sikh is about honor and duty. And being a warrior coincides with that. In Chapter Five, she specifically says:
"I will never stop wanting to fight. That is what I was created for. Our people are at risk of being annihilated, and every day, more men die fighting. And I will never want to marry if I cannot take up arms to protect us." I felt unsure of myself, but I held my head high and feigned conviction. "If Mamaji and Gurdas die, then we all deserve the pain we will feel since we did not fight with honor alongside them."
And this scene is probably the most accurate way to describe her entire personality throughout the book. And it is because of her personality that she does exactly what she's meant to do: Become a warrior.
As far as messages in books go, I think this one is perfect, especially for young girls today who might be into activities or professions that are male-dominated (such as STEM) and may have parents, family members, or friends who try to dissuade them against joining such activities or professions.
We need books like this for women, especially those told from a perspective that is not our own. Besides, we all know that girls run the world. (I had to make that Beyoncé reference fit somehow, lol.)
Now, I could go on and on about other instances in the book where this occurs, but I think it's best if you just read it for yourself. That said, let's jump into what I didn't like about this book/wished the author did differently.
What, if anything, did you dislike or wish the author would've done differently?
There were three things that I wish were different about the book. First, I wish there was a glossary, second I had issues with names, and, third, the description on the back of the book was misleading.
There was no glossary and I was trying to figure out what a kirpan is/was. Luckily, I came across this handy video.
There were a ton of terms in the book (like Mataji, Pitaji, veere, dhi, dharam, kirpan etc.) and, though they added a lot of depth to the story, I wish there had been a glossary. There were several times where I forgot what the terms meant, and I had to either use context clues or go back to another section of the book to remember what it meant, and a glossary would have been helpful to have.
There were also a lot of names in the book, some of which I didn't feel were important because we only see them mentioned once or twice. My personal opinion is that if a character isn't essential to the plot, they don't need a name. However, and I didn't ask this question in the interview with Anita Kharbanda, but I imagine that—as in most religions—names are sacred. And so, perhaps the extra names were added to show respect to those characters, even if they weren't essential to the plot.
Also, on names, I don't know why, but I got annoyed that Nidhan Singh was always referred to by his full name instead of just Nidhan. And, though I'm sure this is also to show respect to the character and/or the person the character was named after, the same thing is not done with any of the other main characters.
Description of Book
When I first read the description for Lioness of Punjab, I thought the book was going to take us on a journey with Mai Bhago and the forty soldiers. Essentially, I thought it would be the storytelling of Redeployment by Phil Klay (i.e. what went on during the journey) meets the format of Peak by Roland Smith (i.e. told chapter by chapter) meets Sikh culture. And, that's not what this book is.
If you want to try writing a pitch yourself...
Instead, this book strikes me as a fictional slice-of-life-type memoir. Think Scaachi Koul's One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, except told in chronological order, partially fictional, and add death. (Sorry that I don't have better comparisons, I haven't been reading a lot of memoirs lately.)
In essence, the story that I read wasn't the story that I expected. This, isn't necessarily a bad thing, just that it's a bit misleading if you're looking for a journey-type story as opposed to a slice-of-life story.
How many stars would you give this book and why?
I struggled between giving this book three stars or four because I couldn't decide on whether or not I was disappointed that the story I was promised wasn't necessarily what I got. However, Kharbanda's unique voice and captivating writing paired with a badass main character who sticks with her convictions, along with themes relevant to today's world really boosts the score. In other words, I really liked this book despite the negatives, so I'm awarding it four stars.
Anita Jari Kharbanda is the author of Lioness of Punjab. Her book will be available in bookstores on September 17, 2022.
If you want to hang out with her virtually, she'll be chatting with Daman on @11questionpod about all things Lioness of Punjab in September.
If you want to meet Anita in person, her book launch party will be held at Whose Books in the Oak Lawn area of Dallas on September 24, 2022, from 2:00-4:00 PM CST.
There will be swag, treats, copies of Lioness of Punjab for purchase, an author signing, and special reading. And, even if you aren't local, you can still attend the reading virtually! There is literally no reason to miss it if you're free between those hours.
But, if you want to come in person and absolutely can't make it to the launch event, don't fret. There will be a second book signing event at the Half Price Books Flagship Store in DFW on October 9, 2022, from 1:00-3:00 PM CST.
If you still can't get enough of Anita, you can check out her website.
If you enjoyed this book review and want to know more about her, check out this interview.
What are your thoughts on Lioness of Punjab? Tell me in the comments. And, remember to like and subscribe to The Write Voice. Thanks!