Lioness of Punjab

Lioness of Punjab by Anita Jari Kharbanda, Can be read in a few nights depending on your speed, Young Adult

“I have learned to stay away from those who want to find fault with me, who try to extinguish the fire within me. I am afraid if I allow them to do it long enough, they just might succeed.”

Mai Bhago, p. 63

Thank you, Gayatri Sethi, for the book recommendation and Yali Books for the ARC. Also extra thanks to Iman Grewal for help with the book photo, which includes her phulkari for the background and three Sikhi items: a kara (bracelet), chunni (white scarf also used as a head covering), and pagri/dastar (turban).

One of the reasons why I love historical fiction is that I get to learn about people and places and events I might otherwise know nothing about. This is especially true for Lioness of Punjab. While I grew up in a South Asian/Indian family, I know very little about Sikhism, so I sadly did not know about the amazing Mai Bhago. 

Not much is known about her life because, not surprisingly, history tends to focus on men and ignore women who were instrumental in key moments. What happens before and after these moments, and even what happens during these moments, have been lost. Mai Bhago is one such figure. Kharbanda’s book is a beautiful attempt at not just providing details of the key moments, but also in filling in the in betweens. 

There is so much I absolutely loved about this book. The hilarious moments of sibling rivalry. The descriptions of training with the sword. The subtle ways Kharbanda brings you into the scenery. The way she shows love existing and growing between multiple relationships. The way she weaves important moments in Sikhism history.

But what stands out the most is the way that you just feel the weight and pain of the patriarchal assumptions Bhago lives under. Mai Bhago is a historical and feminist heroine not just because of the role she played in the fight against the Mughal army, but also because her very actions defied existing assumptions and pushed for greater equity. While Kharbanda’s version of the story is but one possible explanation, her depiction makes it clear why Mai Bhago is such a hero to so many. And, more importantly, why Mai Bhago should be a renowned woman of history known by all.

The story is also as relevant today as it was then. I was constantly angry on her behalf at how she was treated—and how she was assumed to be incapable of fighting or that doing so would somehow denigrate her worth. But part of what angered me so much is that so much of it still resonates. The literal fights might be different, but the attitudes and systems in place are very much the same.

And if there is only one you remember after reading this, it should be this: If Mai Bhago can do it, why can’t we? 

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