In September 2022, a coming-of-age novel brought us closer to Mai Bhago: a woman revered in the Sikh community and beyond for the roles she embraced, from being a warrior to being a legend. Through a historically fiction, this debut integrates culture and religion well into a story of bravery. With an author’s note that gives space to the intricacies of why this book was born, this inspiring story has been praised as “illuminating” by Kirkus Reviews and “riveting” by Publisher’s Weekly. Now a 2023 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, this novel is a must-read, especially for Sikh Heritage Month. Needless to say, it’s a pleasure to feature Anita Jari Kharbanda, the author of Lioness of Punjab, on this blog today! To view more such posts by women authors, make sure to check out this collaboration, Women for the Win. This blog post may contain affiliate links. To know more about them, please read my disclaimer.
Q/A with Anita Jari Kharbanda on reimagining the life of a revered female Sikh warrior, integrating religion and culture, and the longing of a community to write stories about the past.
Starting with the introductions, would you like to help our readers know more about your debut novel, yourself and the weather where you are?
My name is Anita Jari Kharbanda. I live in North Texas with my husband, Viney, and our two sons Yuvraj and Shaan; ages ten and eight. The weather here is often hot, with the occasional ice or snow day sprinkled in. I’m an industrial engineer by trade, and a storyteller by heart. My debut, Lioness of Punjab, is an energetic historical fiction, young adult novel which brings us closer to Mai Bhago—the first female Sikh warrior. She grows to embrace her many roles in a way that was entirely her own and, in the process, becomes a shining inspiration for young women everywhere.
Lioness of Punjab chooses to focus on the 18th-century female Sikh warrior. There is no doubt Mai Bhago is a revered historical figure for Sikhs, but how did this need to tell her story to the rest of the world strike you?
The idea for Lioness of Punjab came from my mother’s book that I have on my bookshelf with a Sikh female warrior on the cover. It’s written in Punjabi, so I cannot read it, but it made me remember Mai Bhago and inspired me to write a story about her. I hoped that her story would inspire people to be courageous during a time when I’ve seen many frightened by civic unrest.
It’s always exciting to read female accounts from a time when only men adorned weapons and justice was something only they could serve. This debut unravels in one such time period: early 1700s. Was there something surprising you came across while researching for such a timeline or the backdrop of then Punjab?
Yes. It was difficult to find historical facts about Mai Bhago. While there were many valid references and consistent information about her, there were limited details. I integrated events, detailed accounts around the Gurus of Sikhism, and the then-setting of Punjab, to build on the story. For the remaining, I filled in the blanks in a way that seemed fitting to her greatness.
It’s impressive how at just eighteen years of age, Mai Bhago motivated and led forty soldiers to victory against a might Mughal emperor. It’s also impressive how she marries yet holds onto her sword, how she becomes a legend despite traditional restrictions. What was it like to create a story of womanhood and courage—especially how the two are almost inseparable in various aspects?
It was liberating, and necessary. But it was also easy, because it was true. Courageous women, as we know from this story, have been around for centuries. No, actually, since the beginning of time. And this existence is not unique to a specific group of people, or cultures, or religions. This courage exists in a multitude of ways, each one unique and valid. Womanhood and courage coexist, intricately entwined.
Lioness of Punjab by Anita Jari Kharbanda
“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. Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa! Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh!”
It is the winter of 1705, and the tenth Guru of the Sikhs is under attack by the armies of the mighty Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb. Under siege and isolated, Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s men are exhausted beyond measure, and forty soldiers decide to head home. Back in the villages of Punjab, these forty men are met by a fiery Sikh woman—a warrior who has been preparing all her life for this very moment—who leads the deserters back to the Guru. This is the story of that warrior, the fierce Mai Bhago, who chose the sword to symbolize her unwavering loyalty and devotion to her people and her faith.
This energetic coming-of-age young adult novel brings us closer to Mai Bhago—a woman revered in the Sikh community and beyond—to imagine her growing to embrace her many roles in a way that was entirely her own and, in the process, becoming a shining inspiration for young women everywhere.
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You mention in this guest post on SLJ that in college, you thought if you “ever write a story, a Sikh woman would be at the forefront of the action” and now, with Lioness of Punjab out in the world, it has all come true. How has this journey of wanting to write a story to finally seeing it on bookshelves been? Any learning you’ve held on to over the years?
I am elated because I never imagined this book would be published. Then it received glowing trade reviews, blurbs from talented authors, and was even added to NCSS’s 2023 Notable List of Social Studies Trade Books for Young People!
I have learned that the world of publishing is slow, so patience and persistence pay.
Learning I have held onto came from my best friend since childhood. That advice was: ‘It only takes one.’ It only took one beta reader to believe in my story. It only took one literary agent to believe in my story. It only took one publisher to believe in my story. I wrote this book surrounded by the love of my family, and with God’s blessing. All of this is how it came to be.
It’s clear this debut novel beautifully integrates religion and culture into a historically accurate story. The faith that drives Mai Bhago and everyone who fought in the name of and in defence of Guru Gobind Singh is evident; and so is the cultural depiction through the Punjabi language or the staple roti as a food reference. How vital was it to interweave both these aspects in Lioness of Punjab?
Mai Bhago would have spoken Punjabi. In order to do justice to a book based on her life, it was vital that her voice be woven throughout the text. That voice would be in Punjabi. And food is an integral part of Indian culture, both historically and present-day. Time is spent both in preparing, and eating together. Roti is a Punjabi staple, consumed with nearly every meal. It was essential to elaborate on these aspects of the culture because they depict everyday life in early 1700s Punjab.
In a short note on Goodreads about this historical fiction, you said: “[you] hope what comes across is a heartfelt desire to bring [Mai Bhago’s] valor, bravery, and love to the world by augmenting the limited history we do know of her”. Do you feel there’s an added longing within the South Asian community to write stories about the past, especially how many figures and details of it has been forgotten or undocumented or ignored over the years? With that respect, how important was writing this specific genre for you?
Yes, and that longing stems from their minimal existence, despite monumental, historical contribution. History is necessary to understand where we come from. Seeing our ancestors in stories, especially those who made important strides, empowers us. They make us feel seen. These stories also help educate others outside of our culture. And most importantly, history guides us to learn from the past, and fosters wise decision making in the future.
This was a great chat! But before letting you go, would you like to share what you’re currently working on or any other upcoming projects we all should be excited for? Or maybe something you enjoyed reading recently?
I am working on an adult women’s fiction piece, and I cannot wait to share more details with you soon. Please stay apprised on my website, via my newsletter, or through instagram. A book I’d like to recommend is Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor. The story portrays the Indian mafia’s crimes against its own people, the desire of journalism to communicate the truth while forced to submit to those in power, and the tragedy that is the gap between those with wealth and status, and those without. Thank you for your time, and the privilege of interviewing with you.
Anita Jari Kharbanda
Anita Kharbanda is an Indian-American engineer by trade, and a storyteller by heart. She lives in North Texas with her loving husband and two sons. An avid lifelong reader of all kinds of fiction, she revels in seeing her children do the same. The healing power of letters filled with family history inspired Anita to start writing. She now writes the kinds of stories she’s devoured through the years, with one difference. She promised herself she’d write stories about the characters she dreamed of seeing in books growing up, and lift the voices of those who go unheard. You can find her through her website, on Twitter @jarianita or on Instagram!
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Everything stated in this post is independent of any compensation, and the author’s answers and thoughts are solely their opinion; the formatting was done by the blogger but no changes were made in text.