The first post of the Spotlight is life today, and I’m so thrilled to be interviewing Anita Jari Kharbanda, the author of Lioness of Punjab, over at my blog today! If you haven’t yet read my previous post where I recommend many debut books by South Asian authors, check it out here – Recent + Upcoming South Asian Debuts to Add to Your Shelves
Told through the lens of a female Sikh warrior, Lioness of Punjab is a debut that transports you to the life of Mai Bhago, or simply Bhag Bhari. Simple in its message, yet powerful all the same, I greatly enjoyed reading this historical novel, and I think you will too!
“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!”
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.
Q1: Hi Anita, I’m so thrilled to be having you on my blog today! For people who are new, would you mind introducing yourself and your book, Lioness of Punjab?
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. 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. It released on September 17, 2022.
Q2: Getting into Lioness of Punjab, what exactly inspired you to write a story from the point of view of a Sikh woman warrior? Is there anything that just spoke to you while writing this novel?
Growing up I loved reading, but never saw characters who looked like me in books. When I was in highschool I read a book by a South Asian author about South Asian characters for the first time in my life. It was called Arranged Marriages by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Then in college I read Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. I suddenly became aware of the possibility that there could be characters in books like me.
In college I thought, if I ever write a story, a Sikh woman would be at the forefront of the action, and if I tell it in her voice, through all her challenges and triumphs, young adults like me would see the unique way she views her place in the world. And maybe, they’d see a piece of themselves in her too. But at that point it didn’t occur to me that I’d actually write for teens one day.
The inspiration to write this story grew slowly, and I’d say it came from my family. I started journaling, then wrote for a magazine, and then, without realizing it, wrote a private memoir inspired by family history. I’d discovered I really like to write, and sought to write stories about unsung voices. 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. This was in 2017, and I wrote down a SMART goal to be published in 2022. I then promptly forgot about the written down goal until stumbling onto it recently. It was serendipitous because it actually happened.
Q3: Mai Bhago’s tale isn’t just historical fiction or a piece of literature but also a coming-of-age story. How do you think the presence of various outsiders and multiple kinds of people in her time, affected her bringing up?
Given the role of women in the 18th century in India, it would have been an uphill battle for Mai Bhago to aspire to be a warrior, which was then male-dominated. At the end of the day though, she had a loving and supportive family, who believed in her, even if they didn’t understand her aspirations. I also think seeing the suffering of her community coupled with her love for the Guru further motivated her to fight for justice. These people in her life, combined with her own iron-will, propelled her into her destiny.
Q4: Lioness of Punjab features a real life heroine, and writing fiction while staying true to the content material isn’t easy! How would you describe your research process for this novel? Were there things that you only learned then, that seemed very interesting?
I conducted a hefty amount of research. Finding reliable historical resources was not a singular effort, and recommendations came from The Sikh Research Institute, my publisher, other Sikh writers authors’ notes, the Gurdwara, and my local library. The content about Mai Bhago in the trusted resources was consistent, but limited. I had to fill in the blanks in a way that fit with historical fact, and the depth of Mai Bhago’s character.
I learned so much about my religion and culture as I researched, which only further connected me to the book and our shared history. For example, I learned that turbans were a sign of nobility and prestige in undivided India. Sikhs held the wearing, tying, and caring for their turbans with great reverence.
Q5: Many diverse voices are now finding their homes in huge publishing industries and I couldn’t be more happier! Are there any books that are similar to your debut that you’ve had a great time reading?
Yes, I completely agree! Similar titles include The Last Queen and also Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Additionally, Gold Mountain by Betty G. Yee, and The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan by Sherry Thomas are comparable titles.
Q6: Lastly, to wrap up this interview, is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Thank you for taking the time to interview me, and I appreciate your praise for Lioness of Punjab. For everyone who reads it, thank you, and I hope you enjoyed the story of how a true warrior came to be.
about the author
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.
When she is not working, writing or reading, she can be found playing board games with her family, watching her sons’ sports games, or baking. She loves to travel with her family, but admits she sleeps coziest at home in her own bed. A warm cup of chai, reading a good book, and cuddles with her children are her zen.
Yali Books published her debut YA novel, Lioness of Punjab. The story is told from the perspective of Mai Bhago, the first female, Sikh warrior.