Anita Jari Kharbanda, author of Lioness of Punjab (Fall 2022) talks to Taryn Jackson about her inspiration for the book, her writing process, and the challenge of naming historical characters. Find out who she thinks should play Mai Bhago in a Bollywood movie!
Taryn: Why don’t we get started with you telling us a little bit about yourself and your journey to becoming an author?
Anita: My name is Anita Jari Kharbanda. I live in North Texas with my husband, Viney, and our two sons; one is almost ten, and the other one just turned eight. I had the typical debut author experience in that it took several years to get here. I started writing this book in about 2017. I wrote down a goal for myself to be published in 2022, and I actually forgot about that goal. I stumbled onto it recently. It was crazy! It was such a surreal experience because now it’s actually happening. I’m actually publishing a book in 2022. The idea came from a book that I have on my shelf—my mother’s—and there’s a 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. So that’s kind of how it started.
Taryn: That’s pretty amazing that you stumbled across your goal to be published in 2022. You met your goal without even realizing it. That’s awesome.
Anita: That’s what happened, and that’s why now I keep telling everyone—all my loved ones and friends—to write their goals down because they really can happen.
Taryn: Are you a journal writer? I know people do vision boards. How do you normally document your goals?
Anita: Yeah, I do the vision board, and then I write down daily affirmations of my thoughts. I want to journal more, but I’m just not finding time because I still work full-time and I am busy with my kids. I do list my affirmations, and I look at my vision board and update it. But yeah, I’m big on manifesting…
Taryn: Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration for your debut book, Lioness of Punjab?
Anita: It was my mother and father. My mother was the embodiment of love and faith. She believed very much in Sikhism. She told my sister and me stories and taught us prayer songs. She was a bit of a feminist, so she would translate some of our prayer songs from “he” to “she or he”. She and my father encouraged us to be anything we wanted to be and always wanted us to be strong. But above all, they taught us to be loving and focus on God.
Taryn: Having that relationship with your mom, it seems like you have some great memories that you can pass on to your sons. You can also emulate those behaviors and recreate that relationship with them. Boys have a special place in their hearts for their mamas, and even though they may be tough, they still like to be loved on.
Anita: You’re absolutely right!
Taryn: As for the characters, how did you come up with the characters’ names for your story?
Anita: Some of them are historical facts. For example, her husband was named Nidhan Singh. A couple of sources cite her brothers’ names as Bhag and Dilbagh. And her father was named Malo. I don’t know her mother’s name, and we never revealed it. We just call her Mataji throughout the book, which means mother.
I used historical references to find out more. I tried to use names from those sources because names change over time. So, that part was challenging. As I was reading historical books, if I noticed a name that was seemingly insignificant, but it would have existed in that period, I made that a character’s name.
Taryn: Oh, that’s smart. Your book is set in the 1700s. Trying to portray that history accurately can be a bit challenging, but it’s good that you were still able to keep the names authentic. Well, since we are talking about characters. If your book were made into a movie, what actors would portray your characters?
Anita: Oh, wow. This is a tough one. I think for Nidhan Singh, there’s a Bollywood actor Ranveer Singh. He’d be great to be her husband. He has the look. Mai Bhago is tough because I wouldn’t want someone conventionally “beautiful” to play her if that makes sense. If I have to choose, it would be Kiran Deol for Mai Bhago and Waris Ahluwalia for Nidhan Singh for Hollywood roles. For Bollywood, it would be Sonam Kapoor and Ranveer Singh. I am sure they could make them appear less conventionally beautiful for the movie! I would want them to look like people before braces and Hollywood makeup. Everyone you see in the movies is often conventionally attractive, and it’s great to have those genetic gifts, but I want a woman who maybe doesn’t look so perfect to play Mai Bhago.
Taryn: As a warrior during those times, I’m pretty sure she could not have her hair and makeup done. So just to portray her as she would have looked like during those times, I can see that being important when finding an actor for the role.
Anita: Yeah. And that’s what I love about the cover—she does not look glamorous. She looks fierce. I find her beautiful. But she would probably not be considered conventionally pretty by today’s standards. In South Asian cultures today, some features and traits considered pretty aren’t native, and were probably derived from colonial ideas of beauty. Say, prominent noses are common in Punjab, but a prominent nose may not be considered “beautiful”. Crooked teeth—teeth that are not perfectly straight—are considered less beautiful.
Taryn: And I think now they’re seen as more of imperfections than a person’s natural beauty. Beauty is what one finds beautiful and shouldn’t be based on society’s norms. What genre do you usually stick to when you’re choosing books? What kind of books do you enjoy reading?
Anita: I love historical fiction! But I have my moods, just like any reader. I love a good romance novel. I wrote a YA novel, and I predominantly read adult and YA. So, I’d say historical but throwing in romance or contemporary books here and there.
Taryn: Did you travel as research for your book?
Anita: Well, I went to India in 2015, which was before I wrote the book, but there are pieces of that trip that were incorporated. It’s not a whole lot since today is so different from the 1700s. Very little of what existed then is preserved now, but certainly, if I knew I was going to write this book, there would have been religious places in Punjab that I would have visited. There’s a special Gurdwara in Amritsar, where the Battle of Muktsar took place, built to honor the forty men who lost their lives. I would have gone there. But still, the feel, the smells, the way India is, I did feel that, and I think that comes across in my writing.
Taryn: You can always go back and visit those signature places in your book. That would be cool. So, earlier, you told us you are a wife, a mom, and a full-time engineer, which is a pretty full plate! Unless you have some magical ability to write in your sleep, how did you even find the time to write a novel?
Anita: (Laughing) My kids were a bit younger then, so they slept at 8 PM. You must know how it is, when you do something you love, it doesn’t really feel like work. So then, I would write from 8 to 10 or 11. And then, on the nights that my husband would do the bedtime routine, I’d write even longer. So yeah, it was at night when they went to bed early, but now it is a challenge because they stay up a little later. I’m tired when they are. So, I’ve got to determine a new normal for the present day.
Taryn: I would suggest Legos and toys that last over time that they have to work on. You know those cars that they have to put together? That might keep them busy! Was there any part of the book where it took a little bit longer than others where you were trying to find your way as far as what you wanted to write?
Anita: I wouldn’t say so. Not with this book. I have written a couple of other books that I decided not to move forward with where I experienced writer’s block. I know logically you have to put pen to paper, and you cannot just say I have to wait for my ideas to come and all of that. But I do think there is a piece of you, that artistic element, that must be very passionate about the idea for the words to come across. The discipline must be there, yes, but you must truly care about the subject matter of what you’re writing for the words to come. Does that make sense?
Taryn: It makes sense. What advice would you give a writer working on their first book? A writer who is at that point of “I want to become an author”. What advice would you give that writer?
Anita: Persistence and patience pay. That’s the advice I would give in terms of reaching out to agents and publishers when you’ve gotten to the final stage: Be patient and be persistent because it is a challenging space to make it in. And then I would also say to believe in yourself. Everybody has a crummy first draft, every single person, even the best authors. I guarantee you. So, you may look at it and think, I am not a writer, this is terrible. But remember, it will go through many edits throughout, so persistence, patience, and just believing in your ability to write a book are important. Also, confidence is key.
Taryn: Yes! I couldn’t agree more! And it’s important to be confident. Awesome. When it comes to diversity and seeing diverse books on bookshelves, is that important to you? How do you feel about your book being one of those that promotes the importance of diversity in literature?
Anita: It almost makes me kind of teary-eyed because I can think back to a time when I never saw people who looked remotely like me on bookshelves. I volunteer at my children’s school library, and it’s not as diverse as it could be, but I will see books with a young woman with her hijab on. I saw a book with a young girl celebrating Diwali, and I was like, wow! Now, there’s much more literature with diverse characters by diverse authors, and it should have always been this way. I’m disappointed that it hasn’t been, but I’m happy that it is now, and I hope it will continue to grow. We shouldn’t even have to identify it as diverse—it should just exist. So, it’s a good feeling. Yeah, it’s a good feeling to see these books.
Taryn: And you’re part of that community now! You are helping young readers see a reflection of themselves. You should be so proud. Well, this has been such an enjoyable Q& A session with you, Anita. I have one more question. If you could be any animal, what would you be and why?
Anita: Oh, I’d have to say a lioness. I understand that they actually do the hunting for the pack. I’d like to be a lioness just like Mai Bhago.
Taryn: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to share your journey as a debut author. Lioness of Punjab is on pre-order and will be available this Fall.
Anita: Thank you, Taryn! This was great, and I enjoyed speaking with you.