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The Partition and the riots of 1984 had women suffering as easy targets. They need their stories told, and Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, with her new book The Radiance Of A Thousand Suns, does just that.
More often than not when I read a book, I sit with a cup of coffee / green tea, a bookmark, and a stack of post its. I like marking bits and pieces of the book that have touched my heart, I want to research on, or I just want to go back to. All this is (obviously) colour coded.
I began The Radiance Of A Thousand Suns armed with the coffee and the stickies, and by the time I was done, it was thick with stickies.
So, when I finally met the author, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar and asked her to sign my book, she was stunned by the number of stickies poking out of my book. Stunned but happy.
This novel, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s fifth one, released in the summer of 2019 and spans the story of five women. The protagonist, Niki Nalwa, is on a quest to finish her father’s incomplete book centred around the stories of victims of the Partition as well as the 1984 Anti-Sikh riots. At the centre of that book is Jyot, a reclusive old Punjabi woman who loses her family in both the tragedies. Interwoven amidst this is the story of the Mahabharata and Draupadi, even as the characters discuss it at some points in the book.
The Radiance Of A Thousand Suns is Niki’s story, but it also chronicles the lives of three other women who suffered during the Partition and later the 1984 riots. These five women span different generations, but each is strong in her own way.
Meeting the Ghalib quoting, poetry and masala chai loving author finally, was a dream come true. When we met after the recently held Bangalore litfest at a café, we simply could not stop talking! She is every interviewer’s dream interviewee – she speaks her mind, she’s articulate, and she has the kindest voice too.
While she acknowledges the suffering of the thousands of the people who went through the Partition and the riots of 1984, she believes that these stories of women are the ones that need to be told, simply because they have been kept under wraps for far too long. She says that these are the stories that need to come out in the open for people – everyday people – to have conversations about.
Manreet hopes that her book will open up conversations about not just the 1984 riots but also the Gujarat riots of 2002 and the current events in Kashmir. During our conversation, she said she believes that since the British era, anyone and everyone who ruled the country knew that the ‘Divide and Rule’ concept is one that will definitely work very well on Indians. And knowing that, people are constantly using it.
However, she has hopes from this generation, as she says, “After my session (at the lit fest) except for one person, everyone who came to talk to me, were young people. It’s not my generation that needs to be informed about this; it is the younger generation. Because if one person can talk to another person about it, I believe that’s enough.”
The book has five major characters and of them, she says, the most difficult to write was Jyot, a complex woman character who has survived both the Partition as well as the ’84 riots and lost her family both the times. She has given up on life by the time Niki meets her and is all but ready to die. Yet, she has a presence and is an undeniably strong woman.
Talking about writing Jyot, Manreet says, “I usually wait for the character to lead me on a journey, since I am not someone who plots her book in a particular precise manner. So, while I knew half my book was supposed to be set in India and the other half in New York, I didn’t know where it would take me. One day, I read a short story called ‘The Shawl’. It’s set during the Holocaust and when I read the story, it was as if something crystallised in me about Jyot and I knew what Jyot would do. And once, I had that, I have my way in the ending. Since I know the ending, what happened to Jyot, why did what she did, I knew what questions to ask myself.
Initially, I started writing a short story and it gave me a sense of Jyot and I started writing about her. But the reason I struggled with Jyot was because, how does one person who’s once suffered the loss of a family goes through a loss twice? How does a woman who has suffered such loss, go on living life? What is the level of guilt involved? What is that guilt composed of?”
To understand Jyot completely, Manreet also enrolled herself in a course on trauma studies, which made her realise trauma is not linear. One person’s trauma may not be the same as another person’s. Neither is there anything that can be said about their memories. They mix things up, they get confused. And that is exactly how Jyot has been portrayed.
Manreet says that her writing journey, especially for this particular book started when she read Khushwant Singh’s Train To Pakistan. For her, these stories were deeply personal since she hails from one of the border towns of India and has known people who have experienced both the Partition and the 1984 massacres. However, when she spoke to one of the victims of the ’84 riots, she says, she felt like giving up on the project altogether, for a woman had asked her, “Why? What’s the point of it? We haven’t got any justice!” At the same time, what gave her hope for this book was the fact that though there have been stories and books written about both the tragedies, most have not given the women any voices.
One of the things that the book uses throughout is the poetry of the iconic poet Mir Bulleh Shah (in the voice of Nooran, one of Manreet’s favourite characters in the book). When asked where that came from, Manreet says that it came from her own history of listening to her father recite both Urdu and Punjabi poetry and songs.
Another aspect that she brings in is the story of Heer. She explains why she has deliberately used both Draupadi and Heer in the book, “Draupadi we all know and understand, she had injustice meted out to her. But Heer, she is a part of the popular folklore in Punjab. Among all the other popular love stories, Heer is actually my favourite. She’s called Heer Saleti and she is also a heroine who is slightly wheatish instead of the usual fair as milk complexioned. Heer also came from a slightly well-off family and was her father’s darling. But she was in love with this person and the families didn’t want it. She was also like Draupadi, and she questioned her father asking him if he loved her so much, how did he marry her off against her wishes?
Everyone knows that she’s married off and then she kills herself as does Ranjha. Now, over a period of time, they have made Heer this beautiful, fair sanitised version. A woman who loved him but gave in. She has been made into a deity by the people. So she is no more a flesh and blood person who loved someone. This was my way of reclaiming Heer because this wasn’t the Heer I grew up with stories of. The Heer I know is rebellious and has discussions with her father, so I wove her into the story.”
Yet another thing that Manreet woven in the book was food. She has used it as a memory, as a nostalgia, as a way to simply describe certain feelings. She says, “In our culture, food is a stand in for a demonstration of love. For us, food is a language, a way to communicate our love for the other person. I also think there is something primal about it. Because food is prepared with your hands, you eat with your hands, when you feed someone even that is done with your hands. So there’s this sort of a very physical thing.”
She also says that food is a repository of home, of our culture, of memories. Especially when you move away from home, it the food that is what you most often crave.
Now, I love my books to have mentions of food but I also love it when books give me food for thought. That is exactly what this book does! It makes you think, it gives you reasons to have conversations and it makes you wonder about humans and the beauty of stories and that of story-telling.
The book gives you a chance to peek into the lives of women who suffered during the partition and during the 1984 massacres. It gives you the opportunity to read about the seldom written stories of women who, while suffering from their own losses, managed to be strong and it was their strength that makes them the heroines.
The Radiance Of A Thousand Suns gives you the chance, the opening, to have conversations that need to be had in today’s day and age. It makes you think, and it leaves you a little teary eyed and a little haunted.
Who doesn’t want that in a book? So, go grab yourself a copy, at Amazon India, or at Amazon US.
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Reader, writer and currently an Associate Editor at Women's Web, I survive on coffee
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