Study the Past to Define The Future – Manreet Sodhi Someshwar

After writing the highly successful books including Earning the Laundry Stripes, The Long Walk Home, Mehrunisa Trilogy, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar is back with her next – The Radiance of a Thousand Suns. She tells about her journey and about her books and why to study the past to define the future in a tete-a tete with Pria.

  1. From an MBA Graduate from the IIM and doing marketing, advertising, and consulting to writing books, how the journey has been so far?

Eventful. It has surprised me even!

2. Did anything inspired or motivated you to start writing? (Any book you read etc?)

Writing snuck upon me in the guise of a Tai Tai, a Chinese colloquial term for a woman of leisure. Perched atop a Singapore high-rise, at the turn of the millennium, I was to take a sabbatical from the life of a corporate road warrior and indulge in some ‘me’ time. On my way to realizing this barmy prospect in sunny Singapore, I collided with the plains of Punjab. Rather, its fields. That grew mustard and wheat and rice and, for a period in the eighties, militants. Which made my little town on the Indo-Pak border a militant hotbed. And images started to swim up, of a time that I had left behind, or so I thought…

I tried to resist. After all, I was jobless by choice, unburdened by motherhood, ready to explore a shiny first-world city! But the neat white Ikea table in my newly-set-up study drew me in repeatedly. There I’d sit after my husband left for the office, with my second cup of tea, and memories that rose unbidden, like the fragrance of the night-blooming jasmine in the garden of our home in Ferozepur. All right, I determined, I would offload those memories onto my PC and be done with them. I was naive. One memory led to another, then another, a labyrinth opening up for me to wade in. That period of my life came back to me with the kind of hi-fidelity reproduction enthusiasts wax about.

To make sense of those memories I started asking questions. My research took me back in time and it was the national library, not any salon, that became my haunt. Seven years later, I had a book: The Long Walk Home.

3. You have written across genres. Your first book was on the life of a girl in corporate. Then you moved on to writing thrillers, The Taj Conspiracy, and Hunt For The Kohinoor.  What inspires you as a writer in this genre? Any real-life influence that led you to write on this genre?    

The writing of what became my second published book, The Long Walk Home, took me seven long years. That was partly due to the research involved but also because I was teaching myself to write. I stalled frequently and threatened to quit occasionally. At some point, I heeded my husband’s advice — Why not try something simpler? — and the idea of a tongue-in-cheek look at a woman executive in an all-male corporate world came to me. It arose from my own experience as the first woman sales manager with Unilever India (Hindustan Lever Limited, at that time).

I intended it as mainstream women’s fiction and had a lot of fun writing it. Perhaps because I wrote it as a relief from Long Walk and the voice of my protagonist Noor came naturally to me since I gifted her many of my own adventures in sales. I wrote it in a year, it was an easier sell, and it became my first published novel, Earning the Laundry Stripes.

Thereafter, when I was searching for my next subject to write, in the winter of 2008, we visited the Taj Mahal. Our guide came highly recommended with his roster of foreign corporate clients. He proved a downer, rattling off dimensions of domes and minarets amidst a steady dribble of urban legends. As we perambulated the monument, he pointed to the pinnacle atop the central dome. The finial is too far for the naked eye to discern much. But a replica exists in the red sandstone platform and he walked us to it. See, he triumphantly pointed to a carving — a coconut resting on mango leaves atop a pot of water — a popular Hindu design! Then he began his spiel about how the Taj Mahal was actually an ancient Hindu temple called Tejo Mahalya which the Mughals had repurposed.

The guide’s story, attributed to one P. N. Oak, is routinely dismissed by historians. But I was so disillusioned I determined to write a story that would rescue the Taj Mahal from lies and show the monument for what it truly is: a symbol of syncretic India. The challenge was huge. Most Indians know little about the monument except for its famed beauty and fabled love legend. There is a dearth of scholarly work — indeed, the Austrian historian Ebba Koch is the only one permitted to take measurements of the complex over her thirty-year research on the monument. The Taj Conspiracy became a runaway bestseller. (Readers still email me that they take my book along as a guide when visiting the Taj!) In Mehrunisa, I had a protagonist my readers had connected with. I followed this with The Hunt for Kohinoor which weaves a spy story against the backdrop of contemporary Indo-Pak history of internecine warfare and our shared Mughal history.

4. Tell us about your latest book – The Radiance of a Thousand Suns.

The Radiance of a Thousand Suns is about Niki’s determination to complete her dead father’s unfinished book, his life’s work, which takes her from India to New York City. There, her pursuit of a mysterious immigrant woman turns into an obsession that begins to imperil her daughter, her marriage, and, eventually, Niki herself. When a blizzard blankets NYC, Niki finds herself on a path where the present and past collide violently. Interweaving the epic Mahabharata, the poetry of Bulleh Shah, and the legend of Heer, The Radiance of a Thousand Suns is a novel about the mythic and the intimate, about stories on tapestry and mobs that recur, about home and love and history and those heartbreaking moments when they all come crashing together.

The narrative spans the cataclysms of Partition and 9/11, via the brutality of Emergency and the pogrom of 1984, and stretches from India to New York. Admittedly, it is a broad canvas, one that I have wrestled with for many many years. To echo that famous dialogue from the film Damini: draft pe draft, draft pe draft, draft pe draft likhti gayi, par manuscript nahin mila. Until it finally did. Phew! But it would not have been possible without the countless books, academic articles, scholarly research papers and oral testimonies which provided me with a solid foundation upon which to build my novel. Historical fiction is a tricky beast and I am pernickety about historical authenticity, hence the two-step-forward-one-step-backward momentum of writing this book. I am indebted to the public library network in Hong Kong and New York — HKPL and NYPL — for daily sustenance.

5. Your books include a lot of research and history. Do you think that in this country, history has been manipulated manifold?  

I believe that in order to grapple with the present, sometimes, we have to engage with the past. I don’t mean a rehash. What I have in mind is a close scrutiny of tradition, an exploration of homilies, a deep dive into myths so we can parse the narrative for our stories and question the status quo. Why, for instance, after 70 plus years of Partition, have we not been able to lay the ghosts to rest? In 1947, when women’s bodies became the battlefield, did that template of sexual violence derive from our foundational epic? Does the fact that women bore the brunt of that violence echo in this time of#metoo?

In India, the past is forever intruding upon the present. So why not reckon with that past, I asked myself, and invited the dead to populate my latest novel. The history of independent India has literally been ‘his’ story. The Radiance of a Thousand Suns attempts to reconstruct the (hi)story and add to it the missing, suppressed, and absent stories of women. As Niki, my central protagonist in Radiance, says in the novel: “Men’s stories become a society’s narrative and our heritage; women’s stories are forced underground, sealed and locked.”

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6. Do you think a few people may differ with you regarding some events that you have written?  How do you deal with such situations?

I write stories that I want to read but I can’t seem to find. For instance: I want to read about the women who lived through the cataclysms of Partition and the Emergency and 1984. I know what the men did, there are history textbooks and novels written about their valour and violence, but it’s the silent stories of the women that intrigue me. Can a regular Indian woman save the nations’ most iconic monument? When I wrote the Mehrunisa trilogy, I didn’t want to create a Jane Bond but an everyday heroine who could be a role model for girls. In Radiance, my protagonist, Niki, questions: “It is our epic, the story of India. And yet, how many women do we know, or have heard of, who are named Draupadi? The one epic female character in India’s greatest epic finds no takers, whereas Karan-Arjuna-Krishna sprout like weeds.”

I grew up amidst women who made me realize that Draupadi was alive and living amongst us. For a girl child in Punjab, there couldn’t have been better role models. I always tell my daughter: The power of the story lies in the hands of the storyteller. As women, we must dig them out, dust them off, dress them up, imagine them, grow them, tell them — Our stories. If others differ, they have to find and write their own stories.

7. What according to you is needed to write books in a sensitive genre like yours which covers disturbing events like partition, riots, terrorism, etc?  

Curiosity about history. Dedication to research. A sense of dispassion. A willingness to go against the popular grain. But most of all, a deep desire to tell a story that informs and entertains.

8. Which genres do you enjoy reading the most? Which you don’t enjoy at all?

I enjoy reading anything that’s well written and nuanced. I am a sucker for language, for words that when strung together create entire worlds and characters I want to journey with. (You could say I am a failed poet.)

9. What is the biggest surprise that you experienced after becoming a writer?

That writing one book does not in any way equip you to write the next. With each book I find myself a novice, having to figure out once again how to go about this business of conjuring worlds via words.

10. Anything you would like to say to your readers?

Read, read a lot. Reading makes us better people, if only because it opens the world to us. But write only if the story would kill you if you didn’t. And I mean it, literally.

11. What are some ways in which you promote your work?  Do you find that these add to or detract from your writing time?

Mostly, I write. But when I have a new book out, I ferret for every scrap of attention the book is getting and feed it to social media.

12. What projects are you working on at the present? When can we expect a new thriller from you? What about the last book in the Mehrunisa Trilogy after the Hunt for the Kohinoor?

Several. Mehrunisa Book 3 is definitely in the pipeline. However, I am currently vested in multiple books set around India’s independence and partition, most of which read like thrillers.

I grew up amidst women who made me realize that Draupadi was alive and living amongst us. For a girl child in Punjab, there couldn’t have been better role models. I always tell my daughter: The power of the story lies in the hands of the storyteller.

13. Is the character Niki in The Radiance of A Thousand Suns inspired from any real-life person?

When you write regularly, the real and artificial, the imaginary and the organic, all get inextricably mixed with each other. Niki, and indeed all my characters, has elements of real people I have encountered. However, Niki is no less real to me than people whose lives are not lived on the page.

14. What do your plans for future projects include? Any plans for a motion picture/web series based on your book(s)?


15. How do you feel about ebooks vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing?

Any medium that enables reading is great. I prefer physical books to ebooks any day.

16. Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work?  What impact have they had on your writing?

Too many to name! Just an initial roll call would include Ghalib, Gulzar, Khushwant Singh, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, John Steinbeck, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Krishna Sobti, Amrita Pritam, Hillary Mantel, Anita Desai, George Eliot, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Enid Blyton… I believe that every text I have read has left its influence on me. The greatest impact on my writing comes from the fact that I know more than one language. Whilst I write in English, Urdu shayars and Punjabi Sufi poets have nourished me through my life.

17. In your opinion, what is the most important thing that people DON’T know about your subject/genre, which they need to know?

That I write across genres? From literary fiction to literary thrillers, from commercial fiction to women’s fiction… The one thing that unites my writing is my kickass female protagonists.

18. What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?  

I wanted to add the stories that have gone missing from the history of independent India. And I am immensely grateful that Gulzar Saab liked The Radiance of a Thousand Suns enough to give it his generous blurb: “To see the manuscript of history, live and happening … one must read Manreet’s novel.”

19. What did you find most useful in learning to write?  What was the least useful or most destructive?

Writing daily. Re-writing and editing. Reading voraciously.

In India, the past is forever intruding upon the present. So why not reckon with that past, I asked myself, and invited the dead to populate my latest novel.

One-liners/One word-based answer questions

Please respond to these questions in one line or one word wherever possible –

  1. Your all-time favorite author/writer?

Mirza Ghalib.

2. Do you believe in writer’s block? Did you have it anytime or not?

Writer’s block is a feature of a writer’s life, much as injuries are for any athlete. When I face an obstacle, I go for a long walk, cook, or listen to my favourite ghazals or Sufi poetry.

3. Your favorite place to write your book(s)?

My home.

4. Research and then write or research while writing? Which one you prefer?

Research. Research. Research. But of course, one must know what one’s researching for. I start with an idea I want to explore and take it from there.

5. What do you do in your free time?

Read, walk, spend time with my family.

6. How many hours a day do you write?

3-4, daily, weekdays.

7. Do you Google yourself?

Sure. Especially when a new book is out.

8. Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

Not secrets but subtext which re-readings usually reveal.

9. If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?

Well, I was a corporate executive when I didn’t write. But now I am useless without my writing.