Book review: The Radiance of a Thousand Suns by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
A young Sikh woman in NYC tries to deal with the inheritance of particularly painful memories
When the winds of independence blew in 1947, it carried within it a monster gale that wreaked damage on Punjab and its people. Thirty-seven years later, those marauding wind storms visited Punjabis yet again, this time in Delhi.
For far too many people belonging to that noble community, closure is still the dim light barely glimpsed at the end of a long dark tunnel. Now, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar brings to that particular pantheon, her book The Radiance of a Thousand Suns.
There is nothing clinical about the telling of this tale. Emotions underpin it, suffuse it, flesh the story out, buttress its spine, keeps its narrative at an affecting pitch throughout.
An emotional telling
This is the story of Niki Nalwa, born during the Emergency into a respected Sikh family that tries its best to weather the tempests that arrive one after the other, unbeckoned, unanticipated. Feminism and activism are family traits bequeathed to her by her grandmother Biji and her lawyer father Jinder, and when Jinder dies with a book on Partition victims and survivors left unfinished, Niki picks up that gauntlet and tries to do justice to it, attempts to bring some kind of closure to that painful narrative.
However, for all the pain contained within the tale, the book is a celebration of the narrator`s roots. The tale is told in a direct manner, there are no flourishes of language but the author doesn’t hit one false note at any time. All the characters, Biji, Nooran, Jinder Nalwa, Jyot, Niki, Niki`s daughter Mehar, are sketched out in warm detail, forging an instant connect between the character and the reader. The author then weaves atmosphere into the matrix, strand by strand, till the picture comes fully alive.
Niki grows up, studies in Kolkata, marries, goes to NYC but the author doesn’t lose focus for one moment, all through. Talking of the aftermath of 9/11, she reminds the reader that the first victim of hate crime after 9/11 was a Punjabi Sikh immigrant in Arizona, mistaken for an Arab because of his beard and turban.
Then there is a passage where Niki is musing on the hype around Halloween in NYC. She was being a killjoy but her recent readings in the library had ruined Halloween for her. What had happened during Partition hadn’t ended there. `47 had had resonances. In `84, when Dadima visited Delhi to record the aftermath of the riots, her first diary entry read: drains clogged with blood and hair, stray dogs gnawing at human corpses, the air is fetid with charred flesh and smoke. To live in a society where skulls and bones could serve for annual jollity was a privilege indeed.
A glorious sun
And for those who are wondering, yes, the title of the book does refer to J. Robert Oppenheimer quoting from the Bhagavad Gita, even as his dreadful creation, the atom bomb, goes up, goes out and destroys. As it also does to Niki`s young daughter Mehar`s addition of a glorious sun motif to Nooran`s embroidered quilt. As it does to Nooran herself, who in Niki`s eyes, shone with all the radiance of a thousand suns.
Using the device of a young woman growing up hearing stories of Partition, then delving by herself into stories of similar catastrophic events, Sodhi Someshwar touches upon a set of topics, apart from the central ones.
Religion as a rule book to control women; racism in the form of anonymous complaints about the smells emanating from Niki`s NYC flat; how government apathy, police inaction and lethargic courts ensured none accused of the `84 pogrom were prosecuted, no victims compensated; how women`s bodies became battlefields in the times of conflict.
Dealing as it does with Partition, the rise of the Khalistan movement, the Emergency, Operation Blue Star, the horrific killings of 1984, the book isn’t really a light read. Indeed, it is not mean to be one.
Here and there, though, it could have done with a more alert blue pencil. One thing that jarred for this reader was how, after the author had drawn up a suitably transparent alias for the ruthless Indian Prime Minister, giving her the telling name of Durga, by page 55, this particular ball is dropped and an awkward line appears: So what if she was the Prime Minister and called Durga after the fiery Hindu mother goddess? No virtue was higher than honour. To keep it intact, men killed as a matter of duty, something Punjabi women knew, but perhaps PM Indira Gandhi didn’t?
Then again, given the arc of the gripping story, this remains but a minor irritant.
The Radiance of a Thousand Suns
By Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
This ran in DECCAN HERALD of 17 Nov 2019.