BOOKS: Q & A with MANREET SODHI SOMESHWAR
`My novel explores how a society riven by a seemingly-unending spiral of violence, needs to open up to the stories of its survivors and fold them into its national and social history.`
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar`s The Radiance of a Thousand Suns revisits the atrocities faced by the Sikh community, both at the time of Partition as well as during the 1984 violence. The story explores the pain of those turbulent times, as perceived and experienced by women. Here, Manreet talks to Sheila Kumar about the book.
Give us the backstory on this book. Was this something that you always wanted to write about or a sudden decision?
Radiance… was something that stayed in my head for twenty long years! A desire to understand and explore the pogrom of 1984 was my entry into writing. However, I felt I had not been able to do justice to it in The Long Walk Home, which is the first fictional examination of the turbulent twentieth century history of Punjab. In hindsight, I realise I wasn’t skilled enough yet to write the book that is now The Radiance of a Thousand Suns.
There were many challenges. I needed to grow as a writer, mature as a woman, develop my perspective in order to bring to text what I had in my mind. The anti-Sikh violence of 1984 couldn’t be written in isolation — there was an entire history, and mythology, which undergirded that cataclysm. Additionally, I wanted it to be a narrative of, and by, women. But women exist only as data in documentation and books on Partition and ’84. So I had to seek out women’s stories via oral testimonies to hear what they had been saying all along but which nobody was hearing. For instance, in their witness testimonies to the commissions set up in the wake of 1984, since women used the euphemism of “dishonour,” and “humiliation,” the crimes of rapes were not registered or accounted for.
The canvas of the novel is broad — it explores seventy years of independent Indian history by supplanting ‘his’ story with women’s voices. Admittedly, I flailed, repeatedly, as I wrestled with the narrative. To rephrase 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!
Why did you feel this story needed to be told?
The Radiance of a Thousand Suns explores the impossible choices women are forced to make in the face of violence, the ties that connect them across ages, and the secrets they store. Heer is a leitmotif through the narrative, as is Draupadi. 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. My protagonist, Niki, asks: “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.”
We must ask ourselves why, 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 novel. The history of independent India has literally been ‘his’ story. This novel attempts to reconstruct the (hi)story and add to it the missing, suppressed, and absent stories of women. As Niki says in the novel: “Men’s stories become a society’s narrative and our heritage; women’s stories are forced underground, sealed and locked.”
I grew up amidst women who made me realise 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.
As a Sikhni, do you feel you have the necessary distance that writing about one`s own history calls for? And having written the book, is there a sense of catharsis now?
Writing is a complex dance between intimacy and distance. Which is why so many talk about the process like it were an act of birthing. But once the child is in the world, you have to discipline and mould this being. If Radiance… works, then I guess I have managed that perfect balance. I think I have a few more books to write, in order to exorcise the demon completely.
There is nothing clinical about the telling of this tale. Is that deliberate or purely involuntary?
In India, the past is forever intruding upon the present. And yet, it is a syncopated vision of the past where the male narrative of nation-building is what is celebrated on every anniversary of India’s independence. The female narratives of pain, humiliation and extraordinary courage have been submerged as if they never occurred. My novel explores how a society riven by a seemingly-unending spiral of violence, needs to open up to the stories of its survivors and fold them into its national and social history.
Which sets up an important task for the novelist: to transform general loss into a specific loss, to give us characters and their stories we can care about. And if, like me, you grow up in a border town, history is in your veins. Ferozepur, a Muslim-majority area that should have gone to Pakistan but stayed in India courtesy Radcliffe’s squiggle. The stories circulating in its air and in its soil stirred up by the marauders of yore, the kafilas of ’47, the militants of the eighties, are the stories that course through me.
Somewhere along the way in the telling of this tale, the protagonist veers (slightly) off the Partition and `84 violence path, and begins to tell of/show the tribulations of women who have chosen to make their home in foreign spaces. Was that a conscious expansion of focus?
When I began writing this novel (in NYC) I was clear that I wanted to bring in the diaspora who suffer from violence on account of being foreigners/migrants/refugees, and being brown. A turbaned brown man in the US is assumed to be Arab, a brown woman to be Mexican. It is almost as if the large number of Indians — and a majority of them are Punjabis — are invisible to other Americans amongst whom they live. With the Trump presidency the rhetoric of hate against such immigrants, many undocumented, has grown. Indeed the first casualty of hate crime in the US after 9/11 was a Sikh man. Radiance is set in India and NYC over a seventy year period as I wanted to illustrate how a person can flee their home but violence will continue to stalk them. This is because the people who bear the brunt of violence are often vulnerable, marginalised and from minority communities.
With this book, you`ve assertively entered the political fiction arena. Hence this question: simply put, what will it take to achieve closure on the atrocities let loose on the Sikh community in 1984?
All writing is political. Kafka’s dictum — A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us — informs my impulse to take pen to paper.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of the anti-Sikh violence. Four commissions, nine committees and two special investigation teams later, there have been only two milestone convictions. Women who lost male members of their families live in cramped conditions in west Delhi in what is called “Widow’s Colony”. Most of the survivors are yet to receive any semblance of justice but they have received a handy moniker from fellow Indians: “chaurasiye”, 84-er.
We must ask ourselves: Why were people so ready to believe the worst of their neighbours? In The Intimate Enemy, psychologist and social scientist Ashis Nandy suggests that in close communities, people will latch on to minor differences to feel distinct and superior to others when, paradoxically, the “other” is more similar to their own selves.
Does the unresolved trauma of our society, arising from the horrific communal violence of 1947—which, according to scholars like G.D. Khosla (also a former chief justice of the Punjab high court), a terrified people referenced as the pralaya (end of the world) foretold by the Mahabharat—haunt our collective psyche as it manifests in the spiral of violence in 1984, 1992, 2002…? Must we not address this past? South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Rwanda, Morocco have all made attempts to arrive at truth and reconciliation to heal themselves.
A first step in that direction would be to call the violence of 1984 by its name. The survivors are adamant it was not “dange” (riots) but “qatl-e-aam” (mass massacre). A riot presumes random violence between parties. Thirty-five years later, we must begin the process of our collective healing by naming the pogrom for what it is.
A central tenet of the Mahabharat says all wars are fraternal. The battle for dharma (righteous duty, in this sense) counsels us to focus on dharma, not on the battle. It is time the state fulfils its dharma by escalating the process of accountability for all our sakes—and by making reparations to the survivors of 1984.
An abridged version of this interview appears in the Sunday Herald. Link: https://www.deccanherald.com/sunday-herald/sunday-herald-books/placating-a-pogrom-776788.html