Books

“However Far a Punjabi Travels, Punjab Remains the Lodestone” – Manreet Sodhi Someshwar

New York author Manreet Sodhi Someshwar on the Punjab factor in her writing, the Indian farmer protests, and the #MeToo element in her new book.

By Neha Kirpal

New York-based bestselling writer of five books Manreet Sodhi Someshwar was hailed as ‘a star on the literary horizon’ by the great writer Khushwant Singh. She has also won accolades from none other than lyricist Gulzar for two of her books. Manreet’s work has been featured at literary festivals in Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong, India and New York.

Her book The Radiance of a Thousand Suns (HarperCollins, 2019) recently won the PFC-VOW Book Award as well as the Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitivity (Fiction).

She talks to eShe about her unique trajectory as a writer, her thoughts on the farmer protests in Punjab and igniting #MeToo conversations in her new book Girls and the City (HarperCollins India, 2020).

The Radiance of a Thousand Suns includes various incidents in history such as Partition, 9/11, Emergency and the 1984 riots. What inspired you to pick these subjects to write about?

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. 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!

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 come every anniversary of India’s independence. Meanwhile, the female narratives of pain, humiliation and shame 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 is 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.

Punjab is in the world news at the moment due to the farmer protests in India. What are your thoughts on the current situation?

My thoughts are with the farmers protesting for their rights in a most bitter winter. With their peaceful protests, working in solidarity, amidst a can-do positive spirit of service, the farmers are setting an example for all of us.

Their protests are valid and the government needs to sit down and begin communicating honestly with the people who are our annadata, in the truest sense. Mandating laws without involving farmers as equal partners is a ridiculous, undemocratic exercise.

Manreet Sodhi Someshwar

Do you feel a need to represent Punjab and Punjabis to the world through your writing? In your experience, how has the Punjabi diaspora changed and evolved over the years?

I started writing because there were stories I wanted to tell that weren’t being written. Indeed I owe becoming a writer to my hometown which stands Janus-faced on the Indo-Pak border. The turbulent, tumultuous landscape of Punjab is a steadfast inspiration.

However, my stories are not limited to Punjab or Punjabis – rather they deal with themes which are meaningful to me because I developed an appreciation for them as I grew up in Punjab.

Punjabis have been travelling the world and seeking new homes in distant lands for a long time, be it as soldiers fighting world wars, adventurers settling in sun-drenched California that reminded them of home, or cab drivers in NYC who fled persecution in the eighties.

But however far a Punjabi travels, Punjab remains the lodestone. This is abundantly evident in the ongoing farmers’ protests where Punjabis across the world – Southall, London, California, Toronto – have shown up in support.

Your recent book, a whodunit about female friendships, aims to bring out conversations on #MeToo. Tell us how you thought of the story and what you hope people would take back from it.

Set in Bengaluru, Girls and the City is a story of female friendships centered on a murder mystery. A whodunit, that’s more of a who-was-it-done-to?

I started writing this novel amidst the #MeToo movement as I wanted to explore the dynamics between sex and power. As a society, we are reluctant to discuss sexual assault and harassment. I saw Girls and the City as a way to reignite that conversation. It explores how women navigate everyday misogyny using wit, grit and tenacity, and is a definitive #MeToo novel.

I want people to read the book and enjoy it thoroughly, the travails of three young women caught up in a murder! I also hope the novel helps readers see how patriarchy works in countless ways in our daily lives. I hope we can reignite the conversations around #MeToo and get women and men talking about the casual misogyny and violence against women that is entrenched in our system.

I would like boys and men to read it as well to better understand the experiences of the women in their lives.

Which are some of your favourite books by contemporary women writers?

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.

What or who inspires you?

Feisty women, all of nature, my parents.

What subjects do you obsess over the most these days?

I’m at work on a Partition trilogy and immersed, therefore, in the years leading up to 1947 and its immediate aftermath.

What are your thoughts on winning the PFC-VOW Book Award and Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitivity (Fiction)? 

It is such an absolute privilege to receive not one but two awards in quick succession. The Radiance of a Thousand Suns re-tells the history of independent India through the stories of its women. I am so honoured to win this award from Laadli which is working to change the way India thinks about its women.  

The surge in book sales in a pandemic year is proof that many people stayed alive by hiding between the covers of a book. Winning the VOW book award 2020 is an affirmation that some readers found comfort in The Radiance of a Thousand Suns too.

Do you believe separate awards for women’s writing do a service to women writers or do they create further gender divides and stereotype us?

Women’s concerns are different from male concerns, which is reflected in the themes and issues they engage with. Men write about themselves whilst women write the world. A large majority of awards have historically been won by men. Separate awards for women’s writing are a way to open up the frontier and invite more women in.

First published in eShe’s January 2021 issue

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