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Tuesday, Oct 22, 2019

Review: The Radiance of a Thousand Suns by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar

The Radiance Of A Thousand Suns is a moving tale of dislocation, of identity in alien nations, of memory, and of the legacy of a father’s unfinished work

books Updated: Sep 20, 2019 20:11 IST
Percy Bharucha
Percy Bharucha
Hindustan Times
A vigil on August 5, 2013 to mark the first anniversary of the shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. White supremacist Michael Page killed six members of the temple during a shooting rampage.
A vigil on August 5, 2013 to mark the first anniversary of the shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. White supremacist Michael Page killed six members of the temple during a shooting rampage.(Getty Images)
         


352pp, Rs 499; HarperCollins
352pp, Rs 499; HarperCollins

The unpacking of the past is complicated. One either hides it in the closet or displays it proudly on the mantelpiece for all to see. The Radiance Of A Thousand Suns invokes both reactions. Its innards cannot be ignored, cannot be forgotten. They are, in equal measure, grit that is heartening and abominations that should never have been.

Tackling the spectre of Partition requires courage. One has to follow in some rather large footsteps and tread lightly so as to not trample the eggshells that are Indian sentiments. Gulzar Sa’ab’s endorsement on the cover rightly deems this book a worthy addition to the sparse list of contemporary Partition literature.

Much like the protagonist Niki’s birth during the forced sterilization campaigns in 1976, The Radiance Of A Thousand Suns is an act of rebellion. A rebellion against the fleeting nature of memory and the sanitization of the history of independent India. The novel begins with the premature birth of India, delivered into independence way ahead of schedule and struggling to overcome complications. The surgical separation of the conjoined-twin nations of India and Pakistan is the prime mover that propels the book’s characters. Through various generations of the Nalwa family, the author recounts the horrors of Punjab’s history. Along an ouroboros’ path, she traces the self-sustaining, circular and repetitive nature of violence and how it shapes our relationships with identity, God and each other. Along with the author’s fictional Punjabi families, the reader is battered by the brutality of the Partition, the Khalistan movement, the Emergency, Operation Blue Star and the pogrom of 1984, ending with the killings of Sikhs mistaken for Arab terrorists in post 9/11 America. Armed with a formidable female cast, the book gives voice to the women survivors of Punjab.

At the heart of this book is the quest to finish another. It is a singular obsession begun by Jinder Nalwa and seen to its end by his daughter Niki. This book within the book aims to collect survivor stories that fill the gaping holes left by shortened lives; to free survivors enslaved by the weight of what they’ve seen and done; to chronicle stories by women that have, for lack of release, occupied the womb leaving no space for babies. Throughout the book, the author ably demonstrates how the same things have continued to terrorize women across generations, earlier inflicted by frenzied mobs and now distilled in isolated incidents in crowded buses and parks. The violence still remains. Underneath a heavy coat of concealer, the bruises are still fresh. The Radiance Of A Thousand Suns is a moving tale of dislocation, of identity in alien nations, of the double-edged sword that is memory, and of the onerous legacy of a father’s unfinished work.

Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar ( Courtesy the author )

Someshwar provides interjections to this grim landscape through the use of wry humour such as the naming of certain characters — the ‘ugliest Punjabi’ man, for instance, who is christened Lovely. The visually evocative writing stimulates a variety of senses: the constable’s belly leading the way, the drains choked with hair... But above everything else, it is the food that grounds Someshwar’s worlds in reality. The crackling of the cumin, the aroma of spices, the massaging of dough — her narrative makes everything intimate. The recipes and preparations anchor these characters and stories to our collective past.

Read more: Excerpt: The Radiance of a Thousand Suns by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
If there is fault to be found, it is in the sequences that are devoid of Biji, Nooran, Jyot and Jinder. Niki’s rather brief sojourn at IIM Calcutta, her time-worn, overused debates with Arjun, their Calvin–Susie-esq pigtail-pulling love, the globe-trotting consultant working only for the money – these fail to match the ferocity and the insightful writing of the preceding sections. The book ends with a deathbed confession that is both horrific and cathartic. The book instils a newfound respect for the significance behind the rather casually-used blessing, ‘Jeete raho (keep living)’.

The author insightfully intersperses the book with text from the Mahabharata to hammer home the rather grim truth that all wars are wars among brothers, that we never seem to learn from our myths or our history. The snake keeps eating its own tail and religious violence feeds on itself. No amount of ‘churi’ can lessen the bitterness of this truth. The Radiance Of A Thousand Suns is best enjoyed the way Jinder Nalwa would have liked — in silence with a glass of scotch.

First Published: Sep 20, 2019 20:11 IST

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