Tag Archives: #harpercollins

Left to right: Book - A Radiance of Thousand Suns and Author - Manreet Sodhi Someshwar.

Radiance of a Thousand Suns: Pieces of Missing History

“To memorialize, to remember, to sear it in our hearts so we never go down that path again. You think the schizophrenic Indo-Pak dynamic of love-hate-war-peace has nothing to do with ’47? That the path doesn’t intrude upon the present all the time? Did we lay the ghosts to rest? Do we tell the stories? Talk about them with our children and grandchildren? Do we have memorials to honor the ten million who trudged across the Radcliffe Line or a memorial for the one million who died?”

This is an example of just one of many stark excerpts from New York-based award-winning and bestselling author Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s book The Radiance of a Thousand Suns (Harper Collins, 2019). The book, which won the Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitivity and the PFC-VoW Book Award for Gender Sensitivity 2020, tells the story of a family through the history of a nation. 

The book’s central character, Niki, was delivered by midwives during the government’s sterilization Emergency, and her mother tragically dies giving her birth. As a result, she is primarily raised by her grandmother and an orphan Muslim girl, Nooran. Growing up, Niki’s grandmother shares with her many personal stories about the Partition, something that would resonate with several Indians whose ancestors had to flee their homes across the border overnight. In a country where Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs all lived like “spices in a masala box, tossed together for flavorsome food,” people had to be divided during the Partition. Someshwar goes onto trace the turmoil that continued in the 1980s—the encounter killings of militants, curfews, and shoot-at-sight orders.

As Niki grows older, she begins to realize that the world is a terrible place for women, who hide so many stories within them. Through the novel’s women protagonists, the author shares many thoughts about God, war, religion, men, and politics—primarily through the prism of a female perspective. During the uncertain days of the 1984 riots, Nooran becomes a victim of “fate and faith, patriarchy and prejudice.” Then, there is Jyot Kaur who lived through two terrible tragedies. As a six-year-old refugee girl, she survived the brutal Partition, even though her entire family was killed. Further, during the 1984 riots, she loses her family a second time when her husband and children are tragically killed. 

Someshwar writes that one has to sometimes engage with the past in order to grapple with the present. She questions why even after seventy-plus years of Partition—a time when women’s bodies became the battlefield—we haven’t been able to lay the ghosts to rest. Commenting on the fact that the history of independent India has literally been ‘his’tory, she asks the reader, “Does the fact that women bore the brunt of that violence, echo in this time of #metoo?” 

She concludes that while male victims of violence are publicly mourned, casual violence towards women, though hardly talked about, is a recurring theme—whether during the Partition, the stories of the Mahabharata, the ’84 riots, or daily life. “Rapes, dowry, deaths, female foeticide, bride burning, eve-teasing, acid attacks—it was a violence that sought to show women their place, to keep them in that place and if they dared resist, it would smack them back into place again, or take their lives,” she writes.

In 2001, Niki travels to the US where she witnesses another epochal event—9/11, analyzing its repercussions on the South Asian community. She learns that the first victim of a hate crime post the incident was an Arizona-based Punjabi Sikh immigrant whose beard and turban led him to be mistaken for an Arab. The author also goes on to offer some deep insights on racism, such as the fact that violence ultimately stems from ignorance. 

By means of a stark narrative that recounts horrific incidents, Someshwar relates stories and anecdotes from two cataclysmic events in India’s history—the Partition of 1947 and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984—particularly in Punjab. It leads Niki to finally decide to complete her father’s project of making the political personal by cataloging untold stories of the trauma suffered by silent survivors of the ’47 Partition and the ’84 pogrom in the form of a book.

Someshwar draws powerful imagery with her evocative descriptions. For instance, she creates visions of a typically Indian summer: “the lightest of muslins, sweetest of mangoes, blinds of bamboo, bare feet, cool floors, siestas, and stories…” Along the way, she makes frequent references to the state’s favorite lovelorn heroine, Heer, and quotes the ancient Sufi poet Bulleh Shah. Further, she peppers the prose with episodes from the timeless Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, in which the past is forever intruding into the present. 

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 


Being Sheela: The Life Journey of an Immigration Lawyer

Being Sheela” is a biography of Sheela Murthy, an immigration lawyer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist based in Maryland. It charts her journey from a childhood in the bosom of a middle-class, military family in India, to a highly successful career as a Harvard-trained lawyer in the United States.

Author Adithi Rao beautifully brings to life the dynamics inside families – Sheela’s own as well as her husband’s, highlighting the unique qualities and subtleties of relationships, while exploring the conflicts and ambiguities within what are clearly very loving families.

Sheela’s personal story of growing up in a family of three high-achieving sisters (two of them are doctors), is a delightful tale weaving together the charms and challenges of Indian middle-class life.

Sheela’s story is one that needs to be told. In an America where immigrants have been under siege during the last four years, this memoir is particularly significant and meaningful.  It’s almost a primer on how to navigate a complex immigration system and counter discrimination against H1B visa holders, or dependent EAD-4 spouses, green card families awaiting decisions that determine their future, and immigrants whose lives are on hold in the wake of aggressive immigration reform initiated by the Trump administration.

And therein lies its weakness. Rao does a terrific job stitching together the rich anecdotes that form Sheela’s early life. She understands the nuances of Indian culture and expectations and articulates those stories from an insider’s perspective.

That richness of detail and color is lost when the book turns its attention to Sheela’s professional life and philanthropic work. Rao seems intent on recording the minutiae of cases that form the cornerstone of the Murthy Law Firm which Sheela founded. But the narrative feels less compelling. Rao painstakingly covers case studies of Sheela’s work as an immigration attorney but pays less attention to the human side of Sheela as she makes decisions and does not fully explore why Sheela makes certain career and professional life choices.

It feels as though Rao is in a hurry to pay homage to achievements that are richly deserved, rather than offer insights into the transitions that propelled Sheela into her career and philanthropic journey.

Why did Sheela switch jobs or what made her finally decided to start her own firm which became the powerful Murthy Law Firm? The story skims the surface of her reasoning in a way that makes some of Sheela’s decisions, unfortunately, seem somewhat contrived.

Sheela found unique ways to deal with her client’s dilemmas. She has a reputation for helping women who are victims of violence and has made a difference in people’s lives. But Rao does not dig deeper into Sheela’s personality – the thinking and motivation that drives Sheela in these scenarios.

The book is similar in style to Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” – but unlike “Becoming”, it is not reasonable to assume that the reader is familiar with Sheela’s track record as a lawyer and philanthropist.

Her work for women’s causes and philanthropy is mentioned in passing throughout the book, but these significant contributions are quickly summed up within a few chapters.  Adding more layers to this catalog of accomplishments would enrich the narrative with the same sensitivity and depth given to her personal story.

None of this, however, takes away from the remarkable tale of an intelligent, engaging, empathetic woman who has dedicated herself to others in what she calls ‘labors of love’.

Being Sheela is an inspiring immigrant success story that offers intriguing insights into the complex inner workings of American immigration policy.

Being Sheela: The Life Journey of an Immigration Lawyer; Adithi Rao, HarperCollins India,$34.87, 260 pages

Svati Kania Shashank is a lawyer practicing in New York for over 20 years. 

Edited by Meera Kymal, Contributing Editor, at India Currents

Where Books Come Alive

Rehana Munir’s novel Paper Moon (Harper Collins, 2019) is every book lover’s delight and is filled with vivid descriptions of Bombay’s streets and pavement bookstalls, such as the Strand Book House at Fort that sells remaindered books at student prices. Clearly, an expert on nostalgia, Rehana’s writing keeps springing up vivid images of the city in the 1990s.

She sets the scene with phrases like: “Matinee shows at Sterling Cinema and peanut-crunching evenings at Marine Drive. Nawabi chicken pizza at Intermission Restaurant in Metro cinema and blazing afternoons at Azad Maidan” and “Pav bhaji at Khao Gully. And that bizarre neembu paani, blitzed with ice, chaat masala and industrial amounts of sugar.”

The book’s protagonist, Fiza Khalid is a student of English Literature at St Xavier’s College, who often spends time with her boyfriend Dhruv Banerjee in the lending library—complete with its dim lighting, hidden corners, friendly chairs, and a sleepy librarian—in other words, a hideout for “hurried embraces and long-drawn sighs.” For “stolen kisses in the chapel and bad Chinese in the canteen” and “showdowns in the woods and making up in the arches.”

Quite unexpectedly, Fiza inherits money to set up an independent bookstore from her estranged father whose cherished dream it was to do so after retirement. In no time, fantasies dominated by books begin to fill her mind. “Shelves filled with volumes of Faber & Faber poetry, which she had never been able to afford. The elegant grey spines of Vintage Classics. The cheery orange of Penguin.” Fiza decides to name the bookshop Paper Moon after a jazz tune with smoky vocals, wistful lyrics, perky melody, and piercing image of Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire. As she begins researching the world of the bookshop business, she comes across a decrepit yet charming mansion to lease out as the space. Fiza then gets a French designer to curate the bookshop’s interiors, complete with lamps, rugs, cushions, mats, used books on a handcart, and seating between revolving bookracks.

As she goes on a book buying spree to warehouses of various book distributors, she pays homage to many writers: “Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark—the holy trio were some of the first to jump in. Milan Kundera followed Amitav Ghosh, Dostoevsky chased Mario Vargas Llosa in some kind of mad hatter’s literary tea party. Nick Hornby and Sue Townsend added some laughs. Darwin and Nietzche kept the rest in check.”

With its own café in no time, the well-loved bookstore soon becomes a happy retreat for book lovers and anyone looking for a quiet, reflective moment in an increasingly difficult city. During the course of time, Fiza also realizes that running a bookshop is so much more than just the books. Moreover, it leads her to discover much about her own life and her family’s hidden secrets. It also takes her to the literary capital of the world, London, to attend the “Mecca for books”, the London Book Fair.

A book about “days of miracle and wonder, of family, lost and found, love chased and escaped”, the story is a must-read for someone who has ever dreamt of setting up a bookshop, or simply anyone passionate about books.

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world.