“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.