“Writing is listening on paper.”— Ken Chawking
Being from a small town in Kerala, and having grown up outside India, my first exposure to the Partition was when I visited my best friend’s grandparents in Delhi. His grandmother was showing me albums of pictures from when they were children. When I asked her about where all the people were, there were tears in her eyes. She was the only one to have made it across the border, she said.
She told me that a lot of bad things happened to her, though she did not elaborate. She was very lucky to have been adopted by a family in India, she said, who then became her foster parents. On our way back to campus, my friend filled in the missing details – she had been gang-raped and left to die on the railway tracks, which was where her foster parents had found her.
This violence from the Partition, sexual and otherwise, is alive even today. It manifests itself in different ways, but we don’t hear as often about the process of documenting such a narrative. This is precisely what Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s The Radiance of a Thousand Suns, set in places with their respective histories of violence, is all about.
The novel focuses mainly on Niki Nalwa, the daughter of a lawyer who takes up the task of finishing her father’s novel. Having faced the violence of the 1948 Partition and the 1984 Anti-Sikh pogrom, her father decides to document stories of its survivors. Right from childhood, Niki is a part of this process as she helps her father record and transcribe testimonies. Her father dies one day even as he is writing, and Niki decides to take up the task.
Growing up in an atmosphere where the violence of the Partition is alive, and also as a witness of the pogrom as a six-year-old, Niki treats this project as a sibling. The Radiance of a Thousand Suns travels with her as she journeys from being a child surrounded by these stories to becoming a wife, mother, and daughter, and, ultimately, a writer who struggles to finish a work that has been part of her life all along.
A rich matrix
This is Sodhi Someshwar’s fifth novel. Born and raised in India, she is currently based in New York city, where she is studying for an MFA in Creative Writing at City College. An alumnus of IIM Calcutta, Sodhi Someshwar worked in advertising and marketing for companies like Hindustan UniLever before switching to writing. Her debut novel, Earning The Laundry Stripes, was released in 2006.
Most of Sodhi Someshwar’s earlier novels are historically placed, with themes centred on memory and coping. When asked in an interview how she juggles with so many parallel narratives, she said, “I first prepare a first rough draft of my manuscript. I write these stories and scenes on different coloured sticky notes, and then place them all together, and then redesign the matrix according to how the plot makes sense together.”
The Radiance of a Thousand Suns is just such a matrix of multiple narratives woven together. We see the Partition/pogrom stories told from the perspectives of Niki, Jyot (a survivor of both the Partition and the pogrom) and Nooran (the Nalwas’ caretaker, but also much more) perspectives. We also get a narrative of the Mahabharata running through the course of the novel. Sodhi uses a coming-of-age technique to tie these multiple narratives together.
The power of proximity
Time also plays a very large role in this narrative, almost as a character itself in the novel. Alongside Niki’s growth, we see the progress of the story of the Mahabharata, Jyot’s story, and also those of Niki’s father and Niki’s book. Sodhi Someshwar’s chapters carry specific time stamps, linking the historic and political context of any given year to the personal contexts and memories of her characters.
This brings us closer to the story while also adding multiple layers to it. By “mimicking” the device of politicising the personal, which Niki wants to do with her father’s novel, Sodhi Someshwar brings us closer to the characters, opening them up for scrutiny. This also leads to a raw, artless presentation of their dilemmas and emotions, which in turn helps construct a safe space for non-judgemental understanding.
This proximity Sodhi Someshwar has wrought is perhaps the triumph of this novel as it attempts to sensitise is to the trauma and attempts to cope with it. Sodhi Someshwar constantly plays with death and survival, which seems to tie this entire narrative together. Death is what inspires Niki’s father to start the process of writing his book, and death is what helps Niki finish it – while survival is what keeps the very existence of their book going.
The writer demonstrates how violence can seep into instances of daily life without our realising it. This is subtly demonstrated though Niki’s attempts to extract stories of survival – there is a sense of violence in her forcing Jyot to narrate her traumatic experiences. This ties in to the violence of the memory that Jyot as a character holds in the story, and seems to take the agency of her memory from her.
What we miss in this novel, though, is the leisure to dwell on events and the emotional responses to them. Covering as she does almost thirty-seven years in the short span of three hundred and thirty nine pages, she hurries the reader along, which can make everything seem smaller than it actually is. To have to think of The Radiance of a Thousand Suns in this manner is to do it a disservice.
The Radiance of a Thousand Suns, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, HarperCollins India.