Readers from places other than India may need reminding the reference in the title of Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s latest novel is taken not from Robert J Oppenheimer’s famous phrase describing the atomic bomb, but rather the Bhagavad Gita. This story of Niki Nalwa and her quest to find Jyot—a survivor of the 1947 Partition and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots—to finish Niki’s father’s lifelong work of documenting oral testimonies of violence survivors is a reminder how violence shatters not just the present and thus the future but also thence the past, persisting in the everyday lives of those it affects.
The book opens in Ferozepur Civil Hospital (Punjab state, India) in 1977—the year of forced sterilizations drive under Indira Gandhi’s government—with the birth of Niki and death of her mother, Roop. Someshwar then builds Niki’s journey, threading in her grandmother Dadima, her aunt and guardian Nooran, and Jyot. The story, narrated in parts by Jyot, builds upon her tragedy as a witness to those twin horrors; she chooses to bury the violence, never letting on how it affected her. Jyot’s story begins in the summer of 1947: as her family’s lone survivor she escapes ethnic cleansing in Hussainiwala (Pakistan) and ending up in Machhiwara (India), adopted by an elderly couple as a foster child. In her new life, the past ceases to exist, as she embraces the present, gets happily married and has four children. It is the tragedy of the 1984 riots, where she loses her husband and children, and miraculously survives again, that forms the keystone of the book.
Jyot is a mystery—how did she survive that night when the mob attacked her house? Why did she never tell her story?—a mystery that Niki recognizes as critical to her book, and central to the countless untold stories of other women which they “have not been allowed to tell, which they have not been permitted to mourn aloud, which they must keep hidden within themselves.” Niki moves from Chandigarh to Kolkata, to Hong Kong and finally New York, where she finally finds Jyot, who has built silence as a defense against a world that has mistreated her.
Someshwar’s strength lies in her acute attention to detail—from the aroma of choori that evokes warm memories in Jyot’s mind but also elicits memories of trauma, to Nooran’s phulkari embroidery that acts as her life’s canvas. Building the story are also episodes of gender discrimination and violence in Indian society and how those affect women’s freedoms and life choices. Someshwar highlights them all, from public sexual harassment, sex-selective abortion, to glaring misconduct against women during legal proceedings, a litany of issues that can on occasion overwhelm the readers and digress from the core plot of Jyot’s life.
Yet the book is, in essence, about the healing power of storytelling amid violence. Nooran embroiders her stories on the only piece of cloth that is her connection to her lost family, Dadima documents stories of violence survivors, Jyot rebirths her life story to Niki, and Niki threads it all together as her journey.
Someshwar structures the book around parallel references to the epic Mahabharata, and its central female character Draupadi, to emphasize the intensity of patriarchy rampant in Indian society since ancient ages. These reflections are explicit; Niki says:
If Mahabharata is the template for India, Draupadi is the template for Indian women… why then have successive retellers cast her in the mould of a vixen-wimp?
A question that begs for an answer.
With references to the local folklore of Heer Ranjha and Bulle Shah, the novel is a poetic ode to all those women and their stories that have been forcefully silenced, it is a reminder for every reader to learn from history and reclaim the lost stories. The Radiance Of A Thousand Suns is a critical read, bringing to light some of the most pertinent issues that continue to exist in our society.