She has written across genres, poignant literary fiction, fun breezy fiction, gripping thrillers, moving from genre to genre with consummate ease. She’s moved physically too in the writing of them, from India to South East Asia and now, New York, where she is now pursuing her MFA and teaching Creative Writing. It has been a long journey from her initial education and training as an engineer, her shift to marketing leading her to graduate from the prestigious IIM Calcutta and join a multinational in India as part of their marketing team. She has since moved countries and careers. Full time into the creative writing space now, and based in New York, Manreet is also the winner of the prestigious Jerome Lowell DeJur award in creative writing.
On the release of her fifth book, The Radiance of a Thousand Suns, we spoke with her about her shift from marketing to writing, writing from the perspective of women who live through traumatic events and why we haven’t been able to put the horrors of the Partition behind us.
From marketing to literary writing, it has been a long, interesting journey that has spanned continents and countries. Tell us how the marketing maven first decided to write a book?
Writing snuck upon me in the guise of a tai tai, a Chinese colloquial term for a woman of leisure. Perched atop a Singapore high-rise, at the turn of the millennium, I was to take a sabbatical from the life of a corporate road warrior and indulge in some ‘me’ time. On my way to realizing this barmy prospect in sunny Singapore, I collided with the plains of Punjab. Rather, its fields. That grew mustard and wheat and rice and, for a period in the eighties, militants. Which made my little town on the Indo-Pak border a militant hotbed. And images started to swim up, of a time that I had left behind, or so I thought...
I tried to resist. After all, I was jobless by choice, unburdened by motherhood, ready to explore a shiny first-world city! But the neat white Ikea table in my newly set-up study drew me in repeatedly. There I’d sit after my husband left for the office, with my second cup of tea, and memories that rose unbidden, like the fragrance of the night-blooming jasmine in the garden of our home in Ferozepur. All right, I determined, I would offload those memories onto my PC and be done with them. I was naive. One memory led to another, then another, a labyrinth opening up for me to wade in. That period of my life came back to me with the kind of hi-fidelity reproduction enthusiasts wax about.
To make sense of those memories I started asking questions. My research took me back in time and it was the national library, not any salon, that became my haunt. Seven years later, I had a book: The Long Walk Home.
Your first book was Earning the Laundry Stripes which took from your experience and training as a marketing person. Post that you switched genres and forms to write the much acclaimed The Long Walk Home. What was the process like for you, to change style and format and how much did you have to train or retrain your writing muscle?
The writing of what became my second published book, The Long Walk Home, took me seven long years. That was partly due to the research involved but also because I was teaching myself to write. I stalled frequently and threatened to quit occasionally. At some point, I heeded my husband’s advice — Why not try something simpler? — and the idea of a tongue-in-cheek look at a woman executive in an all-male corporate world came to me. It arose from my own experience as the first woman sales manager with Unilever India (Hindustan Lever Limited, at that time).
I intended it as mainstream women’s fiction and had a lot of fun writing it, so it never felt like I had to retrain my writing muscle. Perhaps because I wrote it as a relief from Long Walk and the voice of my protagonist Noor came naturally to me since I gifted her many of my own adventures in sales. I wrote it in a year, it was an easier sell, and it became my first published novel, Earning the Laundry Stripes.
From Earning The Laundry Stripes and The Long Walk Home, you moved onto The Taj Conspiracy and The Hunt for the Kohinoor, both historical thrillers. What prompted you to shift, and what are the specific challenges of writing a historical thriller specifically with such an important monument at the center of it?
In the winter of 2008, we visited the Taj Mahal. Our guide came highly recommended with his roster of foreign corporate clients. He proved a downer, rattling off dimensions of domes and minarets amidst a steady dribble of urban legends. As we perambulated the monument, he pointed to the pinnacle atop the central dome. The finial is too far for the naked eye to discern much. But a replica exists on the red sandstone platform and he walked us to it. See, he triumphantly pointed to a carving — a coconut resting on mango leaves atop a pot of water — a popular Hindu design! Then he began his spiel about how the Taj Mahal was actually an ancient Hindu temple called Tejo Mahalya which the Mughals had repurposed. The guide’s story, attributed to one P. N. Oak, is routinely dismissed by historians.
But I was so disillusioned I determined to write a story that would rescue the Taj Mahal from lies and show the monument for what it truly is: a symbol of syncretic India. The challenge was huge. Most Indians know little about the monument except for its famed beauty and fabled love legend. There is a dearth of scholarly work —indeed, the Austrian historian Ebba Koch is the only one permitted to take measurements of the complex over her thirty-year research on the monument. The Taj Conspiracy became a runaway bestseller. (Readers still email me that they take my book along as a guide when visiting the Taj!) In Mehrunisa, I had a protagonist my readers had connected with. I followed this with The Hunt for Kohinoor which weaves a spy story against the backdrop of contemporary Indo-Pak history of internecine warfare and our shared Mughal history.
Given the controversy that surrounds the Taj Mahal and your incorporation of it into your books, how do you see fiction as a means to make a statement regarding the circumstances of the day?
In his speech at the Nobel banquet, the writer John Steinbeck said something that resonates with me: “The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.” My research on Taj also familiarised me with the fragile state of the monument, something I wove into the narrative to raise awareness of its alarming vulnerability in the face of increasing pollution, a depleting Yamuna river, and rising terror. However, there has been of late a concerted effort to portray the Taj as somehow not representative of Indian culture. When, indeed, the Taj Mahal is more symbolic of our heritage than we Indians realize. To borrow from a character in The Taj Conspiracy who, at a crucial juncture when the monument is facing an extraordinary threat, exhorts: “Just as the color white contains all colors within it, this monument of white embodies our innate ancient pluralism.”
Historical fiction is a tricky beast and I am pernickety about historical authenticity, hence the two-step-forward-one-step-backward momentum of writing this book.
You moved out of India many years ago, but have been an observer of how the fiction and nonfiction space in India is developing. What have been your takeaways about how the Indian writer in English and the Indian reader in English are changing?
Indian publishing and writing is in a Renaissance phase. We are telling our stories for our market, the genre markets have opened up, we are seeing new flow between English and other Indian languages and the translation momentum will, hopefully, lead to an invigorating cross-fertilization of ideas. For a writer, this is all hugely exciting. Nevertheless, we do still seem to feel the need for Western-validation, particularly in the area of literary fiction. The domestic market for literary criticism needs to grow so we develop that critical muscle.
Your latest book, The Radiance of a Thousand Suns, is spread across a huge canvas, the partition of India, 1984, 9/11, and also geographically across continents. I do know that the seed of this story has been germinating within you for years, perhaps even as far back as when you were writing The Taj Conspiracy. Tell us more about this book and how you researched and worked on it?
The Radiance of a Thousand Suns is about Niki’s determination to complete her dead father’s unfinished book, his life’s work, which takes her from India to New York City. There, her pursuit of a mysterious immigrant woman turns into an obsession that begins to imperil her daughter, her marriage, and, eventually, Niki herself. When a blizzard blankets NYC, Niki finds herself on a path where the present and past collide violently. Interweaving the epic Mahabharata, the poetry of Bulleh Shah, and the legend of Heer, The Radiance of a Thousand Suns is a novel about the mythic and the intimate, about stories on tapestry and mobs that recur, about home and love and history and those heartbreaking moments when they all come crashing together.
The narrative spans the cataclysms of Partition and 9/11, via the brutality of Emergency and the pogrom of 1984, and stretches from India to New York. Admittedly, it is a broad canvas, one that I have wrestled with for many many years. To echo that famous dialogue from the film Damini: draft pe draft, draft pe draft, draft pe draft likhti gayi, par manuscript nahin mila. Until it finally did. Phew! But it would not have been possible without the countless books, academic articles, scholarly research papers and oral testimonies which provided me with a solid foundation upon which to build my novel. Historical fiction is a tricky beast and I am pernickety about historical authenticity, hence the two-step-forward-one-step-backward momentum of writing this book. I am indebted to the public library network in Hong Kong and New York — HKPL and NYPL — for daily sustenance.
You tell the story of the Partition, of 1984, of 9/11 through the experiences of the women who lived through them. Why did you choose to structure the book this way, and do you think women need to be telling women’s stories more and louder?
Absolutely! My novel explores the impossible choices women are forced to make in the face of violence, the ties that connect them across ages, and the secrets they store. Heer is a leitmotif through the narrative, as is Draupadi. I believe that in order to grapple with the present, sometimes, we have to engage with the past. I don’t mean a rehash. What I have in mind is a close scrutiny of tradition, an exploration of homilies, a deep dive into myths so we can parse the narrative for our stories and question the status quo. My protagonist, Niki, asks:
“It is our epic, the story of India. And yet, how many women do we know, or have heard of, who are named Draupadi? The one epic female character in India’s greatest epic finds no takers, whereas Karan-Arjuna-Krishna sprout like weeds.”
We must ask ourselves why, after 70 plus years of Partition, have we not been able to lay the ghosts to rest? In 1947, when women’s bodies became the battlefield, did that template of sexual violence derive from our foundational epic? Does the fact that women bore the brunt of that violence echo in this time of #MeToo?
In India, the past is forever intruding upon the present. So why not reckon with that past, I asked myself, and invited the dead to populate my novel. The history of independent India has literally been ‘his’ story. This novel attempts to reconstruct the (hi)story and add to it the missing, suppressed, and absent stories of women. As Niki says in the novel: “Men’s stories become a society’s narrative and our heritage; women’s stories are forced underground, sealed and locked.”
I grew up amidst women who made me realize that Draupadi was alive and living amongst us. For a girl child in Punjab, there couldn’t have been better role models. I always tell my daughter: The power of the story lies in the hands of the storyteller. As women, we must dig them out, dust them off, dress them up, imagine them, grow them, tell them — Our stories.
Writing about the mob, revisiting its horror over three horrific instances that punctuate our collective history is something that is mentally and physically draining for the writer. How do you deal with the vicarious trauma of writing through these?
All writing is political. Kafka’s dictum — A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us — informs my impulse to take pen to paper. However, no story of trauma can be written without first writing about love. These tumultuous events sundered families, shattered friendships, destroyed communities — love and affection and camaraderie were the casualties. Which is why I tell these stories through the prism of love, lost and found. The Radiance of a Thousand Suns weaves the story of seventy years of independent India via a tapestry of relationships: a man’s lifelong search for his lost sister, a daughter’s determination to fulfill her father’s legacy, a woman’s desire to live her life with love despite her scarred past…
Usually, after writing a big historical novel, I write mainstream fiction as a balancing act. My next book, Girls and the City will release next year from HarperCollins. Set in Bengaluru, it is a contemporary story of female friendships and struggles in a hungry metropolis.
While this is the story of the collective, this is also the story of the individual experience, through the experience of the collective. Why was telling this story, on the partition, on the 1984 Sikh pogrom, on 9/11 is important to you? What is it about the human capacity to inflict and bear violence that we need to be reminded of over and over again?
In India, the past is forever intruding upon the present. And yet, it is a syncopated vision of the past where the male narrative of nation-building is what is celebrated come every anniversary of India’s independence. Meanwhile, the female narratives of pain, humiliation, and shame have been submerged as if they never occurred. My novel explores how a society riven by a seemingly-unending spiral of violence needs to open up to the stories of its survivors and fold them into its national and social history.
Which sets up an important task for the novelist: to transform general loss into a specific loss, to give us characters and their stories we can care about. And if like me, you grow up in a border town, history is in your veins. Ferozepur, a Muslim-majority area that should have gone to Pakistan but stayed in India courtesy Radcliffe’s squiggle. The stories circulating in its air and in its soil stirred up by the marauders of yore, the kafilas of ’47, the militants of the eighties, are the stories that course through me.
You shifted continents from South East Asia to the USA, where you also went back to writing school. This was after you became a published author. Why did you feel the need to go back to learn the art of creative writing, and what were your primary learnings and unlearnings?
I trained as an engineer, pursued management and had a decade-long corporate career. When I switched gears, my writing experience was limited to powerpoint presentations. I am self-taught and happy with it. This gives me the freedom to tell the stories I want to tell. I went back to school to gift myself a like minded community. Whilst I love my friends (class-and work-mates from my previous avatars) I do tire of hearing: So, when’s the next book coming out? Books don’t come off factory floors and sometimes it’s just a relief being with other folks who tussle with writing daily.
Khushwant Singh is a great influence on your writing as is Gulzar Saab. Who are the women writers you read and admire from across the years, classics, contemporary? And how have their works influenced your writing?
I feel immensely grateful that Gulzar Saab liked The Radiance of a Thousand Suns enough to give it a generous blurb. His lyrics, films, and poetry have inspired me since I first encountered them while watching a late-night show of Mausam at the age of eight. (Not age appropriate, perhaps, but it converted me to read and see beyond my years — some gift!) Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan is the book that taught me more history than all my assorted history books put together. Ghalib is another writer whose poetry is my fount.
The women writers I admire are too many to list but foremost amongst them are Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Krishna Sobti, Amrita Pritam, Hillary Mantel, Anita Desai, George Eliot, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Enid Blyton, Kristin Hannah, Leila Slimani, Kamila Shamsie…
And finally writing as a woman of color, and through the immigrant experience you’re living, do you feel the distance between India and yourself helps you view the country with a different lens from perhaps the writers still living here?
As a Sikh woman, whether in India or abroad, I am in the minority. (Women are the world’s largest minority anyway.) Living outside of India, I have gained insights into the Indian diaspora and its varied challenges. Ultimately, distance from home gives me the perspective I need to write the novels I do and a sharp prism through which to refract my experiences.