My Book Had To Have Women’s Voices: Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
Being a writer is a dream that lots of people harbour but only some are able to achieve. Manreet Sodhi Someshwar is a best-selling Indian author of books like The Taj Conspiracy and The Long Walk Home. She studied at the Indian Institute Of Management, Calcutta and then gave up her corporate career to pursue writing full-time. She had just released a new book The Radiance Of A Thousand Suns, which charts the history of modern India through a female-centric narrative. Manreet Sodhi Someshwar chats with SheThePeople.TV about how she decided to pursue writing and her journey.
Tell us a bit about your journey and how you started writing
I went to engineering school and then did my MBA. I worked with Unilever India, selling soaps and detergents. From there on, I moved to consulting. It was when I was in advertising when my husband got the opportunity to move abroad to Singapore. Once abroad, I felt that I needed a little break so I took the time to pamper myself, get a mani-pedi at 11 am and find myself. But as my husband worked long hours, and we didn’t have a child, this didn’t pan out. I started to feel the need to write a story – a short story. And that’s how it all started.
When I started writing it, there weren’t many stories about women in corporate India, in an all-male environment. This is partly because there were so few women in the corporate world. It was a fun story about a woman in a male-dominated environment and I had so much fun writing it.
I thought I would write the story, get it done with and go back to my sabbatical, but once I had written it, I wanted to write more. And the memories of having grown up in Punjab during the time of militancy were what was filtering through the story. I realised I didn’t have a lot of answers myself. So instead of visiting salons like I had thought I would, I ended up in public libraries. And that’s really how my journey as a writer began. Around the same time, my daughter was born and I felt the need to become a stay-at-home mother and continue writing. The story I had started writing became the book A Long Walk Home and its research took seven years. It was the joy of that process that made me decide to become a full-time writer.
Your book Earning Your Laundry Stripes is about your experience in the corporate world and is mostly light humour. What sort of response did you receive?
When I started writing it, there weren’t many stories about women in corporate India, in an all-male environment. This is partly because there were so few women in the corporate world. It was a fun story about a woman in a male-dominated environment and I had so much fun writing it. I had been through these experiences – experiences of going to, say, upcountry Gujarat and staying in these warehouses overnight. There was always a certain fear, there were hilarious encounters. I quickly realised that my male counterparts, the distributors or wholesalers were not comfortable talking to a woman in the absence of their female family members. I had to take special permission from my boss to have meals at the warehouses, because the women had to meet me. The book got a great response in the market. A producer within six months rang me up and said that they wanted to auction it and make a movie.
After this, you moved onto thrillers. You put a female protagonist in place in The Taj Controversy – was there a particular reason you chose Mehrunisa?
The Long Walk Home took a really long time and after that, I wanted something lighter. I read thrillers, I wrote thrillers. But I didn’t want a James Bond. I wanted someone who the Indian woman could relate to but who could still have an adventure. I was considering these ideas when we ended up visiting the Taj. What’s fascinating about the Taj is that it’s almost synonymous with India yet we know very little about the monument. We had a tour guide to take us around the monument yet all he was doing was dishing out these make-believe stories. And it was frustrating.
Then the idea struck me: why not put the Taj at the centre of my thriller? The Taj is vulnerable – in terms of pollution, in terms of it being a remnant of the Mughal Rule and it definitely is mysterious. Mehrunisa came to me, then. She is my character, born of a Sikh father and a Muslim mother. But I wanted Mehrunisa to stand as a human metaphor for the Taj. I wanted readers to discover the monument, in the guise of a thriller.
My aim, really, with the narrative was to change how we look at modern Indian history. The history of India’s independence is a very male narrative – from Partition, to Bapu, to all the male freedom fighters.
Coming to The Radiance of a Thousand Suns, can you tell us a little about the research and the process behind the book?
The idea for The Radiance of a Thousand Suns had been with me for a very long time, ever since I wrote that first short story. I was actually going to continue the Mehrunisa trilogy but I was inspired, in the middle of that narrative when my husband’s job made us move to New York City. I think it was partly that dislocation, all the new changes. More importantly, the first time, I was exposed to the Indian diaspora. I was exposed to how, in the United States, a Sikh is often associated with an Arab ever since 9/11. And I realised that there is this story that needed to be told, very urgently.
My aim, really, with the narrative was to change how we look at modern Indian history. The history of India’s independence is a very male narrative – from Partition, to Bapu, to all the male freedom fighters. We celebrate 15th August, 1947 but we don’t talk about Partition. We don’t talk about the women who suffered violence, on whom silence was imposed. I wanted to talk about Emergency, and the way that affected women. There was 1984’s militancy, and the women who suffered and then, lastly, 9/11. I really wanted to chart out India’s history but have a female narrative. I knew Noora had to be my protagonist and I started fleshing her out. Somehow, I was very clear that it had to be women’s voices. It had to be the modern history of India through the woman’s eye.
Image Credit: Manreet Sodhi Someshwar / Harper Collins India
Prapti is an intern at SheThePeople.TV