This powerful novel revisits two great tragedies to befall the subcontinent through oral histories
From the survivors of the Partition to those of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms, the story unfolds around a handful of characters
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s latest novel, The Radiance Of A Thousand Suns, is an ambitious undertaking. Its title, reminiscent of one of Khaled Hosseini’s books, has a more sinister connotation in the plot than expected. Bookended by two tragedies that befell the subcontinent—the Partition of 1947 and the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984—the story shoots off tendrils in many directions. A multitude of voices come into the plot, which moves, in episodic bursts, between rural Punjab and Chandigarh, Delhi and New York City. And all these fragments are shored up by a long trail of violence, which continues to oppress its survivors.
Niki Nalwa, the protagonist of Radiance, is born in a moment of turmoil, at the peak of former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s sterilization drive in 1977. With all the doctors in the hospital in Ferozepur busy attending the camp, Niki’s mother Roop dies after giving birth, watched over by her helpless mother-in-law (Niki’s Dadima) and Nooran, who was taken in by the Nalwa family in the aftermath of the carnage that followed Partition. Niki’s father, a lawyer, is away at that fateful hour, fighting for innocent citizens framed by the government as terrorists.
Punjab politics worsens over the following decade, before Delhi implodes with murderous rage after Indira Gandhi is assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Brought up in Chandigarh by fierce feminists (her Dadima, Nooran, and father), Niki’s life is relatively safe, though freak deaths also ambush her. Her jobs and marriage take her beyond India, first to Hong Kong and then to New York City. But it is her father’s calling—to write a book based on the oral histories of the survivors of 1947 and 1984—that keeps her rooted to her homeland. Niki makes it her mission to find Jyot—the missing piece in the puzzle, who has moved to New York, without whose testimony her father’s story can’t be complete.
In spite of the historical, geographical and cultural expanse, Someshwar’s novel is most evocative when she homes in on her characters. By delving into the past and connecting it to the churn of the present, she brings out the corrosive legacy of post-traumatic stress disorder and the debilitating costs of silence. For those who may not have the time or inclination to peruse historical tomes, a novel like Radiance can open a window to a past that remains dark and inadequately documented.