A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with Manreet Sodhi Someshwar about her latest book, The Taj Conspiracy, at her Mumbai launch at Blue Frog. The event saw a dramatic presentation by QTP, the theatre troupe founded by Quasar Thakore Padamsee.
So rather than do a review of the book, which by the way, is a total fun ride, well paced and pretty much unputdownable, I thought I’d do a quick interview with Manreet.
1] Tell me a bit about yourself, your childhood and how the writing bug bit you?
I grew up in Ferozepur, a small town located on the Indo-Pak border. It saw some of the worst rioting during Partition, lived through 3 Indo-Pak wars, and I witnessed the Khalistan movement firsthand whilst growing up in the town that was branded a “terrorist hot-bed” by the Press.
Writing waylaid me in early 2001 when after a hectic corporate career that had involved much travel (across marketing, consulting, advertising) I took a sabbatical in Singapore where hubby’s bank had relocated us. With my head in the clouds (blame it on a Sing skyscraper – we were on the 33rd floor) I thought I’d take a shot at a short story. I had had this vague notion that I’d write but my experience was limited to powerpoint presentations. With a touch of naivete I went about it, wrote one, enjoyed the experience tremendously, followed it with some more, and showed it to some friends who concluded they weren’t bad and, obviously, I was desperate for I took that as validation and persisted with the writing. Sabbatical went from 6 months to 12 and a short story demanded to be converted to a novel. Being a Punjabi, I don’t do, I overdo – so I decided to persist, gave short shrift to my corporate career and began to tackle the writing of what would take 7 years of my life writing – The Long Walk Home, which is the first fictional examination of the 20th-century history of Punjab.
2] Your first novel was the one you said, took the most out of you while writing it. Tell us a bit more about it?
My first novel, which got published second, becaus eit took me 7 years to write is The Long Walk Home. The Long Walk Home is the first fictional examination of the turbulent twentieth-century history of Punjab. Starting with pre-partition India, the narrative arc comes all the way to the present. It is told in parallel threads, the past and the present, and history is refracted through the life of one ordinary Punjabi. The Long walk Home is located in the border town that I grew up in, Ferozepur. At the time of Partition, Ferozepur was Muslim majority and by law should have gone to Pakistan. However, it was a large military arsenal and Nehru convinced Cyril Radcliffe, the man assigned with drawing the boundary line, to nudge it into India. Ferozepur was to see some of the worst rioting during Partition. Its air, consequently, is suffused with loss, with stories of loss, with memories of loss.
The central protagonist, Baksh, is a 70-year-old Sikh man through whom one thread is narrated. I borrowed from my father to create this character who is caught in the middle: a secularist in an increasingly fundamentalist atmosphere; a liberal father in a conservative Punjabi milieu; caught between his wife and children; struggling to balance his professional aspirations with the demands of several relatives of an extended Punjabi clan.
This book is also the first fictional look at Sikh militancy. I grew up in that era, a time of curfews, shoot-outs at borders and fake encounter killings. I have vivid memories of strapping burly Sardars in lois, warm wool blankets, waiting for my father outside his office on misty winter mornings. As my father, a criminal lawyer would explain to us, the son was taken away in the night by police for interrogation, and hadn’t returned. A lot of encounter killings of “dreaded militants” in Punjab occurred in this fashion.
The book sprang from oral history and was then buffeted with a ton of research. ‘Train to Pakistan’ by Khushwant Singh is a slim book that I read in my 20s. It taught me more about Partition that my cumulative history lessons. My aim with TLWH was to attempt something similar. Therefore, historical accuracy was important to me.
3] The Taj Conspiracy is in a different genre from your previous novels. What brought about this shift?
After TLWH I thought I’d do something lighter – a thriller with history thrown in, since I am a history buff, seemed ideal. Of course, I was unaware what a hole I was digging for myself Historical research in India is hampered by scarce records which then aren’t accessible easily. The Taj Mahal, for instance, is a monument every Indian knows about – yet what do we really know about it except for the love legend behind it?
4] How long did it take you to write this, and how much research did you have to do, given you had the Taj Mahal as the focal point of the book?
I spend a lot of time researching since I aim for a high degree of accuracy in my novels, both with regard to facts and the atmosphere that I am trying to recreate. In The Taj Conspiracy, every mention of art, architecture, calligraphy is accurate – the idea being that the reader should learn about the Taj Mahal, a monument about which we know little except for the legendary love story behind it, and how its truly symbolic of our syncretic culture.
5] The character of Mehrunissa is very interesting, a product of two cultures. Is she a metaphor for the Taj Mahal?
Mehrunisa is an unusual female protagonist, half-Persian, half-Punjabi. The inspiration came from being a woman in our patriarchal society. I was clear I didn’t want a James Bond (the original is good enough!) or Jemima Bond (Stieg Larsson-type alpha male heroine). Instead I was interested in a regular Indian woman who is vulnerable (because of her gender, religion, culture) and is faced with a huge challenge of saving the Taj Mahal – would she be able to rise to it? In my mind, she is a metaphor for the Taj Mahal. Like the Taj she is of mixed heritage and is associated with loss in her personal story. I stacked up the disadvantages against her (religion, culture, gender) to reflect the Taj’s increasingly precarious state (pollution, shrinking Yamuna, lack of funds) for greater resonance.
6] What is your writing routine like?
I write daily, M-F, 8 am to 2 pm. But then, there’s always writing in the head thereafter, on the couch, in the shower…
7] What are you working on next?
Book 2 of the Mehrunisa trilogy, titled The Hunt for Kohinoor. In fact, we have promotion with Flipkart where if you order a copy of The Taj Conspiracy, you get a free booklet, containing the first three chapters of The Hunt For Kohinoor, free with it But hurry, offer until stocks last.
Here is a Book Summary of The Taj Conspiracy
Mughal scholar Mehrunisa Khosa stumbles on a conspiracy to destroy the Taj Mahal when she discovers the murder of the Taj supervisor, and the Quranic calligraph on the tomb of Queen Mumtaz altered to suggest a Hindu origin of the Taj Mahal. That urban legend had always existed. Now, though, someone was conspiring to make it come true.
In the case of the famed marble monument, all was not on the surface. A vast labyrinth ran underneath closed to visitors where Mehrunisa was trapped once. In a series of suspenseful twists and turns, the action traverses from the serene splendour of Taj Mahal to the virulent warrens of Taj Ganj, from intrigue laden corridors of Delhi to snowy Himalayan hideouts.
As a right wing Hindu party ratchets up its communal agenda and Islamic militants plot a terror attack, in the dark corners of his devious mind a behrupiya, a shape shifter, is conniving to divide the nation in two. To save the Taj Mahal, Mehrunisa must overcome a prejudiced police and battle her inner demons as she sifts the multiple strands that lead to the conspirator.