The radiance of a thousand suns

The radiance of a thousand suns (2019) is a book written by Manreet Sodhi and covers the stories of periods in history marred by violence and the lust for being righteous, of doing justice at the expense of human lives. This book covers spectrum of emotions from the turbulent times of Partition of India in 1947 when two brothers from the same mother were torn apart by the desperation of the blue blood of The “Great” Britain. Those times left mouth filled with dust of hatred and hands full of blood of violence. Violence erupted once again in 1984 to tear apart the motherland India into more fractions and those skirmishes led to operation blue star and eventually Indira Gandhi got killed. Sikh community became the new target and people started demanding blood for blood. But as Mahatma Gandhi says, an eye for an eye makes the world blind; the violence leads to loss of souls which were not even a participant. Some so innocent that they didn’t even understand religion.

This book is of interest for :

  • History buffs
  • Lovers of realistic fiction
  • People interested in history and culture of India

Premise of the book

I have been longing to read history from different perspectives as the history we read states mere facts and the chronology of how events happened. Perspectives take us to that place and conjure up a world that is hard to find in historical accounts, the memories come alive, emotions are revived, the mourning gets new tears and it makes the reader uncomfortable of one’s ignorance. In such an attempt, I picked up this book, “The radiance of thousand suns”. Perhaps a coincidence but the books I have recently bought or been gifted are about history being retold from the eyes of women like “The palace of illusions” which retells the great epic Mahabharata from the eyes of Draupadi and “The women’s courtyard” by Khadija Mastoor which the depiction of partition by a Pakistani women and I have noticed a wider range of emotions in the writing of women when they recreate history, perhaps by virtue of being a mother.

The story is spun around the Nalwa family with three generations, affected by violence in some form or the other and the youngest one, Niki witnesses all three in the most magnified form as she is on a journey to complete her father’s book. The book aims to narrate the forgotten stories of pain and agony of the times, the times of 1947 and 1984. The book’s central characters are Niki, Nooran, Biji, Jyot and Papa.

Biji is the victim of the violence of 1947 when she came to India from Lahore and eventually lost her husband in the 1971 Pakistan-India war. She is also a human rights activist and finds Jyot on a buffalo after 6 year old who comes to the camp from Pakistan to India. Niki is born amidst the chaos of emergency when doctors are busy to stop procreation by sterilizing men instead of helping a woman to give birth to a child.  Niki’s father is a lawyer and goes an extra mile to help people who were struck by the vagaries of the emergency and saves young men from being branded as terrorists and from being shot down by the police. Nooran is the most interesting character in the movie and the book has been named after her as she has a “radiance of a thousand sun” like the Oppenheimer’s bomb. Her thoughts are very thought-provocating and make you question the foundations of religion, patriarchy, marriage and other relationships around us.

“I will tell you what”, Nooran said, “give men one condition – just one condition – then watch them straighten up like bamboos.”

“What condition?” Niki asked.

“A man has to give birth, physical birth, like a woman does. After which, he can go kill one person. Five children? Here, take five licenses to kill. See how all killings stop.”

This is one visionary thought of Nooran who claims that all killing would stop if men had to bear a child. She also feels religion as something created by men to take charge over women in the name of God. It gives a sanction to them to control every aspect of women’s life. Women are the most affected in times of violence, losing their fathers, husbands and their children in whom they invest emotionally and being physically and economically disadvantaged, they are rallied over like bogies of train, pulled by the whims and fancies of men.

Dadima used to say this often that women are always pregnant with stories. There is some story or the other which always remains undelivered because men in their lives discourage them from discussing of unfortunate times which women witness more closely than men do. Nalwa family has a near perfect life but a sudden misfortune comes with death of Nooran who dies while protecting Nikki from a group of men who tried groping her. But Nooran is alive in the hearts of Niki and she remembers Nooran at every stage of her life imagining what would have Nooran done if she was there. Niki’s father resolves to write a book based on the accounts of survivors of ‘47 and ‘84

“Women’s stories, men’s stories, enemies’ stories, friend’s stories- we need more stories. So that we can break the silence. So that we can remember, mourn, grapple with the violence within us, the violence that makes us kill our brothers, kill our women, kill our Nooran – “

Papa bowed his head. He cupped his face in his hands. Sobs shook his back.

The story takes a slow pace after Niki goes to IIM for an MBA and becomes a  victim like many other students in India who do not know what to do with their lives and in a desperation to earn money so that she can she support women later, she drops the idea of pursuing gender studies further. Dadi ma is busy with her work in Delhi and very unhappy with the progress of rehabilitating the victims.

“You can slaughter people in public, but the police won’t register a case. When they do, the judge won’t pronounce guilt because there is no evidence. When you can’t scare off witnesses, you wait for them to die.”

Another enigmatic character in the book is Jyot whose path crosses with the Nalwa family quiet often. After Dadi ma is unable to adopt Jyot, she finds her home in Machiwara in a Gurudwara and she lives happily there and is blessed with four lovely children and a caring husband but her happiness does not last long as her husband is killed on a road skirmish during the anti-sikh riots in 1984. Her children die a mysterious death and she does not share about it to anyone and lives a rather lonely life in U.S.A. where she now works as a volunteer at an N.G.O. named SAAYA. She does a lot of attempts to take her life but she doesn’t die because she is perhaps pregnant with a story.

What is she hiding?

After the death of Papa ji, Niki bears the responsibility to complete the book he had left incomplete and she moves to U.S. with her husband and her daughter, Mehar. The backbone of the book is Jyot’s story and in a quest to know her story, Niki also starts volunteering at SAAYA so remains close to her. In a particular incidence, when there is fire all around and people are rushing back and forth around the SAAYA building, Jyot sits down on the floor, makes choori with action of her hands and feeds her four children with her hands and then puts them to sleep, two on each side. Niki watches this with a heavy heart as she knows that in case of similar environment, women tend to recreate the trauma and she sympathizes with Jyot but it is still unclear what is the reason behind the unforgiveneess?

The epilogue puts me to tears where the entire story makes sense and the truth Jyot has been hiding becomes known to Niki and I am sure it will move you to tears.

The book has been beautifully written by the writer and I can only imagine the kind of turmoil that she would have had to go through while researching and writing this book. I love stories which are heavy on emotions and this was one masterpiece that I read. It is surely my favorite read of 2019 and I hope to read her other works too. You will invest a lot in the characters of the book and I promise you will not be disappointed as the characters have been developed meticulously and they just stay with you. After finishing the book, I was not sure how I will fill the void left by Jyot, Niki, Nooran and their stories.

I am glad that I found the book or rather, the book found me. I am glad it did.


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