KOOLSKOOL met up Manreet Sodhi Someshwar at the book launch of her latest novel, "The Taj Conspiracy" (which has recently been declared a best seller). Manreet talked to Suhas Dutta (KOOLSKOOL founder)in an exclusive interview.
Suhas Dutta: Manreet, in our conversation today lets take a different orientation and perhaps speak more about you being an author than necessarily your latest book if that is okay. The Taj Conspiracy is your third novel, the first of the thriller genre and the first of the Mehrunisa trilogy. Many authors write one novel and fizzle out. Did you always have a novel or five inside you, besides even the short stories?
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar: My first novel, which got published second, because it 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. 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?
SD: Did you always know, you wanted to be a writer? or was it something else, and one day epiphany happened?
MSS: To answer your question, I'll have to tell you how writing waylaid me. 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.
SD: In one of our conversations, you had mentioned that you create a plot in your head, put in on paper and then sort of storyboard it, put in on sticky notes and move them around to fit, to tighten the plot. That sounds almost the way someone would create a movie, or certainly an animation movie. One would expect an author to just write / type and polish draft after draft. Does this story boarding mechanism enhance your creativity, or makes the work more publishable?
MSS: I think you missed some of that discussion. I start with the first draft which is always fluid and I have only a vague notion of where I want to go with it. It's usually an image in my mind that propels me on. After I have a first draft ready, I put it aside for a while and then tackle it again. The next phase is what I call sculpting, others call editing. This phase is about cutting the extraneous, re-focussing the narrative, tying loose ends. The final phase is 'Kill your darlings!' where I try to be ruthless with the writing so that it is of the finest standard possible.
In the case of The Taj Conspiracy, since its a thriller and the genre has its own conventions - pace, multiple threads - I resorted to storyboard in Phase 2. Storyboard doesn't enhance creativity but it makes the process more rigorous since the demands of the genre dictate that.
SD: When you write, do you go into seclusion, or does normal life go on?
MSS: Normal life goes on. I am a full-time writer and a full-time mother and the two roles cohabit I write daily, weekdays, 8 am to 2 pm, after which my daughter returns from school. But then, there's always writing in the head thereafter, on the couch, in the shower...
SD: Your latest is on the best seller list already. That makes you a successful writer for sure. But, it is not that easy to write, and get published for the first time. What would you say to younger people who want to write but get baulked with the thought of the manuscript coming back?
MSS: Persist. There is no shortcut and writing truly is a labour of love that can go unrequited. Do it only if you feel the strongets compulsion to do so - there are easier ways to earn a living! And behind the glamour is a lot of grit that remains invisible.
SD: What made you move away, and write a thriller?
MSS: The genesis of The Taj Conspiracy lies in my last visit to the Taj Mahal on a crisp winter morning As our guide urged us through the Jilaukhana, forecourt, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the white mausoleum perfectly framed in the arched entrance gateway. Before we could savour the moment, we’d stumbled through the gate into the lush gardens.
The green of the chahar bagh contrasted with the red sandstone platform upon which stood the famed white mausoleum with its flanking buildings. Everything sang harmony - except our guide. Intent upon hustling us on, he ignored the perfect symmetry of the gardens, dismissed the central pool - almost as famous as the celebrities who pose from across it, gave a wide berth to the garden wall pavilions with their intriguing verandahs accentuated with coupled columns and arches ...
No, for him, the Taj Mahal was only the white marble building at the north end, which, in turn, was some periodic table, materials and numericals interwoven, in which ‘marble’ and ‘sandstone’ popped with unsurprising periodicity.
Admittedly, I was nonplussed. I am a writer, I like stories - they tell the truth, about the world, about ourselves, and since inception, homo sapiens have deployed stories to learn and remember by. When I objected to the lack of a narrative, he nodded sanguinely and proceeded to a garnish of urban legends.
Earlier that year, we had toured the Vatican museums with a guide who had brought alive the magic of Renaissance. Here was the world’s most beautiful marble monument that should be pulsing with life stories, yet its narrative was buried under bloodless piling of numerical detail and credulous myths when the true story of the monument was far bigger?
When we departed, I turned once to look at the Taj. This time, unhindered by the guide, I savoured it framed within the arched Darwaza-i-Rauza, the mist swirling around its marble dome. Somehow, the Taj looked forlorn, as if it needed someone to tell its story...
I resolved that day to write a novel around the Taj Mahal, one that would rescue it from ignorant guides and benighted rumours and show it for what it really is - as the colour white contains all colours within it, this monument of white comprises multiple, diverse threads of a pluralistic India.
SD: Manreet, this was wonderful...I could ask you plenty more but thank you so much for talking to us
MSS: Thank you!