Praise for My Books

"Manreet Sodhi Someshwar is a gifted writer of great promise. I have a gut feeling we have a new star rising in Punjab's literary horizon. She has an excellent command of English and a sly sense of humour."
- Khushwant Singh on The Long Walk Home

"An enjoyable tale of a sassy girl's headlong race up the corporate ladder."
- India Today on Earning the Laundry Stripes

Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Choice Before India: Grow Up, or Stay Stuck

So India, another honor killing? Well done. In the heart of your capital city, that too. Shabash!

Your Prime Minister is busy crowing about the existence, or invention, of artificial insemination and plastic surgery in ancient India; his mentor Dinanath Batra is dictating school curriculum in Gujarat, for now; the RSS - yes, the same communal organization responsible for killing Gandhi - has been allowed its first national broadcast over DD, but then Gandhi’s usefulness is limited to evocation for swachhata drives; fraudulent Babas and Sants are waging pitched battles with police and accumulating followers by the millions - why pay hospitals when Ramdev can cure cancer? But with its women, it's the same ole same ole.

Since becoming the prime minister, Mr Modi is keenly traveling the world, motivating the diaspora and firangis to invest in India, but he needs to take a good hard look at his own backyard in Des. Khap panchayats, gang-rapes, honor killings, prescribed dress codes for half its population - is this the way to take India forward in the manner of the western nations our PM so admires? The westward direction only leads to Afghanistan. Or are we, in the tradition of recollecting out glorious ancient culture, just arcing back to that great Manu, the progenitor whose laws dictate women’s conduct in India? 

And before the fanboyz start pointing out that the PM is one person and surely this is our collective responsibility as a nation, consider this: Leaders set direction, from which follow policy and laws. In 2011, India's Supreme Court said that those involved in honour killings should face the death penalty. How about the 'new' government enforcing that for a start?

Among the many prescribed tenets of Manusmriti are developing the routine of wife-beating, ensuring a woman always eats after her husband, allowing her no independence, etc. One particular gem: Wise people should avoid sitting alone with one’s mother, daughter or sister. Since carnal desire is always strong, it can lead to temptation. ‘Mere paas Ma hai.’ - What the heck did Shashi Kapoor, rather Salim-Javed, mean by this popular dialogue that has become so beloved of entire India? Freud will have a field day analyzing this in context of Manu’s commandments.

Apologists rationalize Manu’s prejudice and hatred of women by dating it to the time he lived in, two millennia back. So my question to you, India, is: do you aim to grow up?, or will it be back to the ‘golden age’ of our PM’s calling, where, in the matter of your women, you are forever stuck?

Friday, 31 October 2014

October 31: All Saints’ - and some Sinners’ - Day

October 31st. In the country of my recent residence, it is Halloween. When skeletons tangled in floaty fabric, strategically ripped, pop up at residence-fronts, and ghouls become part of our community. My daughter’s school has planned an extended lunch break for a Halloween party and we have invested some time in designing her costume: fierce, not macabre. I am glad. She is twelve and I am relieved that the ghastly, for her, is make believe. 

However, I grew up in India, in Punjab, and 31st October takes me back to a winter morning in 1984 when I had cycled to college as usual, cutting through the fog that floated over from the fields shrouding the streets of our small town. Before lessons could commence we were informed that lectures were suspended and we were to proceed home, immediately. Violence was expected. 

That was not unusual, the state of Punjab had been rife with militant activity for two decades. Indira Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister, had galvanized an obscure Sikh preacher against the Akali party in Punjab in an attempt to divide the Sikh votes and gain electoral victory. However, as his fame spread, Bhindranwale became the Frankenstein who threatened the very existence of India with his demand for a separate state of Khalistan for the Sikhs. During the Partition of India in 1947 the state of Punjab had been bifurcated and the western part went to newly formed Pakistan, state of the pure. In the eighties, Bhindranwale was agitating for eastern Punjab to be made a separate nation of Khalistan, another state of the pure, where only Sikhs would reside. Ferozepur, my town that straddles the border between India and Pakistan, Janus-faced, was labelled a ‘militant hotbed’.

Thirty years back, on that crisp winter morning in Delhi, the Sikh bodyguards of Mrs Gandhi had pumped bullets into her, raised their hands and proclaimed their deed, convinced they had avenged a wrong. As news of the assassination percolated through the country, Sikhs became the target of communal violence, which, over the next three days, acquired the form of a pogrom. Senior leaders of Mrs Gandhi’s Congress party orchestrated and unleashed terror upon the Sikhs. Electoral roles were used to identify Sikh homes and businesses, which were then attacked, pillaged and set afire by mobs, even as the police were given instructions to stand by. A popular method of killing was to throw a rubber tyre around the victim, douse them with kerosene, and set them aflame. With reports of escalating violence, the Army chief sent additional troops, which the Delhi administration chose not to deploy. People woke up to rumors that evoked the horrors of Indian partition:  trains from Punjab were arriving in Delhi laden with corpses of non-Sikhs. ‘Blood for blood’, ran the war cry as marauders rampaged through the national capital. Apparently, the pogrom was internally called, ‘Teach the Sikhs a Lesson’. 

Mrs Gandhi’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, briskly assuming the mantle of party leadership, dismissed the pogrom with the facile statement that when a big tree falls, the earth shakes. The rest of the nation agreed wholeheartedly with him, soon returning the Congress to power with unprecedented majority. It is estimated that 3000 people died in that violence, mostly in the Indian capital, Delhi. India has instituted nine commissions to enquire into the 1984 anti-sikh violence. And yet, thirty years later, those victims have not received justice. The ‘riots’ have been declared variously to be spontaneous outbursts of grief, or uncoordinated acts committed by low-level Congress workers. The nation swallowed that rationale wholesale - in the last thirty years, the congress party was in power for 22. 

After 1984, for the first time India returned a single political party with an absolute majority on its own in the general elections held earlier this year. The BJP came to power, the Congress with a shockingly low tally of seats looks decimated, and India has a new Prime Minister in Mr Modi. Mr Modi’s promise of untrammeled economic growth is touted as his success mantra. And yet, behind this thundering victory lurks a grim parallel truth. 

Mr Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 when an anti-Muslim pogrom racked his state for three days. It is estimated that 2000 Muslims were killed. Several commissions and enquiries have indicated that the State government was complicit. But Mr Modi was seen to have done something right as his state returned him to chief ministership for four consecutive terms thereafter. He resigned in May 2014 after being elected the Prime Minister.

In the Indian campaigning toolkit, one essential component appears to be the anti-minority riot, a vote magnet. While the results of general elections 2014 have been hailed as radical, is that really so? Or has India swapped one set of perpetrators for another? Time will tell. A reliable Indian response to equivocation. Not surprising in a culture where the word for tomorrow and yesterday is the same. A piece of trivia that foreigners find quixotic about India. Just as I do the grinning Halloween skeletons abounding on my NYC street. But for those who were caught up in the pogroms of 1984 and 2002, there is a chilling resonance to that trivia: with their future forever tangled in that past, their lives are in a perennial limbo.