Mythology is black and white while history has characters with shades of grey, says Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar was fascinated with history, particularly the story of Taj Mahal. A few years ago, she visited the Taj hoping to learn about its art, architecture and the stories the monument resonates with. To her dismay, the guide could tell her nothing more than what she already know — the Taj is among the wonders of the world and a symbol of love. Manreet asked what the calligraphy on the tomb of Mumtaz meant and found no answers. She dug deeper, turned to historians and academicians. As she learnt, she was further drawn to the monument’s history. At that time, Manreet had completed her first fiction The Long Walk Home and wanted to write a thriller. Her research culminated in The Taj Conspiracy (Westland publication; Rs. 250), the first book of the trilogy.
A touch of history
Reviewers have compared The Taj Conspiracy (TTC) with Da Vinci Code, billing TTC as India’s Da Vinci Code. “I have no problems with that. Dan Brown’s is a great book that tells you about the Renaissance period and history; I loved the way he re-worked an urban legend. Having said that, my book is very different from Da Vinci Code,” says Manreet, who was in Hyderabad to launch her book at Landmark.
Taking us back to the genesis of TTC, Manreet says she wanted to dabble with a thriller soon after The Long Walk Home, which took her seven years to write. The Long Walk Home had involved tons of research and spanned 80 years, from pre-Partition Punjab to the present. Manreet had assumed a thriller would be a ‘light’ genre to deal with. “I didn’t know I was digging my own grave,” she laughs.
Manreet’s research on Taj Mahal took more time than she had expected, with very little written history available. “All the references made to the art, architecture and calligraphy of Taj Mahal in my book are authentic. Ebba Koch’s The Complete Taj Mahal became my bible. The Swiss-Austrian was the first to be permitted by Government of India to take measurements of the Taj in 2000. Imagine, until that we didn’t even have accurate measurements of our most famous monument,” says Manreet. At the heart of TTC is the protagonist Mehrunisa Khosa, who stumbles upon a conspiracy to destroy the Taj Mahal. “Mehrunisa is the human metaphor of Taj — born of mixed heritage, perceived to be a foreigner in her own land and vulnerable,” says Manreet.
Both The Long Walk Home and The Taj Conspiracy have history woven into their narratives. Manreet attributes her engagement with history to her growing years in Ferozepur, a town ravaged by riots during Partition. The wounds run deep and Manreet grew up listening to stories of Partition from elders.
Manreet graduated from Indian Institute of Management Kolkata and was Hindustan Lever Limited’s first woman area sales manager for Gujarat and Maharastra. A decade-long career in marketing and advertising continued with other companies until she took a sabbatical in 2000 when her husband moved to Singapore for work. Manreet dabbled with a short story of a young patient and there was no turning back from writing. In a way, things had come full circle. “In school, I was interested in English literature and history. But those days, if you were smart you were expected to take up engineering or medicine,” she laughs.
Up next is the second book of the trilogy, The Hunt for Kohinoor. Ask her about the growing popularity of contemporary Indian historical fiction, she says, “Authors like Ashwin Sanghi are exploring the genre but we have very few doing so. Most of our writing is still about mythology. Characters in mythology are black and white; history is where the greys are. I wish more writers would draw from history. We know very little of our 2000-year-old history.”