Telling the Taj tale

rooted in historyManreet Sodhi Someshwar  

“Writing waylaid me in early 2001,” says Manreet Sodhi Someshwar. The Hong Kong-based writer was in India recently for the launch of her thriller, The Taj Conspiracy (Westland, Rs. 250). “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 three Indo-Pak wars, and I witnessed the Khalistan movement firsthand while growing up in the town that was branded a “terrorist hot-bed” by the Press.”

After a hectic corporate career that had involved much travel, she took a sabbatical in Singapore and thought she’d take a shot at a short story. With a touch of naïveté, she wrote one, enjoyed the experience tremendously and followed it with some more. The sabbatical went from six months to 12 and a short story demanded to be converted into 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 what would take seven years of my life, The Long Walk Home , which is the first fictional examination of the 20th-Century history of Punjab.”

Manreet’s first published book was Earning the Laundry Stripes. “When I wrote The Long Walk Home , I was also teaching myself to write. Long Walk seemed to take forever. I took a break with Laundry Stripes , which is partly my own story.”

In spite of being very different kind of books ( The Taj Conspiracy is a thriller), Manreet says: “I have enjoyed all of them. I am a slow writer and The Long Walk Home and The Taj Conspiracy are heavily researched. I enjoyed the research. I wouldn’t call The Taj Conspiracy a police procedural. But yes a friend who is a senior police officer helped me with the details of the hierarchy and what would be procedure if there is a threat on the Taj.”

There are quite a few similarities between The Taj Conspiracy and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code from the brutal murder of the Taj supervisor with clues written in blood on his body to the faceless assassin. “I was inspired by how Brown reworked an urban legend. The Taj Mahal also has many legends. I am a history buff. It is amazing that writers have not leveraged this wealth of information.”

Talking about the genesis of the book, a breathless conspiracy thriller involving the Taj, ancient secrets and modern terror, Manreet says: “I visited the Taj in winter and all the guide could tell us were the dull details of dimensions. As I was leaving, the Taj looked forlorn in the fading light. It was demanding its story be told and I decided to write a story to make us aware of our rich cultural history.”

The Taj Conspiracy is the first of a trilogy featuring the Mughal scholar Mehrunisa Khosa. “The next book is called The Hunt for the Kohinoor . I thought of a trilogy because I enjoyed creating these characters. Mehrunisa is a regular Indian woman with a touch of exotic thanks to her mixed parentage. She is the brain to the policemen’s brawn.”

There are two police officers in the book— SSP Raghav and R.P. Singh who will also appear in the following books. “There is a hint of romance, let’s see where it goes.”

The writer does not expect people to take offense to the book. “It is a work of fiction. Reading is a conversation between two people. If a reader doesn’t like a particular book, he/she has the freedom to discontinue and move on to what pleases them more. The Taj Conspiracy , for instance, is a pacy thriller and what it means to be an Indian today when faith and fundamentalism are increasingly entwined.”

Researching the book Manreet admits was difficult as details were hard to come by. “It was a huge stumbling block. While the West is exorcising the demons of the Holocaust, there is hardly any literature on Partition which was huge. I am amazed that there is such little detail. It is dismaying that we have so much history but do not want to engage with it. We choose to look forward, which is not a bad thing in itself. We are happy to preen about our history and tradition but do not wish to contemporise it.”