Monday, September 14, 2020

Guest Blogger: Puja Guha

Introducing Puja 

Puja Guha and I met in 2017 at Bouchercon in Toronto, where she moderated a panel I was on.  Like many discussions that we here on MIE have shared, our topic was location.  Today she brings us a tale of a place few of us have ever been: Kuwait. Here is her account of how her own family's experiences inspired her novel.

 On the first day, you could hear bullets everywhere, mostly being shot at the sky, just to scare people. After that, it was eerily quiet until we managed to get out.

The first half of my next book Sirens of Memory takes place in Kuwait during the Gulf War. I was born in Kuwait, and I mostly grew up there, but during the invasion, my parents and I were in Toronto. I remember hearing about it on the news, but I was too young to understand. In fact, I remember being upset that my father wanted to watch the news instead of letting me change the channel to the Looney Tunes. He explained that what we were watching was important, but at the time, I didn’t realize how many family friends were still back there, how many of them were experiencing it directly.

As I got older, I paid more attention to the stories—how one of my dad’s colleagues, a British man, hid out in his attic for two weeks to prevent being found by the Iraqis. Eventually he was airlifted out, but I’ve never forgotten that story. When I really started to listen, I realized that there were even more stories. My uncle used his training in the Indian military to keep proprietary business information hidden until he and his family managed to escape through Jordan. Since work and school came to a stop, a group of our family friends had parties every night to drink all of their black market alcohol until they were able to make an evacuation plan.


I didn’t realize how much these stories stayed with me until I watched a Bollywood movie called Airlift several years ago. The movie recounts the plight of the over 100,000 Indians who were stranded in Kuwait after the Iraqi troops crossed the border. Some of the wealthier ones were able to get out of their own accord, but for many of the traveling laborers—drivers, housekeepers, construction workers—that wasn’t an option. Many of them didn’t even have their own passports as these were held by their employers. Airlift focuses on a group of Indians who set up a refugee camp at an abandoned school, and then are eventually evacuated by the Indian Air Force.

Indian airlift. Source:

The stories I heard growing up, along with that movie, led me to the plot of Sirens of Memory, which follows a young Kuwaiti woman who flees an abusive marriage, only to find her escape complicated by the Iraqi invasion. She hides out at one of these Indian refugee camps, where she meets Raj, another resident who lost his wife in the chaos of the war. Eventually they are evacuated and start a new life together, only to have the past catch up to them twenty-five years later.

The first half of the book centers on Kuwait during the invasion—and as part of writing it, I spoke with several family friends who were there at that time. I remembered bits and pieces of their stories already, but when we spoke about the experience again, other details came out. The bullets and war cries from the first day, the fact that most of the Iraqi soldiers were teenagers, or perhaps in their early twenties at most. Many of the soldiers didn’t even have real shoes, they were wearing plastic slippers.


Hearing those details made the stories vivid and I was transported, that world became part of my reality with each scene that I wrote. Now, with drafting the book mostly behind me, and just a few edits ahead, I feel as if I were actually there instead of watching it on the news from our couch in Toronto. The human mind is strange that way—other people’s memories become intertwined with our own.

I’m just glad I got to explore that part of Kuwait’s history, to learn more about what so many of the people that I care about went through at that time. Sometimes when we think of conflict and adversity, they can feel distant, like something that happens, but only to other people, not to those that we care about. I couldn’t imagine that our family friends would laugh, and in the case of Indians, sing, so much after being through such experiences. It’s a good lesson in human resilience, and how much we can overcome. Hopefully the same will carry us through this pandemic, to a tomorrow where we laugh and sing together once again.


  1. Terrific to have a female voice! Welcome, Puja, and congrats!

  2. Fascinating, and well told! I look forward to reading Sirens of Memory. Thanks!

  3. Let me add, Puja: What a gorgeous cover. Exactly what it should be--arresting and intriguing!

  4. What a great story line, Puja! Best of luck with Sirens of Memory.