Leela Soma was an Indian Scottish writer who was born in Madras, and spent most of her life in Glasgow. Leela passed away in December 2022 and is sorely missed by many. The below text is a version of the tribute to Leela that we shared during our Celebrating Leela Soma event in November 2023.
Leela Soma was born in 1947 in Madras in India, and came to Scotland with her husband Som in 1969. When they arrived, Leela and Som had very little, but they both built successful careers in Glasgow and eventually settled down in Milngavie. Leela quickly became a teacher, and worked in secondary schools, and eventually became a Principal Teacher in Modern Studies. As a teacher, Leela was kind, understanding, and she instilled respect, affection and even love in her students. Leela was the sort of teacher who could make a whole classroom of Glaswegian students go silent with just a look– simply because she was so well respected, and someone her students looked up to. When she passed away, in December 2022, a touching number of students came to her funeral, even though over twenty years had passed since her retirement, showing the deep personal connections Leela built with her students.
Although Leela loved teaching and had a very successful career in it, she decided to retire early to focus on what she had always wanted to do, which was to write.
Her first novel Twice Born was self-published in 2008, and for that book she won the Margaret Thomson Davis Trophy for Best New Writer. Her second novel Bombay Baby was published by Dahlia Publishing in 2011. She wrote three poetry collections titled From Madras to Milngavie, Tartan and Turmeric, and Chintz, and her poems have also been featured in several magazines such as Gutter, Visual Verse, The Blue Nib, Anthropocene, Black Bough Poems, The Glasgow Review of Books, and the list goes on. Her poems were nominated for the Erbacce Prize in 2020 and The Pushcart Prize also in 2020.
All of Leela’s work, but particularly her poetry, reflects her dual heritage of India and Scotland, and this exploration of dual culture and identity culminated in her third novel Murder at the Mela which was published by Ringwood in 2020. Murder at the Mela is a multi-layered look at the relationships between different communities in Glasgow, and introduces Tartan Noir’s first Asian Detective Inspector, with her character D.I Patel. The novel was very well received upon publication, with headlines such as ‘Look out Rebus, DI Patel is coming for you’, which was the title for Sunday Mail’s full page spread on Leela and her new novel. Murder at the Mela was also cited as one of ‘9 Best Contemporary Scottish Books You Need to Read’.
With Murder at the Mela, Leela had the breakthrough dreamed of by many writers, but in reality achieved by very few– of national acceptance as an established writer of renown and merit. In 2021 Leela was the National ‘Scriever’ or writer-laureate for the Federation of Scottish Writers. She attended more literary festivals in two years than most other writers manage in a lifetime, proving both her success as a writer but also her dedication to taking part in and contributing to the literary world.
From the beginning of her writing career, Leela was committed to supporting other writers and writing communities. She served on the Milngavie Books and Arts Festival committee, The Scottish Writer’s Centre committee, the East Dunbartonshire Art and Culture committee and joined the board for the Scottish PEN in 2020. She was a member of the Strathkelvin Writers Group, before founding Bearsden Writers together with Palo Stickland, within the Federation of Scottish Writers. When Leela passed away, there were obituaries for her in both the local newspaper, but also in the National Herald.
From the moment Leela joined Ringwood upon the publication of Murder at the Mela, she became a key part of the Ringwood family. She consistently went out of her way to support her fellow writers, and upon her passing, we received numerous messages from our authors telling stories about how Leela had offered them unwavering support and friendship throughout her time at Ringwood. During our Celebrating Leela Soma event, our panel guests told similar stories about how kind Leela was to everyone, and how she encouraging she was of other people’s work. Anne Pettigrew, one of the panel guests at the event, said that Leela ‘leaves a legacy of writers across Scotland who she has inspired to think they too can produce poetry’.
Leela was also thoroughly committed to creating spaces for writers of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) community, and she worked hard to help other BIPOC writers get published and recognised for their work. In collaboration with the Glasgow University Creative Writing staff, Leela set up the KAVYA Prize, which seeks to recognise and empower BIPOC Writers with a Scottish connection, and was first awarded in 2022. To honour Leela’s dedication to this work, Ringwood has introduced the Leela Soma Prize category in our Short Story Competition, which is to be awarded to the best entry from a BIPOC writer.
Leela Soma has left behind a legacy that speaks of strength, dignity, and dedication to her own writing as well the writing of others. Bashabi Fraser, Emerita Professor and member of the PEN board, sums it up nicely:
“Leela Soma will live amongst us through her books which weave her two worlds – of India and Scotland together in a tapestry that is vibrant, moving and magical. Her liberal humanism and generous spirit shone through her work and those who met and knew her, were touched by her affectionate nature, sincerity and integrity. Her legacy was immense, and the Kavya Prize which was the first major literary prize established for writers of colour in Scotland, was her brainchild and will remain part of her great legacy, signifying the debt Scotland owes to a writer who was conscious and proud of her dual heritage.”
Leela is survived by her husband Som and her daughter Nita, who are currently both based in the US.
Here in Scotland, Leela will be remembered as a writer, a friend, and as someone who contributed massively to the Scottish Literary World. Her work will continue to inspire, and her legacy and memory will live on for years to come.
You can buy your own copy of Murder at the Mela here.