Author Archive for Sujatamassey.com Webmaster

Summer in the City

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.


In Spring of 2017, I hired a man to dig out the grass in front of my Baltimore, Maryland house. He thought I was crazy to pay him for that, but I had the idea of replacing the grass with a lot of perennials that are native to Maryland and Virginia. I wanted to plant food for the local bees and bugs (the good bugs, of course) and have the feeling of a full, lively cottage garden. Native gardening guru friends told me this kind of garden doesn’t need much water, because the plants are used to the climate, and such laid-back flora grows happily without special attention.

I also heard a saying that was meant to encourage me: the first year plants sleep—the second year they creep—the third year they leap!

I was pleasantly surprised to see plants getting a nice, full shape the first year. But this year, WOW. I don’t really think we can pretend anyone is creeping. The mountain mint is a monster stalking the entire space!

Lots of rain made these plants really grow, and it’s amusing to see my short dogs wandering through their personal jungle while bees buzz gently overhead.

Another thing that surprised me about my impromptu native cottage garden is how long it is taking everything to flower. With these natives, varying shades of green are what I’m stuck with for a long time. I will have to wait till August to see yellow petals on these Black-eyed Susans below, and they are already approaching 6 feet tall.

One of my goals this summer was to “be in the garden” most mornings while it’s still cool. An overdue book turned my mornings into writing sessions on the screened porch until today—July 17.

The middle of July is usually when most people stop gardening. But it’s my start date. I had a bunch of weeds to pull.

But they easily gave way. Today I did a spot-check on a Virginia Sweetspire bush advertised as “good for poor soil” that I’d planted this May. I watered it a couple of days in the beginning and then I started writing overtime and let it go without extra watering.

I think the Sweetspire, below, got mad about that.

Can I make things better for the poor shrub this late in the season? And is there any point in planting anything more in the bare dry spots…or is that insane with the 90 degree heat that lies ahead?

If you ask me, is easier to plant a garden than to write a novel; but it’s more tempting to disappear in a rewrite than to pull ivy.

Death in the Newsroom

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Capital Gazette

Last week’s mass shooting of the five employees at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis made headlines around the world, but especially here in Maryland. These premeditated, cold-blooded murders are a tragedy for the families and friends of Gerald Fischman, Rebecca Smith, Wendi Winters, Rob Hiaasen, and John McNamara. But the murders are alsoan attack on the culture of journalism.  Reporters walk alone into neighborhoods full of guns to investigate the suffering of people there; editors authorize the publication of stories that sometimes point out wrongdoing in  the community. This work is done as a service to the community; but there are those who disagree with it. Usually, they send a letter to the editor about it. But not always.

Such was the situation with suspected shooter Jarrod W. Ramos, who was convicted of harassing a woman he knew in high school. He then tried to sue the Capital Gazette because of a published story about the harassment. Ramos’s case was dismissed as too groundless to be tried in a court of law, but the man wouldn’t give up.  During the last presidential campaign, Ramos threatened the newspaper on Twitter for an opinion piece that referred to Trump as “unqualified.” He also used Twitter to violently threaten  the reporter who wrote about him, as well as Rob Hiaasen, who was the deputy editor.

The Capital Gazette is a very old newspaper that became part of the Baltimore Sun Media Group in recent years. The CG’s deputy editor,  Rob Hiaasen, was the first employee killed by Ramos. Before he became an editor in Annapolis, Rob was a general assignment features reporter at the Baltimore Sun when I was a features reporter for the afternoon paper, The Evening Sun.

I remember Rob as full of laughs: a funny, gregarious, and skilled writer. This New York Times opinion piece by Laura Lippman, who was Rob’s close friend, describes him much better than I can. I recall smiling at Rob’s stories and his status as the newsroom’s bon vivant.

I left the Sun in 1991, but I had the gift of an out-of-the-blue email from Rob about ten years ago.  He had read through all the mystery short stories in Baltimore Noir, an Akashic anthology published in 2006, and he wanted to congratulate me on mine. I was surprised and flattered, especially since I regarded that particular story, “Goodwood Gardens,” as being all about women. But Rob didn’t believe in stories being for ladies or gents. He read what he wanted, and he was known to praise and encourage writers whether they were in his newsroom or not.

During my years at the newspaper, I recall receiving a few nasty unsigned letters, typically filled with racist complaints about the newspaper’s coverage. Also, a local man picketed the newspaper for years holding a sign that said “Sun Lies.” I don’t know whether there was a story that bothered him, or he just didn’t like the paper.  In my five years as a reporter, I understood there would always be readers who felt wronged by the paper, but I really thought the biggest danger for me was going into deserted neighborhoods alone.

I am shocked that threats against these journalists that appeared on Twitter were not addressed by the police. I believe these threats multiply and gain traction because President Trump tweets frequently against the press, often by name, and has called the entire news media “the enemy of the American people.” With a climate like this, I don’t like imagining what will come next.

Longest Deadline on Earth…Stay Posted!

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Once again, this is not a typical blogpost. I’m still on deadline—a new one!

I did not realize before I became published is there’s not just one deadline per book. There’s the deadline to turn in your unedited manuscript. It’s followed by a deadline to turn in a completely revised manuscript (completed two weeks ago). And now I’m on a deadline to approve edits to that revised manuscript and add in whole new sentences and paragraphs to clarify points. I’ve got one week to go through 370 pages—a feat I’m not sure I can accomplish. There will be a deadline later for me to look at the copy edit, with only very minimal alterations allowed, and another chance to look at bound galleys for errors.

Does this sound like creative, inspirational work? You’re right, it’s not. However, a well-edited book is so satisfactory. It lasts longer in people’s minds than the average novel does. And that’s what I want to create.

I have illustrated this brief posting with some dog photographs to make up for the lack of content. My dogs, Charlie the Beagle and Daisy the Chorkie, do not approve of deadlines.  Sure, I’m around the house more than usual—but I’m parked at a table ignoring them.  They disapprove of the attention I’m giving the gray metal box with the funny light on the back. Daisy walks across the laptop sometimes, to prove a point.

Deadlines will be met! I am keeping an eye on the prize and will not let go of my spirits.

Deadline!

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

My comments this week will be my briefest yet. I am on deadline with Book 2 in my Perveen Mistry series. A writer is always working on a book, but there are many times in the early days of a novel that it must be handed back and forth between the author and the publisher. And this process turns the work from private to teamwork, and can create stress.

The first time this particular tale met a deadline was back in February, when I handed in an 80,000-word book about 4 weeks later than planned. My editor wrestled with it and returned it to me in March, at which point I began the big improvement campaign. Most writers don’t spend months on a rewrite, like I do. Typically, novelists rewrite in a month or less. But I have learned I’m not the kind of writer who just swaps in a few words.  I delete sentences, create new paragraph after paragraph, and write many more pages. I do plenty of cutting as well. About ten weeks and 20,000 words since the handoff for Book 2, I am elated to be almost through, although I still have a supermarket’s worth of names and titles and typos to address. After I submit it, I expect to have to rewrite more bits (but not as much), and then there is the line by line evaluation of the copy-edit, followed by a couple of rounds with galleys. You could say rewriting and editing is a job in itself, but I should have started Book 3 back in February, when I was researching it in India.

Being close to a deadline—or knowing I’ve just missed it—changes my life. I exercise and cook less, I forgo social events, and worst of all, I SIT for hours. My back is often stiff and there’s a permanent dull pain in my unexercised hamstrings. The dogs are becoming too accustomed to having me home, staring at my laptop either at the dining room table, at my desk on the sleeping porch or my study, or on the living room couch. Daisy, pictured above, thinks nothing of walking across the keyboard to make the point that I should pay attention to something else (her).

Deadline is a concept I first met when I was a newspaper journalist. During those years I wrote articles that were conceptualized, researched and written by me and edited by someone else in the same eight-hour time span. The story would be printed in the next day’s paper. It seemed like plenty of pressure, but in hindsight, a 600-word story is not that hard to pull off. Getting the facts straight was the most important part of the journalism process, whereas fiction writing, it is not just facts but expository language, dialogue, and a sense of heart.

People sometimes ask what happens if a writer doesn’t meet a deadline. Will you lose the chance to have your book published? The answer typically is no. The book will still come out, but it’s likely it will shift to another month to allow time for editing, marketing and printing. If a book is late and the pub month can’t be adjusted,  it will be a major challenge for the book’s publicity arm to get clean galleys out to critics and the publisher’s sales force. That said, back in the 1990s I was with another publisher that suddenly axed a lot of writers with late books, actually demanding they repay their advances. Chief among them were authors who had signed contracts with due dates years earlier that were not met. It seems that turning books in late is a very common thing.

Deadlines are a necessity to keep books coming to the shelves. But serious editors and writers  agree that the quality of the book is the most important factor. A truly exceptional book coming in late is welcomed because it really is that good. However, a bad book arriving on the dot, driven there for fear of being late, hurts everyone involved its publication.

And the reader, too!

Badri Narayan, the Story Artist

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Theme of Public Health V, 2008 Badri Narayan, at Gallery 7

A couple of years ago, I spent a thrilling day shopping for art in galleries the Kala Ghoda district of Mumbai. The upshot is I came home with a gorgeous modern abstract painting found in a an old British Raj building on Rampart Row in Mumbai, very close to the Bombay Dock that I’ve written about in my Perveen Mistry series. Gallery 7 is owned by a sophisticated yet friendly mother-son team, Chandra and Nicholai Sachdev.

They showed me their full canon of famous paintings and offered me tea and a savory Pad Bhaji sandwich during the hours we spent together. Newton, their manager, oversaw the wrapping of the Amrish Malvankar abstract oil painting and added my email to the Gallery 7 Art Catalog list.

The occasional emailed catalog is haunting reminder for me that I am no longer walking through the sunshine of Mumbai with art on my mind.

How can possibly I gaze at art when I have bills to pay for serious things such as my children’s summer classes in Baltimore and plumbing repairs?

Untitled, 2008, Badri Narayan, at Gallery 7

But I’ll admit it—I open up these emails and look at every picture and sculpture. It can be utterly distracting to spend an hour looking at dozens of paintings by artists who are tops in India but not well known in my part of the world. I can pretend I have a budget to buy art. I can divide all those lakhs by 60 to try to figure out what the cost is in dollars, always hoping that it will be more reasonable than it turns out to be.

Art is the kind of thing that you don’t really need…but when you see something interesting, it might become an obsession.

Theme of Public Health II, 2008, Badri Narayan, at Gallery 7

My attention is now focused on Badri Narayan, a painter born in Secunderabad in 1929, when it was part of a princely kingdom under control of the Nizam of Hyderabad. Badri, who died in 2013 of frail health, taught himself to paint, and worked in watercolors, ink and pastels. When I think of Secunderabad—where I spent one marvelous winter as a little girl—I see the city in the same soft earth tones as Badri’s work.

The Theme of Public Health III, 2008, Badri Narayan, at Gallery 7

As an adult, he moved to Bombay, and some critics have said that his paintings, which celebrate mythology from ancient India, are a counter to the hustle-bustle overcrowded world that developed after independence. Badri Narayan was a renaissance man; he worked as an author-illustrator, storyteller and painter, just like Rabindranath Tagore did a century earlier.

Some of the activities and stylized tableaus in the Narayan watercolors remind me of the miniature paintings that were popular in both Muslim and Hindu courts. There are winged visitors in many of his paintings who may be angels; monks, doctors, and husbands and wives. I was particularly moved by the many images of a sick man being comforted by various people in his life, with the winged angel standing nearby. The Public Health series was painted about seven years before his death at the age of 84. Badri Narayan was clearly at the top of his game and taking a look at what he had in his life and what lay ahead of him.

Gallery 7 has the works featured above in its “New Year Sale” that runs until June 1. No, it’s not a 6 month sale! The Hindu lunar calendar starts on different days each year, and this time it began March 18.

India Underfoot

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

It’s too easy to twist your ankle while walking through India. Streets and sidewalks have irregular surfaces, and there are many distractions, ranging from speeding cars and motorcyclists creating their own laws to horses and goats.

So I only feel like my footing is truly firm indoors, and I am always glad about the safety of a smooth tile floor.

In Fort Cochin, I stayed in the historic Brunton Boatyard, a hotel built on the grounds of a Victorian shipyard. The narrow red clay tiles on the first floor appear to be strictly business. These tiles have an industrial look and are still holding up after centuries of heavy rolling carts—and now, suitcases.

Nineteenth century Indian royals, on the other hand, used tiles in a grand manner that they’d seen themselves on European tours. Palace tile that I’ve seen is typically giant blocks of pure black and white marble. Not especially original—but very silky underfoot. When I checked into a guest room in Shiv Nivas, a hotel housed in the old guest wing of Udaipur’s City Palace Hotel, the floors felt cleaner than anything I’d ever stepped on, and probably a lot of it had to do with the contrast in air temperature and marble’s natural chill. Before the days of air conditioning, floors were an important cooling element.

In Calcutta, zamindars (landowners) had magnificent homes in North Calcutta built throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When I visited a friend who lived in such an aging treasure, I marveled at the veining in the fine marble tiles in the bedrooms.

The most joyful tiles that I’ve seen to date are the encaustic (hand-made cement) tiles from the late 19th and early 20th century in Western India. The first encaustic tiles used in India were Minton Company tiles exported from England.  The British government wanted Indians to buy their tile (as well as most other products) from England. Wanting to suit freedom-minded Indians who still wanted modern tile floors, a Parsi businessman, Pherozeshah Sidhwa, started Bharat Flooring Tile Company in Maharashtra in the early 1920s. These tiles had tremendous patterns crafted to exacting standards, and the backs of the tiles had a map of undivided India stamped on them.

Bharat Tiles are firmly cemented in some of the favorite places I’ve stayed in India, like the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, above.

Wilson College in South Bombay, pictured above, is full of original detail. The school was founded by a missionary, and I don’t know if the tiles are Indian or English.

I’ll make an educated guess that these encaustic tiles in Mahatma Gandhi’s Bombay residence are Bharat Tiles. After all, Gandhiji was the founder of the Swadeshi movement encouraging Indians to buy Indian-made products.

When I recently traveled to Ahmedabad, in the western state of Gujarat, I stayed at the House of MG, a boutique hotel carved out of a grand old residence of the textile merchant, Mangaldas Girdhardas. Mr. Girdhardas expanded his original 1924 residence to have two large wings for his sons and their families. The original wing has black and white marble tile floors; the sons’ sides have brilliant, geometric-patterned encaustic tiles.

When I toured Ahmedabad, I visited more historic havelis, such as the one above, and saw plenty of vibrant cement tile. By now I’d noticed that the prominent colors for all these tiles were golds, reds, and blacks. Yet that color scheme did not determine decorating. Indians decorate in many color schemes atop the harvest-colored floors.

It’s heartening that Bharat Flooring Tile Company managed to create such an industry disruption in 1920s Bombay that the British themselves paid to have many public buildings fitted out with Bharat tiles. And the company lives on today under the same name. They have reissued old patterns and seen them go into old buildings undergoing restoration and new restaurants.

From the British colonial days through independence, Indian tile floors are too tough to show evidence of all who’ve stepped on them. Yet I feel that history surround me every time I go through a door into a hotel or school with a patterned tile floor.

A Mushrooming Obsession

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

After we had a dead elm tree cut down last year, little white mushrooms sprang up on the wood-flecked ground.  I was nervous because we had just taken in a Yorkshire Terrier puppy with an appreciation for organic material. Daisy snuffles up berries, pods, pinecones and black walnuts faster than I can stop her. But for some reason, she stayed away from the tiny white mushrooms, which I think might be Chlorophyllium Molybdites, the Green Spored Parasol, a poisonous mushroom that looks like a white button mushroom.

But Daisy ignored the mushrooms, just as I don’t see rabbits, birds and squirrels eating them. Somehow they must have a genetic aversion. It isn’t that way for people. My eyes tell me that the mushrooms in my garden are beautiful as the ones at a high end grocery. I look at such mushrooms and imagine them sautéed in butter.

Mushrooms have power: both for the bad and the good. Over the winter, I did some reading and learned that the oyster, enoki, maitake and shiitake mushrooms are taken by patients to fight tumors. And there’s one very powerful Chinese mushroom, the Red Reishi, that has been used to treat many diseases, including cancer.

What about the small wrinkled cone-headed mushrooms that grow wild in the United States called the morel? I adore the morels that grow plentifully in the upper Midwest and are hand-collected in the wild and sold in co-ops. However, I’ve learned there’s a “false morel” that looks just like it that’s poisonous. Umm….

And let’s be realistic. Morels are too pricy to be eaten more than a few times a year. However,  an 8-ounce container of local oyster, and white beech and brown beech mushrooms (also known as bunapi and bunashimeji) is about $5.99 at the local organic grocery in my neighborhood. If I get up early enough on the weekend, I can buy a similar portion of fresh maitake, fan mushrooms, chantarelles and shiitakes for $5 at the farmer’s market. I cradle all these unwashed mushrooms in a cotton bag that stays in the refrigerator. They stay happy and resist turning slimy for up to two weeks—though I’ve usually finished them well before that time.

As spring arrives, I realized that mushrooms have nudged themselves into becoming 2018’s food of choice. I’ve cooked a lot of them, and I’ve savored truffles twice—both in a truffle mayonnaise on chips at Charleston Restaurant in Baltimore, and in the truffle-stuffed ravioli at the Fearrington Village Inn in North Carolina. These are the splurgiest, most umami-laden mushrooms around, reputedly costing $2800-3200 a pound, if you get the white ones. But a little goes a long way, because the flavor is so tremendous.

Making a deep dive into a “food of the year” has become a habit for me. When I was researching India’s Parsi community in 2016, I found myself cooking more eggs in Parsi manner, often poached atop vegetables. This was a fantastic and easy food to focus on.

2017’s food of the year was quinoa, because I finally learned to make it taste good, and it went into soups, salads, and as a rice substitute. In 2009 it was homemade bread (I gave up that practice, never quite mastering it, and knowing that I didn’t want to eat bread twice daily to use it up).

I have a head start on the mushroom game because I’ve been cooking mushrooms  for years. Three out of four members of our family like them (not a bad ratio considering they are “fungi”). One of our favorite family dishes for many years was the mushroom stroganoff from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, but that calls for ordinary large white mushrooms. We were happy in the past, but I think cut-up oyster mushrooms are going to vault the dish to the stratosphere. The mushroom risotto recipe I like comes from The New Vegetarian Epicure, and its author, Anna Thomas, isn’t playing. She calls for a mix of morels, porcini and shiitake, as well as dried porcini as a flavor builder.

You don’t need a cookbook to make a fantastic mushroom dish. Sauté them with onion and add lightly beaten eggs for an incomparable scramble. Garam masala or curry powder is the final touch.

For lunch, I love to make a quick Asian noodle soup, starting with sautéed onion, ginger and enoki mushrooms, and throwing in either vegetable, chicken, or beef stock. A spoonful of white miso goes in along with a little chopped raw spinach or bok choy. That last bit cooks two minutes and then I ladle in a bowl with scallions on top.

Or how about a mushroom gnocchi bowl for supper that’s ready in less than thirty minutes? Start with a cup of mixed specialty mushrooms such as shimeji and maitake, all broken apart into medium sized pieces; a quarter cup of chopped onion; two minced garlic cloves. Sauté in butter and olive oil until lightly brown and then pour in 4 cups of any vegetable stock. Simmer ten minutes and then throw in potato gnocchi from the store and 1/3 cup of frozen green peas. The gnocchi will be tender in about 3 minutes; you’ll know when they rise to the top. Toss minced parsley on top, if you are fancy, and ladle it into bowls.

I don’t know that eating small mushrooms with a grand reputation will save me from disease. But I eat them several times a week now. I might even try growing them. I’m eyeing an  “organic mushroom farm” I saw at Mom’s Market. The final frontier would be taking a mushroom walk with a forager, but after what I’ve read about evil lookalikes springing up next to morels and chanterelles, I’m not sure it’s worth the risk.

A Writer’s Lament, Revised

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

A ragged, handwritten sign has been taped to my study wall for about a year.

I love this job!

A quarter-century ago, I was working full-time in university public relations and desperately longed to be a fiction writer. It seemed like an impossible dream, to stay home all day and use as much of it as I wanted for fiction. I thought I’d use each day to the fullest and greet my husband every evening with a smile and a reports of many pages written.

As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

I did leave that job, and began writing full-time at the age of thirty-two. And here I am, twenty-two years later, in the same job, but with the rose-colored glasses removed. With the sale of my first book came a lifestyle where I pretty much always have a deadline. It’s a lifestyle in which I can work every day but never be finished.

When I’m struggling with a chapter that’s going slowly,  it’s hard to remember that I once longed to be in this place. In a writing day—for me, that’s three to four hours—I write 500 to 1000 words, when in the old days, I could do 3000-4000. Is it because my brain has fewer cells? Probably.  Tat and the fact I’m writing historical mysteries, which make dashing off scenes and casual conversations more of a complex effort.

I am grateful to be published, and I love meeting readers and understand that my books are a fun escape for them. I wish I wasn’t looking for my own escapes within my writing day—activities like cooking, reading, napping, aqua aerobics, yoga, walking, lunch with a friend. Actually, all of these are healthy things to do. But they are methods of evading the hard business of thinking, which is Part A of writing. That’s the worst thing about writing—thinking up the sentences that I consider worthy of keeping rather than deleting. Sometimes, I feel as inexperienced and awkward as before I was even published.

A lot of writers say that they enjoy “having written” more than the writing itself. But I think that if I want to keep going at this ten or twenty more years, I’d better start enjoying the writing more. It would mean closing my laptop and moving on to dinner and evening activities in an upbeat mood,rather than a frustrated one.

We want the life that is just beyond us. Perhaps the idea of escape is something I can work with.

What if I reversed my thinking what my responsibilities are? Could I tell myself that I am working full-time again—but for needy dogs and people? What if the act of writing could be transformed into a kind of sanctuary? It would mean pretending that I didn’t have a deadline.

Okay, I’m game.

From this point forward, I am doing things that make it seem more like that. If I want to write snuggled up in bed for a couple of hours, I will allow myself to do that.

There is beautiful sunlight in my third floor study in the mornings, and that’s when I want to be there. Only then. On dark mornings,  I can sit in my dining room and look straight across the hallway to the gas fireplace and two sweet dogs napping nearby.

Then there are times I am restless and know I will wind up in the kitchen making toast. In that case, I will pack my laptop, drive five minutes, and sit among the students in the Eisenhower library at Johns Hopkins University, where I was once a student.

Moving on from place to page. One strategy is to approach my work with curiosity. Surprises will come as I discover the story that was waiting all along.Why don’t I play with words rather than task myself with hammering them out? Can I try to enjoy my characters as if they’re in a film (or a really terrific BBC historical miniseries) playing before my eyes? Does the line of dialog I’ve written truly show anger, humor, or tenderness?

Being mindful about writing could make the process feel more like pleasure reading. Which is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Of Dogs and Other Furry Friends in India

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

what is it?

On my recent sojourn in India, I kept a lookout for animals.

This is because I’m striving to write a lot more about animals in my books. They may not solve a crime or talk (thank God!) but they will be characters.

In my book-in-progress, Perveen Mistry 2, I’ve included an Indian breed dog called Rajapalayams that were especially appreciated in royal households of Tamil Nadu. Rajapalayams are handsome white hounds that look similar to many of the aboriginal pariah dogs seen throughout India. The reason there are different colorations and body types of strays in Indian cities goes back to these dogs mixing with breeds brought in by Europeans. Most of the dogs I see in India are gingers. But I’ve  learned that it’s mostly dust I’m looking at, not the real color of the fur underneath.

I also have different kinds of monkeys swinging through my story. One is the rare Lion-Tailed Macaque indigenous to the Sahyadri Mountain range of Western India. He is elusive and beautiful. The other monkey I’m featuring is the Bonnet Macaque, a pink-faced monkey with a very long tail that is common in rural and urban areas. That monkey is super social and inadvertently becomes involved in a crime.

I have not heard about anyone bringing stray monkeys home from India. But I do know a few people who fell in love with stray dogs in India and brought them home.

A well-built white hound who came from the streets of India used to visit Once Upon a Crime Bookstore in Minneapolis. When I was there, the dog was extremely interested in the scent of my pocket. He was also interested in the free tiny candy bars by the cash register. His owner told me he is always looking for food.

India is estimated to have 30 million stray dogs. In some cities, dogs are rounded up and exterminated as a public health control. There is an estimated 20,000 rabies deaths to humans from animal bites in India per year. However, some animal rights activists in India point out that 75% of dog bites in India are from pets, not strays. So where’s the greatest risk?

I knew that I should not pet a dog while in India, but it was hard to resist. My trip took me from Delhi and Udaipur to Mumbai and Ahmedabad, going from north to west.  I noticed two styles of behavior with the stray dogs. Many of them roamed in family groups, and of course these dog families sometimes got in fights with others at night. I am a dog lover, but the sounds of these ferocious dog wars were pretty frightening. These dogs didn’t come near people, and people never touched them.

The other style of dog behavior was “individual beggar.” In Udaipur, I visited a college where a student club was formed to help with stray dogs. The students in the club feed the animals. When I visited outdoor areas in the college, very friendly dogs wanted to play. I could see they’d come to rely on the students for much more than a bit of supper. They were relishing love.

 In natural areas where tourists go, like the Matheran Hill Station—where I visited in 2016—and Elephanta Island near Mumbai, dogs wag their tails, cock their heads, and beg for a petting. They are also the frequent recipients of leftover snacks and lunches—just like the monkeys who hang nearby.

I traveled by boat in the Mumbai Harbor to Elephanta Island, a site where tourists come to look at a labyrinth of cave temples carved between 450 and 700 AD. While there, I noticed a lot of scavenger dogs and monkeys. I was warned that the monkeys could be more than I bargained for. I was used to the idea of monkeys grabbing food of tables and from people, but here the bonnet macaque population is known to grab cell phones and cameras. I asked why and was told some people who train the monkeys, who are rewarded for bringing them these goods. However, Elephanta Island had no panhandlers, just a lot of successful vendors, so I am skeptical about this idea, at least on Elephanta. My theory is that monkeys are smart and become annoyed at being gawked at without getting a payment of food.

It was funny to see monkeys drinking from half-filled soda bottles (especially sweet drinks like Pepsi). Monkey see, monkey do. Yet I wondered about the impact on their teeth and health.  Just across the path from the soda-drinking monkeys, dogs were tucking into the remains of food still in foil wrappers. I hoped they knew when to stop.

Most Indians don’t keep dogs in their homes, but it’s common for one stray to be fed regularly outdoors by a person. A popular news story during my trip was the behavior of a stray dog that always showed up by the ladies’ only car of a Mumbai commuter train in the evenings. When the passenger the dog waited for didn’t arrive, she would run sadly after the train, and then return to her puppies. Who was the one who fed the dog? Did she just change to a different train… or did something else happen, the mystery writer in me wonders?

Films of this black and white dog have thousands of YouTube views. The story of a loyal dog coming to the train reminds me of the tale of Hachiko, a dog who regularly looked for someone to arrive on a certain train in the evening at Shibuya Station. This dog tale, which took place in the 1930s, is so beloved that it resulted in a statue of the dog at Shibuya Station and a Richard Gere movie, Hachi, retelling the legend in an American setting.

My dogs Daisy and Charlie, who nap by a cozy, odorless gas fireplace live better than many people in my city. I will never feel comfortable about that. However, I am glad that our two dogs that had tough lives to begin—especially our beagle, Charlie, who lived caged up for years in a puppy mill—can enjoy serenity in their later years.

For animals living the free range lifestyle in India, I wish good weather, plenty of water, and a safe bite to eat.

The Kitab Tour in India

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Kitab is the Urdu/Hindi word for book and is pronounced just as it sounds. I find it a lovely word.

So too was my recent book tour in India for A Murder on Malabar Hill, A Perveen Mistry Investigation. You might notice the similarity in title to The Widows of Malabar Hill, my novel which came out this past January from Soho Press in the US. That’s because it is the same book, retitled by my South Asian publisher, Penguin Random India. They wanted to make no bones about the fact it is a mystery.

Signing at Crossword Books in Ahmedabad

India doesn’t have a large number of indigenous mysteries, but it has billions of regular readers. In fact, 43% of Indians report reading books every week for pleasure. The world’s fastest growing economy has had a leap in the number of boys and girls in K-12 education. As a result, the largest selling category of books in India is educational. It makes sense: parents are investing in their kids.

A Murder on Malabar Hill was hitting the shelves at the same time a very big bestseller was launching from the same publisher. In a sense, it was like my recent experience of having Widows released at the same time as the White House tell-all Fire and Fury. I was sitting in a car with a sales rep whose phone would not stop ringing with orders from booksellers wanting one hundred to one thousand copies of Exam Warriors.

The startling thing about this children’s educational book is that its author is India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. Exam Warriors hits publishing’s sweet spot because is a how-to study workbook for children, featuring 25 mantras for studying and reduction in stress. It includes yoga exercises and is illustrated in cartoons. Priced at a bargain 100 rupees (about US $1.60), it is affordable to many and published in English and Hindi.

Blogging Meetup in Gurgaon

Back to A Murder on Malabar Hill. So far, it’s just in English, and it costs a lot more than the Modi book—399 rupees. My novel is being published in English, and one of the amusing aspects to the copy edit was turning American English into British English. Some revised spellings of words for India were practise for practice, and jewellery for jewelry.

With English language being a subset of India’s vast book market of 22 official languages, I was interested to see that brick and mortar bookstores were nevertheless dominated by English language books. The majority are Indian authors writing in English, but Dan Brown is big, too.

I enjoyed a number of bookstore visits in Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad. One store in Mumbai was actually called “Kitab Khanna.” With my limited Hindi, I thought the store name meant something like “books food.” However, the way Khanna is spelled in the store name makes the meaning a “Book Box.”

That’s RJ Sarthak Kaushik of Radio Ishq

Visits to places like the independent bookstore Kitab Khanna, as well as multiple locations of the small chain stores Crossword, Om Books, Full Circle Books and Bharison’s, were a very special opportunity. Sales reps for these stores brought me in to sign newly-arrived books and talk about the book’s heroine to the salesclerks, who’d be better able to explain it to customers. This has never happened to me in the United States. I also did radio interviews on 3 different pop FM radio shows, two of which were syndicated.

I did have a couple of book talks and signings, but they were not in bookstores. No—in India, a book signing is closer to theater!

At right, actor Aishwarya Jha-Mather dressed as Perveen Mistry

My biggest event was in Delhi at the intimate OddBird Theatre within an old mill complex in the Chattarpur district. My editor had arranged for a talented local stage actress to read a chapter of my book aloud. The actor, Aishwarya Mathur-Jha, had dressed in an antique lace sari and arranged her hair in a curled updo typical of the time period for Parsi women. She became my character, Perveen Mistry. Her reading was powerful and had the large audience spellbound. For me, it was magical to hear my written words uttered by someone with the right accent and intonations. It’s a concerted effort for me to write dialog in Indian English; so when I heard the Aishwarya’s dialog sounding as natural and passionate as she made it, I was heartened. All I had to do after being transfixed by Perveen Mistry on stage was chat about the book with RJ (radio jockey) Sarthak Kaushik, as radio hosts are called. Lots of jokes and good fun.

The second book event was in Mumbai. This was an interview with a journalist, Jane Borges, who was working on an article about the book that came out a few days later in a newspaper called Midday. Jane’s interview and my reading was held at a small cafe where every table was set with delicious cookies. It was a small event, but the questions were good, and so were the treats.

Another event that was a new thing for me was a meet-up with book bloggers. About ten bloggers—all quite friendly with each other—showed up to the new Bharison’s bookstore in Delhi’s posh Gurgaon suburb. They’d read advance copies and peppered me with good questions. Many selfies and even a short film made by one blogger appeared very quickly after the event.

Speaking of social media, the publisher shared the surprising news that movie star Amitabh Bachchan had tweeted a photograph of his adult daughter reading in his home. If you zoom in on the book in her hands, it turns out to be A Murder on Malabar Hill. Somehow, this woman had a copy of it before it reached the bookstores. Nobody could figure out how.

Perhaps it’s just pure marketing magic. I  met with some future marketing geniuses—India’s business students—at the Indian Institute of Management Udaipur’s Leap Year Literary Festival. The kids had taken their Sunday to sit and listen to six of us—authors, comedians and screenwriters—talk about our work. It was a pleasant surprise that business students would care enough about creative writing to organize a writing festival.

But this is India. After all, the prime minister has written a dozen books!