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Women Stand Up

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Ieshia Evans photographed in Baton Rouge by Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

Ieshia Evans photographed in Baton Rouge by Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

When I picked up my newspaper from the sidewalk Monday morning and saw this picture, I was transfixed.

At a protest for Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, a calm Ieshia Evans offers her wrists to the police. Something about the movement of her skirt makes her look other-worldly, almost angelic. The police arrested her and also provided the world with the latest iconic picture of a female stand against violence. Ieshia’s powerful calm has gone viral and been discussed in media like the Philadelphia Examiner and the Washington Post.

Images of women participating in civil unrest—or symbolizing war—are surely among the most powerful, imprinting images one knows. Even though I wasn’t yet reading the paper in 1972, I know the photograph of the little girl burning from napalm by memory. Kim Phuc was taken for medical help by the AP photographer, Nick Ut and survived her terrible burns. Kim emigrated to Canada and has given interviews about the events of that day and what happened since the war. Her image became a testimony against war.

Nick Ut of the Associated Press won a Pulitzer for this photo and also saved Kim Phuc's life

Nick Ut of the Associated Press won a Pulitzer for this photo and also saved Kim Phuc’s life

At a Kent State University rally against the Viet Nam war, the Ohio National Guard shot dead four unarmed students in 1970. I can practically hear the screaming and smell tear gas in the black-and-white freeze-frame of anguish.  Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old staying near the campus, had attended the rally and grieved the shooting death of Jeffrey Miller. A photojournalism student, John Filo, shot the picture and won an Pulitzer. He has spoken about feeling guilty that Mary Ann might not have wanted to become the public face of the student struggle against war. But she holds no grudge. In the decades since, these two have participated in several forums on Kent State.

Kent State Massacre photographed by John Filo/Getty

Kent State Massacre photographed by John Filo/Getty

What about the women who would not normally show their faces due to community custom and then discover their images broadcast worldwide? A famous photograph, shown repeatedly in magazines and posters, is known by the shorthand “Afghan Girl.” Sharbat Gula, a young orphan, was photographed in a Pakistan refugee camp in 1984 for National Geographic. Sharbat’s haunting eyes seem to tell the world everything you didn’t want to know about what refugee life is like. Sharbat went on to marry young and live an extremely hard life with her husband and children in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Famous 1984 image of Sharbat Gula by Steve McCurry/National Geographic

Famous 1984 image of Sharbat Gula by Steve McCurry/National Geographic

Women  protesting during the Arab Spring revolutions throughout the Middle East in 2011 were widely photographed. Seeing colorful, modern headscarves draping passionate political protesters broke stereotypes about the passivity of Islamic women. The aftermath of the Arab Spring has brought continuing unrest and violence, but looking at these pictures at the time of the event, I shared these women’s hopes.

Women at Tahrir Square in 2012 by Mohamed Omar/EPA

Women at Tahrir Square in 2012 by Mohamed Omar/EPA

Why do we react so strongly to pictures of women caught up in conflict? I suspect that women offer society palatable images of emotion, laced with vulnerability. Would men’s faces and bodies communicate that as well? Can we bear to see a man cry, or hold out his hands for shackling?

The other side of the coin is that we have many armed women serving in the military and police who are part of these scenes, too.  I’ve not yet seen an iconic photograph of unrest where the restrictive element is a woman carrying a gun.

I’m sure it’s coming—and we will be disturbed.

An Unsolved Death in Baltimore

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Freddie Gray

The Vidocq Society is a small but legendary group of experts who gather to solve mysteries of the ages. I wish they could find the answer to an unexplained death that took place a few miles from me, last spring. This is the death of 25-year-old named Freddie Carlos Gray, Jr.

On April 12, 2015, Freddie made eye contact with a police officer in his Baltimore neighborhood. He ran, and a group of cops that included some bicycle officers caught him. He was searched, found to have a small switchblade (legal for the state of Maryland but not for Baltimore City) and was taken into custody. Some spectators observed police sitting on his neck and bending his legs backward. A civilian-shot video shows him being dragged and loaded into the back of a police van. In the van, the police put him in wrist and ankle restraints—but the seatbelt that was also in this section of the van wasn’t used.

bal-recorded-freddie-gray-arrest

The van made five stops before reaching the Western District police station. Freddie asked for medical help several times. When the van reached the police station more than 45 minutes after loading up Freddie, he was unresponsive. Freddie was taken to hospital, where doctors discovered he was in a coma and had severe spinal cord injuries. He died April 19, 2015.

This death, coming on the heels of so many other police-on-civilian killings nationwide, was not going to fade into oblivion. For a few weeks, the city’s reaction was many protest marches, rallies and discussions. But the night following the funeral, a protest became aggressive, with bottles being thrown at police. Thirty-four arrests were made and fifteen police officers suffered injuries.

The next day, the Metro Transit Administration made the fateful decision to stop bus and light rail service in an area where several high schools converged. Some frustrated students grew into a bloc that began vandalizing cars. Earlier that day, some students had spread word through social media that there would be a “purge” with violent behavior.

The students’ riot was quickly augmented by other, older people, who joined in burning buildings and cars, looting stores, and attacking some drivers of cars. Throughout this, the police stood back, and the violence spread like wildfire throughout city neighborhoods. What was happening was about much more than the death of Freddie Gray. It had become an uprising of disenfranchised people frustrated by city government and a lack of opportunity.

The National Guard arrived and the city went under a 10 pm curfew for almost two weeks. The Baltimore State’s Attorney, Marilyn Mosby, announced that her department had launched an independent investigation and would be prosecuting the six police involved on numerous charges. The most serious charge, depraved heart murder, was leveled at the driver. What was unusual about the prosecution was that Mosby announced the charges without waiting for results of the police department’s investigation or sharing the results of the autopsy, wherein an assistant medical examiner declared the death a homicide, due to injuries sustained through omission of safety procedures. The autopsy also revealed the presence of cannabis and opioids in Freddie’s system, which could be argued might have led to Freddie being restless and physically panicking in the back of the van. The autopsy was the only factor presented to convince a grand jury to bring the officers to trial.

west-baltimore-jtsuboike-0520-edit_custom-93a132c59f88d95638274897d4efd9e93cb0e541-s900-c85

The State’s Attorney’s thesis was the officers had conspired to give Gray a “rough ride” to prison, and that was equivalent to homicide. Yet as three officers of the six officers have come to trial over the last eight months—none of them testifying against each other—no evidence of violence has appeared. The result is one officer had a mistrial; and two were acquitted. The three officers remaining to be tried are asking for charges against them to be dropped.

With a supposed absence of violence, how did Freddie Gray die? Was it just a crazy accident in the van the man caused to himself by moving around?

Another possibility might be that his neck was broken by one or two of the officers before being loaded into the van, and the long delay in medical help proved the final death blow. Apparently, the prosecution had a piece of extra evidence they wanted to present in the recent trials. This information was ruled inadmissible, because prosecution apparently hadn’t gone through the standard process of sharing the information with the defense.

The mystery boils down to how a man who was fit enough to run away from the police without any trouble would lie unconscious with a broken spinal column, less than an hour later.

The Bird’s Eye View From My Veranda

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

A fine third-floor sleeping porch/This Old House

A fine third-floor sleeping porch/This Old House

“The best part of the present house is the veranda,” the U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes journaled in 1873. “But I would enlarge it. I want a veranda with a house attached.”

I share the late president’s opinion. A wooden veranda measuring over 100 feet  wraps four sides of the Victorian summer cottage that is my year-round home. But that wasn’t enough for the home’s first owners. Our cottage has two second-floor sleeping porches that each connect to inside bedrooms. And on the third floor, there are the remnants of two tiny, unsheltered porches, the victims of almost 120 years of wind and rain.

It’s a pretty tall house, and I imagine the perils that faced the early porch builders. I’m so grateful for their efforts. The porches are the house’s defining feature from the exterior, and the center of happy, summer solitude.

My private writing and reading world

My private writing and reading world

A small breakfast and a big book to finish

A small breakfast and a big book to finish

In India and other warm countries, porches are usually called by the president’s chosen word: veranda. The etymology goes back to the Portuguese word “varanda,” meaning railing or balustrade. When the British followed the Portuguese in the colonization of India, they learned “verandaa” as a Hindi language word and added an ‘h’ when they fitted their own “verandahs” onto sprawling bungalows.

Of course, Indians were well acquainted with outdoor home design. In very old times, rajahs and nawabs sat in state on their elaborate courtyards when receiving visitors and addressing the concerns of their subjects. Rooftop sleeping is still common in India, and ground-floor verandas are a popular place for visiting with friends and dealing with merchants.

Brunton Boatyard in Fort Cochin; each guest room has a private veranda

Brunton Boatyard in Fort Cochin; each guest room has a private veranda

Indian heritage hotels have great verandas, such as Brunton Boatyard, where I’ve stayed several times and always found it a treat to sit on the ground floor veranda reading the newspaper.

Restored punka fans cool the large public veranda on the ground floor at Brunton Boatyard

Restored punka fans cool the large public veranda on the ground floor at Brunton Boatyard

Barr House in Mataran became a Neemrana Hotel named Verandah in the Forest

Barr House in Mataran became a Neemrana Hotel named Verandah in the Forest

After seeing the photo above of a colonial hill station bungalow, I’ve become interested in visiting Verandah in the Forest, located in Mataran, a few hours from Mumbai. I’ve mostly walked verandas in India that are made of marble or red oxide. I’m intrigued by this encaustic tile floor and furniture that are often hallmarks of grand Bombay design. And what fancywork on the railings!

At the turning of the 19th to early 20th century, doctors from Europe to the Americas and Asia believed fresh air was believed a good counteraction to disease. Anyone who could afford it fled the heart of the city to expansive living in new colonies and suburbs.

Almost all the houses in North Baltimore were built in the 1890s through the 1950s. Almost all of them have a front or back porch. Insect screens on sleeping porches once kept residents safe from mosquito-borne malaria and yellow fever. In today’s world, they’re a barrier against Zika and Dengue.

Charles Village, Baltimore, row house porches/Greg Pease

Charles Village, Baltimore, row house porches/Greg Pease

Great porches are the icons of many neighborhoods throughout Baltimore City. In my student days, I loved sitting on the porch of my Charles Village rowhouse and chatting with the neighbors the next house over.  Thirty years ago, most of the porches on North Calvert were painted a subdued forest green. Today, many of them follow a candy-box palette. The Charles Village porches explode with color, shouting out their engagement with city life.

Our downstairs wrap-around porch is a social place. We host a neighborhood happy hour party here every summer, and smaller gatherings, as long as the bugs aren’t too bad.  It’s hardly furnished at all; just some heavy Adirondack chairs. The porches are so expansive, I can’t figure out how to fill them.

But the upstairs sleeping porches are smaller, intimate spaces that I can deal with. The westward-facing sleeping porch belongs to my teenage daughter and is outfitted in a bright, modern style. When she had a pair of sugar gliders, they had the run of the place.

The other sleeping porch is my old-fashioned escape.

My sleeping porch-summer is an East/West blend--just like its architecture

My sleeping porch-summer is an East/West blend—just like its architecture

Our house’s former owners called it the Sunset Porch and loved the view in early evening. This porch, like our daughter’s, was open-air, but my husband spotted a system of wooden frames that must have once held mosquito screens. An Internet search led to an online store selling ten-foot-high rolls of nylon insect screening that could be cut to fit any space. Together, we unrolled the screening and fixed it into place. We polished the original brass lantern hanging from the ceiling. I dragged an old maple desk on the porch, added a small Ikea chair, and the summer writing office was in business. And that was it, for the first year or so.

Over the last few years, I’ve added ceiling fans, upholstered rattan and wicker furniture, outdoor rugs and pierced tin lanterns from India. There’s a long coffee table that can hold dessert and coffee for a small group of guests. They are allowed in at night, the porch’s most glamorous hours. I like to think my porch is the Mid-Atlantic, late Victorian version of an Indian veranda.

Although the children regard this place as their mother’s writing porch, one family member considers it his room. Charlie the beagle, rests in his daybed close to the writing desk, guarding me from distraction. Because our porch overlooks a small backyard lane and the neighbors’ gardens, it’s a serene environment where the loudest sounds come from nature. I can literally eavesdrop on birds and squirrels in the tall maple and black walnut trees.

charlie on sleeping porch

Ironically, my sleeping porch has so many places for sitting, I can’t find room for a bed larger than Charlie’s.

Brooks Cottage on Tybee Island

Brooks Cottage on Tybee Island

Although, in my mind’s eye, I envision my porch one hundred and ten years ago. Four cots face eastward over the tops of young trees bordering the property. The view is mostly sky, and one can hear the bells of the long-gone streetcar on Roland Avenue, and the rolling sounds of the milkman’s wagon before the city awakens into summer heat.

The Secret Life and Death of Bees

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Two years ago, my neighbor bought a package of honeybees online as well as a beehive. The bees arrived healthy and active. But shortly after spring started, the bees vanished. Jeff said he didn’t see any evidence of dead bees nearby. It was as if the whole colony had taken off.

bee

It was a sad mystery for all of us. It wasn’t until recently that I started regularly reading about insects and gardens. I’ve learned such honeybee evacuations are a worldwide problem that has a name that sounds like a psychiatric diagnosis: Colony Collapse Disorder.

In Maryland last year, the loss of bee colonies was 61 percent. This is  among the highest rates of bee loss in the US. Huge honeybee losses are also being counted throughout Europe and in South America and Asia. In China, so few bees are left in the massive agricultural belt that people are forced to hand-pollinate to have any apple crops.

The British are desperate to preserve their native honeybee

The British are desperate to preserve their native honeybee

Hand-pollinating apple trees in China

Hand-pollinating apple trees in China

Many scientific studies have determined that CCD is largely driven by pesticide ingredients called neonicotinoids (aka neonics) introduced in the 1990s. Neonics go by names like imidacloprid, acetamiprid, clothianidin, and dinotefuran. Ironically, these pesticides are meant to kill borers, Japanese beetles, termites and other insects that damage shrubs and trees. Not honeybees. But honeybees make it their business to dine on flowering trees and shrubs. They won’t fall down dead tasting a poisoned plant–but they lose the memory of where they need to go. And because they don’t know the way back to the hive, they perish. I read more about this in some recent articles in The Washington Post and Mother Jones.

Ortho and Scott are two huge pesticide companies that have pledged to phase out neonics in their product lines. A recent search of Amazon’s garden category showed Bayer, Bonide, Dominion and other manufacturers have plenty of neonic pesticides for sale.

Apparently, it’s not just the sprays that are risky. Nursery plants grown from a seed or seedling treated with neonics also run the risk of poisoning bees. Even trace amount of neonics have contributed to Colony Collapse Disorder. You could make yourself crazy wondering whether any flowering plant you’re considering is a Typhoid Mary.

Last summer, I decided to start work on our largely ignored garden. The house is in an 1890s city neighborhood where very few people use pesticides and fertilizers. Our neighborhood is a haven for birds, foxes, rabbits, raccoons, bats and other delightful wildlife. Of course, I wanted to do no harm. A 25-year-old memory of how I accidentally killed most of my Japanese garden’s camellia trees by spraying Round-Up on dandelions still haunts me.

I contacted Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay-Wise gardening program, a free teaching service aimed at reducing pollution flowing from the state into the Chesapeake Bay. After an email exchange, two friendly master gardener volunteers. Lynn and Debbie, walked me through my struggling garden. They checked off which practices were environmentally sound, and gave advice on where I needed improvement.

I'm an official Bay-Wise Gardener!

I’m an official Bay-Wise Gardener!

I was very surprised that years of benign neglect put my garden in the Bay-Wise certified category. The fact that grass clippings were left on the lawn after cutting, and water easily reaches the earth through the gaps between bricks in the path. The house gutters have long downspouts that allow rainwater to flow into the earth; all I need are rain barrels to perfect my water conversation. The master gardeners looked at all my weeds but did not criticize. However, they told me I’d better start pulling wild mustard that day.  Debbie and Lynn were concerned about invasive non-native plants, like English ivy, and had chemically free strategies for elimination. There were a few bees buzzing around, and the local trumpet honeysuckle vine was pointed out as a great nectar source for them and hummingbirds.

My biggest takeaway was that if every plant I added was a native one, I could become a farmer’s market for the butterfly, bee, insect and bird populations. I also got the sense I didn’t have to make my property look like a forest to go native.

an inspiring post from Thomas Rainer's wonderful blog, landscape of meaning

an inspiring post from Thomas Rainer’s wonderful blog, Landscape of Meaning

Ever since I saw charming cottage gardens filled with wildflowers and perennials in England and Australia, I’d secretly wanted one. No grass to mow—just flowers, shrubs and herbs waving in the wind.  I realized that if I were to remove the grass right in front of my house, I could fill the leftover space with many perennial plants and grasses that would be more than eye candy.

They’d become bee, bug and bird candy.

Let the planting begin!

Let the planting begin!

The grass came out yesterday. Despite a looming book deadline, I’m working on installing two brand-new gardens: one in front of the house, and the other along the driveway, where English ivy once held a ruthless grasp.

The landscape doesn’t look like much now, but I am hopeful that the organically-grown native plants will be rooted and spreading by summer’s end. Just as I hope that the new Pollinator Protection Act banning commercial sales of neonic pesticides will be signed by our governor tomorrow, making Maryland the first of the United States to get serious about saving bees.

Lovely natural roses with insect-bitten leaves. Who cares?

Lovely natural roses with insect-bitten leaves. Who cares?

Malia’s Gap Year

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Malia and her father/photo Yuri Gripas Reuters

Malia and her father/photo Yuri Gripas Reuters

Congratulations to Malia Obama.

She’s made it through the constant observation that began with her entrance to the White House in 5th grade. Both Malia and her 8th grade sister, Sasha, have gracefully stayed the course without acting out and remaining close to their parents. Malia, an excellent student and tennis player, applied to a number of top schools during her senior year at Sidwell Friends School. The end result is that the 17-year-old has accepted Harvard’s offer, but will delay entrance for a year.

Could this start a gap year trend in the U.S.?

While traveling, I’ve always been intrigued by the New Zealand and Australian teens with heavy backpacks on their “walkabouts.” The idea is to have some fun, work jobs around the world and widen horizons before settling down to studies and continued life in the home country. A lot of Europeans do this as well, some using the time to work as au pairs in different countries.

Malia and Sasha have seen more of the world than most of us during their years as daughters of the President. Exposure to other people and places was a value their parents insisted on sharing. The first family’s travels have included India and Argentina, Russia, China, Britain, Italy, South Africa and Botswana. Malia already had her walkabout.

Obamas arrive in Cuba/Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP

Obamas arrive in Cuba/Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP

We don’t really know the reason for Malia’s gap decision, but I think it’s great. And since she’s already gone so far, my fervent wish for Malia is that she takes time in her gap year to dig in close with her family.

After all, Dad’s leaving his job, and Mom will not be pressed with leading campaigns for health and veteran families. President Obama has always valued family first and committed most of his evenings to his children, rather than adult socializing in D.C. But hanging out with your kids in a fishbowl won’t be nearly as relaxed as this forthcoming year.

Firstly, the Obamas must either rent or buy a new house in the DC area. Malia can be part of this search—and since she’ll be around, she can decorate her room the way she wants!

The former First Daughter will also has the chance to apply for a part-time job or an internship, perhaps in the world of film and television that she’s already explored through internships on “Girls” and “Extant.” But I treasure the idea of a teenager occasionally sleeping late, reading for pleasure rather than for tests, helping with groceries and gardening, and playing games.

The Secret Service taught Malia to drive—but now she can learn to trust her own instincts driving everywhere she needs to go. Malia and her family will likely have a lot of time to talk or listen to music when stuck in Beltway traffic on the way to Sasha’s school events. Best of all—Malia will be able to drive Sasha to school!

Malia and Sasha/CNN

Malia and Sasha/CNN

The President said in interviews that Sasha Obama would be the one to decide where the family stayed following his departure from the White House. He—a child who was uprooted and moved many times in life–understood how important feeling comfortable in school was. He didn’t want her to have start over again, as the girls had when they left their lifelong home on Chicago in 2009.

No upbringing is perfect, whether in the White House, or an ordinary suburban cottage. We can’t predict whether our kids will become happily paired or live solo, be financially successful, community-minded, or emotionally stable.But we can do a lot to make our own family systems work—and that’s exactly what the Obamas have managed.

Family including grandmother Marian Robinson in 2009/Getty Images

Family including grandmother Marian Robinson in 2009/Getty Images

Booking India

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Chiki Sarkar, co-founder of Juggernaut Publishing/photo by Vogue India

Chiki Sarkar, co-founder of Juggernaut Publishing/photo by Vogue India

This post is a tribute to a young democracy that has brought the world great writers–and a fantastical amount of readers.

India’s population of 1.2 billion boasts a literacy rate of 86% in cities and 71% in rural areas. Inside India, twenty major languages are spoken and read, and a few hundred more languages are used in rural communities. About 125 million Indians speak and read English, making it the second largest English-speaking country in the world.

Indian kids selling pirated books to car passengers

Indian kids selling pirated books to car passengers

Yet despite the vast numbers of Indians educated in  schools, book sales are paltry—out of proportion for a nation with the largest middle class in the world and a plethora of talented writers in those twenty-plus languages. Why is this?

Many urban people are exposed to pirated books every day. An estimated 25% of books sold in India are proffered by slum dwellers who work under the supervision of gang bosses who distribute reprinted versions of Indian bestsellers on paper thin as tissue. During recent travels in Kolkata and Mumbai, I kept running into kids selling pirated Slumdog Millionare books… such an irony! If you got stuck on a street for a half-hour every day, and the same friendly youth offered you a bestseller for less than half of its cover cost, why wouldn’t you buy—especially if you thought it would help the child?

College Street bookseller/photo by Rishi Bandopadhyay

College Street bookseller/photo by Rishi Bandopadhyay

Another blow against literary commerce are  time-honored, used-book stalls in all cities. Used book shopping at book corners loaded with thousands of traded-in books is one of the joys of visiting Kolkata’s College Street. However, these places don’t earn a rupee for the author or publisher.

City of PalacesThe efforts of India’s biggest publishers to sell ebooks haven’t helped. I have a novel published in India, City of Palaces. The beautifully designed trade paperback has a list price of 499 rupees, but the reality is that the trade paperback is sold at Amazon for 310 rupees, while the ebook is 299. We are talking about $4.68 US versus $4.51. Many Indians buy e-reader devices are sucked into the free ebook and get so much content loaded up they have no interest in adding books that aren’t free.

A young woman publisher, Chiki Sarkar, is trying to change that. (Full disclosure: Chiki bought and published my book, City of Palaces, during her time at Penguin.) I was stunned that shortly after her promotion to becoming publisher for the newly joined PenguinIndia/Random House, she departed to create her own start-up venture. Juggernaut launched this month with an amazing author list.

In several articles I’ve read, Chiki has mentioned that publishers can’t expect distributors to pay them on time, and there aren’t a lot of great independent and chain bookstores in India investing in new authors. She joined hands with with Durga Raghunath, a tech entrepreneur. They are launching Juggernaut, a publishing house unlike anything India’s ever experienced.

Jagannath celebration in Puri

Jagannath celebration in Puri

Juggernaut is a very old, yet modern-sounding word. British administrators during the colonial era were stunned by the energy of the Rath Yatra Hindu festival held in Puri, Orissa every year in honor of the god Jagganath. To them, the Jagannath gathering was a wild melee of people and massive, heavy carts—the 18th-century precursor of rush hour traffic. Frequently, religious pilgrims were crushed in the throngs of Jagannath—yet the carts and people pressed on. The British colonials began using the term “Juggernaut” to describe a powerful force or institution that cannot be halted.

Juggernaut Publishing’s push is embracing the shift of reading on mobiles phone. The publisher plans to release more books as digital exclusives, although about 50 books per year will also be released in paper. The lynchpin of the publisher’s debut will be the memoir of Rajat Gupta, a business scion who was convicted of insider trading and jailed. More details are here in some interviews Chiki Sarkar did at the recent London Book Fair and with Vogue India.

Mobile users in India/photo by BBC

Mobile users in India/photo by BBC

Many people worldwide read novels on our phones and tablets, using apps from Amazon and Apple. I do it to keep myself busy when I’m waiting somewhere. I own a Nook e-reader and a Kindle Fire, but I confess both need to be charged, because I use them only on the treadmill or when traveling.

HangwomanHere’s the other side of the story. Remember how I mentioned people speaking so many languages in India?

Penguin/Random House has decided to go big guns and translate quality regional language fiction into English. One example of this new pubs is one of the most powerful thrillers I’d ever read, Hangwoman, by KR Meera and translated by J. Devika.

I would not have ever known about this haunting novel, originally written in Malayalam, if it hadn’t been for this publishing risk taken. The past and the future, interwoven. That’s why I love India.

Trumping is Everywhere Now

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Donald Trump

Perhaps you have heard about the unexpected drama in the US presidential primary races. Are you surprised, shocked, or startled? I’ve been getting a sick feeling each morning when I pick up theWashington Post and read news about violence at rallies, hateful statements, and the rest. But I’m just as worried about a local election that could reframe life for my 620,000 neighbors. This is the 2016 race for Baltimore’s next mayor.

William Donald Schaefer

When I moved to Baltimore, Maryland in 1982, the mayor was the late William Donald Schaefer, a slightly comical, profane, Democrat who could be called a curmudgeon one day and a cheerleader the next. Baltimore was much larger then: 776,000 people, although that number came after a slow, measured exodus of city residents from the late 1960s onward. City residents were dealing with the disappearance of shipping, steel and other old-industry jobs, but they hadn’t yet faced the plagues of cocaine and heroin addiction. Mayor “Willie Don” lured big companies and builders to create Baltimore’s Harborplace development. Urban homesteaders paid $1 for row-houses they pledged to renovate that would serve as their homes. A federal and a city program helped homebuyers build great residential neighborhoods like Federal Hill and Canton.

Baltimore's Sherwood Gardens in Guilford

Baltimore’s Sherwood Gardens in Guilford

If you live in the central zone bordered by the harbor to the south and the suburbs the north, life is still pretty pleasant. Our historic treasure of a house is larger here than our last one in the midwest, and was half the buying price. Our work lives are going well, and we love the weather and friendly people around us. But the factors I’ve already mentioned  have built a second shadow city that is larger than mine.

Arrest of Freddie Gray captured on cell phone video and shared by Baltimore Sun

Arrest of Freddie Gray captured on cell phone video and shared by Baltimore Sun

In April 2015, a young man named Freddie Gray got spooked when he saw a group of police and started running. The cops caught him, put him in shackles in the back of their van, and took him on a rough ride to the jail that resulted in fatal injuries. Peaceful protests and discussions about Gray’s death escalated into a horrible day of mob destruction that was televised worldwide.

Following the events now called the Baltimore Uprising, our current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, announced she wouldn’t run for re-election but would focus on rebuilding the city. The old police chief was fired, and a new police chief, Kevin Davis, is making a tremendous impact in solving crimes. However, the city can’t make the overall changes desperately needed without a strong mayor.

Currently there are many choices vying to be the Democratic candidate; and Democrats typically win the city. The candidates have been appearing at casual gatherings in people’s homes, community centers, churches and pubs. I’ve been to a few of these informal events and enjoyed the chance to ask serious questions directly. Televised and webcast debates and roundtable discussions with these candidates have been remarkably civil and friendly. They seem to be in harmony on the importance of giving people coming out of prison a real chance at work; drug treatment; fixing the schools; providing real education in the schools; and improving police-community relations.

The six most viable candidates include two city councilmen, Carl Stokes and Nick Mosby, who speak of their experience representing hard-hit neighbors. Sheila Dixon, a former Baltimore mayor who resigned in 2010 to avoid standing trial on charges of corruption, wants back in because she says she is the only one who knows how to do the job. Catherine Pugh, a Maryland state senator, is proud of pushing the state to send Baltimore needed funds. Elizabeth Embry, the deputy state’s attorney and former chief city prosecutor, says she wants to use data to make the city work and highlights her crime-fighting expertise. David Warnock, a businessman/philanthropist who moved here from Michigan, has big ideas about jobs, transportation infrastructure, and schools. You can watch a roundtable discussion with the gang on ABC’s Square Off!

Right now, Sheila Dixon and Catherine Pugh are running neck and neck, but I’m attracted to a few of the underdog candidates. And here’s where the lessons of the national presidential race come in. A whole lot of small, respectable presidential candidates each gathered small pockets of votes and mini-spikes in polls. These scattered votes put Donald Trump front and center. Therefore, I fear a vote for one of the little guys in Baltimore is a vote for Ralph Nader. And there’s yet another reading of the situation. There are others who will look to another side of the current political game and say that  the sparkling starlets I’m considering are only building steam on what might be called The Trump Effect.

Should follow my heart or my head? Still deciding. Could the two be linked?

Another Excuse for a New Year’s Party!

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

A welcoming Parsi gentleman I will always remember; India International Centre 1989

A welcoming Parsi gentleman I will always remember; India International Centre 1989

A few decades ago, when I was on a father-daughter trip to India, I came fact to face with my future.

Not my sweet husband (although plenty of people I met on that trip offered to find me one).

That fateful evening in March, 1989, I suddenly found myself in the midst of a party celebrating Navroze, or the Persian New Year, a major spiritual and social occurrence based on the spring equinox. Nowrooz, Navroz, Navroze, Naw-Ruz, Nowroz, and several other spellings all mean “New Day” in Persian. This is the date that changes slightly every year: when the length of sunlight equals night.

It is the start of the lunar calendar calculated by Persians about three thousand years ago. In those days, the state religion was Zoroastrianism. However, it seems that anyone whose ancestors spent time in Iran, whether Zoroastrian, Muslim, Baha’i or Kurdish, observes this new year. Some communities celebrate three days…others almost two weeks.

I knew none of this going in. That long ago evening at the India International Centre in New Delhi. I was strolling about, killing time until the dining hall opened and my father and I could get something to eat. I drew near a splendidly decorated pavilion.

Are they twins or just close sisters? Parsi girls at the 1989 Navroze celebration

Are they twins or just close sisters? Parsi girls at the 1989 Navroze celebration

I felt I were gazing into a magic world. Darling little girls wore white lace frocks, ladies were draped in luxurious saris and all the gentlemen were clad traditional white suits with unusual headgear (Later I learned these were lacquered turbans called fetahs). I admired the scene until a kindly elder  insisted I join them. I had my first rapturous taste of spicy, sophisticated Parsi food (Parsi transliterates to “Persian” and refers to the Zoroastrian immigrants who arrived in Gujarat starting in 600 AD).

My first taste of Parsi hospitality must have been auspicious, because many years later, I find myself revisiting the March New Year in fictional form. I’m currently writing a novel starring a Zoroastrian family in 1920s Bombay. Just last week I was writing about the rigorous house cleaning that before the New Year. There’s a lot to it!

Perzen Patel, a Parsi cuisine expert in Mumbai, with her fabulous pantry

Perzen Patel, a Parsi cuisine expert in Mumbai, with her fabulous pantry

My friend Perzen Patel, aka the Bawi Bride, is a Parsi caterer and food blogger in Mumbai. For Perzen, the Persian New Year means a lot of family visiting and a tremendous amount of cooking for friends and customers. Several weeks before the holiday, she sent this enticing email to her friends and blog followers, and customers.

This year to bring in Navroze I thought we’d go the extra mile and really create a menu that is beyond the ordinary. So, I’ve put my thinking cap on and planned a lovely special that you can avail any day from Saturday 19 – Monday 21 March.

Our menu is as follows:

  • Kheema Pattice—savory mashed potato and lamb patties
  • Badam Malai Chicken Pulao—a savory rice pilaf studded with chicken cooked in cream with almonds
  • Masala ni Dar—spicy lentils
  • Kid Gosht—lamb curry
  • Patra ma Prawns—prawns steam-cooked in banana leaves
  • Lagan nu Custard—sweet baked pudding garnished with raisins and cashews

All of this yummy food for the special price of ₹1550 per plate including delivery with each plate as a whole enough for two people.

Translation: that’s about $25 for a New Year’s feast for two! If you’re curious, try Perzen’s custard recipe highlighted above or the many delicious home recipes on the Bawi Bride website.

All these elements appear on a Nawroz table

All these elements appear on a Nawroz table

Perzen says that if the celebratory Navroze meal is home-cooked (which is typical), at least one fish dish would be included for good luck. There might also be a nougat sweet, Gaz, imported from Iran. Perzen’s favorite non-culinary part of the holiday is the Haft Seen table laid out with seven lucky edibles that start with the “S” sound in Persian. These range from sumac to apple and garlic and herbs. A key item on the table is the mirror,  placed there so visiting relatives can look into it and reflect on their past year and any blessings.

The Baltimore Naw-Ruz buffet

The Baltimore Naw-Ruz buffet

A Baltimore friend, Sheila Mohajer Hofert, is a Baha’i who fled Iran with her family in the early 1980s. The Baha’i start their New Year at approximately the same time as Zoroastrians and Iranian-origin Muslims. One difference is the Baha’i fast from sunrise to sunset for the last 19 days before Naw-Ruz. Sheila says the fasting  makes one “more understanding of the people who are hungry in the world—and to become more aware of our bodies and our emotions. For example, working on treating others kindly when you personally don’t feel very well.”

This year, on March 19, more than 200 Baha’is and their friends gathered to enjoy food, song, and prayers.

I also asked Sheila her favorite aspect of Naw-Ruz. She wrote: “As winter gradually fades away and the paleness of the world is replaced with fresh colors and fragrance, it brings with the promise of the new day. It remind me of he cyclic nature of our universe and the cyclic nature of our lives, which are constantly filled with crises, followed by victory.”

Young Musicians at the Baha'i Naw-Ruz event

Young Musicians at the Baha’i Naw-Ruz event

Life will always get better. Naw-Ruz Mubarak!

Year of the Journalist

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Actors playing journalists in "Spotlight"

Actors playing journalists in “Spotlight”

People routinely denigrate the press for spreading falsehoods and looking for scandal. In recent years, many have traded in newspaper subscriptions for free online blogs where bloggers write pieces that are rarely fact-checked or vetted. Internet media is often all about enjoyment.

Therefore, I’ve been surprised to see traditional journalists resurfacing as heroes in popular culture. Spotlight, a 2015 movie about the Boston Globe’s reporting on Catholic priest sex abuse, won an Oscar for best picture. I’m impressed it was even possible to get a film made about a serious subject and the writers of a newspaper series from so long ago. Spotlight reveals how one newspaper’s reporters and editors built a big story over time gathering information from many sources and carefully verifying all details before breaking the news.

ftf-11806r_0.0

Last week, a journalism escape film arrived in U.S. theaters. I’ve labeled Whisky Tango Foxtrot an escape film for a couple of reasons. First, the ambitious but unseasoned correspondent played by Tina Fey is bored with her long career as a TV news producer in an American city, and trades it in to report from dangerous, exotic Afghanistan. The other reason is WTF absolutely revels in portraying foreign correspondents as hard-drinking, partying, fraternity members. The producers  made the choice to employ a number of non-South Asian actors to play Afghans; again, an easy escape.

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WTF is a celluloid version of a memoir, Taliban Shuffle, by the New York Times’ reporter Kim Barker, who was recast as a TV reporter called Kim Baker in the film. Tina Fey’s Kim character is one of only two women reporters living in a guest house; both of whom wind up having affairs with guys in the house. It’s a cheery, fraternity party sort of place, where the women are treated like the guys, for the most part. This “Ka-Bubble” of their Kabul seems ridiculously removed—but very intense and addicting.

Kim’s story takes pains to show the stupid things a reporter can do to endanger the lives of her “fixer” (a local man who’s a combination of editor and translator), as well as her driver, photographer and security guard. However, by taking the risks, she gets a great story. I appreciated the nuanced look at this issue. The foreign reporter always gets a byline or camera-time and fame; the local person who does the reporting work earns a small salary for a life-threatening job.

Whether they are unofficial “fixers” or byline journalists, too many reporters have died in recent years.

Newseum-Journalists-Memorial

One of my favorite museums in Washington DC is the Newseum. This modern museum is all about the best in media, past and present. The museum has daily displays of front pages of newspapers from around the globe, and dense exhibits focusing on huge American news stories of the past and present.

A particularly haunting stop is the Journalists Memorial. This is a massive wall with columns of dead writers’ names. Nearby is a colorful mosaic that, when you get closer, turns out to be hundreds of photos of these writers. The Newseum’s Journalists Memorial includes a searchable online database  that includes all the names. You can click on a face and name to learn more.

sai-reddy

This reporter, Sai Reddy, was a little-known rural journalist in central India with a tragic death. As a writer for the newspaper Deshbandu, Mr. Reddy spent 20 years  documenting the hardships of families struggling to live in a community where Maoists and police battled each other. Mr. Reddy,  who came from the very community he wrote about, had his home fire-bombed by the police, but was ultimately hacked to death with knives and machetes by Maoists in a city market.

In the late 1980s, I was a reporter for the features section at a daily city newspaper. I wrote mostly about people, the arts, fashion and food. You can deduce form this that I never had the kind of stories that ran on the front page. The gravest danger I encountered was when visiting  decaying, crime-ridden neighborhoods.

I still recall driving to an almost completely deserted West Baltimore neighborhood to interview the city’s first South Asian grocer. I was writing a story about the city’s ethnic markets and was determined to move past the well-known standards. The Indian shop turned out to be in a neighborhood full of vacant houses. It was in a sliver of a dilapidated building, with a buzzer entry system and metal grills for protection from thieves and bulletproof glass around the cash register to protect the Indian grocer. Walking to and from the store, I had to pass a trio of teenagers who were staring appraisingly at me. Given the isolation, the poverty, and the intense scrutiny, I had that sixth sense that I might be robbed.

The young men didn’t touch me. Thinking back on their reaction—that seemingly brutal staring—I imagine they were probably curious why a stranger had come to their forgotten corner. And I was walking past them, carrying my own stereotypes, which fortunately did not make it into print.

My reporting experiences were nothing compared to the risky work of journalists reporting on conflict around the world. But just like the overseas correspondents, I wouldn’t never have said “I don’t feel comfortable driving to that place,” or  “Can I pass on this assignment?”

I understood the job requirement.

The New Historians

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Unidentified Maratha princess in 1930s India. More about her sari and footwear at vintageindianclothing.com

Unidentified Maratha princess in 1930s India. More about her sari and footwear at vintageindianclothing.com

The Internet has long been the bane of parents and teachers observing middle school kids learn to write papers. You can probably imagine how many times I’ve told my offspring to go to the library, because Googling something does not always get you an academically vetted answer. Teachers hate Wikipedia and its spawn.

Those of us who write about faraway places are often zealous travelers to foreign libraries. The British Library and National Library of India are my Holy Grail of Libraries—although the Ames Library of South Asia in Minneapolis and the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. are excellent. The problem is, it’s insanely expensive to travel to libraries in this fashion. And I find that although my city library, the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, has lovely old books about Britain and India dating from the early 20th century, I can’t stroll the archives and come upon serendipitous findings.

The one place you can meander—most call it “surfing,” which seems out of context for me—is the Internet. Don’t tell my kids’  teachers, but I’m discovering theres a vast world of specialized history in digital treasure chests. They don’t usually come up on the first page of search results—but they exist and offer more than I ever hoped to find.

Let’s start off with transportation, which has got to be accurate if you’re setting a fast-paced adventure in a real city like Bombay. So let’s embark on our internet history voyage at Bombayrailway.blogspot.com. Journalist Rajendra Alkekar became fascinated with trains while commuting to high school. As he matured, he never lost interest, and Rajendra discovered significant relics lying near tracks. Rajendra studied conservation and museology, wrote newspaper columns about rail history, and created a website that glows with his own great photographs of historic stations. When I wondered about a particular train route from central Bombay to Bandra during the year 1920, I emailed Rajendra and was relieved to learn that it existed.

normal_Dadar-old

I became fascinated enough with Bombay’s history of rail travel to buy his book Halt Station India  but the website is where I visit weekly to gaze at old train stations.

I’ve also needed to learn a lot about the practice of law in India during the late 19th and early 20th century. That’s a tall order for someone who doesn’t have access to a law library inside India! But one of the foremost scholars of South Asian law created South Indian Legal History Resources—a website by Mira Sharafi, which has been a boon to graduate students, other professors, and the occasional mystery writer. She’s also written the definitive book on colonial law and Parsi culture.

Prince of Wales Seaman's Club in Bombay, 1921, Bombaywalla.org

Prince of Wales Seaman’s Club in Bombay, 1921, Bombaywalla.org

Mitra shepherded me a little farther on my web history journey to an amazing site, Bombaywalla, created by “Miss Bombaywalla,” aka Simin Patel, a young Oxford PhD who hails from Bombay and is devoted to chronicling the history of the Parsi (Zoroastrian community), which is synonymous with Bombay. At Miss Bombaywalla’s site, one can uncover Bombay’s original street and place names, see close-up color photos of historic buildings, and build a reading list of antiquarian novels and travel accounts of Bombay. She fills it out with wonderful color pictures of old Bombay structures that make you want to get over there, right now.

And what of the history of beauty and fashion in India? It’s so much more than the sari. Vintage Indian Clothing sounds like a shopping site, but it’s actually a collection of short but very thorough essays on the charming evolution of fashion and beauty in India. From the site creator known rather mysteriously as Anu M., I’ve learned about the different kinds of bindis (“dots”) that women have used as ornamentation over the years—and the meaning of similar markings on men. I could gaze at glamorous Indian film stars from years gone by for hours.

Does this exist in libraries? Not a chance. In fact, it’s rather ironic that I’ve written this post sitting at a desk in the Quiet Study Room of the Cockeysville Library, which does have books, but provides me just the right setting to pursue online history.