Author Archive for Sujatamassey.com Webmaster – Page 5

Feasting for Malice

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Cooking up an auction dinner for Malice Domestic. The island is neat at this point!

Cooking up an auction dinner for Malice Domestic. The island is neat at this point!

I’m a regular participant at the friendly Malice Domestic convention held annually in Bethesda to celebrate traditional mysteries. Last year, at the convention auction, I decided to give more than a signed book. Having found that readers of diverse books are usually enthusiastic foodies, I offered to cook up a gourmet, multi-course Indian dinner for ten. It would be work, but going to a good cause: KEEN, Kids Enjoying Exercise Everywhere, a program offering movement opportunities for children with disabilities in the DC-MD-VA area.

Longtime convention friends Alan and Cheryl Leathers paid in the “high three figures” for the meal, even though they lived outside my delivery zone. The couple lives in Colorado. I’d said I could serve a dinner in a home in the Baltimore-Washington DC-Northern Virginia area. I was shocked they’d bought a gift they could not eat.

Malice Domestic Board, a couple of spouses, and me

Malice Domestic Board, a couple of spouses, and me

But the Leathers had a secret plan. They gifted the dinner to the Malice Board, a group of volunteers who do everything for the convention from literary programming to participant registration and meal planning.

Joni and Don Langevoort kindly hosted the meal in their spacious Vienna, Va. home that included a large dream kitchen with high quality cookware. I could prepare the meal at my home 60 miles away, and drive it in, doing the final touches there.

Beautiful table

Beautiful table

I had five months to plan the dinner, so it should have been a snap, right? I love making Indian food. The problem was, which of my 25 Indian cookbooks to use for the meal. Should I use home recipes? The Internet? Should there be a regional theme, and how much spice did I dare use for ten people with varying tastes, including one who’d never eaten Indian food before?

I went on a book research trip to India four weeks before the dinner, and eating there helped me put together a plan. I’d start with sev puri, a vegetarian chaat dish ( snack) that looks really pretty on a plate. The rest of the menu would be South Indian, which is not widely available at Indian restaurants and therefore could be interesting for my diners.

I decided to choose most dishes from Kerala, the fantastic state at India’s tip that is known for its religious diversity and a cuisine that includes meat, fish, and vegetables for most. My favorite Kerala dishes are seafood ones, so I chose to make a shrimp curry with coconut milk from Maya Kaimal’s 1997 cookbook, Curried Favors. I found one internet recipe for Tomato Pappu, a South Indian-style dal, and used my own non-recipe for the rice.

For a Saturday night dinner, I grocery shopped on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday morning. While I maintain that Indian cooking is easy, making one’s own coconut cilantro chutney and scratch masalas (spice mixtures) for multiple dishes takes time. I clocked my cooking hours at about fifteen, and I wouldn’t have made it the last day without the reassuring sound of an audiobook playing in the kitchen.

Here’s what I cooked:

Sev Puri. an appetizer with a crisp puri topped with spicy veggies, chutneys and chickpea crisps

Sev Puri, an appetizer with a crisp puri topped with spicy veggies, chutneys and chickpea crisps

Chicken Varlutharacha, a toasted coconut-onion-spice masala

Chicken Varlutharacha, a toasted coconut-onion-spice masala

Green bean thorn

Green bean thorn

Kerala-style chicken with coconut milk

Kerala-style chicken with coconut milk

Tomato Pappu, masoor dal cooked with tomatoes and curry leaves

Tomato Pappu, masoor dal cooked with tomatoes and curry leaves

My own simple rice pilau with green peas

My own simple rice pilau with green peas

We also ate fried paratha breads with the meal and dipped into lime and mango pickles and cucumber raita. Rasmalai was the only dish that broke the South Indian theme. It’s a sweet, milk-based dessert that is eaten all over India. I should have included a picture, but we ate it all up before I thought.

For beverages, I brought sparkling white wines and also a sparkling Shiraz that unfortunately exploded all the way up to the hosts’ ceiling! Nix on sparkling reds from this point forward.

We had a great time at the dinner, with the special excitement of a board member’s adorable 12-week-old daughter, and the Langevoorts’ dog and four cats. All in all, it was a feast to remember.

Why Fall is a Writer’s Best Season

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Rudbeckia

Sometimes it seems our population has two types of people: those who hate to see summer end, and those who can’t wait.

Last week, school started in Maryland, and I began experiencing the most time for my work than I’ve had in the last 18 years. Chalk it up to one of my children starting college, and the other joining a terrific high school carpool group that departs at 7:15 a.m. and doesn’t return until 6 p.m.

In the last ten years, my lament has always been: if only the day had 27 hours, not 24. Despite loving my children very much, the demands of driving back and forth left me with less than six hours per day to write and do everything else.

Now I’be been given 10.5 hours, five days a week. That is a ton of writing time—and some me time, too.

dog photo

The weather is still balmy enough to write in the “summer office,” as I call the west-facing screened porch on the second floor of our Victorian cottage. This is the very best place I’ve found to create—and only will feel comfortable for a few more weeks, at which time my muse (Charlie the beagle) will become broken hearted.

It feels vacation-like to settle into work at a natural temperature and in dappled shade. The whispering of trees and chattering of squirrels that makes the space seem sacred. That is—until Charlie sees another dog walk the lane fifty feet underneath us and reads him the riot act.

snoozing dog

If it’s rainy, I go to my real office on the third floor, where I’ve got a desk tucked under the eaves. It’s easy to forget time and write, write, write.

There are times that I’m working on a manuscript and just can’t find the right word. Then I step away and do a short household chore. It’s important to remember to stretch. When I come back, I usually know the words that had evaded me earlier.

house in trees

Walking is another delight of a writing routine. It’s easy to get wrapped up in a story and decide not to go to a gym class—but I can’t find an excuse not to walk for thirty minutes or an hour.

The North Baltimore neighborhood where I live is a walker’s paradise. Roland Park was laid out between 1890 and 1920 by the Olmsted Company, a landscape architecture firm that designed parks, college campuses, zoos and residential suburbs. The naturalistic, wild approach to neighborhood design made it a refuge.

hilltop path sign

In less than an hour, I can walk up hills and ridges, traverse curving streets, enjoy the shade of towering native trees, and explore the secret staircases in a network of paths and lanes designed for people and horse-drawn cart traffic. I love to meander off on these mysterious paths that take me to a peaceful place.

walking path

lane stairs

Lately, I’ve been counting monarch butterflies on my walks. In the 1970s, suburban gardens were filled with dozens. As a child, I thought they were as common as flies.

butterfly photo

These days, I rarely spot more than a single monarch on my walks. I know that it’s a matter of not enough milkweed homes around for their caterpillars.

But I’m cheered by the solo flyer doing its daily job, just as I enjoy coming back to the house, taking off my shoes, and getting back to my own work in a silent old house.

Amongst the Royals

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

HH Yadavindra Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala, and his family's legendary diamond

HH Yadavindra Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala, and his family’s legendary diamond

The best-known images of India are probably Bollywood glamour, sidewalk squalor, and British colonial life. We see this in photographs and film. Those lucky enough to visit the Subcontinent will undoubtedly encounter elements of these icons.

Yet most South Asians regard roughly twenty-six hundred years of royal Indian rule as India’s defining history. King Ashoka, Emperor Akbar and the succeeding Mughals, and the many kings of small and large Hindu and Muslim kingdoms, remain points of cultural celebration.

It’s not widely known outside India that the British never held all of India, during their almost three decades of presence on the subcontinent. The British coexisted with kings of areas they called “princely states”; because Queen Victoria was Empress, followed by King George, it would be unseemly to call these men anything other than “princes.” Royal families overseeing kingdoms ranging from a few dozen miles to thousands retained their authority through 1947, when almost all  elected to secede their powers and become part of the new democracy of India. It was a hard decision to give up centuries of rule. Where else but palaces could men wear ten-pound diamond necklaces and get away with it?

The City Palace in Udaipur during rainy season

The City Palace in Udaipur during rainy season

During my time in India last summer, I spent several days soaking up the lifestyle of Rajput kings and queens at the City Palace of Udaipur, Rajasthan The current Maharana still lives in one heavily guarded section. I did not meet him. Arriving just as monsoon broke with heavy rains and lightning at Shiv Niwas, the hotel within the Udaipur City Palace, is my most beautiful memory of the visit.

However, I had a very eerie, claustrophobic sensation in one section of the old palace: the zenana. This is the area of the palace restricted to royal women, their servants, and children. The inlaid floral designs on the marble walls were gorgeous, but the rooms felt so small and hot. The zenana had its own garden, but it was smaller than the other garden spaces of the palace compound.

At Jag Mandir, an island palace meant for summer recreation in Udaipur

At Jag Mandir, an island palace meant for summer recreation in Udaipur

I’ve learned more about the secret lives of secluded women from the memoirs of Cornelia Sorabji, India’s first woman lawyer, who was often the only person from the “outside” to meet royal women who were suffering underneath the heavy jewels in the late 1800s and first decade of the 20th century. In the zenana, Cornelia learned about scheming relatives plotting to steal her client’s inheritances, throw their children out of the running for rule, and murder. Her memoirs India Calling and India Recalled relate suspenseful stories of royal women and their children and how she did her best to help.

Indian lawyer Cornelia Sorabji heard the secrets of princesses

Indian lawyer Cornelia Sorabji heard the secrets of princesses

I’m also fascinated by E.M. Forster’s Hill of Devi, a memoir published in 1953 that shares his Indian royal lifestyle during 1912-13 and 1921. Morgan Forster simply adored Asia and Africa; he decided to find a way to support himself in India while he continued work on his novel-in-progress, Passage to India. In Bombay, he was introduced to he Maharaja of Dewas State Senior. The two princely states of Dewas were ruled by the descents of royal brothers, and thus named Senior and Junior; each had its own palace, army, nobility, and dramas. Tukoji Rao III took a shine to Morgan and gave him the title “Private Secretary.”

EM Forster dressed for business as a royal personal secretary

EM Forster dressed for business as a royal personal secretary

This became the ultimate “writer in residence” gig, with Forster holding office hours in the morning and teatime only. He was set up in a guest house with servants, a generous salary, an elegant wardrobe of Indian clothing and other luxuries. As a European working for Indians, it was extremely awkward for British India officials who came to visit the Maharaja. Some officials decided it was easier to ignore his presence rather than admit to the fact that a European was under the employ of an Indian. Morgan, who sided politically and emotionally with Indians, ate it up.

Forster’s palace memories are of thrilling musical evenings, intrigues with other rulers, and most touching, the family rituals. While Cornelia Sorabji’s writing is very compassionate toward the royals, his comments seem meant to coax a knowing laugh. Yet the details are so exact and colorful that only an outsider could have thought to record them for history’s sake.

HH Sir Tukoji Rao III

HH Sir Tukoji Rao III

Here’s an example from Hill of Devi: “The birth of a little baby has turned everything upside down, so far as it wasn’t already in that position. The rites—they are more than customs—are extraordinary, and seem designed to cause the greatest possible discomfort to mother and child. The unfortunate pair have to listen to music outside their door for nearly fifteen days. It began with fireworks and a discharge of rifles from the entire army in batches: then drums, trumpets, stringed instruments and singing. For five days, the husband is supposed not to see his wife, but during the whole fifteen he must sleep in the compound where her house stands and his friends and attendants stay with him and listen to the continual music…”

Forster would rue the music, but if a song came on that he liked, even if it was 3 a.m. he’d slap his turban on and rush out for a close up.

To me, that’s the very definition of a wise traveler.

Stamped by Faith

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Religious Freedom stamp

While looking through our motley collection of stamps to find a small one  to add to an envelope, I stumbled across a surprise: a modest, black and white stamp honoring “Religious Freedom in America.”

I’ve seen stamps honoring different religious holidays, but never one for religious freedom. The stamp was issued 1957. The McCarthy years of political prosecutions were waning, but it was still an era that non-Christians were being turned away from universities and neighborhoods. Religious and political minorities did not have full rights.

The stamp’s fine print mentions the Flushing Remonstrance of 1657, wherein citizens of that part of “New Netherlands” (later to become New York) petitioned their Dutch colonial government on religious tolerance.

Stamps are both postage and government propaganda. I find it intriguing that the US Postal Service chose to promote a little-known event that predates the Revolutionary War. Yet it seems a precursor to the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

It felt shocking to encounter this stamp after flying into Baltimore-Washington International airport this past Sunday. The airport’s many televisions broadcast a CNN feature about Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump announcing a proposed expansion of his desire to ban Muslims from the United States. I noticed a young woman in a long dress wearing a small black voile headscarf standing near the TV. She was busy on her cell phone. I was worried that she would look up and see the latest distressing announcement.

Donald Trump now seeks to ban visitors and immigrants coming from any country compromised by terrorism.

Donald Trump now seeks to ban visitors and immigrants coming from any country compromised by terrorism.

Trump supporter Laura Ingraham finished her convention speech with this gesture

Trump supporter Laura Ingraham finished her convention speech with this gesture.

Adolf Hitler originated the Sieg Heil salute that became mandatory for civilians

Adolf Hitler originated the Sieg Heil salute that became mandatory for civilians.

My thoughts rolled to 1933. Germany’s president, Paul von Hindenburg, tried to appease the country’s Nazi party by appointing Adolf Hitler as chancellor. Chancellor Hitler played on people’s fears, spewing racism and anti-Semitism. He targeted a country where too many working class people had lost out economically and were looking for a champion.

I got to thinking about how people in the country reacted to Hitler’s appointment. Apparently, two-thirds of the country’s Jews stayed. I imagined them thinking then, just as we are doing now: shouldn’t we go about one’s daily life honorably and expect the country to come to its senses within the year? After all, Jewish families had resided in Germany for centuries. Many of them had good businesses and professional positions and many Christian customers, neighbors, friends. They felt they were German, and they were invested in remaining.

The Italian Jewish chemist, Primo Levi, survived Auschwitz. After the war, he wrote about the psychology of Jewish citizens wanting to stay in The Drowned and the Saved. “This village or town or region or nation is mine. I was born here, my ancestors are buried here. I speak its language, have adopted its customs and culture, and to this culture I may even have contributed. I paid its taxes, observed its laws. I fought its battles not caring whether they were just or unjust. I risked by life for its borders, some of my friends or relations lie in the war cemeteries. I do not want nor can I leave it…”

The normal life of middle-class Jewish people in 1920s Berlin

The normal life of middle-class Jewish people in 1920s Berlin

During the Hitler years, Jewish people with enough funds, connections and luck managed to get to countries not reached by Hitler’s army. Ironically, the Jews learned England and the United States were loath to welcome them. The Anglophone nations feared that amongst the refugees, Nazi agents would be hidden; and that if they allowed more than a handful of war refugees to enter, they would be unable to hold back the masses.

Syrian refugees arriving in Canada, one of the few nations offering wide support

Syrian refugees arriving in Canada, one of the few nations offering wide support

We have seen these attitudes replaying again as Donald Trump scapegoats Muslims. In Britain, more citizens voted to leave the European Union than to stay.

How can people think so little about the humanity of others, and fall prey to fear-mongers?

And will the rest of us be brave enough to stand up before it’s too late?

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.