Author Archive for Sujata

Coloring for Creativity

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been spending up to a half-hour every day with a coloring book and a 48-pack of gel pens. The idea of coloring as a way to get writing juices flowing came from a great blog post on raising productivity for writers by Joanna Penn. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t done anything artistic since elementary school. But from age of 7 to 12, I spent a lot of time making paper dolls from the lightweight white cardboard that came inside packages of socks and pantyhose (remember?). Once my paper dolls were cut out, I’d trace clothing wardrobes for them. I loved coloring in the clothes.

Imagine my delight when I discovered a Dover Coloring Book by Tom Tierney called Fashions From India.

fashions from India

There are 44 illustrations of historic to modern Indian costumes for men, women and children!

My hours outside of writing and caring for my family are few. But right now, I need to do this, just like some writers need to run or do yoga. Here’s why:

Coloring is meditative and relaxing. There’s a reason “art therapy” was invented. It can give you the satisfying pause you may need to get back to the rest of your life.

I’ve been delighted, though, to find that this coloring book dovetails nicely with my writing. The protagonist of Bombay Angel (the working title of my next India historical)  is a costume and textiles designer. She must think about putting colors and patterns together in the 1920s, when almost everyone still wore clothing particular to their region and role in society.

Coloring leads me to think deeply about the appearances and roles of all the characters who might appear in this book. As I spend time concentrating on line drawings of landowners and coolies, dancers and maharanis, I feel my own book’s cast of characters growing.

If seen a Bollywood film or visited India , you’ve probably noticed that everyone wears fantastic color, regardless of social position. Remember how the late Vogue editor Diana Vreeland said “pink is the navy blue of India?” It’s true for both genders.

Rajasthan gentleman

pink turban man

Women Farmers

indian women farmers

Urban political protesters

Hindu women at demonstration

Back to my coloring. It’s kind of hard—and I don’t mean just staying within the lines. When I’m indecisive about which colors to use for a busy-patterned sari, or which color is appropriate for a military man’s turban,  I roam around Google Images to learn. But choosing colors for the figures in the coloring book also sends me into my own brain to find the colors that speak to me. It’s exciting to try new combinations—some failures and some successes. Which is exactly what a writer has to do when creating a novel from thin air.

Another artistic exploration is taking place on Pinterest. I’m collecting historic photographs and images pertaining to my novel-in-progress, Bombay Angel. You can look at the Bombay Angel board at Pinterest. Enjoy the pictures—I’ll keep updating, in case you want to follow me there.

What I learned writing The Kizuna Coast

I met my first mystery novel at age twelve. It was The Moonstone, a prescient holiday gift from my father. In the years since, I grew into my life as a mystery and historical fiction writer. Turning bits and pieces of my imagination into something others can read is a thrilling experience.

Japan’s March 20l11 tsunami

From 1997 to 2008, I wrote ten novels in an amateur sleuth series about a young Japanese-American antiques dealer. I created a young woman, Rei Shimura, who left California to build a creative life in Tokyo; however, she kept stumbling upon secrets that led into bona fide mysteries. Due to Japan’s low crime rate, Rei’s mysteries involved very few guns, but did have a lot of art, sociology and romantic fun, starting with book #1, The Salaryman’s Wife. Nine more books followed, and then I took a holiday from Rei.

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In March, 2011, a 9.0 Richter earthquake occurred 200 miles from Sendai, Japan. A powerful shifting of plates under the Pacific built a lethal tsunami wave that hammered the northeastern Tohoku region. More than fifteen thousand people died in one afternoon. An estimated one million buildings suffered damage and hundreds of thousands of Tohoku residents became homeless. Historians declared this was the toughest time for Japan since World War II, and TV footage made it look as if the country had suffered an irreversible fall.

During the weeks after the tsunami, I tried to learn whether my Japanese friends’ families were safe and how people were coping with gasoline, electricity and food shortages. I also wondered if the light-hearted, beautiful world I’d written about could continue. The Rei books were still in hiatus. I wasn’t sure what to do.

So I did what a lot of other people did: I followed the news. I learned that even as the wave was approaching, police, medical personnel and municipal employees stayed in the danger zone to help fleeing people reach higher ground. After the waters had subsided, survivors assisted others, not talking about the losses they were going through. Fukushima nuclear plant workers stayed onsite to shut down the reactor. As the nuclear situation worsened with persistent fires, soldiers, sailors and firefighters came from all over Japan, risking their lives for the safety of the nation.


Kizuna, a uniquely Japanese word meaning “bonds of loving kindness,” was used to describe this selfless behavior toward others. And as I heard even more stories of bravery, self-sacrifice and kindness, I felt these events were worth recording somewhere beyond short news reports that I knew would trickle into nothing after a year. But I had some worries about writing a tsunami book.

My first concern was that the tragedy was still ongoing, if you counted the thousands mourning the dead and suffering from health problems and loss of their homes. I considered making up a fictitious earthquake hitting a different part of Japan. However, that didn’t seem like it would be any more sensitive to survivors’ feelings. It also wouldn’t satisfy my desire to credit the citizens of Tohoku for what they’d endured.

Ultimately, I decided to write about the real tsunami, setting the book in a fictitious town close to real places. I brought back the same characters my longtime readers know, and I introduced new people of all ages from Tohoku. As well as a dog! I incorporated scenes of stylish Tokyo trying to pull itself back on track, as well as the battered coast. I found myself moving between two worlds—just like my protagonist had always done.

And with her voice in my head, I began understanding that beauty endures. While I needed to describe the impact of millions of dead fish on a town, I also could note the Buddha statues placed respectfully by residents to overlook the shattered streets. In my mind’s eye I saw children happily playing on a jungle gym washed clean by their loving parents; and the pleasure shelter residents took sipping the first hot bowls of miso-vegetable stew.

The Kizuna Coast

By the time I’d finished writing The Kizuna Coast, I felt grateful for what the people of Tohoku had taught me. Just as I felt blessed by the power of fiction, which allows us all to take the long view past misery and onward to hope.

Kizuna Coast Lauch

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It’s almost time for The Kizuna Coast.

I’ve finished most of my revisions and am waiting for corrections from my copy editor and some other important first readers who really know the book’s setting: the Great Tohoku Earthquake of 2011.

The 11th Rei mystery begins on the muddy, shattered coast, and then moves back to the edgy nightclub and artistic world of Tokyo…and ultimately, to the truth.  Starring characters include Rei’s old friends Mr. Ishida and Richard Randall, and the Yohohama Shimura relatives.  New friends include tsunami survivors, volunteers, and a very sniffy Akita-Beagle mix dog.

Right now, pre-0rders of the E-Book are available at Amazon for a special intro price of $2.99.

E-Book distribution will go to multiple platforms sometime in the new year. Pre-order E-Books will arrive Dec. 15–in time for long holiday plane rides. Oh, and don’t forget about the GIFT button on the book’s sales page . . . when you want to surprise someone.

GIVEAWAY CONTEST  just in time Hanukkah and Christmas

brideskimono-hcI’m celebrating the book launch starting now with a giveaway of 11 previously published hardcover Rei novels. (11 because this is the 11th book in the series.) You could be one of the crew who receives a rare signed 1st edition hardcover! If you check how much the out-of-print hardcovers are valued book-selling sites, you’ll realize what a special gift this could make for someone. Entrants for this contest, please be sure that you have a mailing address within the U.S.; but the most important thing is to send me a screenshot or forwarded email from Amazon about your pre-ordered Kizuna Coast.

If you sign up for my free author newsletter Asiafile at the same time (or are already a member) let me know in the message you send me and you will be entered TWICE. You can send me an email using the “contact sujata” button that’s all over this website. Pretty easy!

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“REAL” BOOKS TOO

Interested in a bound book with paper pages? Trade paperbacks and hardcovers will be available worldwide in December in stores and at online book retailers. More information on paperback and hardcover options, plus the audiobook, will be forthcoming. Sorry, the “real” books are not available for pre-order, so aren’t part qualifiers for the contest.

Thank you, friends!

Who are the Killer Femmes?

Come in out of the rain and make yourself comfortable. I’ll hang up your wet trench coat on the rack next to Libby’s Burberry. Watch that you don’t get clipped by one of the zippers on Zoe’s motorcycle jacket. The weather is wretched–shall I make us both a cup of tea? Really? You’d rather have a bourbon?
Okay…will do.

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You have entered the realm of Killer Femmes, where vice is nice and a stiletto heel is a girl’s best defense. Actually, Killer Femmes is my summer literary release–a bundle of 5 mystery novels by 5 different authors: Libby Fischer Hellman, Zoe Sharp, Christine Kling, Julie Smith and me.  Coming together on this project has been really cool. It’s meant reading each others’ work and brainstorming promotion. In a way, it’s been like working in a newsroom again, something I occasionally miss.

Our collection is formally titled Killer Femmes: Five Irresistible Crime Novels From Around the World. It is ONLY in e-book form, but as you know, anyone with a laptop or mobile phone can read an epub or mobi file using free downloadable apps. The online bookshops carrying our book are Amazon, Barnes&Noble, iBooks and Kobo. We’ve priced the whole thing at 0.99 because this special release is not about getting rich–it’s about finding new readers.

One thing we have in common is that we all started our novel-writing careers working with agents and editors in New York and London.  But as time passed and e-Books became popular, all five of us developed hybrid careers where we do some self-publishing on the side. Speaking for myself, it’s great because I can keep publishing different kinds of books (like some in India and others in Japan) and can also release shorter works such as novellas. PLUS I can run with spur-of-the-moment, fab collabs!

Now you know who the Killer Femmes are…what are the books like? Libby’s novel Easy Innocence is the first in the Georgia Davis PI series, featuring a smart young Chicago cop hunting for the murderer of a suburban high school girl. In Christine Kling’s Cross Current, you’ll meet Seychelle Sullivan, a sexy salvage boat captain who rescues an orphaned Haitian girl in the waters of South Florida. Zoe Sharp’s hardboiled thriller Killer Instinct introduces Charlie Fox, a beautiful but lethal ex-soldier who rights wrongs in Lancaster, England using semi-legal methods. Julie Smiths’ Louisiana Hotshot sends hip young poet Talba Wallis deep into New Orleans’ rap scene to unmask a killer.

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I’m including The Flower Master, because it’s the earliest Rei Shimura book to which I hold full copyright and the book’s emphasis on the darker side of ladies works nicely with the theme of Killer Femmes. Rei Shimura is sent to flower arranging school in Tokyo and gets tangled up in the murder of a snippy teacher. Things look bad for Rei’s Aunt Norie, as well as a Korean-Japanese potter, and an elderly doyenne of the school. To break up all that estrogen, there’s a new character called Takeo, a hunky young flower arranger, who can’t decide if he despises Rei, or is falling in love.  This book is one of the most light-hearted and funny in the Rei series and won the Macavity Award for Best Mystery of 2000. If you missed it first time around, now’s your chance.

I hope that Killer Femmes keeps you up late–and gets you interested in some other writers’ work.

Some Favorite Travel Locations in Japan and India

The following is bonus material from Sujata’s latest newsletter. You can subscribe by clicking here.

INDIA

houseboat-bigThe Kerala backwaters are hundreds of miles of brackish waterways that you can travel for an hour or days on houseboats. The gateway for arranging all this is in the town of Alleppey (also known as Alappuzha).

Fort Cochin, the historic section of the major business city, Cochin/Kochi, is a great area for historic exploration. Brunton Boatyard, an old boatyard that has been converted into a lovely hotel, is a stately haven in the midst of everything. This is the first place I brought my then-one-year-old son Neel to stay. We were treated like royalty. I just checked and saw that non-sea-view rooms are quite affordable!

Calcutta, now known as Kolkata, is a such a vibrant city with lots of theater, film and bookshops. Any traveler should stop by Oxford Bookstore, where a reader can browse for hours and in the evenings, attend exciting readings or sip coffee right at the inhouse coffee lounge. Nearby is Flury’s, a historic European pastry restaurant, and a streetcart selling delicious khati kababs.

To stay overnight in Calcutta, I recommend the very civilized, but not stratospherically priced, New Kenilworth Hotel. It’s an old British bungalow that’s been converted into a hotel with excellent food. It’s a pleasant walking distance to Park Street, Chowringhee, the Victoria Memorial and the city’s excellent, clean subway system. It’s also a few minutes’ walk from Middleton Street—the home of Mr. Simon Lewes in The Sleeping Dictionary.

JAPAN

The Zen temple town of Kamakura is very close to Tokyo and much less crowded than Kyoto. If you want to see dozens of historic Buddhist sanctuaries without the expense of Kyoto travel, just hop on a southbound Yokosuka Line train and explore my favorite Japanese town. You’ll get a great lunch in town and be able to buy lacquer, washi paper, blue-and-white textiles and all kinds of antiques. Zen Attitude is set in Kamakura and has specific mentions of real places to visit, so use that as your guide.

Nezu is a walkable, historic Tokyo neighborhood that abuts a better-known neighborhood called Yanaka. You will find tofu and sembei cracker shops, shrines and temples just by walking out the door. Staying in a minshuku in Nezu or Yanaka is a great idea for any traveler who doesn’t need things to be super-comfortable. Also, Hotel Asia Center of Japan in Akasaka near Roppongi is inexpensive, clean, modern and safe.

More Tokyo Treasures: the whole neighborhood of Asakusa for delicious, well-priced food and shrines; Omote-Sando Avenue for cappuccino and cosmetics shopping; and  Harajuku neighborhood for youth culture, cheap fashion and food. Roppongi is a must, not just for the fun musical nightlife, but for daytime shopping at clothing boutiques and Kurofune Antiques. If you want to shop at a Sunday morning flea market, the vendors move to a different shrine location each week, so check with the Japanese Tourist Board for the latest information.

CAN A SOPHISTICATED AUTHORESS TRAVEL TWO WEEKS IN EUROPE WITH ONE CARRY-ON?

libby_leatherMy friend Libby Fischer Hellmann, writer of fabulous mystery and international suspense fiction, is traveling in Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe for two weeks using a single carry-on suitcase. I used to work in fashion journalism so I find this idea of limiting oneself severely, especially when traveling in cities, pretty hard. So I asked Libby what she would squeeze into her expanding Samsonite case for an itinerary of six countries.

Sujata: Libby, what goes into your carry-on?

Libby: 4 pairs of pants, 2 skirts, 1 dress (both skirts and dress can be rolled up without wrinkling, a la Kinsey Millhone; assorted tank tops, 3 scarves, 3 sweaters, 2 pairs of tights. And two T-shirts ;). Toiletries go in the zippered outside compartments.

Q: What about shoes? Do you have a favorite brand or two of comfortable walking shoes that are not sneakers?

A. I’m taking a pair of walking shoes and a pair of black suede ankle boots for evening. Black WaveWalk shoes by Clark were suggested by another international traveler, mystery author Cara Black. They are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn.

Q: Are you bringing a raincoat?

A: I bought a Scottesvest trench jacket with 18 pockets, also at Cara’s suggestion. And an across-the-chest Baggolini as a purse. If it’s not enough, I guess I’ll have to buy a jacket.

Q: Do you buy clothes when you travel? What are some favorite purchases and where did they happen?

A: Libby: Love to buy clothes and accessories… the UK for scarves, Paris for skirts, Italy for shoe and purchases, and, curiously, Gibraltar for a leather jacket!

Thanks for the intel, Libby. To find out more about her travels and books, click here:

http://www.libbyhellmann.com/blog/

A Winter’s Tale of Mothers, Ayahs and Children

I’m making cookies today with a 15-year-old daughter who likes the baking, and a 12-year-old son who always seems to know when they’re ready to come out of the oven. Deciding whether to go chocolate or coconut is a sweet moment that breaks up our non-Hallmark Card life. Peace comes when we are repeating activities that have continued from early childhood.

Pia and NeelInevitably, winter brings memories, and not all of them are of footsteps in the snow. During the first winter that I spent with my daughter, she was just 7 months old. I’d adopted her from an orphanage in Kerala, and we were staying in Kolkata, waiting for the INS to send permission for her to enter to the United States with me. There were tremendous bureaucratic complications. It was a stressful time, even though I was staying with kind and supportive relatives.

Something that was supposed to make life simpler for me was the presence of an ayah, or nanny. I didn’t ask to have someone come in and take over my role 12 hours a day. But the two manservants who already worked in my grandparents’ apartment were males busy with a number of chores. They would not be able to carry out their normal work if a baby was not professionally tended by someone else. All my protestations of wanting to do it myself were overruled.

So the day after my sister and I arrived and set up in the guest bedroom with Baby Pia, an ayah agency in the neighborhood sent over a small, slim young woman with sparkling eyes and a sweet smile. Her name was Bharoti. She was eager to learn a few words of English and teach us Bengali. She was about eighteen, I think, and married to a taxi driver. Her own baby was living two hundred miles from her in the mountain village where she came from, cared for by her own mother, in order that Bharoti and her husband could make money in the city.

I tried to approach the situation positively, because I felt badly that Bharoti could not be with her own child. I reasoned that Bharoti could be more of a language tutor to my sister and me, and I could still be the real mother. I needed to send daily faxes to my husband regarding our immigration nightmare, which meant leaving the apartment. But for every hour I left my baby with her ayah, anxiety coursed through me. Bharoti was affectionate and attentive, but my aunt caught Bharoti giving Pia formula that had been mailed with unboiled water, and I saw the ayah chatting up street people while holding Pia, which made me worried she might give away information about where we lived. One afternoon when I was home, Bharoti opened the door and a rough-looking threesome stormed inside, refusing to leave until I’d paid them off (hijra, or transgender entertainers, make their living through extortion of people in the middle of happy life events like new babies and weddings).

But the most frightening thing for me was the ease with which Pia accepted this change in care and nestled peacefully in her ayah’s arms. When we went out shopping at Bengal Home Industries one day, Bharoti insisted on holding Pia, and foreign shoppers smiled at the two of them, looking like mother and child.

My tone with Bharoti became cool, and I began watching her like a hawk. I felt guilty about it, like I was turning into a British colonial memsaheb. Very quickly, I spiraled into the belief that I was a useless mother and my baby couldn’t attach to me.

After another month, we received government approval to return to the United States. I cried when I said goodbye to Bharoti and gave her a big tip. She had new work starting the next day. During my next trip to Kolkata, when Pia was nine, I tried to find Bharoti through the agency; but there was no record of her whereabouts. I’ve always hoped that she became able to return to her own daughter in the hills.

Years later, when I was researching my historical novel, THE SLEEPING DICTIONARY, I read many accounts of British children who felt very close to their ayahs and lived out their childhoods completely separate from their parents. Remembering how hard the ayah relationship was for me, I longed to write about this world of mothers, children and ayahs in the book…but there was no room in a book that was already more than 500 pages.

The Ayah's Tale by Sujata MasseyOut of this idea, I’ve created a 40,000 word novella called THE AYAH’S TALE, which examines the life in a 1920s British-Bengali colonial household from both a child’s point of view and the ayah’s. Menakshi is a 16-year-old girl Indian Christian girl whose middle-class household has fallen on hard times–which means she must leave high school to work as an ayah. Julian is a bright, neglected six-year-old boy who drinks up her attention and begins to see India around him differently, because of her. Marjorie Millings is his mother: a sad, disconnected woman who looks for love outside of their elegant bungalow. Ram Hollander is a young Anglo-Indian who works on the railways. It’s on the Bengal-Nagpur Railways that the characters collide and begin a journey toward change.

You can find THE AYAH’S TALE as an Ebook at Amazon. If you would like to receive a free short story and receive more email updates on India, Japan and writing, click here to subscribe to my mailing list.

Happy Winter reading.

Sujata

Close enough to hear, but not to see

There was no way I’d get to see Khaled Hosseini.
No matter how long I stood, or how high I stood on my tiptoes. The author was there–but invisible. All I could hear was his beautiful Pashto accent, and shake my head at myself for being such a groupie.
National-Book-Festival-Washington-DC
Last Sunday, I drove through DC traffic, parked in a pricey downtown garage and walked a half mile in beautiful, 70-degree weather to the National Book Festival on the Mall. The Washington Post’s tabloid section promoting the book festival had given me the full schedule a week ago and I’d let many of my friends–and even my daughter’s English teacher–know about this rare opportunity to see the California-based international literature superstar discuss his first book in five years, And The Mountains Roared.

I’d brought two of his novels in my trusty oversized bag. So did a lot of other people. Like–maybe a thousand? The line to his signing booth was actually three lines that stretched almost the width of the mall. Even though Mr. Hosseini stayed on signing long after the scheduled half hour event was over, hundreds were still in line. I was faced with a dilemma. Surely the experience of getting a book signed–with so many people waiting–would be reduced to a few seconds, and a quick scrawl. There could hardly be a chance to mention how much I loved his books, let alone have a brief conversation.
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But we’d come to the book festival to see writers and hear them talk about their books. We would have a rotten time, if we just stayed in a line and never had a book signed. After 45 minutes in the Hosseini line, I moved to plan B and went to see the author-journalist Fred Hiatt and the young Chinese-Canadian human rights activist Ti-Anna Wang discuss Hiatt’s young adult novel, Nine Days. There was a crowd of over 100, but still extra seats in the Special Programs tent. The author and activist presented; the audience offered thoughtful questions which were answered at length by Mr.Hiatt and Ms. Wang. This book talk ran as smoothly as the soft serve ice cream being vended on the mall.

I ducked out of this event ten minutes before it ended, because I was concerned about getting a seat at Khaled Hosseini’s talk, which was scheduled to start at 4:35 at the fiction and mystery tent next door. Already I could see a ring of people standing around the tent, which had several hundred seats already filled by an audience enjoying a presentation by Mark Helprin. But when the Helprin talk ended…hardly anyone got up and freed seats. It turned out the Hosseini fans were already there, staked out. The hundreds of standing readers tried to press in to be close enough to see the podium–but could not. Festival staff begged people not to fill the aisles, or lean on the tent posts. I was left along with many others behind a standing room only crowd ten deep. Although Mr. Hosseini and his interviewer, the reviewer Maureen Corrigan, were supposedly seated on a raised stage within the tent, the only person I could see onstage was the interpreter for the deaf. A very attractive and tall woman–but not Khaled Hosseini.

OK. Staging a signing for someone who’s stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for the last ten years straight is a challenge. But placing him in a tent with a few hundred seats is tantamount to offering a free Robin Thicke concert in a high school gym. Khaled Hosseini crowds cannot be fit into any size tent. They need an open space about the size of a soccer stadium. This event should have been set up in front of the Lincoln Memorial?

In the course of publishing eleven novels, I’ve had a few big signings too. Not a thousand readers or more than 100–but many dozens at book launches in my two hometowns, Minneapolis and Baltimore. Yes, such crowds are flattering, but it’s just as sad for the writer as it is the reader not to be able to see each other. Writers feel a lot of guilt knowing the investment in time, travel, and funds that the readers have made to come to a signing.

I think Mr. Hosseini felt the same, judging from the first comments he made in the tent, which were blessedly amplified by a microphone. He thanked everyone for coming. He marveled at the turnout. But ultimately, he was impossible to see…and there were technical problems at the camera area, behind which I was standing. In the end, the technical team’s troubleshooting was so distracting–as were the texts from my daughter, who had become separated from me–that I bagged the event.

It wasn’t a total loss. I love the energy and diversity of D.C. That Sunday, I had a good conversation while waiting in the line with another Hosseini fan. But I wondered how many of the thousand fans I saw have a regular chance to attend author events. Publishers are cutting back on signing tours, and bookstore owners are sometimes loath to host authors who aren’t gigantic names. Both these factors compromise the magic of the time a reader meets a writer–ideas are exchanged–and books are signed, becoming treasures.

Later this week, I’m participating in a book festival, Fall for the Book, run by George Mason University. The events are spread out, over the course of two weeks, in many different halls and bookstores. Interestingly, this festival has been named as one of the best in the country. It may not the National Book Fesitval, but I’ll make a wild guess that there will be seats for everyone who wants to come.

From Asylum to Infamy

This blog post originally appeared on the Murder Is Everywhere blog.

He was the kind of man who disagreed with his government—and sought to reform its operations. He broke laws to spread his messages of unrest and felt forced to flee, lest he spend the rest of his life in prison.

In search of shelter, the radical traveled undercover to countries that were unfriendly with his own. But the path was complicated, as he could not use his passport. The travel papers he hoped that other governments might produce for him weren’t forthcoming. And then, when it seemed like he’d settled into a powerless rut, the fugitive traveler popped up on another continent, in the heart of a nation willing to help him wage war on his homeland.

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden? Sorry, but that’s not the guy I am writing about.

Snowden was preceded 72 years ago by Subhas Chandra Bose, an Indian freedom fighter who outfoxed the British government of India and made it possible for a hostile army to invade his homeland. Which should make everyone think twice about what Edward Snowden can still accomplish.

Subhas Chandra Bose

Mr. Bose’s adventure began in 1897, when he was born in British India as the younger son of a wealthy upper-caste Hindu lawyer. Although he attended elite, English-medium schools in Calcutta and was tracking toward a conventional career in civil service or law, he witnessed enough discrimination to change his plan about working for the rulers of his country. The young Subhas joined Bengali political activists and rose from being a mere independence supporter to a position as an activist mayor of Calcutta. After serving a long political imprisonment and then banishment by the British government of India, he was permitted back into India in the late 1930s and promptly resumed his independence activities as president of the All-India Congress Party, and after that, his own new political party, the Forward Bloc.

Bose, who was now admiringly called “Netaji,” or “honored leader,” was enthusiastically received. Much of the population was upset at being commanded by the British to serve them in World War II when there was still no promise of a date that India might get self-rule. While the most famous independence activist of the time, Mahatma Gandhi, counseled Indians to be patient, Netaji demanded unconditional freedom and told his followers that violence against the British might be necessary.

The threat of Netaji disrupting war supply production was too much for India’s government. In autumn of 1940, Calcutta police arrested Mr. Bose on charges of plotting to deface the Holwell Monument, a proud symbol of British colonialism in Dalhousie Square. The activist had not actually laid a hand on the monument, but he was locked up under India’s War Rules, a measure that greatly expanded police rights to detainment. Mr. Bose felt his incarceration was unjust and undertook a hunger strike, weakening himself so much that the British were forced to bring him out of jail and into a hospital.

Mr. Bose—who’d suffered respiratory problems since catching tuberculosis during a two-year-long imprisonment in Mandalay in the 1920s—stayed dangerously weak. His doctors proclaimed him too ill to stand trial, advising rest and recuperation at his parents’ house. The police reluctantly agreed, stationing constables to watch the family’s handsome bungalow on Elgin Road. But their round-the-clock presence wasn’t enough to defeat the clever politico who, while resting in a curtained bedchamber, grew a shaggy beard and hatched an escape plan with his nephew. On the evening of January 16, 1941, the nephew drove away from the house with what appeared to be a Muslim acquaintance, heavily bearded and dressed in the attire of the Northwest Frontier Provinces. Many days later, the house servants discovered one of the meals they’d been leaving next to Netaji’s curtained bedside hadn’t been eaten, and the alarm was raised.

The family house – now a museum

Subhas Chandra Bose had a sizeable head start on the police and, with the assistance of relatives and political supporters, traveled north by car and train through the Northwest Frontier Provinces that are now part of Pakistan. He posed as a deaf-mute, his presence explained at any checkpoints by two Pashto-speaking companions (one of whom—unknown to Mr. Bose—was a double agent informing on him for both the U.S.S.R. and Britain). The runaway reached Kabul and took shelter within a sympathizer’s home.

Like Edward Snowden, Netaji could not travel out of Kabul using his own passport; he’d made a bet that the Soviet consul would give him travel papers, but this assumption proved wrong. Bose’s helpers spent two more months trolling various consulates before Italy granted him travel papers allowing him to travel under the name Count Orlando Mazzotta.

Following advice from their double agent, the British assumed Mr. Bose would go to Turkey, and sent assassins to wait along the border there. But he avoided that route. Using a combination of car, donkey, horse and his own feet, he was guided out of Afghanistan and across mountains to the Soviet border, where his Italian papers allowed him into the country that had shunned him months earlier. Once on Red soil, he declared his true identity, but instead of getting a warm welcome, he was offered the services of the German ambassador, who put him on a plane to Berlin.

In the 1930s, Netaji had written disapprovingly of Nazi polices, although he admired the structure of their government, and socialism. Now he was facing a life-changing choice, just as Snowden had when he decided to get help from China and Russia.

A popular saying at the time, among militant Indian freedom fighters, was “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Perhaps Netaji followed that reasoning when he decided to take the flight to Germany. And at first, it was wunderbar. His German hosts provided equipment for him to broadcast political addresses against the British. But almost two years passed, and Hitler still hadn’t signed his statement of India’s right to self-government. During this time Mr. Bose had also married an Austrian woman and fathered a daughter, but he had begun to question his future. And the Germans may have had their doubts too, about providing endless support to an undesirable racial type.

In 1943, the Nazis offered Bose a one-way trip out on a submarine, transferring him to a Japanese submarine near the Cape of Good Hope. It was in Tokyo that received the kind of support he’d longed for. Senior officers in the Imperial Army agreed that India should be freed from British colonial power. Together with Bose, they drew up a plan for a military force of expatriate Indians to seize their country from the British.

Japanese submariners who picked up Bose from a German submarine

The idea of an Indian National Army built from tens of thousands of captured Indian prisoners of war was something the Japanese had been thinking about since beginning their conquest of South East Asia. Their officers took care to treat their captured Indian POWs well and invited them to join a volunteer Indian National Army (I.N.A.) headed by Mohan Singh, a former Indian Army officer. However this first I.N.A disbanded after less than a year because few POWs were willing to desert their troops. But once Netaji arrived in Southeast Asia, and word spread that he would be the I.N.A.’s chief, their minds were easily changed. Over 40,000 Indians joined; not just POWs but ethnic Indian civilians living in Southeast Asia, including young women who would serve as combat soldiers and medics in a woman-commanded regiment. Supreme Commander Bose ordered the men and women to train together. He insisted that everyone to speak Hindi, erasing regional and religious boundaries. Seasoned Indian Army officers and senior enlisted men became his top officers, and they drew up strategies for entering and taking India.


But by 1944, Japan was dragging its feet. The war in the Pacific was turning, since the Americans had joined the British. Japan was running low on weapons, food, uniforms and boots—with nothing to restock. It wasn’t easy to give the I.N.A. the supplies it needed to mount a successful invasion. Finally, though, Netaji’s troops were given the all clear to invade along with the Japanese. They entered northeastern India and easily took the town of Moirang in Manipur, and after that laid sieges against the British-led Indian Army strongholds of Imphal and Kohima that lasted almost four months. In the end the Indian Army prevailed, and the Japanese and I.N.A, retreated back to Burma, many perishing along the way from injuries, starvation and exhaustion, while the survivors were captured as POWs by the Indian Army and Allies.

Surrendered Indian National Army troops at Mount Popa

The dream finally imploded after the US atom-bomb drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought Japan to surrender. On August 18, 1945, Netaji boarded a Japanese military plane with Japanese and a few Indian officers, hoping for yet another ride to a safe haven. But the overloaded aircraft crashed over Taiwan, hitting the ground hard and erupting in flames.

According to the British Indian government—which received reports from the Taiwanese hospital—Mr. Bose died from severe burns within hours of the crash. Netaji’s surviving companion on the flight vouches for this story. But because Mr. Bose’s body was never seen, most Indians didn’t believe it. Some suspected he was captured by the Soviets who, angered by his alliance with Germany and Japan, sent him to a gulag. Another theory was that he disguised himself as a monk in the Himalayas—trekking down to attend the 1964 funeral of Jawaharlal Nehru. Such is the power of a vanished man on a country’s psyche.

India’s situation changed rapidly after World War II. Sympathy for surviving I.N.A. veterans inspired civilians and even many Indian Army soldiers and policemen to contribute cash toward their rehabilitation. When the British government announced the plan to prosecute several I.N.A. officers for treason or war crimes, riots flared nationwide. The unrest the government had always feared Mr. Bose might be able to instigate was happening. They could no longer count on Indians in their employ to support their rule—a major part of their decision to finally quit India in 1947.

Today, there are garland-draped statues of Netaji in most Indian towns, and the airport in Kolkata is named in his honor. Quite a few people around the world think that Mr. Snowden deserves the same kind of recognition for his stance against covert intelligence-gathering. But because of modern technology, he doesn’t need a world power or terrorist group to provide guns and uniforms for him. To inspire action by followers, all he needs is to fire up his laptop and send out a webcast. Or simply tweet.

Bust of Bose, not in India, but in Renkoji temple (Japan)

Bust of Bose in India

Love, Indo-American Style

At the India-California wedding

Last weekend I took a long flight with my daughter to a fabulous Indian family wedding with all the bells and whistles. It was a four-day celebration. Although we missed the first night’s cocktail party, we rolled in the next night for the sangeet, a dance party with live Indian music, henna tattoos, a costume jewelry bazaar, and a delicious buffet of authentic Indian dishes I’ve never seen in restaurants. A day of family and friends socializing and grand rehearsal dinner followed. On the penultimate day, bhangra-bopping friends and relatives surrounded the brocade-coated groom who rode across the hotel lawn on a white horse with with golden hoofs. Garlands of roses and marigolds wilted in ninety-degree temperatures, but the guests endured with parasols and fans. In the middle of the Hindu rites, waiters discreetly served the seated guests saucers of sherbet.

There was no scandal or disruption. The bride and groom’s families were both thrilled with the young couple’s moral character, accomplishments, and commitment to each other.
In short–it was like the best kind of wedding out of an upbeat Indian film. But despite the heat and background music, the setting was not the New Delhi of Monsoon Wedding or the Amritsar of Bride and Prejudice. It was a luxury hotel just outside Los Angeles.

Favorite wedding film, Bride and Prejudice

On the wedding ceremony morning, the Sri Lankan hair stylist who was spraying my hair into a suitable design was stunned that I’d never been to a South Asian wedding before. I explained this was because our family settled in the U.S. during the 1960s, a time when Indian immigrants were mostly scientists and engineers. Only in the last twenty years have thousands of Indians with an entrepreneurial bent settled in the United States, giving rise to full-scale Indian weddings.

In my childhood, we shopped for basmati rice and dal at a Middle-Eastern store, because there was no such thing as the South Asian specialty grocer. My sisters and I were excited to study bharatnatyam, the classical dance, but the classes held in an urban park community center were discontinued for lack of numbers. Whenever the Indian professor families in our area wanted to celebrate an Indian religious holiday, they rented space from a Catholic students’ organization. Not enough affluent Indian families had arrived yet to enable the funding of this era’s massive gurdwaras, temples and mosques.

Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, Built in 1998

Not only are the numbers of Indian cultural centers growing, so is the blending with America. On Sundays, the New York Times always has announcements of young Indian-Americans marrying outside their religion and race. In Los Angeles, the Protestant American groom’s family even wore the formal embroidered silk clothing the bride’s mother had bought for them in Bombay—as well as the nine bridesmaids and seven groomsmen. They performed Indian dances at the sangeet and at the ceremony, listened attentively to the Sanskrit prayers, which the Hindu priest translated into English, so everyone would understand.

As I sat under the California sun with the bride’s family, it seemed to me that Anglo-Indian weddings have come full circle. In the 1600s, When the bachelor officers of the British, Dutch and Portuguese East India companies arrived in India, their most important contacts were women. Young Indian women, who lived with them and taught them the language and the manners they needed to succeed in their specific part of the subcontinent, were sometimes called Sleeping Dictionaries because they were both bedmates and language teachers. Many of the bachelor officers fell in love and married their companions, living completely in the manner of Indian aristocrats. William Dalrymple’s historical account of such people,

White Mughals by William Dalrymple

White Mughals, explains this lifestyle with fascinating detail. Many of the Anglo-Indian sons born of such parents in India were sent to England for higher education, so they could have good careers, and the daughters were married off to prominent English colonials.

But as British still living in England got wind of these multi-cultural marriages, they disapproved. A campaign arose to send English girls in their late teens and twenties to find husbands among the East India company men. Such young ladies were teasingly called the Fishing Fleet, and most of them did land catches of some sort. This social engineering dramatically raised the numbers of British families living in India. Now, the growing Anglo-Indian society was suddenly declasse. The British couldn’t knowingly socialize with Anglo-Indians,let alone continue the custom of interracial marriage. And Anglo-Indians were similarly disparaged by the Indian community, who’d taken note that they’d adopted the language, clothing, and religion of the colonists, and enjoyed the benefit of jobs set aside only for them in the Indian Railways.

After World War II ended in Britain’s favor, its government finally granted independence to India. From 1947 onward, many Anglo-Indians left India to resettle in Britain and Canada. And Indians too had the chance to travel for higher education and jobs. But prejudice was there. It was sometimes hard for Indian students to find landlords willing to rent to Indians, and mixed-race couples were often targets of verbal insults.

Given the unpredictable situation in the U.K., my parents–a European and an Indian in a mixed marriage–crossed the Atlantic, seeking a home where their daughters would hopefully not face that kind of discrimination. And while I do have some hurtful experiences in my past, what is more powerful is my wonder at the number of non-Indians around me wearing bindis on their foreheads and mehndi on their hands, who are mixing India into all kinds of parties and celebrations, just for the fun of it.

Marjorie and Me

The other weekend, I was cranky and knew I needed a temporary getaway from my family. So I got in the car on a hot July morning and drove south to DC, savoring Saturday’s lack of traffic.

Ever since I moved back to the Mid-Atlantic, I’ve longed to tour Hillwood, the 1920s Georgian mansion of Marjorie Merriweather Post, an heiress and businesswoman who parlayed her father’s Postum Cereal Company into the prepared food empire known today as General Mills. Right now, there’s a special exhibition at Hillwood called “Living Artfully: At Home with Marjorie Merriiweather Post,” and what caught my interest is that

Mrs Marjorie Merriweather Post

this four-times divorced grande dame decided to fix up a mansion when she was 68.

This is where I feel a kinship, having bought an 1897 Victorian summer cottage in my late 40s, with my two children likely leaving the nest within a few years. Sometimes, the decision to invest in this 5000-square foot house with four porches battling carpenter bees does not seem practical. Mrs. Post’s decision wasn’t either–after all, she already owned a massive Park Avenue apartment, Mar-A-Lago in Florida and a luxurious camp in the Adirondacks. As I pulled in through the handsome gates, I imagined the pull of 25 acres of land, which, with the steamy DC/Baltimore climate, could support a lot of lovely flowers, trees and shrubs. I have a bit less than 1 acre–and the condition is currently very rough. However, I’m thrilled to have a struggling patch you could call cutting garden with some of the same plants (coneflowers, roses, rudbeckia) that are in the Hillwood cutting garden. Mrs. Post also stocked greenhouses with orchids and all manner of exotics so she would always be able to show off lovely arrangements at her glittering dinner parties.

Dinner is another enthusiasm that we share. Mrs. Post entertained regularly, and just last night I had a neighborhood gathering of around 40–a supposed “happy hour” that lasted until almost ten p.m.–and tonight Tony and I are cooking dinner for the family of one of our children’s friends, lively people we’ve been wanting to know better.

It sometimes seems impossible to get a chance to eat and drink with all the interesting people in this city, and our DC and suburban Maryland and Virginia friends, too. But there are ways to organize, Merriweather Post Style. Mrs. Post kept a book filled with names and contact information for hundreds of prominent people of her era, including designated bachelors (for me, it’s “all the single ladies”). For her, diversity of guests might mean that in addition to DC political and embassy friends, she might invite an Abell millionaire to drive in from Baltimore! At our house, we also seek a wide range of people, not just from the same neighborhood, and with many ages and cultural backgrounds. And I don’t keep a lovely book of typed names to hunt for guests, either. I click into my email and see who comes up.

Mrs. Post loved decorating and collecting, and her house is filled with Louis XVI furniture, Russian Faberge porcelain, and gorgeous parquet floors.

Grand entry at Hillwood House

For this reason, her butlers enforced a rule for any guests with high heels to wear plastic heel caps. Here I am in utter sympathy, having had to refinish our soft pine floors TWICE since moving in. I say, Leave Your Muddy Sneakers and Dusty Sports Cleats at the Door.

When it came to food, Hillwood’s talented cooks worked for days in a gigantic kitchen making elegant meals, but its owner made sure to always include some General Foods favorites, like Jell-O. Not even the kids will eat Jell-O at my house, but I am loyal to Bird’s Custard Powder, which is a component of whatever fruit trifle I’m making (my go-to dessert). I fear the biggest difference between our entertaining styles is most apparent after dinner. Mrs. Post’s staff (she was too polite to say ‘servants’) cleaned up. I believe the docent said more than 100 people worked at Hillwood. If I’m lucky, my clean-up crew will include a kid, a husband, and a very kind guest or two.

I drove home from Hillwood, my appetite for antiques, gardens and dreaming sated. I opened the ragged screened door leading to our half-renovated estate. My husband was slicing up my favorite vegetable, the eggplant, and shaping hamburgers for our son.

Our house will never be a Hillwood, but I am crazy about the weekend chef.