Archive for India history

The Usual Santas

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

It seems like yesterday, but it was last summer. I was dutifully working on edits when I got a surprising email. My editor, Juliet, had informed me about a Christmas mystery short story anthology scheduled for October 2017. Soho Press authors writing mysteries set in different parts of the world had turned in their contributions a year earlier—but there was enough room to add one more story. Did I want to submit something?

I thought about it for a few days.  Short story crime fiction is more terrifying a process to me than novel writing. It means grabbing an idea and introducing suspects, motivations and various twists and turns within the space of a few thousand words. While there are many writers—including right here, amongst my Murder is Everywhere comrades—who can dash off a short story in a day or two, I find the process of writing a story takes months. And when I’m done, the story is always longer than the guideline. If the average writer can take ten words to say something—I’ll use twenty.

I had to ask myself—how can I afford the time to write a short story? And would it really be good enough to go in the collection? The formidable lineup included our very own Cara Black. And speaking of lineups, the book’s title was coy: The Usual Santas.

I really wanted to do it. And despite my slowness, I had an idea.

Like many writers, I have built a graveyard of rough drafts inside my computer. I had a full draft of a story featuring my new mystery heroine, Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first woman lawyer. She’s a Zoroastrian living  in a city filled with others like herself—as well as Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and Christians. My story was almost there—but not quite. Could I “Christmas up” the story and meet the 4 week deadline?

Madame Blavatsky with Hindu Theosophists in the 1880s

There’s nothing like a deadline to get the juices flowing. And the fact was that Bombay in 1921 was a place rich in spiritual interchanges. My story draft was inspired by the history of the Theosophists, a group of European, American and Indian seekers who had interest in shared mystical roots of world religions. The movement was divided into competitive factions in the early 20th century. It was also led by two strong women: the first, Madame Helena Blavatsky, was a fascinating Russian expatriate who settled in India, and the second, Annie Besant, was an Irishwoman who worked alongside Indians resisting British rule.

Annie Besant often wore a plain sari

Inspired by these folks, I created a fictional group of international thinkers called “Realists” for my story titled “Hairpin Holiday.” My heroine, Perveen Mistry, is just an everyday lawyer working in her family firm. She has to make sure her client, a Jewish hotelier, does not suffer any losses during their controversial lecture booked into his hotel ballroom—at the same time as the Asiatic Society’s swinging Christmas party.

Of course, the problem is more than a contract. And yes, Father Christmas makes a brief showing!

The cover has sparkly red letters—perfect for Christmas!

When the handsome, 400-page collection of 18 stories was published a couple of weeks ago, I received my complimentary copies. I opened it up to smile at funny endpapers featuring caricatures of a number of us. Even one of my dogs—the gentleman beagle Charlie—made it into the drawing! We had been asked by the artist what we usually have in our hands. Cara chose her cappuccino cup, and I carry a dog leash.

I was fascinated by Cara’s story, “Cabaret Aux Assassins.” Without giving too much away, I’ll hint that it’s a epistolary mystery that has something to do with both Sherlock Holmes and the Dreyfus affair, and the tale is set in Paris of the 1890s.

There are terrific stories by more writers you may already know: Stephanie Barron, Henry Chang, Gary Corby, Colin Cotterill, Timothy Hallinan, Mette Ivie Harrison, Teresa Dovalpage, Line Kaaberbol and Agnette Fries, Martin Limon, Helene Tursten, Mick Herron, Ed Lin, Stuart Neville, Tod Goldberg, and James R. Benn. And the inimitable Peter Lovesey, who also wrote the foreword.

“I’d better warn you there are shocks in the plenty,” Peter Lovesy promises. “Nothing will top the appearance of the heavenly host to those hapless shepherds, but there is plenty here to get your heart thumping.”

Read our starred Publishers Weekly review—and enjoy a taste of a December, bright or bleak, all around the world.

Psst! Several terrific bookstores will holding holiday parties this December 2017 where you can get The Usual Santas signed! The raft of participating authors at these book parties is a mystery still unfolding—but I’m gonna leak to you that I will be among them. Check with McIntryre’s Books in North Carolina and the Mysterious Bookshop in New York. And watch my website for more details of the Santa parties as they emerge.

The Secret Life of Maharanis

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Searching for maharanis at Jagmandir Palace in Udaipur

One of my favorite parts of a recent India trip was staying at the City Palace in Udaipur. This is the seat of the Mewar kingdom—a dynasty of Rajput kings who were never conquered by the Moghals or British. Mewar joined with other Rajput kingdoms in northern India to become the state of Rajasthan in the Democracy of India after 1947.

Guest room view at Shiv Niwas Palace hotel within the Udaipur palace complex

While the Government of India doesn’t provide funds to support the old maharajas’ lifestyles—and their properties—the nobles at least had the pleasure of retaining their titles and homes. The Udaipur City Palace has a maharaja with wife and children still living in their own guarded residence—a proximity that adds glamour to the visit.

But in the historic section of the palace that serves as a museum, I began revising my ideas about what it was like to be a maharani. The zenana section in which royal women were protected from view was hot and shadowy due to the windows being carved jali screens rather than open to views. I was overcome by a sensation of being closed in. Even the women’s outdoor courtyard was small and dull, compared to other outdoor spaces at the palace.

After that short tour, the life of an Indian maharani seemed like imprisonment.

The book I found at Ames Library

But there’s nothing like hearing the story from a maharani herself.

Recently, I was at the Ames Library of South Asia in Minneapolis. I came across an old book titled Autobiography of an Indian Princess. I knew I had to read it—and thank goodness I was able to find a reprinted edition online to add to my own library.

Autobiography of An Indian Princess was penned in 1921 by Sunity Devee, the 57-year-old Dowager Maharani of Cooch Behar, a small northeastern kingdom near Bengal that remained independent of British rule. Actually, the title’s a bit of a misnomer. Sunity was a maharani, which means queen. The English government insisted on calling Indian maharajas and maharanis “princes” and “princesses” so as not to overshadow the Empress of India: Queen Victoria.

Maharani Sunity Devee photographed in London

Sunity was a commoner born of “good family” in Calcutta. Her father, Keshub Chunder Sen, was a famous minister and social reformer who converted from Hinduism to the Brahmo Samaj, a faith founded by Bengali Hindus who wanted to worship one deity (Brahma) rather than multiple Hindu gods and goddesses. The British in India thought highly of Mr. Sen and worked hard to persuade him to allow a match between 13-year-old Sunity and 16-year-old Nripendra, the crown prince of Cooch Behar. Sunity’s father had worked hard to ensure passage of a law setting the minimum age of marriage for Hindu girls living in British India at 14. The bride’s tender age resulted in considerable verbal backlash against Keshub Chunder Sen, although the actual marital cohabitation did not begin until she was sixteen and her husband nineteen and returned from his schooling in England.

Sunity’s sons photographed in London during their school days: the two eldest boys became maharajas

Sunity and Nripendra’s arranged marriage turned out to be a very happy one. The royal couple shared interests such as traveling, fashion and jewelry, literature and art, and high society. They had four sons and three daughters, insuring the security of the royal line—which pleased Cooch Behar’s population.  Sunity spoke just Bengali at the time of her marriage, but learned other Indian languages and English fluently. She was constantly in London and became arguably the most popular Indian woman in British society. Sunity was friends with Cornelia Sorabji, the Parsi woman lawyer who represented the interests of many Indian noblewomen in the early 1900s. Cornelia stayed with Sunity in the zenana at Cooch Behar so the two could discuss books. Sunity and Cornelia tried to establish a nursing school for Indian women, but it never came to be.

Sunity’s granddaughter Ayesha, on far right of one of her brothers, became a maharani and then was elected member of India’s parliament

Reading Sunity’s autobiography, I learned that in Cooch Behar, purdah and zenana were customs observed at home only. This meant Sunity traveled in a heavily curtained palanquin so the country’s people could not catch sight of her face, and she cooked and prayed and concentrated on childcare and lived in the palace zenana. She obeyed her husband’s directive not to ride or play tennis. When Sunity was away from Cooch Behar, though, she posed happily for photographs in French couture gowns.

And while Sunity adored her British royal friends in Britain, she chafed at the way the British in India treated Indians. In exchange for the right to rule over their own lands, maharajas were forced to pay annual taxes to Britain—taxes that could be raised if the British political agent took a dislike to the maharaja. The British government also had the power to investigate a kingdom’s accounts at any time, and to even choose a successor to the throne if the maharaja didn’t have a son.

The controls over royalty were as tight or even tighter than for everyday Indians. A maharaja had no right to travel outside of India without getting permission from his British political agent. This agent might tell him where his sons must go away to school, and they created their own boarding schools for Indian noblemen inside India where they received a biased education (Maharaja Nrirenda himself went to such a place before finishing up in England). The elaborate supervision seemed meant to create a line of obedient princely states.

Sunity’s boys were all educated abroad at the order of the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal—despite her wish to have them stay longer at home. As a result, the sons came home from Eton speaking French and Greek, but having forgotten their local language.

The Cooch Behar royal family was regarded throughout India as the most westernized royals—and in most eyes, this was not a compliment. They were envied, but not really able to live lives of their choosing. For instance, when Sunity’s eldest son, the crown prince Rajey, finished his Oxford education and wanted to work with his father’s ministers in the Cooch Behar government, the plan was refused. The British government said he had to join Lord Curzon’s Army Cadet Corps instead—a fancy honor guard. This diversion kept him from learning what he needed to know about Cooch Behar to be an effective ruler.

Rajey and his younger brother Jit grew up to serve as maharajas of Cooch Behar. The three daughters (Girlie, Pretty and Baby) were taught to ride, play tennis and dance, and all had sophisticated educations. The parents matched Girlie to a respectable, non-royal Calcutta boy of Brahmo faith and allowed Pretty and Baby to marry Englishmen and live in England. Ironically, the Cooch Behar princesses’ lifestyles in the 1920s were too advanced to make them suitable for marrying Indian maharajas at the turn of the century. And the England that both enthralled and frustrated Sunity was the place where she thought her daughters would do best.

I was fascinated with the idea of princesses when I was a child—and in my adulthood I’ve turned into a serious India royalty buff, thanks to the fascinating backstories of many of India’s princely states. In addition to The Autobiography of an Indian Princess by Sunity Devee, I am digging Lucy Moore’s Maharanis: The Extraordinary Tale of Four Indian Queens and Their Journey from Purdah to Parliament and Posing for Posterity: Royal Indian Portraits by Pramod Kumar. There’s a great series on the Indian NDTV channel called Royal Reservation which gives the viewer a quirky, inside tour of various palaces and has candid interviews with the royals who still live there. Watching one of the programs, I was intrigued to learn that a Muslim begum (equivalent of maharani) in Gujarat hopes to open the doors to her palace’s zenana as a hotel for women tourists.

Bollywood Adventures

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

It had been a challenging week. The shooting of two Indian professionals in a Kansas bar was followed by the knifing of an Indian-American outside his home and the news that a number of  South Asian business owners have had their shops torched. Whether or not the attackers misjudged these South Asians as “Arabic” or “Muslim” doesn’t matter. It only means that the danger to immigrants has become very personal for me.

I felt the need for a temporary retreat from bad news, so I went looking for a Bollywood movie.

Fortunately, it’s easy to find Indian movies in my state. These days, if you want to catch a film in Hindi, Tamil, Kannada or Bengali, it’s likely that a megaplex in the AMC or Regal chain  is screening it—often late at night, or just a few times a week. A great way to hunt for Indian movies is through Pragathi.com.

You may have heard that Indian movies take some time to watch. They are typically three hours long with a 20-minute intermission (observed in India, but skipped in the US and Canada). On a Tuesday afternoon in Arundel Mills, Maryland, I paid a whopping $5.64 to be the sole viewer for the afternoon matinee of Rangoon.

Rangoon hit India’s screens in late February and made it here within the same week. The title is rather misleading, because nothing happens in the former capital city of Burma, now Myanmar. Yes, there are plenty of nature scenes in the jungle along the Irrawaddy River between Burma and India. I suspect the vague name was give to draw male viewership, because the film’s central focus is a fictional 1940s film star called “Miss Julia” played by Kangana Ranaut.

A promotional poster for Rangoon that references late colonial Indian cinema

Julia is a beautiful Anglo-Indian actress best known for the line “Bloody Hell!” though her songs and dialogue are all in Hindi. As the top stuntwoman actress in Bollywood, she’s in love with Rusi Billimoria, a former film star who lost his right hand performing a film stunt. Rusi and his father are wealthy Parsis (Indian Zoroastrians) who own the cinema company; Rusi directs while his father sits in Bombay and tells him what to do. Their studio is pro-British, so when an army general tells Rusi he’d like Miss Julia to come to the Burma front to perform for the soldiers, Rusi’s father says she must go. Julia is horrified by the idea of going into the jungle, but she’s packed on a train with a handsome bodyguard from the army who attempts to prevent her escape.

True to the romantic-adventure genre, there are plenty of song and dance scenes, made even better because of the historical references in some numbers to Hitler and Churchill. The visions of late colonial homes and film studios are gorgeous, not to mention the river and jungle. Kangana Ranaut in the star role is beautiful and haughty, and a kick-ass pilot, motorcyclist, horseback rider, dart thrower, and dancer. A dance scene on top of a train is film convention—however, Miss Julia’s fights atop a vintage Northwest Frontier Train reprised and beat actor Shah Rukh Khan’s famous “Chaiyya Chaiyya” dance scene from the late 1990s. Her songs, sung by Bollywood legend Farah Khan, are great.

Kangana gets on top of the train and really rocks it!

And now for a brief intermission into some facts:

Miss Julia, the actress character, has historic origins. Soon after silent pictures began, a subgenre developed wherein actresses played physically daring roles, often fighting men with their fists, knives, swords, and guns. In Bollywood, these actresses were typically Anglo-Indian, Jewish or American rather than 100% Indian. Film producers feared offending India’s religious communities by subjecting Hindu, Muslim or Parsi women to the male gaze. These outsider actresses typically had Hindu names and played Indians. And at a time when the British were in control—and Indian men couldn’t act out—sword-wielding women were a very subtle way of expressing nationalism. You can read more about the history of Indian women actresses in Wanted: Cultured Ladies Only! by Neepa Majumdar.

From Majumdar’s excellent book, I learned that one of the first action stars of Indian cinema was Sulochana, originally named Ruby Myers, who began in silent films and transitioned to talkies. Sulochana who was considered both a beauty and a flapper, acted in five to six films a year during her heyday. Many of her roles involved the idea of giving up a debauched Western existence for a more simple and honorable Indian identity.

Sulochana’s best-known film was Cinema Queen (1925) which is about the travails of a movie actress—just like Rangoon.

Some articles in the Indian press compare “Miss Julia” character in Rangoon with the famous 1930s stunt actress known as Fearless Nadia. The woman who was born in Australia and had Scottish-Australian-Greek ethnicity came to India when her father was a soldier in the Indian Army. After his death, she was first a circus performer and later an actress in over 50 movies produced by Wadia Tone pictures run by two Parsi brothers. Her most famous film, Hunterwali, tells the story of a princess who dons a mask and cracks a whip when she goes forward to avenge injustice.

Descendants of the Wadia brothers are concerned the film may have breeched the trademarks they hold on the character of Fearless Nadia. But in addition to Sulochana, there were other Indian women stars in the genre with names like Miss Zebunissa and Miss Padma. And Fearless Nadia was a blonde who never disguised her European origins. In Rangoon, Miss Julia bluntly explains to a snobbish maharani that she was born to an unmarried Indian mother.

Okay, the intermission on Indian film history is over and we are back to Rangoon—the modern remake of a 1940’s woman-centric action picture.

Every good Indian film must have a villain, and the British general takes on that role with such awful lines as “Because I’m white I’m right.” There’s also a love triangle; Julia goes missing and is rescued by handsome Sergeant Nawab Malik, her mysterious bodyguard. Nobody will be surprised by the love triangle that develops between these two and Rusi; but the grand finale, where the battle for loyalty and India’s future plays out on a rope bridge, is simply breathtaking. For a look at some videos of dance scenes, check out this Times of India review.

Kangana Rangaut, Shahid Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan are the film’s leads

The story’s underlying theme is the battle between the Indian Army (British-government controlled) and the Indian National Army (INA) sponsored by the Japanese. These forces really did fight along the Burma-India border during the late years of the war. In this film, there’s a secret mission to deliver a jewel-encrusted Indian prince’s sword to ensure this army of rebels would have funds they needed to support an invasion without needing the Japanese.  I wrote about the INA in my books The Sleeping Dictionary and India Gray, so it was exciting to see a partially accurate depiction of the forgotten army.

I walked into Rangoon feeling like a person at risk, but left singing Jana Gana Mana, the Tagore poem  that later became the anthem of independent India. Miss Julia and her comrades had stood up to those who wanted to keep them in their place. Onward I’ll go.

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.

The New Historians

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

normal_Dadar-old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

India’s History in Bits and Pieces

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

India Gray by Sujata MasseyConfession: It’s very hard for me to tell a story in less than 100,000 words.

A novel provides all the space I need to figure out what’s going to happen. This might happen well after the first half and change focus several times before the final chapter is written  Still, something about short stories and novellas tempts me. I admire the skill of writers who can paint rich characters and provide a full, rewarding story in less than twenty pages. I feel like I’m getting away with something when I consume a good piece of literary or mystery short fiction within one sitting.

Over the last eighteen years, I’ve had a handful of short stories and one novella released as e-books and within multi-author anthologies. In the year 2015, I set a goal to create my own trade paperback made up of short fiction works. I spent a few weeks culling through older work, deciding what to include and what to put away for another time (yes, I have a proverbial “drawer” in my laptop computer). Then I spent three months crafting an original novella and almost four weeks on a short story to anchor the book. It was becoming clear to me that no matter how much I wanted to write shorter fiction, I still took longer than most writers to accomplish my first drafts. After final edits, 67,000 words totaled about 300 pages of reading material. Enough for a real book!

The next task was coming up with its title: India Gray: Historical Fiction. I hope this hints at what’s inside: two stories and two novellas spanning the years 1919 to 2001 and featuring mostly South Asian characters.

Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain in "Testament of Youth"

Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain in “Testament of Youth”

The book begins with a traditional mystery novella, Outnumbered in Oxford, set in 1919 England. I became interested in the lives of Oxford’s early women students after seeing the recent film of the writer/peace activist Vera Brittain’s autobiography, Testament of Youth. I discovered Vera Brittain’s diary in the archives of our city library and began absorbing more Edwardian period history, including that of Indians who emigrated to study at Oxford and Cambridge during the late Victorian and Edwardian time periods. My Bombay-born heroine, Perveen Mistry, and her British classmate, Alice Hobson-Jones, are both odd, independent young women who come together as unlikely best friends at St. Hilda’s College. When they’re tasked with hunting down a missing Indian man, the ladies calculate various disturbing scenarios and lay out a daring series of tests to uncover the villain. What fun it was for me to pull together all the threads in just 86 pages!

Map of WWII Activity in India and BurmaFor the collection’s title story, India Gray, I returned to characters from my 2013 novel,  The Sleeping Dictionary. Kamala, a young Indian woman married to an Englishman, travels with him to the northeastern province of Assam during the latter part of World War II. Assam borders Burma and was penetrated by the Japanese during the War, creating a situation ripe with danger and intrigue.

The Ayah’s Tale is a novella exploring mother-child-nanny issues, which were considerable in late colonial India. Menakshi is a bright young teenager forced to leave her school in 1920s Bengal to provide round-the-clock care for three children of a wealthy, unhappy British couple. Her coming-of-age story is an expansion of a section that almost went into another novel, but had to be cut because it pulled the reader away from the central emotional struggle. This is a very common writer’s dilemma; too many ideas and themes to fit in one book. One could throw such a piece of lost writing into the cyber-trash—but I felt too committed to the characters not to alter them slightly, expand the plot, and create a novella.

Young woman in burqa (AP Photo)

Young woman in burqa (AP Photo)

Bitter Tea, the closing short story, is set in the Northwest Frontier Territories of Pakistan that was overtaken by the Taliban after 2001. While the time period is considerably more recent than the other stories, the lifestyle of the isolated villagers is much more antiquated and restricted. What happens when teenage girls are banned from school, confined to their homes and are smoldering with anger? I’m not sure if Bitter Tea should be described as black humor, a feminist fable, or a mini-thriller; I’m very curious what readers will say. Here is a link to read  India Gray‘s first fifty pages.

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.

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.