Archive for India

Badri Narayan, the Story Artist

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

Untitled, 2008, Badri Narayan, at Gallery 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

India Underfoot

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Dogs and Other Furry Friends in India

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

what is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kitab Tour in India

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

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

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

Signing at Crossword Books in Ahmedabad

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

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

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

Blogging Meetup in Gurgaon

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

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

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

That’s RJ Sarthak Kaushik of Radio Ishq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nuts to Christmas

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Mixed families often double their holidays. Which means the culinary options are rather excellent.

Take Christmas.

I grew up the daughter of a German mother who still makes hundreds of beautiful cookies each year. I have learned to bake some of these cookies, but I can’t hold a candle to Mom. My father is from India, where most people don’t celebrate Christmas, and the majority of homes don’t have ovens. A typical Christmas dinner dish for us, growing up, was chicken biryani.

But I believe there is one Indian delicacy with the power to satisfy like a cookie can. This treat is crunchy, sweet, salty and as spicy as you’d like. I call it Masala Nuts.

In India, you’ll find a man on a street in any village or town or city roasting nuts in a big steel pot set over a wood fire. The roasted nuts are tossed with spices and a bit of sugar. Everything’s poured into a small paper holder and handed off to the salivating customer.

In the West, you can visit a South Asian store and buy a factory made “hot mix” coated with heavy spices, oils and preservatives. They’re not terrible—but they’re nothing like the real masala nuts.

At Christmas, I’ve begun to make my own spiced nuts. Savory nuts are welcomed by people who don’t want as much sugar as a cookie or cake contains. Pistachios, almonds, walnuts and their near cousins are recommended anti-inflammatory foods high in good fats. They are great at cocktail parties and also used anywhere else you’d put very special nuts: a salad, oatmeal, and rice pilaf.

There are probably as many recipes for spiced nuts as there once were princely kingdoms in India. The diversity of nuts must be credited to Moghul invaders of the 15th century, who brought their plants and culinary traditions. Nuts such as almonds, pistachios and cashews began decorating rice dishes and were incorporated into curries and sweets and even beverages. Who knows if the royal couple in this small painting I bought in Rajasthan are sharing a goblet of wine? It could also be a creamy punch with ground almonds or pistachios.

The ultimate joy of making masala nuts is they don’t take a lot of time during a busy holiday season. I can whip up seven gift-sized portions of spiced nuts in about 45 minutes if I use a microwave.

Yes, a microwave.  The genesis of my spiced nuts comes from Julie Sahni’s 1990 cookbook, Moghul Microwave. The book has 5 different recipes for candied or roasted spiced nuts. In the 25 years I’ve had the book, I’ve found one recipe that is my favorite, and I’ve tweaked it a little bit. For instance, I’m not a fan of kala namak (black salt), so I skip it in my version. This year, I threw some chia seeds into the dry spice rub. Chia seeds have no flavor, but they  have a slight crunch that reminds me of kalonji seeds—Indian black onion seeds. And I like adding more Omega 3 fatty acids to make up for the fact there is a bit of sugar coating the nuts.

Happy holidays!

Spiced Mixed Nuts (inspired by Julie Sahni)

2 cups (10 ounces) shelled raw whole unsalted mixed nuts such as pistachios, unblanched almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, pecans, pine nuts (I use 3 to 4 varieties per recipe)
1 tablespoon ground cumin (I roast the seeds before grinding, but that’s optional)
½ teaspoon ground fennel seeds
1-2 teaspoons of cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon amchur (*dry mango powder sold in Indian stores. See headnote for an easy lemon juice substitution)
¼ teaspoon chia seeds (optional)
½ cup of sugar
1-2 teaspoons kosher salt, depending on taste
1/3 cup water

*If you can’t find amchur, substitute 2 teaspoons of fresh lemon juice. Combine the lemon juice with the water, rather than the dry spice rub.

  1. Arrange nuts so they lie flat on a microwave-safe pie plate. Roast uncovered for 3 minutes 30 seconds, or until the nuts are lightly browned and puffed. You can stir them once during the process. Take out of the microwave and let them stand.
  2. Mix all the spices in a small bowl and reserve this dry spice rub for later use.
  3. Mix the water, sugar and optional lemon juice on a glass or ceramic pie plate or casserole dish. Cook uncovered for 2 minutes 40 seconds, stopping the microwave to stir twice. You will end up with a thick syrup.
  4. Add in the nuts and continue cooking uncovered for 45 seconds to one minute, or until most of the syrup is absorbed into nuts.
  5. Transfer nuts to a sieve held over a sink and drain off the excess syrup. Spread nuts onto a cookie sheet. Sprinkle spice rub a little at a time over the nuts and mix, turning and tossing, until nuts have an even coating of the masala.
  6. Keep stored in an airtight tin for up to six weeks, in fridge for six months, and for a year in the freezer.

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.

Indian Chutney for an American Summer

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

In the height of summer, a heap of imperfectly gorgeous tomatoes rest on my kitchen island. They beseech me to touch them and make something great. The obvious thing would be to make a lush sauce—but it’s 90 degrees outside, and I’m not in the mood for cozy Italian pasta.

No. These tomatoes are calling out their wish to become a chutney.

“Chatni” is a classic accompaniment to a South Asian meal containing rice, meat and vegetable dishes, and breads. In a typical chatni, fruits and vegetables such as tomato or mango are slow-cooked with spices and ginger, various forms of chilies and the solid brown sugar called jaggery. Jaggery comes from palm sap or sugar cane and is sold in Asian grocery stores. Sometimes garlic and onion are part of the mix. Before the British, mustard and other oils were used to help keep the chutneys from spoiling. The ingredient of vinegar in chutneys comes from Britain, but is now part of some Indian chutney recipes.

Yogurt-based sauces also are known as chutneys; most famously the coriander-mint chutney served at almost every Indian restaurant, and the creamy, sweet and spicy coconut chutney essential to South Indian dosa.

When the British tasted chatni, they loved it. They anglicized the spelling to “chutney” and found ways, after they went back to Britain, to make new chutneys with fruits like apples, plums and rhubarb and the preservative vinegar. A few months ago, I had a great experience making rhubarb chutney. They also created “Major Grey’s Mango Chutney,” a style of sweet and sticky chutney containing raisins, vinegar and a bit of tamarind that is an ingredient in many an American chicken salad. In my family, it is the standard slather over a cheddar cheese sandwich—or grilled cheese.

Sweet mango chutney is the starter chutney for children who are cautious about foreign tastes. Growing up, I had a big spoonful of sweet mango chutney with almost every home cooked Indian meal. I can’t imagine eating biryani without some mango chutney mixed in. These days, Indian food companies such as Patak’s make these Anglo-style mango chutneys with chilies included, if you like.

Back to the homemade tomato chutney. My recipe is inspired by a traditional one found in The Calcutta-Cookbook, A Treasury of Recipes from Pavement to Palace by Minakshie “Kewpie” Das Gupta, Bunny Gupta and Jaya Chaliha. Kewpie was a legendary Bengali home cook and cookbook writer. After Kewpie’s passing, her family opened a jewelbox of a café in her honor within their historic home at 2 Elgin Road. Kewpie’s is a must for lunch, if you are visiting South Kolkata. And the cookbook details how to make “Colonel’s Sweet and Hot Mango Chutney,” which is surely more delicious than the commercial version.

Kewpie’s placemats have charming vintage-inspired drawings of Calcutta life

During my frequent lunches at Kewpie’s in the late 1990s, I enjoyed food served on banana leaves and old-fashioned terra cotta plates. There would always be several extraordinary fresh chutneys served. Not to mention spicy pickles—but vegetable pickle is a story for another column!

My tomato chutney, which does not include raisins or too much chili firepower, is great on sandwiches, burgers, alongside grilled meat and fish. You can mix in 1/3 cup of it with eggplant that’s been roasted and mashed. You wind up with something very much like the famous dish Baigan Bharta, but with 75% less work.

Chutney’s jammy consistency, when it’s ready

The farmer’s market sells larger bunches of herbs than can be eaten in a week—so again, the answer is chutney. I make my cilantro-mint chutney with Greek yogurt for extra protein. It’s a natural with crispy treats like samosas, pakoras or with grilled fish. This green chutney is a great marinade for chicken pieces to be baked or grilled.

Here are my tomato, cilantro-mint and rhubarb chutney recipes. Please note that these chutneys are designed to be refrigerated in glass jars or bowls with lids. They are not shelf-stable.

I’m winding up my culinary adventures to return to my real work: writing a novel. It strikes me, though, that concocting a chutney is a bit like writing a mystery. There are so many interchangeable small parts: fruits and vegetables, spices, and preserving vinegars or oils. When I write, I pull together many pieces: characters, plots and sub-plots, settings, conflicts, motivations. I contemplate when I’ve got too much of one thing or am missing an important element. My book’s components are adjusted as it grows toward a finished state.

But while it takes a year for me to write a book, a chutney rarely simmers more than thirty minutes.  This makes it a small but gratifying accomplishment.

The Power of Silk

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Roopa Pemmaraju and Lily Hargrave's design

Roopa Pemmaraju and Lily Hargraves’ design

A week ago, I walked down to the consignment shop near my house and picked up a fashion mystery.

The mystery came in the form of a long dress of purple-blue printed silk crepe lined in cotton. The stitching was minute and clearly done by hand. Examining the dress, I flashed back to my first long dress and blouse custom-stitched for me at a tailor’s in Hyderabad when I was ten years old.

But the pattern was unusual. The silk was printed with thick black brushstrokes that burst like a tree over my legs. The design was not pretty; it was strong and vibrated in a way that reminded me of something strangely familiar, but that I couldn’t identify. The label read Lily Hargraves for Roopa Pemmaraju.

I’d never heard the names, but the funky silk dress fit perfectly and was an unbelievable $68. I snapped it up and was soon on the Internet searching its provenance.

Within ten minutes I had some solid information that told me I’d made a very special buy. Roopa is an Indian-born designer who’d had her own fashion label, Haldi. She left India to move to Melbourne, Australia, with her husband for his IT job. Roopa became inspired with the idea of bringing Australian aboriginal art into fashion that would be a far cry from the cheap cotton T-shirts sold to tourists. However, her interest wasn’t welcomed by gallery owners and artists. I mentioned T-shirts? Many indigenous artists have been exploited by Australians and others who copied their designs without paying them.

Roopa Pemmaraju

But Roopa had a vision of a business model that was different. I’m going to call it the Indian artisan model. Throughout India, there’s been a longstanding tradition of custom clothing making—and certain villages are known for a certain kind of block printing, or silk weaving, or cotton embroidery.

A Gujarati textile with folk motif has great energy

These niche technique are prized, and the regional artisans are celebrated by contemporary designers who ask them to do finishing touches such as embroidery around a neckline or hem. Mahatma Gandhi, who advocated wearing handspun clothing as a way of resisting the British in the early 20th century, would be smiling today if he could see the “desi chic,” “ethnic-cool and “modern handloom” fashions that are the rage.

The Fab India chain that sells clothes for all ages and sizes stitched from silks and cottons hand-loomed by people in rural communities. Also well-known are Anokhi and Cottons Jaipur, retail chains that specialize in fashion made from cotton woven, dyed and block-printed in Rajasthan. A high-end designer, Ritu Kumar, has spent the last quarter century collaborating with Kala Raksha, an organization in India supporting hereditary artists, and several other regional textile weavers and embroiderers. Last year in India, I was pleased to buy a Ritu Kumar kurti (woman’s tunic) with a meticulously hand embroidered placket typical of the Kutch region of Gujarat. But the coloration is subtle and works well with the modern printed silk fabric.

Fine hand embroidery on a Ritu Kumar kurti

Back to the Australian-Indian collaboration: How could an Indian woman new to Australia convince aboriginal artists to work with her?

Here’s what Roopa did.  She pledged to give credit where it was due. She offered put the artist’s name on each of her garments. Remember the mystery of two women’s names on my dress label? Here is Lily Hargraves, a “desert walker” in her nineties who’s one of Australia’s top aboriginal artists. Her paintings are exhibited around the world and sell for thousands of dollars.

Lily Hargraves

Lily’s full name is Lily Nungarrayi Yirringali Jurrah Hargraves, although she’s most often known in art circles by the short Anglo name. She was born in the Northwest Territory in 1930 and having had a number of very hard jobs throughout her life, began painting in the tradition of her ancestors about thirty years ago. Lily is recognized as a senior Law Woman, which means she is an officiant of Waipiri indigenous culture—and her story is fascinating. And here are some of her paintings from the online museums and galleries in Australia. Looking at her work made me realize that’s a tree on the front of my dress.

Looking through Roopa’s designs since the 2012 collection that included my “Lily Blue Dress,” I’ve noticed that indigenous artist names are continuing to decorate the dress labels. Additionally, the design label is donating 20% of her profits to aboriginal groups. And the India connection also helps artists, because the silk is printed and embroidered in India at Roopa’s artisan workshop in Bangalore. The subtleties of clothing construction are overseen in India by Roopa’s co-artist, the acclaimed designer Sudhir Swain. The most recent collection—Resort 2018—was just shown in Australia a week ago and shows a riot of glorious abstract floral motifs merging with gauzy, gilded Indian silk.

Roopa Pemmaraju 2018 collection

Roopa Pemmaraju 2018

Some might argue that fusing two cultures like this degrades the original. But fashion by its nature is an evolution.

Mahatma Gandhi told his followers a century ago what you choose to wear delivers power.  Just this spring in Europe and America, women have been attacked for wearing traditional Muslim clothing items like the hijab and abaya. Given this context, wearing the textiles of international designers and artisans feels like another way to show resistance.

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.

Feasting for Malice

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

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

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

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

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

Malice Domestic Board, a couple of spouses, and me

Malice Domestic Board, a couple of spouses, and me

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

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

Beautiful table

Beautiful table

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I cooked:

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

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

Chicken Varlutharacha, a toasted coconut-onion-spice masala

Chicken Varlutharacha, a toasted coconut-onion-spice masala

Green bean thorn

Green bean thorn

Kerala-style chicken with coconut milk

Kerala-style chicken with coconut milk

Tomato Pappu, masoor dal cooked with tomatoes and curry leaves

Tomato Pappu, masoor dal cooked with tomatoes and curry leaves

My own simple rice pilau with green peas

My own simple rice pilau with green peas

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

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

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