Archive for India

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.

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.

Booking India

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

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

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

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

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

Indian kids selling pirated books to car passengers

Indian kids selling pirated books to car passengers

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

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

College Street bookseller/photo by Rishi Bandopadhyay

College Street bookseller/photo by Rishi Bandopadhyay

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

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

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

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

Jagannath celebration in Puri

Jagannath celebration in Puri

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

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

Mobile users in India/photo by BBC

Mobile users in India/photo by BBC

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

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

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

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