Archive for India

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.

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.