Archive for The Sleeping Dictionary

Love, Indo-American Style

At the India-California wedding

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

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

Favorite wedding film, Bride and Prejudice

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

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

Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, Built in 1998

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

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

White Mughals by William Dalrymple

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

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

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

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

The Road to the Right Cover

I just ate three five chocolates to celebrate the fact that my book’s cover design is finally approved. This was more than a three month process. The talented artists at Simon&Schuster went through four designs before resulting in this one:

I like the bold red and gold, the cozy, interesting vintage bed, and the opened book on it. And I’ve got to say, cover designs that match the writer’s dream don’t usually come together. Here’s how it happened.

Years ago, when I started writing The Sleeping Dictionary, I thought there was a strong chance I would self-publish, so I got an account at Istock, a photo image shopping source. There I saved a “lightbox” of good images I might one day use. I gathered pictures of ornately carved doors, intricate textiles, graceful young women in saris, and also, a very romantic, canopied bed (all right, it was a Moroccan bed, but I would sleep in it any day!) Then my book was sold to the amazing Kathy Sagan at Simon&Schuster…and I thought I probably wouldn’t look in the India lightbox again.

Writers don’t direct their cover designs. Our skills are typically stronger for words than graphics and images. Therefore, we are offered “cover consultation.” The art department comes up with a design, and if you absolutely hate it, will prepare another one for you to consider. Fortunately, I’ve never heard the swearing that must be inevitable after someone sweats for weeks on a design that I’ve rejected.

Over the last ten books, I’ve had thirty-plus covers, if you count all the US hardcovers, the foreign editions and trade and mass market paperbacks. Generally, for the paperbacks and all foreign published editions, I know nothing about what the covers look like until a box of finished books thuds onto my porch. Still, my favorite Rei Shimura cover design of all time is the very first one. How I love the face and Mount Fuji-san…let’s forget that only elderly farmers in Japan would ever wear such a conical straw hat!

The early cover design ideas for The Sleeping Dictionary appeared in February. I’d post them if they were not lost in the Iclouds. But I remember them! Both cover ideas were sepia toned photographs. The first was a teenaged Indian girl wearing a North Indian dancer’s skirt and blouse. She was smiling and frolicking in a meadow. The other was an image of a naked Victorian lady seated with her voluptuous back and buns facing the viewer. Now, there is a short chapter in the book about naked photographs…but this cover was from a different era, featuring a European! There was nothing ugly about these cover designs–but they just didn’t connect with the material inside the book. Quietly praying to myself–they will change the cover!–I sent my editor a polite note with suggestions and a link to the sepia toned photos of Calcutta from the University of Pennsylvania’s magnificent collection and also the image of the Moroccan bed from Istock.com. Luckily she adored the bed, and a month later the art department came up with a cover featuring their own Indian bed.

I was so thrilled with the publisher’s willingness to put a nice-looking bed with a red coverlet on the cover that I didn’t have the heart to make any comments other than they maybe brighten up the red. But in my long-ago imaginary design for self-publishing, I’d thought there should be a book on the bed. It turned out I didn’t need to say this, because the assistant publisher was struck by the idea herself, and voila!

But we weren’t done yet.My agent suggested that the book was awkwardly large–and the green didn’t play well with the red and gold. At a publishing meeting in New York, I mentioned that the book might look better if it was opened, like someone had been interrupted while reading. Again, the publisher listened–and a nice new book appeared on the bed!

The Sleeping Dictionary will be released August 20. But you can pre-order it now through Amazon or any bricks-and-mortar bookseller. If you do this, and you’d like something special from me now, I’ve started mailing out signed, personalized book plates to stick inside the books. Pre-orders REALLY help the book to succeed…and right now I still have the time to send out bookplates in a timely fashion! I will sign personal messages to you, your mother, your friend, your school library…whoever! Just email me the details of where you’ve ordered The Sleeping Dictionary, and where I should mail your bookplate.

Hey! If you would rather have the book’s title page signed in ink by me, simply email one of the early bookstores on my tour–like Once Upon a Crime, Centuries and Sleuths, Mystery Loves Company, and The Ivy. They’ll take pre-orders and get the details from you on what I should write on the page. And rest assured that your book will be mailed straightaway once I’ve had it in my hands.