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The Satapur Moonstone is Out and About

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I’m thrilled to share the news that The Satapur Moonstone is finally in bookstores. My newest mystery novel was released last week as a hardcover in the US from Soho Press and as a Penguin India paperback for the Indian Subcontinent.

The Satapur Moonstone

This is the second Perveen Mistry novel in the new series I am writing. In this adventure, Perveen takes a long, convoluted journey through mountainous jungle  to investigate the living conditions of a young maharaja… and uncover the truth about the suspicious deaths in his family.

I am journeying through the United States to talk about the book, and while the airplane rides and freeway drives seem quite long, when I remind myself of Perveen’s exhaustive travels in 1921 India, my life seems pretty easy.

Perveen, who is a young solicitor working in her father’s law practice in Bombay, starts her journey to the Western Ghats with a train ride to the hill station of Khandala. From there, she is surprised to find herself the lone passenger in the back of a horse-drawn postal cart, tumbled among musty sacks of the Imperial Mail. A few days later she’s gingerly riding on horseback, and after that, she’s forced to recline in a short-roofed palanquin, a wooden box set on wooden poles that is carried by men for more than twenty miles through the hilly terrain to the palace. Believe it or not, when I visited the hill station of Matheran to research The Satapur Moonstone, I saw palanquins lying by the edge of the path, waiting for 21st century customers.

Rich foreigners being carried on the shoulders of poor locals is one metaphor for colonial rule. Perveen is against colonial rule, but in this novel, she finds herself taking a job for the government. She is well aware the British who’ve given her this temporary position as a legal investigator want her to make a decision that’s beneficial for them. While almost half of the subcontinent was territory governed by maharajas and nawabs, these rulers were considered princes of the Empire required to be loyal to the ruling British monarch.

Just as Perveen stopped to rest in a dak bungalow, or traveler’s rest house, I have recharging points: bookstores. Many of the independent mystery bookstores I’ve visited have dogs in house, just as the dak bungalows did. While the dogs in colonial India guarded people who felt vulnerable away from the city, bookstore dogs have a different role: making customers fall in love with them and go crazy buying books.

Back to Perveen’s trip! Our intrepid heroine arrives after a day’s travel to the palace. She is sore from a palanquin accident and sopping wet from rain only to learn there’s more than just a prince to worry about. She discovers that two maharanis living there are locked in a private war over the with each other, and the maharaja’s smart younger sister is being completely overlooked. What about their lives? Can her legal investigation change things for them and the future of Satapur?

When I write books like this, I strongly desire to write socially-just endings—yet I am mindful that my solution must be a realistic outcome for conventions of the time. A solicitor bound by rules of British common law, Parsi law, and other religious codes, knows this well. Perveen also isn’t the type to shove her decision on any client.

Perveen soon understands why the royals are stressed (a word I can’t use in the book, because it wasn’t invented yet). In the British Empire, Indian royalty were rarely allowed to choose where their sons were educated and what jobs they took after their studies; the British liked to handle that, in order to make sure the royals didn’t become too smart or independent. The British resident attached to a princely state also helped select brides for the princes, and they held the power to grant or deny a prince the freedom to leave India.

I spent about a year-and-a-half writing this book, so it cracks me up to learn some people have already read the whole book in less than a day. I am always curious to hear what readers liked and didn’t like about this book, and where they would like to see Perveen go next. When I spotted some women going into a bar in Houston carrying my book, I descended on them to find out.

Shared journeys are the best. And although my book tour of the US is undertaken alone, any feelings of loneliness disappear when I enter a different bookstore every evening, readying myself for unexpected questions and conversation.

The Right Kind of Malice

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

When I began writing fiction, I didn’t know conventions for writers even existed. (I think the Murder is Everywhere gang might excommunicate me for the confession). Before I was published, I joined   the wonderful international program Sisters in Crime. Experienced women writers in that group told me that I would learn a lot to help myself at mystery conventions. For example, I could hear famous mystery novelists talk about how they wrestled with plots; make friends of readers who knew everything and everyone, and maybe even catch up with a literary agent.

Signature collector Risa hits up novelist Vivien Chien

The first mystery convention I visited was Malice Domestic, a fabulous convention that advertises it is “not everyone’s cup of tea.” Malice does not usually have pleasant connotations, but if you meet a Malice reader, chances are she will hug you before the conversation is over.

Photographer Iden Ford, Welsh author Cathy Ace, and author Donna Andrews

Mystery authors drawn here are primarily (but not exclusively women and the style of mystery storytelling is “traditional” (no gratuitous sex or violence). Yes, the favored mysteries are chock full of suspense and bad things happen—usually a murder that must be solved—but the reader will not feel like vomiting at language and painful images in a Malice book. Also, the mysteries of choice tend to be series books, rather than stand-alones.

My friend Patsy Asher in the hospitality lounge. Writers have filled a table with promo items!

And Malice Domestic is itself a long-running series, if you talk about location. Unlike many conventions, this one does not move around: it has been in the Washington DC suburbs for all of its 31 years, save a couple of years in downtown Washington, when something mysterious happened in an elevator that made the convention shoot back to the suburbs. Currently it’s housed over a three-day weekend at a Marriott Hotel in North Bethesda.

Because of the recurring DC area location, many of the fans are from DC, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio. It takes me about an hour to get to the con by car or train. What could be easier?

Kathy Harig with her assistant Dorothy from Mystery Loves Company Books in Oxford, MD, are the primary sellers of new mysteries.

However—writers come here from Canada, England, and all over the country—and they also tend to be repeat offenders. Male mystery folk are welcomed like brothers come home from college, but to my unscientific eye they make up less than ten percent. Bloggers are a new crowd that came in over the last fifteen years or so… these hardworking, usually unpaid book reviewers are great company.

Hanging with Blogger Dru Ann Love of Dru’s Musings

I began my association with this crew when I won a Malice Domestic Unpublished Writers Grant. In 1996, I submitted a partial manuscript of my first mystery novel into a contest that was overseen by longtime serious mystery readers on the Malice board including Bill F. Deeck, a marvelous mystery man who sadly passed away too young—and as a result, the award is now named in his honor. There are other awards, too: the Agathas, named in homage to the mother of the traditional series mystery, Agatha Christie. Malice attendees nominate their favorite novels, stories and true crime books that relate to writing mystery and the traditional mystery genre from the previous year. These are extremely coveted awards because they come in the shape of a teapot. Yes, an actual working teapot that is custom made to the convention’s specifications, with a lovely new design revealed each season.

Beth Schmelzer, retired children’s librarian, has been influential in bringing children’s mystery authors to Malice

I returned to Malice Domestic last weekend. Over the 23 years that have passed, I think I only missed six conventions because I’d moved to Minnesota. I always wind up having long, happy conversations with the friends I’ve met over the years—and I make new ones each time. In a way, Malice is like the high school you should have gone to, where everyone is welcoming, and everyone wants to read (as opposed to playing sports).

At my banquet table, you’ll see mystery writers Maya Corrigan and James Ziskin from left.

This year, I was on quite a high because The Widows of Malabar Hill was one of five nominees in the Best Historical Mystery category. This first novel in my Perveen Mistry series brought me very good luck at the Left Coast Crime convention and the Edgar Awards, so I figured my luck had run out. And just look at these fabulous fellow writers who were nominated.

My fellow best historical nominee LA Chandler, left, and writer Lea Wait on right

I nearly passed out when I heard that I won… I managed to float through the ballroom up to the stage but proceeded on the exit stairway rather than the entry stairway, so I had to go down again to get my beautiful teapot before making my acceptance speech.

The teapot is just right for tea with my agent Vicky Bijur

Several days later, I am still reeling from the shock of this recognition for Perveen Mistry. I am so happy that a book set in India, telling a tale of strong women facing adverse circumstances and ending on an upbeat note, made it into the hearts of so many readers.

I am about to launch the second Perveen Mistry, The Satapur Moonstone. I don’t expect lightning to strike twice, but the joyful celebration at the Malice convention will buoy me through whatever comes next.

A Pink Moment

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

My baby cherry tree!

These days, pink is everywhere. Millennial Pink is the official name of the soft hue that now colors chairs from Target, rose-gold phones from Apple, and yes, pink clothing for both genders. Why this soft shade now? Is it because treatment of people has become so hard? Pink is a color of childhood, whether you call it blush, petal, nude or cherry.

Cherry is a pink that simply gives me joy. The Baltimore-Washington area has a long, mild spring, and the crowning glory of our area from March through April are the cherry trees, which bloom in waves, depending on their age and variety. I grew up in snowy Minnesota reading Japanese fairytales with cherry blossom themes and books about dolls from Japan such as Rumer Godden’s 1961 delight, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. Did that set me on a lifetime love of sakura trees?

One of the old-friend cherries nearing end of bloom

My street in North Baltimore has some very large, sprawling flowering cherry trees that might be older than the 40 years I’ve been told is the average cherry tree lifespan. But how old are they?

Sakura trees were brought into the United States by an American food explorer working for the US Department of Agriculture called David Fairchild. Mr. Fairchild first shipped them from Japan to his garden in Chevy Chase, MD in 1902.

President Taft’s wife, Nellie, took to heart his idea of beautifying Washington with cherry trees. It was also a difficult time in the country, when there was popular agitation over immigration of Asians. This idea was a variation of an olive branch. Could Americans see something good about Japan?

Mr. Fairchild was tasked with brokering a deal for cherry trees in the nation’s capital with the Mayor of Tokyo, who then offered them free. The first cherry trees were shipped to Washington DC in 1909; however, their roots were found to be heavily infested with insects that could have wreaked havoc across many agricultural species in the United States. These trees were burned in 1910. The Japanese who heard about it were not angry—they were sorry to have sent a defective gift and insisted on sending more. In 1912, healthy trees were planted in Washington and celebrated ever since.

I have been to the Tidal Basin to admire this sweep of cherries and see the excitement of Washington DC’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival. I’ve also seen the blossoms celebrated this year in Vancouver, Canada. Cherry blossoms create a kind of worldwide party where we all stop and pay attention to nature. And in the 1990s when I lived near Yokohama, I’ve participated in Hanami parties, enjoying not just the trees but the special decorations throughout Japan and cherry-themed foods that go with the fleeting blooms.

Cherry blossom fans in downtown Vancouver

Entering their second century of life in the United States, the cherry blossom tree is no longer a fragile, exotic beauty. The City of Baltimore’s tree program donates all kinds of trees to neighborhoods where residents want them; not just cherry, but serviceberry, redbud, and others that are beautiful, yet support native insects. My street had suffered the death of several aged giant cherry trees, so an enterprising neighbor put together a plea for more cherries to go on any street in our neighborhood five years ago.

The green-leafed cherry in background is one of our grand dames

One early spring day, trained gardeners planted four seven-foot-tall trunks with bare limbs in front of my house. I bought water-bags and tucked them around the young trees, so they would have a slow release of water all the time during our hot summers. Now the trees are approaching 30 feet high and don’t need their waterbags, except in extremely prolonged heat waves. They flower several weeks after the street’s grand dame cherries, so we are fully blooming two weeks long.

I am grateful to our block’s seven new children, and four senior citizens, for showering me in pink every spring regardless of politics and fashion.

When Food is a Character

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

There’s a poignant food moment during Made in Heaven, the gorgeous Amazon drama set in New Delhi, that makes me hungry remembering it.

Tara, the show’s beautiful and troubled heroine, is alone at night when she buys a snack called golgappas from a street vendor. Golgappas are mini puris stuffed with cooked vegetables and bathed in spicy toppings: a sloppy, crunchy treat that pretty much everyone in India knows, although the dish’s name is different according to your region. Tara returns home from her street food adventure and tells her husband Adil that he’s got to try these particular golgappas. He refuses, saying that street food is will only cause disease. Because the dish is drenched in spiced water, I can understand the objection; although in this case, Adil’s a snob and is denigrating his wife along with street food. Golgappas, in his mind, are an evil force.

I wish I had the superpower to blithely eat street food in India. I still dream about about the gorgeous purple grape juice that was being hand-crushed on the street in Mumbai, that I longed to sip but did not dare. The trouble is that I have a sharp memory from my first trip to India in the 1970s, when my whole family became violently ill after sampling chai made in the railway station. I was the only one who escaped tummy trouble because I was asleep in my berth in our train compartment and missed the opportunity to get a cup.

I still get a taste of street food in a very pedestrian way. It turns out that a lot of Indian expats miss street food, so they tend to make it at home in the United States. This is where I first tried golgappas and a whole world of fantastic snack foods including pav bhaji and bhel puri.

As I continue writing historical fiction set in India, I write meals into my books, and my kitchen experiments grow. I like to match food to the region, of course, because in the 1920s, the only dishes crossing the various provinces were European ones. There was no such thing as a generic Indian restaurant serving Punjabi style dishes like tandoori chicken and saag paneer.

Fresh curry leaves are essential to pohe

In Western India, one of the simple, popular breakfast dishes is beaten rice (rice grains pounded flat) typically cooked with a few spices, green chilies, onion and peanuts—though there are variations. The beaten rice itself is called pohe or poha, and I was introduced to it by my mother, who prepared it in my house when she and my stepfather, who was born and raised in Mumbai, were visiting. When I went to Mumbai, I recognized it on every breakfast table, whether at home or in the hotel. Pohe is also a very mild dish, which made me want to do bad things with it in my novel. If setting can be a character, why can’t food? Could the pohe serve as a kind of weapon aimed to derail my heroine Perveen Mistry, who never resists something that smells tasty?

I first tried making this dish for friends from India a few years ago, and it was an epic fail due to my soaking the pohe too long before cooking, and then serving everyone an hour after the dish had finished cooking. The grains were all wet and sticky. For my sophomore effort, I resolved to eat the pohe as soon as it came out of the skillet.

Once I had my recipe in mind, I detoured to my nearby South Asian grocery (Punjabi) which had the basics I needed for this dish. The most important key, besides the pounded rice, are the fresh curry leaves, which are soft and can be eaten just as you might eat cilantro leaves. I studied a variety of recipes and noticed a trick for softening the pohe, which I will share with you. I implore you, do not attempt this dish without authentic pounded rice, sold in bags in Asian stores. You can pick up the recipe’s second key ingredient, fresh curry leaves, in the store’s refrigerator.

The rinsed beaten rice is massaged with turmeric and sugar

I used a large pan ate give everything a chance to cook evenly

Bravo! Pohe!

POHE (or POHA)

1 cup thick pohe, beaten or flattened uncooked rice
3 tablespoons raw unsalted peanuts
1 cup diced onion
¼ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
12 fresh curry leaves
1 jalapeno, seeded and chopped and divided into two portions
2 tablespoons high heat cooking oil, such as grapeseed
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Handful of chopped fresh cilantro

  1. Begin by chopping the onion, the jalapeno, and assembling all ingredients to be used in the dish.
  2. Place the dry pohe in a colander and let a stream of cold water run over it for about 3 minutes. Turn off the water and add the turmeric and sugar. Massage these into the wet pohe until it is tinted yellow. The pohe should be soft to the touch.
  3. Heat the oil over medium heat and fry the peanuts for a few minutes. Set aside. Into the same hot pan, add a little more oil as needed and toss in the mustard and cumin seeds. When the mustard seeds start popping, add the curry leaves and saute for no more than 5 seconds. Now add in the chopped onion and first portion of chopped jalapeno.
  4. When the onion is translucent, pour in the damp pohe and ½ teaspoon of salt. Stir briefly, lower heat and cover pan with lid. Let everything steam-cook on low for about 5 minutes; it’s OK to check that nothing is burning.
  5. Sample the pohe to make sure it’s soft enough to eat (but not too soft or sticky). Add the lemon juice and chopped cilantro and peanuts.
  6. When serving on individual plates, allow people to add extra jalapeno from the reserved portion to their own dish if they are hot food lovers.

I think I’ve figured out pohe, because it tasted like I remember in India. I ate two portions at “brenner” (breakfast for dinner) and went back for another taste while I was writing it. The proportion of this recipe feeds two people.

This is my taste of homey Maharashtra for you. When The Satapur Moonstone comes out in May, you’ll understand how a mild-mannered dish can be distorted for nefarious purposes.

A Writer’s Escape to the East Caribbean: St. Kitts

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Confession. Last week, I did a scant amount of writing, and a lot of hillside climbing, on the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Christopher, better known as St. Kitts.

I had flown here with all good intentions. Freed of daily chores, including dog walking and driving and cooking, I suspected my mind would expand. To stay in a colonial style cottage in the rain-forest, to gaze through a screen of trees at sparkling blue water, would only enhance my motivation. It all made sense!

The problem with going to a place like St. Kitts is that the scenery is so spectacular it’s difficult for a visitor to notice anything else. I became mindful without being tied to any formal practices. I simply could not focus on much, except for my immediate environment: the sparkling sea and endless parade of clouds. Although it wasn’t all sunshine; sometimes it rained gently, or the water poured down like an Indian monsoon.

I’d dragged my husband along with me to Bellemont Farm, a working organic farm/luxury resort. The farm is investor and government-owned, meant to bring jobs and profits to the island. The eco-resort has 44 guest cottages and villas, and about as many more that are partially built. The development was  designed by Bangkok-based architect Bill Bensley in St. Kitts’ historic cottage style and built stone by stone by carpenters and stonemasons from the island.

Without a doubt, the raw landscape is Bellemont’s greatest asset. There are almost 500 acres of undeveloped hilly land that once belonged to sugar barons, but was unsuitable for sugarcane. These hills are close to the island’s dormant volcano, Mount Liamuiga; and volcanic soil is said to bring a special sweetness to the vegetables and fruit grown in its terroir.

It is hard not to slip into French here, even if you don’t speak it, because the French and English were continuously vying to dominate the island since the 1600s.  The island was originally inhabited by Carib Indians who were the victims of a. horrific genocide by the French and British settlers working together. Without anyone to undertake the hard labor of sugar farming, the colonists ordered slaves brought from Africa. After the British government outlawed slavery, British sugar plantation owners used indentured laborers from Asia.

St. Kitts and neighboring island Nevis became an independent nation-state in 1983, and they still retain membership in the Commonwealth nations. St. Kitts’ last sugar plantation closed in 2005, quite late compared to other countries with sugar. The island has both a veterinary and medical school that attract North American students. There is a main tourist drag called Frigate Bay on the south end of the island close to the airport.

On a half day tour of the island, we saw plenty of simple houses in villages that we passed through on the main island road. This is not a prosperous island, and the government is encouraging people to invest in good building projects here, in exchange for a St. Kitts passport. I thought it was great that the original villages, some going back to the 1600s, have survived and are honored with signs one sees driving along the winding beach road.

For the smallest sovereign state in the Americas, sustainable luxury is a delicate issue. Bellemont’s shingled guest cottages are not a literal depiction of the homes that sugar workers lived in, but they do succeed in making someone like me feel pampered in a homier way than a chain hotel could. And the benefit to the community is clear. Many employees had worked in sugar before the mills closed and were proud to be creating a visionary project for St. Kitts. Our taxi tour guide, Zien, worked as a surveyor at Bellemont while it was being laid out. Zien explained that if there was a big tree on the property, it could not be cut down for the sake of a cottage. The cottage could be built near the tree or on another slope. Such ecological wisdom has kept this rainforest area  very attractive to animals and gives a feeling of age and longevity to the resort.

Another sign of island pride is that every cottage is named for a Caribbean writer. Cottage 204’s designated author was Slade Hopkinson, a poet from Guyana. The cottages and villas are scattered throughout the hilly terrain to give their temporary tenants breathtaking views and maximum privacy from human eyes.

Many of the cedar-shingled cottages have their own private plunge pools. For some reason, ours did not—but like all of the cottages, it had three gorgeous verandas wrapping around. Because the resort is in the mountains, we experienced no mosquitos and happily spent many hours on the verandas—though the cottages themselves have subtle mosquito screening backing the shuttered windows and doors, just in case a whining bug might show up, perhaps in a different month.

The cottage’s rear veranda is open to the sky to allow a maximum sea view. I found this place extremely magical at sunrise, but too bright during the day to spend much time there.

But no worries! When the sun rose, I hung out on a roofed veranda fitted with a long daybed that was perfect for writing. And the last veranda was on the cottage’s south side and was clearly for Tony and me only. This was a full-scale outdoor bathroom—with tub and sinks in the open, and toilet and shower that did have latching doors for privacy. We felt utterly private because that side of the cottage was shaded with many lush trees and bushes.

Well, we weren’t entirely alone. While in the outdoor bath, Tony was spied on by a curious monkey. Another time, he saw a baby monkey came off the banana tree to investigate the veranda, only to be loudly reprimanded by its mother.

Inside, our high-ceilinged cottage was a muted fantasy of tasteful blue and white cotton fabrics and traditional island wooden furniture. We shut off the cottage’s air conditioning and were thrilled by the refreshing cool air coming through the shuttered doors and windows. It was a shock to leave Bellemont’s lofty perch for the long drive to the city’s capital, Basseterre, and realize that the island could actually be humid and hot.

Some of the vast acreage is used as a sustainable organic farm, with hundreds of different fruits and vegetable. The Kitchen restaurant offered all-organic seasonal produce, meat and fish and meat cooked in a fusion of European, Caribbean and Asian styles. At breakfast, I had smoothies made from sour oranges, kale, cucumber and cantaloupe. Locally-caught mahi-mahi, lobster, tuna and snapper were on the menu, as well as free-range pork, beef, chicken, duck and rabbit.

One misty evening close to our departure, we rode a golf cart through the twisty up and down trails to the heart of Bellemont Farm’s vegetable garden. About twelve of us gathered with the hotel’s executive managers for a special farm dinner. It was an astounding array of pickled vegetables and fruits, grilled meats and fish, freshly baked breads and fruit pies.

Conversation and wine flowed, and three hours passed without us realizing it. As my husband and I traveled up the hill for the fifth and final night of my stay, I thought about how far we had come from our everyday urban world… and how wonderful it was that respite could be social, as well as solitary.

Picturing History with Homai Vyarawalla

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

These days, photography seems to have become an expected skill for writers. Confession: I like to take pictures, but I don’t understand how to artfully compose them or wait until the right moment to get a great shot. I wish I’d learned more during my years as a newspaper features reporter, because so many photographers were working just over my shoulder.

When I think back on that era—the late 1980s—I remember that out of the newspaper’s whole photography department, just two photographers were women. This was a significantly greater gender gap than among the newspapers reporters, although there were many more males than females in the newsroom.

The composition of my newspaper’s staff made me all the more surprised and impressed to learn about India’s first woman photojournalist, Homai Vyarawalla.  I first heard this name in a conversation with a smart and famous Bollywood actress. She said to me, “You probably already know about India’s first woman photojournalist, who was working in British India during the time of your books…”

I didn’t know anything about her. But I was intrigued.

Homai was born in 1913 into a priestly Parsi family who moved from Gujarat to Bombay for a better life; her father worked in the fledgling film industry that later became known as Bollywood. Some accounts say that Homai married at age 13; other accounts say that at 13, she met the man whom she later married. The gentleman in question, Manekshaw Vyarawalla, was both an accountant and a photographer. After high school, Homai went to Bombay’s famous training school for artist and artisans, the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School for the Arts. Homai was interested in painting, but because the new field of photography was booming and had paying jobs, she went for the latter.  Her first jobs were snapping pictures of women and often went into the Bombay Chronicle. She earned one rupee per published picture.

Because Homai was a woman, she wasn’t considered a trained and reputable photographer, and she therefore had to use her husband’s name on her work. Later on, when she was accepted as a working photographer, she created a catchy professional name: Dada 13. This was a combination of her car license number, her birth year, and the age she was when she met Manekshaw.

During Homai’s years in Bombay, her pictures had a wide range of subjects, but during World War II, she and her husband shifted to New Delhi, and she was hired by India’s ministry of information to take official photographs as part of an imperial propaganda force: the British Information Service. (In my novel The Sleeping Dictionary, this was the kind of work Mr. Lewes undertook during the war). While Homai was shooting pictures for the government, Manekshaw Vyarwalla managed the studio and dark rooms where the film was processed.

Homai now had front row access to shoot both staged and candid photos of famous politicians and visitors to India. Among her typical subjects were Mahatma Gandhi, Lord Mountbatton, the Dalai Lama, Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, whom she considered her favorite subject of all time because he was both photogenic and fun to be with. Homai’s photographs were always shot in monochrome and processed by her; they are mostly part of the Alkazi Collection of Photography in New Delhi. Some of her most famous photographs are gathered in this story by Catch News. After the British were gone and there was no longer a need for British propaganda, she worked for the Illustrated Weekly of India, which ran from 1880-1983 and was kind of like TimeNewsweek and People rolled together.

Within the press corps, Homai Vyarawalla was a standout, with her practical but elegant short hairstyle and trademark sari or salwar kameez. Although many Parsi women felt free to wear dresses instead of saris, she chose the sari as her daily dress probably as a means of securing a bit of respectful distance  at the chaotic, male dominated events. Yet she was no shrinking violet. Homai carried her own cameras, rode long journeys to get the pictures she needed, and did not ask for special favors. She talks about her special vintage cameras and the adventures they brought to her  in this documentary film by producer CS Lakshmi.

In 1970, one year after her husband’s death, Homai abruptly quit working as a photographer. She was at the peak of her career, but she said she was sick of the rude behavior of the photography corps. She retired to live with her only child, now an adult, and after his death, stayed alone in a walk-up apartment without a telephone in a small town. Far removed from the life she’d once lived close to the top of Indian politics and power, she passed her days quietly and thriftily, sewing her own clothes and doing other homemaking. Yet journalists persisted in visiting to ask about her trailblazing career, before she passed away in 2012 at age 98. Fortunately, she was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honor, in 2011, when she was still alive to receive it.

Being first at something, and even being very good at it, does not guarantee a long or well-paid or publicly honored career. Such was the situation for  Cornelia Sorabji and Mithan Tata Lam, India’s first two women lawyers. But the joy for the ones who come afterward is exploring the records they left for us. These great ladies may not have felt like legends during their lifetime, but the work they left ensured it.

Island Dreaming

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Winter has a way of making me want to fly the heck away from Baltimore’s cold wind, leafless trees, and intermittent ice and snow storms. Sometimes, it actually happens. In the middle of winter of 2018, I spent time to Arizona and India while on book tour. The winter before, it was Hawaii for Left Coast Crime. This year, I’m unfortunately grounded until a late March trip (details later!). Until then, I’ve vicariously escaped by gawking at books about island life. I’ve also read so many Caribbean stories I now understand a lot of patois.

Poring through some photos I took last year, I stopped at the sight of this coral house. This old house covered in pretty fish scale shingles lurks almost unseen on a busy street in St. Petersburg, Florida. I passed it daily as I walked from my small hotel to the Vinoy, the grand hotel where the last Bouchercon World Mystery Convention was held.

As I traveled past Victorian houses in St. Pete, they never escaped me, no matter how hard their owners might have tried to plant trees and bushes for privacy. I actually admired the house for being clever enough to have palm and magnolia sentries shielding it from traffic and ugly new buildings and, yes, tourists such as myself.

I suspect this cottage was built in the late 19th century, possibly as a holiday home. In some ways it reminds me of my own 1890s unstained brown cedar shingle house, which also has a white wrap around porch. However my porch has matchstick style bannisters rather the delightfully elaborate lacy design, and its brown color is so dull when compared with orange sherbet.

The Caribbean design books explain that a fancy porch like the one pictured above could grace a home in the Bahamas just as much as Florida. And apparently there are special colors, like pinks, that are unique to particular islands because that was what was stocked in the island hardware store.

Bright houses laugh with happiness.

For a homeowner to dress a house in bright paint is akin to wearing a bright gown to the Oscars, as Gemma Chan did. A black dress that fits close to the body is conventional good test. On the other hand, an oversized, fluffy pink confection says, “Let’s play.”

When people paint their houses to bring smiles, it’s an act of generosity. And even if the coral house is locked, the entry for dreams stands wide open.

How to Feed a Writer

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

black coffee, blackberry jam, and a dark story

M.F.K. Fisher, the great American food writer, once stated:”A writing cook and a cooking writer must be bold at the desk as well as the stove.”

In the 1930s and ’40s, when Mary Frances began her concurrent explorations of cooking and writing, most writers did not cook, probably because these writers were primarily men. And the earliest published women writers who were lucky enough to have the space and time to do this work—Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf and the like—were typically upper class and had household staff to feed them.

I love to write, and my escape from the stress of writing is cooking. if you follow my blogposts, you’ve seen me wax rhapsodic about mushrooms, about Parsi eggs dishes, and all kinds of food.

In my quest to spend more time on writing, I am striving to be more balanced in the kitchen—and to also explore whether certain food powers my brain to focus better. I’ve read several cookbooks with recipes promising better neurological health, but my goal is not to work with cookbooks as often as I’ve been doing.

This year I asked myself: what is the healthiest way to fill both the stomach and the imagination? How can a person too easily diverted by cooking avoid such temptation when she’s alone at home?

pumpernickel is a powerful base for a breakfast sandwich

Plenty of writers have decided it makes sense to write outside of the house—and to eat there as well. In this era, they are mostly at Starbucks. I prefer to think of Dorothy Parker striding into the restaurant inside the Algonquin Hotel for breakfast and lunch with her friends. Not that she used a pen at the table! It was all about joking, drinking, and probably not getting much done in the afternoon.

Okay, let’s return to the present. Have you ever tried going to a real restaurant with your laptop? While it’s nice to have eggs and toast brought to me at the table, once I’m finished with my plate and continue to write, I feel like a barnacle on the side of the establishment. And how does the writer handle bathroom breaks in the restaurant? Do I leave the laptop containing my big project on the table, or carry it to the potty the way I’d bring my purse?

There’s nothing wrong with dining at home on food prepared elsewhere. However, to undertake this needs a good deal of planning, and the food choices that look the most beautiful are often destructive. A sugar-dusted doughnut is tempting with morning coffee, but it will make me shaky and unable to concentrate within a few hours. Gourmet sandwiches from stores often stand six inches high and are made from such thick bread that they also put my insulin into overdrive. And don’t get me started on full-sized entrees from proper restaurants. If you’d like to see me snoring through the afternoon, just serve me a delicious, heavy lunch.

This year, I am streamlining my dining at home. My goal is not to spend longer than 30 minutes cooking anything during my workday. Here’s the M.O.

For breakfast I toast good brown bread from a local bakery, and I top it with a quality cheese or jam, and several times a week the toast topping is an egg scrambled with vegetables. I take vitamins and calcium on the side, and I try to drink a couple of glasses of water. I am seriously dehydrated, all the time.

Ahh, the antioxidants in cherries!

After that, I try to write at least two hours. Fresh or cooked fruit is the second energy shot that I take around 10 in the morning. After that, I break for some activity at the gym.

Lunch is always eagerly anticipated. Like breakfast, I eat it by myself, so I don’t have to worry if anyone else likes what’s going on the plate. A fridge full of leftovers means various cups of soup, beans, small cooked vegetables, kimchee, and rice. Sometimes there’s even a half-serving of chicken or fish or a couple of meatballs. So, how is my meal different from tapas? I can imagine Dorothy Parker poking fun at my lunches, especially since they are washed down with a glass of water and a couple of Vitamin D gummy raspberry chews for dessert.

A simple homemade carrot soup

Chicken curry, rice and a melange of potatoes, yams and green beans

I work again. Around 4 p.m. I’m often craving salt. The standard snack to fill the void used to be crackers and cheese, but now that I am trying to reduce dairy, I dip raw vegetables or plantain chips in hummus or munch some almonds or cashews. If I have a sweet craving, I might slather peanut butter on a toasted waffle (I keep a few homemade ones in the freezer) or Nutella on a digestive biscuit.

A homemade waffle with almond butter, banana, and chia topping

The writing day is done by five and cooking is once again allowed! I I relish the chance to sway between the fridge and stove and bend to lift up pots and pans. I usually cook meat or fish with vegetables and some form of rice. Usually it’s Asian or Mediterranean food—easy dishes flavored with spices and herbs—true friends with benefits.  I often use the InstantPot to pressure cook dried beans or to concoct a dal that can be eaten at a few different meals during the week. My husband likes this kind of food. My children do not.

You might have noticed something missing in my diet. It is coffee, the infamous element in a lot of writers’ rituals.

I drink about one and a half-cups of locally roasted coffee made in a French press at breakfast. I might have another cup in the mid-afternoon if I’m dead-tired and have to go out and drive the carpool or drive to a faraway book signing. But chain-drinking coffee does not make me feel grounded and focused on work—it gives me the jitters. Some therapeutic drinks that work for me throughout the day are water, black tea, green tea, mint tea, and before bed, the venerable chamomile.

Writing a book is slow work, and in my experience, it can be detrimental to the body. There have been years when I would sneak downstairs from my study to snack as a way to escape the half-written page. I’m no saint—if I know there’s chocolate in the cupboard, I may have an afternoon binge. But overall, I take a great deal of pleasure in eating this way.

Am I feeding my mind?

I don’t know about that—but I do feel sated.

The Start of a Book Purge

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

A doctor once reassured that it’s normal for a writer to be disorganized. Clutter goes hand in hand with creativity. That my excuse for my lifelong for tendency to fall victim to clutter. But looking at it doesn’t make me feel calm.

Because of my issues, I find it escapist entertainment to read books and watch TV programs about cleaning and organizing. I recently binge-watched a great program on Netflix, “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo.” I’d already read her two books, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy, although I’ve followed of her teachings so far is to declutter about thirty percent of my clothes.

I’m charmed by Marie’s warmth and playful excitement when it comes to transforming chaos into serenity. Yet critics are attacking her for her ideas about book tidying. In truth, she does not advise a certain number of books for anyone, just as she won’t guide people on which items to discard from their drawers. But she does suggest paring down in a few different ways in order to make sure what we have are books that are used or that are physical embodiments of comfort and happiness.

I decided to see if Marie’s approach could help me with my book problem. I typically donate dozens or up to a hundred books every few years. Such book purges are often inspired by moving house. I only throw away a book if it’s damaged. When every town had several used bookstores, I’d find buyers for some of the haul. Used bookstores are so few and far between these days, so it’s easier to donate.

When I lived in Minnesota, I could drop off used books in good shape to be shipped to readers in Africa, part of a humanitarian effort our own Michael Stanley championed. In Maryland, the best option is to carry cartons of books to The Book Thing, a nonprofit located in an old industrial building a couple of miles away from my home. Every Saturday, The Book Thing attracts browsers who pick up whatever they’re drawn to. It’s got the same vibe as used bookstores I remember from the old days, only instead of the books costing $1 to $10, they are completely free.

As I think about this, I visualize people discovering my books, hopefully feeling like they got a steal on an immaculate coffee table cookbook or autographed mystery. The trouble is I have to get the books off my shelves first, and decide who gets to stay in the nest and who will be sent out to fly.

Marie advises gathering all the books into one place and then start sorting. But when we are talking about a couple thousand books on three floors, that sounds like hard physical labor.

I like the expression “to pick low hanging fruit.” So I began with the long, built-in bookcase my husband built for our cookbooks in the butler’s pantry. Cookbooks are unemotional handbooks not literary keepsakes—and we have more than three hundred. Yes, three hundred cookbooks owned by a couple who probably cook dinner four times a week!

Tony and I began buying cookbooks when we married in our twenties and were dreaming of a domestic future. If we tried to cook every recipe in this collection once, I am certain that we would die before we were done opening cookbooks. Morbid thoughts aside, I addressed the bookcase.

Most of my cookbooks feature cuisines of different countries. I’ve always rationalized storing them as authoritative resources I may turn to in the future, when I am cooking as often as Nigella Lawson (ha ha). Tony has his own favorite cooking tomes from his hometown of New Orleans, as well as Julia Child classics that I am keeping without question to preserve marital harmony. There are also a few easy cookbooks I received when I was a little girl that must be saved for future grandchildren. Jammed in between the books we often use are slick, trend-driven cookbooks that publicists sent to the Baltimore Evening Sun when I used to write their cookbook reviews, and dozens of cookbooks collected when I was in Japan and India that are part and parcel of the novels that I write. When I describe a Japanese rice gruel that is spoon-fed to the ill, or a caramelized onion dal served at a palace, the origins of these dishes are in my cookbooks.

I hardly ever cook Japanese food anymore, so I’m only saving two of those books. However, I continue to cook Indian food regularly, so most of these cookbooks, large and small, weathered this purge. But I thanked about twelve of them for their service and hope they find homes with Indian food lovers who shop at The Book Thing. They will be part of the donation of about one hundred cookbooks.

I can’t boast that my shelves look splendidly organized, but at least everything’s in the right section. I know to locate any Italian cookbooks on the far-right bottom shelf, the vegetarian cookbooks in the case’s top shelf, and all fifteen Louisiana cookbooks stacked in a column running down the center.

It took two to three hours to go through this book case, which is not an inconsequential amount of time. Yet the hours spent sorting turned out to be a sentimental return to past journeys and meals.

I came away feeling certain that that books are food … and food is better when shared.

Digital White-Out

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.


When the snow fell last weekend, I welcomed it, not just for its beauty, but the way it stops time.

I grew up in Minnesota, where children are hardwired to appreciate the beauty of snow and also to expect it as a normal rhythm of the winter, rather than a natural disaster. As an adult I am able to admit that snow is not just fun and games. I can’t decide what is more treacherous; the flat packed snow that forms a shiny, slick surface; the thick ice lurking under snow; or the thick salt crystals scattered over the sidewalks that sting my dogs’ paws.

Even though snow trips me up, I still love it.

Snow only falls a few times each winter in Maryland—but often it’s a storm, rather than a casual sprinkling. Supposedly it’s because of the freezing air coming down from Antarctic meeting up with the warmer Atlantic. And when we have snowstorms in Baltimore, we never have  enough plows. In bad winters, the whole Eastern Seaboard runs out of salt and sand. In my city, the protocol is to concentrate on freeways and major roads while the storm is ongoing, and to address the rest of the city later. Or not.

Last Sunday, when Baltimore was snowed in, a tremendous quiet descended over my world. I bundled up and went for a walk around nine in the morning with my husband. The streets and lanes had only a few car tracks. On my way back, I slipped on one of the slick snow patches on an unplowed street, but no lasting harm was done.

Unspoiled snow gives the feeling of open time. It is the opposite of an ordinary day dominated by rapid-fire texts and emails demanding answers. The snow seems to wipe all of that out.

This weekend’s snow came just before I started reading a book called Deep Work written by Georgetown professor Cal Newport. Dr. Newport examines what a lot of us already know: that toggling between different kinds of intellectual activities leads to a poorer quality of life and produced work. Using studies and examples of scientists, psychologists, tycoons—as well as his own hard-fought academic writing accomplishments—he talks about the need to limit shallow work that distracts from the deep snowbank of joyful, rewarding work.

I’ve become very interested and inspired by this theory of deep work, though I cannot of course end my daily life as a person raising children and dogs, helping with my husband’s business, and keeping in touch with readers. But I know that I do many more distracting activities now than twenty years ago, when I was starting my fiction career. Now I understand why focusing was easier.

One of Dr. Newport’s suggestions for managing smaller job-related responsibilities  is to address them in batches rather than every day. For instance, I could write a couple of Murder is Everywhere posts over one day or two days and then I’d be ready for the month. In that same week of managing small writing assignments, I could write my monthly author newsletter and cue up some Instagram posts. And in the other weeks of the month—at least three!—I could immerse myself in 1921 Bombay, the very un-snowy setting of my current novel.

So I’ve got an idea. Regardless of what the weather predictions are, a metaphoric storm is headed to my house tomorrow morning.

It will be a white-out from the digital world. I aim to concentrate on my neglected next novel, which means I can answer email just thrice daily. And podcasts, radio and TV will have to wait two weeks as well. My mind doesn’t need any more jumbling.

I intend to listen hard enough in the silence that I can hear snowflakes fall.