Archive for India

An Adventure on Pali Hill

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The first welcome I had in Pali Hill was from a rooster.

I’d just entered my bedroom in the Airbnb rental. It was about three-thirty in the morning. As I put down my suitcase, exhausted after eighteen hours of flying and lots of airport waiting, a series of mournful squawks began. The glass window was latched shut; it was January, with evening temps in the sixties. But the valiant rooster’s cries carried, despite the earplugs I’d brought on suggestion from the host and previous Airbnb guests in the review.

You may wonder why I decided to stay in a flat where I knew a rooster made an impact. The answer is two-fold. First, I thought the rooster would just wake me up a little early in the morning. And the second is that I really wanted to stay in a residential neighborhood of Mumbai with a local host, rather than a hotel. I am willing to try new things, because I’d rather stay in the real world.

But is Pali Hill, a posh historic neighborhood within the area known as Bandra West, the real world? Plenty of people would say no—it is too elite and full of many people of different countries and faiths. It is far more mixed, and liberal, than a typical Indian community.

I was a temporary visitor, so I am not a Pali Hill expert, let alone one on Bandra itself. The larger village known as Bandra (Vandre means port in Marathi) began as a fishing village. Its identity was stamped in terms of architecture and a grand Catholic Church, during the Portuguese colonization. The British took over, and the new buildings that went up—charming bungalows and flats—were home to wealthy Parsis, Anglo-Indians, and others with the taste for quiet living in the hills north of Bombay. In the 1930s, film people began settling here. Today there are splashy new shopping areas with crowded streets, but most  in bungalows and apartment buildings that were grand in the 1920s and are faded-grand today. The simpler places are still locally owned and many are rented to the French and other international residents.

Some grand houses that aren’t occupied are held close by the owning family and rented for use as film sets. Many homes are guarded by high walls with signs proclaiming stern statements such as: “This is the home of the Perreira Family. Absolutely no trespassing upon penalty of law” or “This home belongs to J Winslow and family. It is not for sale and do not enquire about it.”

Keeping one’s hold of property in Mumbai is not always easy. A charming sky-blue cottage across from my favorite coffee place is titled to an elderly couple. They traveled for a few months and left the property in the hands of a servant who promised to take good care. When the couple returned, the locks had been changed and the servant had taken over the house, refusing them entry… saying the house was now his. Because of the city’s rules affirming the rights of people to stay on properties where they’ve had a history of living, the servants may trump the owners in this contentious case that has Pali Hill neighbors talking.

Back to the names on the cottages. Many of the names are Portuguese ones like Almeida, Pereira, and Braganza. It turns out that the Catholic community in Bandra is quite different ethnically from the Christians of Goa, Kerala and other areas. Bandra and the villages around it like Santa Cruz were home to a very old Marathi speaking community who lived in the area as farmers, fishing people and salt gatherers. They were converted to Catholicism during Portuguese rule in the 15th and 16th centuries. This is when they began taking Portuguese surnames, celebrating Christian holidays, and enjoying roasts and sausages.

Today, Bandra is a prime location to  run a restaurant or cafe with high prices, offering sustenance to foreigners in search of almond-milk cappuccinos, as well as affluent young Indians wishing to have fun away from the prying gaze of their family and neighbors. A number of Airbnb listings for Bandra West state that “unmarried couples are welcome,” which would not necessarily be true throughout the city.

In The Widows of Malabar Hill, Perveen travels secretly to meet an attractive young man. The Bandra Bandstand area is where she experiences a burning kiss on the rocks close to the Arabian Sea. This business was inspired by the kind of hanky-panky that has been going on there for at least a century.

One of my favorite rituals while staying in Bandra was fitness walking in Joggers Park, a scenic park with greenery in the center of an oval track. Along one side, you can see the sea. The park is popular all day long with friends who come to walk together, or to do yoga and training exercises.

There was a series of oval tracks—one dirt, another stone, another brick, and so on. The youngest or fastest people usually moved on the outside track, while the old friends wishing to catch up could meander and stop on the old-fashioned walkways and take time to gossip sitting on benches.

Just like a beautiful Indian garden, the track has floral flourishes and a dramatic center point: garden with a bridge over a pond with ducks. And on its banks, to my amazement, was a cage holding a rooster and some chickens. This fellow was quieter than the one near me; perhaps because he had so much to look at around him.

From India with love

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I’m filing this on my last day of a wonderful three weeks in Mumbai.

I was taking a walk through a shady, old-fashioned passageway in a typical 19th century shop building in the Colaba neighborhood. It was a delightful meander just steps from the historic Royal Bombay Yacht Club, where I spent my las few days.

With any trip, there are ups and downs. Over this trip, I haven’t had a moment of stomach trouble. However, I had a laptop fall very ill (and then recover, thanks to the geniuses at Maple Shop, as India’s Apple licensee is called). I switched the places and neighborhoods I was staying in three times and never really had a quiet night. Well, I guess it’s Mumbai, right?

Lovely old flat building in Bandra

I managed 20-plus interviews over this trip; I saw a new film, a popular play about a legendary actress, and a dress rehearsal of another play with a Bollywood connection (more on this one in another post). I attended an Odissi dance debut of a teenage artist. I shopped at a modern art show and filled my eyes with masterpieces of at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum of decorative arts and the Asiatic Society of Mumbai. I attended to a university lecture and was able to chat with students. I visited a historic Parsi colony and several courts of law—one of them the former coroner’s court, which I expected had been swept away since this legal process is no longer a necessity in Bombay. What a thrill to find the high-ceilinged room where cause of death was determined by a jury still exists, albeit filled with cubicles.

The Bhau Daji Lad museum offers a doll-sized view of history

The one thing I could have done but missed out on was being on set for a Bollywood film shoot. Do I regret not going because it was starting close to midnight?

As I sit in the airport, I admit I should have blinked away my fatigue and gone.

Therefore, I don’t have star photos for you, but in upcoming posts I aim to share what I loved so much about this trip to Mumbai.

And that even in 2020, it’s such a joy to be able to tread through the passageways of the city back to the Indo-Victorian world of my fiction.

Historic Wilson College is an inspiration for the next Perveen book

Whilst in India, I received the great surprise of a nomination for the 2020 Bruce Alexander award for historical fiction, and the 2020 Sue Grafton Memorial Award for a mystery featuring a female protagonist. The Lefty historical winner will be chosen by conventioneers voting at the Left Coast Crime convention in San Diego this March, and the Grafton award has been chosen by a judging committee and will be announced at the Edgars Dinner in New York in April. I am very excited and grateful that The Satapur Moonstone was enjoyed by both fans at LCC and a committee of professional writers serving as judges for the Edgars. I encourage you to check out the whole Lefty List and the Edgars List for books you might enjoy.

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.

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.

Reasons to Be Cheerful: My Personal Gratitude List

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Chatting in two different languages: with journalist Mirko Giacchetti of MilanoNera

Have you heard about gratitude lists?

Writing down what one is grateful for, every night, is said to benefit psychological health, sleep, and relations with others. I’ve been marking small bits of gratitude down in my trusty bullet journal of 2018, a dog-eared book that is entering into its last days of service. I list everything in it from “I have a job that brings joy” to “I GOT THROUGH THE BORDER!” (into Gujarat).

Here are more of my gratitude entries for 2018:

My family.  And not just for what they do for me. Several of my family members are in mental health professions, and their treatment of addicts has changed the lives of thousands of patients—and their families. I also admire the way my family works hard at handling personal health challenges and steps in to help one another.

Soho Press. This dedicated independent publisher gave me the extra time I needed when going over edits, a fabulous national tour, and gorgeous marketing. I know we are together for the long run, and in an unstable profession, this is a gift beyond measure. And my agent Vicky Bijur, of course, who has stood by me for many years, always believing that a good book can find a home.

Agent Vicky Bijur, and Soho Press’s Juliet Grames and Monica White

Book Critics. There is very little space in newspapers and magazines for book news, so I was floored by the many reviews that came out for The Widows of Malabar HillPublishers Weekly and Amazon blew me away when each independently selected it as a Best Mystery of 2018.

Penguin Random House India! I thank my longtime publisher in India for touring me around the country last spring to promote A Murder in Malabar Hill. I met enthusiastic readers, talented journalists. Also in India, I can’t believe the energy of my film agents, Matter Advisors, who are stealthily slipping Perveen Mistry into Bollywood.

In Delhi with PRH PR Smit Jhaveri, Actor Aishwarya Jha-Menon, and PRH Editor Ambar Saihil Chatterjee

Signing at Crossword Books in Ahmedabad, Gujarat

With historian-authors Sandhya Menon and Usha Thakkur in Mumbai

Neri Pozza Publishers and Festival in Noir in Italy. Grazie mille to to the publisher of Le Vedove di Malabar Hill for organizing such a productive and delicious week in Milan. Having a simultaneous translator, and camera-clicking paparazzi shouting “Bella Bella” is something I will never forget. And Festival in Noir flew me to Italy, put me up in the historic Duomo district, and introduced me to fascinating fellow panelists and book lovers.

NP’s PR Daniela Pagani and my editor Sabine Schultz

This Italian photographer literally stopped traffic to get his shots!

Recorded Books.  Not only did the world’s largest audiobook company turn The Widows of Malabar Hill into one of the best audiobooks of 2018, they listened to my dreams about the future of audio fiction. How lucky am I that the RB publisher lives in my neighborhood?

Crime Writers of Color. This is a new and mighty writers’ organization that came together and has grown to more than 100 writers—all after a conversation between a few women writers at Malice Domestic 2018. CWOC stands for respecting diversity and lowering barriers to publication for everyone. I love being one of the founding members.

The Instant Pot. I wanted to ignore the latest cooking fad, because I have a working stove. But the Instant Pot makes beans better than anyone with a spoon. And even better, a whole subcategory of cookbook has arisen to put together complex international dishes with this pressure cooker’s efficient but intricate operations. I had more fun with the Instant Pot than with any other appliance in memory.  Chicken vindaloo, anyone?

The Women’s March. Still going strong and fighting the good fight. Bit by bit, we shall overcome the madness that has grown across the United States like mold.

Telling the Senate how we feel about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford

Aqua-aerobics. I never thought I would be one of those ladies kicking up waves in the warm-water pool, but do you know? It’s a blast, and I am much less creaky.

Daisy and Charlie. The aged beagle and baby Yorkie may look like odd fellows when they walk out together, but they are a devoted pair. I am grateful that this year, they are going outside more than inside—except when I’m touring.

Murder is Everywhere. To the writers who brought me in and are so relentlessly encouraging. We have signed side-by-side in bookshops, chatted together on panels, and raised a glass or two at mystery conventions. No matter how far apart we live, mystery brings us together. And we could not do it without the Murder Is Everywhere readers who keep track of our whereabouts.

The Taj’s Triumph

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

On a hot Saturday afternoon in early October, I was in the Mumbai Harbour, taking the slow tourist boat back from the cave temples on Elephanta Island. The water journey had been almost two hours, and I had only a few drops of water left in my bottle. I was overjoyed to spot a tall rounded red tower appear over the waves. I knew that if I could see part of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, I wasn’t so far away.

The Taj is a city hotel, but it was designed with its turreted front facing the sea, which was very unusual for 1903.  The hotel’s sea-facing facade also offered its earliest guests a wonderful view from their bedroom windows. This philosophy of focusing on a guest’s views—rather than a hotel’s prestigious appearance on a cityscape—was a new way of thinking.

The Indo-Saracenic showpiece was conceived of and built at a cost of 500,000 Pounds Sterling. Not by the British, who ruled India at the time; by an Indian.

Jamshedji Tata, a brilliant Parsi entrepreneur, had the idea of building the Taj after a devastating bubonic plague epidemic in the 1890s caused many to lose faith in the city. He also created a nondiscriminatory policy of admission to all races, although some of the city’s best hotels and private clubs in the city prohibited Indian entry. He named his hotel after the spectacular historical tomb in Agra, the Taj Mahal, knowing it conjured exquisite beauty in the minds of tourists.

A bust of Jamshedji Tata oversees the hotel’s historic staircase

An early Taj menu cooked by French chefs

The rooms, restaurants, halls and Turkish bath were spectacular. The hotel was the first building in Bombay to have electricity in the rooms and electric lifts imported from Germany. The Taj Hotel became the icon of fine hospitality in a country already world-famous for its hospitality. Interestingly, the chefs were French because even though the hotel’s owner was Indian, local dishes weren’t considered sophisticated enough. He also made sure to hire butlers and desk clerks who were European.

When India became independent in 1947, a Christmas Eve menu cover showed a maharaja atop an elephant, with a groom holding the green, white and saffron flag of the new democracy. It’s a strategic image that recognizes the importance of the hotel’s past royal customers who had agreed to join with the new nation rather than keep their former princely states separate.

For people who live in Mumbai, the Taj is mainly about meeting for meals, attending weddings, and shopping in the arcades. I’ve met more than one married couple who got engaged in the hotel’s Sea Lounge. My stepfather fondly remembers delicious lunches with friends at the hotel during school holidays. My mother, who’s been traveling on vacation to Mumbai with him for thirteen years, has a friendship with a charming elderly jeweler in the Taj’s shopping arcade… it’s impossible for her to leave the Taj Hotel without something sparkling in a small velvet bag.

The Taj’s glory was almost its downfall. When ten Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists from rural Pakistan targeted 12 sites in Mumbai on November 26, 2008, four young men raided the Taj intent on killing international guests, Indians, and staff. This mass attack also included the Trident-Oberoi Hotel, the Chhatrapati Shivaji train terminus, Cafe Leopard and Chabad House. The terror in Mumbai lasted 68 hours and resulted in 164 civilian and police deaths, with more than 300 people wounded. Nine of the terrorists were killed during the police response, and the one man caught alive was hung a few years ago in an Indian prison.

The siege of The Taj was the longest of all the battles during the 26/11 attacks. Twenty-two staff perished, as well as fourteen guests. Yet more than 300 guests were saved by the Taj staff, who stayed rather than evacuated.

I think there are a number of reasons for this. The motto for the hotel is “Guest is God”; I’ve heard it when I stayed at another Taj property. Also, the Taj training for staff is reputed to be quite intense, with people taking great pride in their relationship with the hotel, many of them hoping for lifetime employment. And these employees know the huge hotel’s layout. It is a a complex labyrinth with many interior elevators and storerooms added over the years. There is even a private club, Chambers, that was not marked on tourist maps. This is where many of the guests led by staff from public spaces waited until police arrived. Other guests who had been relaxing in their rooms hid in place for days until firemen could put ladders to the windows and bring them down. This was a complicated process, because not only does the hotel have a six-story historic main structure, but there is also a modern high-rise tower.

The Taj was secured by the police on November 29, utterly devastated by gunfire, with many areas burnt from grenade explosions and fires. Yet less than a month after the attack, the hotel re-opened for business.

In January 2009, I was in Mumbai on vacation with some family members. It was six weeks after 26/11. We stayed at our usual home-away-from-home, the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, just around the corner from the Taj. On the last night of this wonderful trip, we had a light dinner at the Taj’s Shamiana coffee shop, which sits near the hotel’s main entrance. Looking around, we saw the Taj’s rebuilding had been swift and was immaculate. A monument with the names of the hotel’s martyred employees was already erected in the lobby. We learned that the Tata Company, the original family business that still owns this hotel, pledged to pay college costs for all the slain employees’ children and would give their family members who’d lost breadwinners support jobs. The hotel had also paid for damages suffered by many freelance souvenir sellers in the area who lost business for months after the attack.

The goal of Lashkar-e-Taiba might have been to kill the Taj Hotel and other places that invoke the spirit of Mumbai—but that did not happen.

As the ten-year anniversary of the Taj’s triumph over terror approaches, I’ve been revisiting the Taj long distance. One way is through a suspenseful true crime book published in 2013: The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy. I’m also delving into the Taj’s happier, older history in the form of a 415-page anniversary magazine, The Centenary Taj: 100 Years of Glory. This magazine, published in 2003, is the source of the charming photographs of old advertisements and Taj interiors that I’ve shared in this blogpost. Look for the whole magazine at antiquarian booksites, if you want a picture of Bombay history, art, food and culture.

My connection to the Taj Mahal Palace continues through my books. In my 1920s Bombay series, protagonist Perveen Mistry is a young woman lawyer whose grandfather was friends with Jamsetji Mistry when the two old Parsi businessmen were alive. Perveen’s family’s pre-engagement meeting with a groom’s family is at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel!

I won’t tell you how that engagement turned out, but Perveen must return to the Taj again in Book 3, when dangerous riots make travel home impossible. Who knows, maybe I’ll sleep over one night, too.

Badri Narayan, the Story Artist

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

Untitled, 2008, Badri Narayan, at Gallery 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

India Underfoot

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Dogs and Other Furry Friends in India

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

what is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kitab Tour in India

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

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

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

Signing at Crossword Books in Ahmedabad

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

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

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

Blogging Meetup in Gurgaon

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

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

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

That’s RJ Sarthak Kaushik of Radio Ishq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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