Susan Oleksiw: When Kate Flora invited me to introduce the Anita Ray series to readers of the Maine Crime Writers blog, I was delighted. Anita Ray is one of my favorite characters, and she’s the logical end of many years of loving India. Why India? First, the series.
Anita Ray is an Indian American photographer living in South India in her aunt’s tourist hotel. Kovalam is a resort area, once a quiet village, on the Southwest coast of India, almost at the tip of the subcontinent. The climate is subtropical, and at its coldest the temperature never drops below seventy degrees at night.
Anita’s mother is Indian, her father Irish-American. She has spent most of her life in India and plans to stay there. Deprived of her own daughter, who lives in the States and plans to stay there, Auntie Meena does her best to mother Anita, which means finding her a husband. The idea does not appeal to Anita, and she has so far avoided all comers.
Between the machinations of her large extended family and the ineptitudes of foreign guests, Anita is assured of dead bodies to investigate. The third in the series, For the Love of Parvati, will be available in May. In this outing Anita travels into the hills of Central Kerala to visit Aunt Lalita and her family. The northeast monsoon is raging, the police are searching every vehicle at roadblocks, and Lalita’s family is in disarray. The two adult children, Valli and Prakash, each have life-changing secrets, and Lalita has hired a new maidservant who has a secret that endangers everyone in the household.
One aspect of the story that proves important in the murder investigation is the various practices relating to certain pilgrimages. The story opens during the Sabarimala season, when men travel to the shrine to Ayappa, located in the hills. Men make arrangements to go in groups from their office, village, extended family, but always they go in groups. Young girls and older women past menopause can also make the pilgrimage and participate in the religious rites, but no women who are still of childbearing age can attend. I often saw a group of nine or ten men traveling together with perhaps one or two daughters. All the pilgrims dress in black, so they are easily identifiable in the cities and villages they pass through. When Anita learns that a pilgrim she is following is not part of the group soon leaving for Sabarimala and another man is not among those who are going, she fears another murder.
The first novel-length story featuring Anita Ray was Under the Eye of Kali (2010), about the murder of a guest staying at Auntie Meena’s Hotel Delite. I had a lot of fun with this one because it gave me a chance to touch on the numerous reactions foreigners have to India and the things that can and do happen there. The story is set in Kovalam, an area I know well and have watched grow from an isolated beach to a world-renowned tourist attraction. In the midst of all this commercialism is a small temple dedicated to Balabhadrakali, Kali as a young girl. And every year, the temple holds a festival to honor Kali, taking her down to the beach for a sea bath.
The first book was followed by The Wrath of Shiva (2012), about the decline of an old family and the loss of holy images. The story is set on an estate whose buildings are designed on very traditional lines, and it explores the close connections between lifelong servants and the family. One maidservant has visions that are disturbing, and problems in the lives of old family employees are corrupting family life. The loss of sacred materials from Indian temples and estates is a serious problem, and involves a network of smugglers. But as Anita discovers, the least likely people can be involved, and the smuggling happens right under our noses. In this story the tradition of the Kavu, or sacred grove, plays a pivotal role. Large family estates always contained jungle land that could not be entered or violated in any way. This land belonged to the gods, and in this case to Bhairava, the wrathful form of the Great God Shiva. But not everyone respects the old traditions, and Anita is faced with the challenge of catching a murderer and preserving an ancient and sacred tradition.
Anita appeared first in a series of short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Level Best Books anthologies. The first story, “A Murder Made in India,” set the pattern. Anita investigates a suspicious death whose solution involves an aspect of traditional Indian marriage. The Anita stories are especially fun to write for the predicaments the characters get themselves into but also for the opportunity they give me to showcase aspects of traditional culture.
So, why India? Why not continue to write the Mellingham series, which is set in New England? Or how about a series set in Philadelphia, where I lived for many years? Or Tucson, where I also lived briefly? Or rural New England, where I also lived?
My love affair with India began with a children’s collection of stories set in Asia, and continued throughout my education, in prep school where I studied Indian history, in college where I studied Indian art, and in graduate school where I fell in love with Sanskrit, the classical language of India. As a graduate student and later as a research scholar I went to India to study Sanskrit drama, and that meant Kerala, where the only traditional form of Sanskrit drama survives. The fact that Kerala included beautiful palm-tree-lined beaches and cities and villages where older customs and practices thrived was certainly a bonus. I confess to falling in love with Kerala, even more passionately than with Sanskrit, and I try to visit the state every year. I call this research.
This progression through the ages, so to speak, seemed the logical reason for my undying interest in India, but I may be wrong. It may run deeper than that.
When I cleaned out my mother’s house after her death in 2002, I unpacked a trunk that had been closed up for perhaps sixty years, maybe longer. In it I found costumes from my mother’s college years (1930s), quilts made from old men’s suits (1920s), a few books, lots and lots of photographs, some dating to before 1900, and an embroidered Indian shawl, which seems to be an antique Aksi shawl. The term aksi means reflection. In this type, considered the finest among several Northern forms, the design is produced on one side by splitting the warp threads into half, leaving the other side plain or embroidered with another pattern. The trunk included other antique pieces from India but the shawl was the finest. I was dumbfounded when I unwrapped the tissue paper and there it was.
So perhaps my interest in India isn’t the result of years of liberal education but just karma and DNA, or something like that. Either way, the Anita Ray series is loads of fun, especially when you’d rather be someplace warm and breezy than in the cold New England winter.
If you have read this far, I am offering an ARC of For the Love of Parvati to one reader who leaves a comment, to be selected at random.
Susan Oleksiw writes the Anita Ray series featuring an Indian American photographer living at her aunt’s tourist hotel in South India (Under the Eye of Kali, 2010, The Wrath of Shiva, 2012, and For the Love of Parvati, 2014). She also writes the Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva (introduced in Murder in Mellingham, 1993). Susan is well known for her articles on crime fiction; her first publication in this area was A Reader’s Guide to the Classic British Mystery. Her short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and numerous anthologies. Susan lives and writes outside Boston, MA.