In conversation with Sujata Massey

ImageThe wonderful, wonderful Sujata Massey who is the creator of the ultra-cool Rei Shimura mysteries is releasing her new book The Sleeping Dictionary. A story that takes us on an incredible journey with a smart, intelligent and interesting protagonist from the villages of India, through a classy brothel and into India’s struggle for independence.

Curious to know what Sujata dislikes the most about writing this book and what her favorite passage from the book is? Read on…

Amulya: The Sleeping Dictionary is quite a journey and a departure from Rei? How did it come about?

Sujata: I entered the fiction world with a mystery series about a young Japanese-American antiques dealer and found that my plots were increasingly about events that happened a long time ago. I loved historical research. I’d wanted to write about India for a long time but struggled with many different ideas, unable to find the right one. After ten years of false starts, my imagination was visited by a lovely young Bengali peasant girl who whispered in my ear about the adventures she would have with her friend at boarding school, and then as a secret fighter for Indian independence. I’d also be able to preserve the last of the historic Calcutta landscape I love so dearly.

Amulya: The protagonist in The Sleeping Dictionary goes from a village to a brothel to Calcutta. How did you do research for this book? 

Sujata: The best way to learn about what life was like in 30s and 40s British India  was by reading books written about those places at that time. PATHER PANCHALI (“Song of the Road” in English) is a very detailed story about a Bengali peasant family in 1929, and FOLK-TALES OF BENGAL by Rev. Lal Behari Day, written in the late 1800s, was also very helpful. Saadat Hassan Manto was a short story writer who was close to people in the 1940s and 50s red light world, so his stories were my guideline on everything from price to management and atmosphere. For the scenes in Calcutta, a lot of research could be done on foot visiting the old bungalows and districts and shops that are still existing. I also savored some lovely memoirs by the British and Indians experiencing the ending days of colonialism.

Amulya: What was it about this book that you loved the most?

Sujata: This is a meandering kind of saga that starts with a ten year old heroine nicknamed Pom who isn’t sure of her surname–and ends up with her being a mature 27-year-old who has chosen the name Kamala for herself. This meant I was able to explore a lot of different environments, including a British boarding school where she enters as a lonely, insecure maid and comes out literate and ambitious. I loved being able to write a boarding school book–as well as mother-daughter tearjerker one hundred pages later– and finally, a story of historic espionage mixed with a love triangle. Yep, it’s a long book–472 pages of text, and after that you get a glossary, book club extras, recipes, and a bibliography for further reading.

Amulya: And what did you dislike the most?

Sujata: There’s a period in the story where our heroine, Pom, becomes trapped into upscale prostitution without knowing what’s ahead. I did not enjoy writing about victimization of women, but prostitution is the perfect metaphor for what happened to the whole of India while under British rule. And for any young girl without a family to protect her, prostitution is still the likeliest job she will be offered to support herself–in any country.

Amulya: Your favorite-favorite passage from the book.Image

 Don’t tell on the men.

Bonnie had said it to me when I was fifteen, when the police chief had frightened us with his pretend snake. Englishmen in India could behave with impunity. And we were supposed to allow it. Mr. Lewes was a terrible man. When he’d stood closely to me in the library, I’d been seized with a brief, dangerous fever. But now I felt rage at myself for this lapse and for misreading the intentions of a man who’d stop at nothing to suppress freedom. With his polite requests for my companionship at dinner, Mr. Lewes had manipulated me to gather information. What I fed him was allowing his government to keep India under its heavy elephant feet forever.

That night, I longed to break into his desk, find the list, and destroy it. But the rational part of me said to wait.

Amulya: What’s next?

Sujata: I have three books in various stages–an incredibly distracting situation I don’t recommend to any writer. One is the draft of a novella set in 20s India involving a young ayah (caregiver) to a wealthy British family’s children. Then I have another half-baked draft of a Rei Shimura novel set in Japan just after an earthquake/tsunami. I’m also writing another book in this new series, which starts out in 1950 Bengal, torn by violence after the 1947 Partition ). It will be narrated by Kamala’s daughter. I’d like to wind up with a four-book series called “Daughter of Bengal” starting with Kamala in THE SLEEPING DICTIONARY and continuing all the way to her great-granddaughter. I like the idea of characters in a new book being able to visit with a beloved character from an earlier book. It’s reassuring to the reader–and to me as well.

Learn more about The Sleeping Dictionary!

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One Comment

  1. Farah says:

    This was a fascinating interview, and you had me at Sujata saying “my imagination was visited by a lovely young Bengali peasant girl who whispered in my ear about the adventures she would have with her friend at boarding school, and then as a secret fighter for Indian independence.” I’m pretty sure this book is going on my to buy list, and I’m looking forward to reading her novella as well! 🙂

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