My heroine, Jana Bibi (Janet Louisa Caroline Elizabeth MacPherson Laird) has been a missionary wife, a dance musician, and violin tutor to a princely Indian family. Now, in the early 1960s, she makes her home in a picturesque but ramshackle house in the Himalayas.
You may ask what went into her story, aside from curried eye of newt and toe of frog samosas?
Many of the sights, sounds, situations, and speech rhythms came from memories of the ten years I spent in India from age six to sixteen. Other things I had to get from family memorabilia, books, movies, and the Internet. Ironically, it is far easier now to research a story set in the 1960s than it would have been at an earlier stage. The term “time warp” takes on fresh meaning.
Here are some of the things I didn’t need to look up:
1) The feel of a hill station
My fictional town of Hamara Nagar (“Our Town”) is a smaller and more remote version of the real town of Mussoorie, where I attended boarding school for three years.
Mussoorie is a “hill station,” a resort established during the British Raj and now a major tourist destination. Located in the first range of the Himalayas at roughly 7,000 feet, it is surrounded by forests of pine, live oak, and deodar.
Access is by a dramatic road that twists up, up, up from the railhead at Dehra Dun. I can still feel the cool air on my arms and the excitement as the views of the distant ranges open up.
2) The weather
In India, I experienced a huge range of weather, from the warm, moist, seaside air of Chennai, to the blast-fire summer heat of Delhi, to the chilblain-inducing cold of Mussoorie in November.
Most memorable was the monsoon season in the hills. When it wasn’t raining, clouds drifted through open windows like cartoon ghosts. Everyone carried big black bumbershoots, and waged war against mold, mildew, and leeches. The rewards of the season were ethereal misty landscapes, mosses and orchids growing on stone walls, and over a hundred varieties of ferns.
3) Sense impressions
Some memories get stored cell-deep. If I close my eyes, I can conjure up these sounds: Cow bells. Tea sellers calling on a train platform. Steam engines chuffing. A dance teacher chanting rhythmic syllables. Film songs blaring from radios. The Indian national anthem. Rain on metal roofs.
I can almost imagine smells, too: Jasmine flowers. Sandalwood. Coconut hair oil. Pigeon droppings in red sandstone monuments. Spices frying. Pine trees and wood smoke. Burning cowdung.
Here are a few of the many things I had to learn about:
Mr. Ganguly, a savvy Indian ringneck, is Jana’s constant companion.
I don’t own a parrot, so I read piles of “me and my parrot” books, looked at the latest research on parrot intelligence, talked to parrot owners (they resemble adoring grandparents), and met some charming birds. The birds were pretty darn smart! A local parrot breeder told me how her many birds vied for her attention with flattery, and falsely accused one another of mischief.
I also made friends with an avian veterinarian who still advises me on questions of bird health and diet. Sometimes I ask her things like “would a ringneck have the strength to turn a music box key?” and keep or throw out plot elements based on her response.
Jana’s life, is touched by smallpox.
This disease, eradicated globally in 1980, killed up to 30% of its sufferers. Indian matrimonial ads used to specify “unmarked by pox” as a qualification for a marriage partner.
American missionary Juanita Owen Fleming (From the Snows of Kathmandu to the Sands of Timbuktu) relates how, in the early 1930s, her fiancé refused for religious reasons to be vaccinated and died a gruesome death. Shuddering at her description, I went on to learn about symptoms, incubation, and complications of the disease.
Jana, somewhat under duress, becomes a fortune-teller. Good grief! I’m a random-sample-statistical-test-for-significance kind of gal.
To get acquainted with Jana’s profession, I went to psychic fairs, had my palm read several times, and received card readings of various kinds. I now own some beautiful divination decks, some with Indian motifs. The Gita: Wisdom from the Bhagavad Gita, The Oracle of Rama, and The Sacred India Tarot are three such sets with especially nice artwork.
I also observed how astrologers and the like were depicted in Indian films and TV shows. (Often, it was in a comic fashion.)
Hindi movies have become a major habit. After all, I had to know what the local movie theater in Hamara Nagar was screening. Plus it’s great if watching movies in the middle of the day counts as work.
The old black and white Indian movies from the 1950s and 1960s were perfect for reminding me of details about cars, buildings, roads, telephones, and bazaars. They are also a window into the preoccupations of India in the early days of independence. In addition to the perennial theme of boy meets girl, they often deal with justice, development, and the challenges of uniting a modern nation with a hugely diverse population.
Finally, I must return to the list of things I didn’t have to look up and add one thing:
An American growing up in India, I felt very much at home and enveloped by affection. The loyalty of my family’s Indian friends was life-long. In fact, after my dad died, a friend of his from Bangalore continued to correspond with me. In Chennai, we had ultra-glamorous movie star neighbors--they took us under their wing and they too kept in touch for the rest of their lives. Recently, I’ve reestablished contact—through Facebook, wouldn’t you know it—with a Sikh friend in Delhi.
Is it any wonder that nostalgia creeps into the Jana Bibi books?
Betsy Woodman is also the author of Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes, the first book in this series. She spent 10 childhood years in India; studied in France, Zambia, and the United States; and now lives in Andover, N.H. She has contributed nonfiction pieces and several hundred book reviews to various publications, and was a writer and editor for the award-winning documentary series Experiencing War, produced for the Library of Congress and aired on Public Radio International. A third book is in the works.