Arindam Roy—with whom I am writing a novel-in-progress set on two continents—loves concocting surprises. So when I checked into the Hotel Yatrik on a Friday and he told me I’d be giving a talk to students at Allahabad University that Sunday, I managed a grin and a thank you for the opportunity. Then I rushed across the street—risking life and limb amidst the madly rushing rickshaws, wildly over-burdened scooters, and incessantly honking cars—to see if I could get my Mini laptop fixed in time to retrieve my slideshow on my book-research trip to Russia.
On Sunday afternoon, Professor Sanjoy Saksena came to fetch me in a taxi. I was duly grateful, knowing that if I braved the intense humidity and walked the quarter mile to the University, I’d arrive looking more bedraggled than a shipwrecked cat.
The University’s English Department is one of the oldest in India, situated in a grand Edwardian Mughal structure. The Head, Professor Dubey, greeted me warmly, with an offer of tea and many expressions of appreciation. “Your visit will be recorded as was that of Mark Twain, who visited us many years ago,” he said. I was flabbergasted and tried not to show it. Instead I told the students who joined us around the table how remarkable it was that in both Russia and India people could be counted on to treat authors with great respect, regardless of the size of their book sales or reputations. “There is a special appreciation for the act of writing itself that is imbued in both cultures,” I said. I don’t remember if I shared my opinion that this would never happen in celebrity-crazed America.
My presentation, titled The Place of Place in Mystery Writing, always opens with a discussion of how Raymond Chandler, Walter Mosley, and Elizabeth George use the settings of their stories to reveal character—so much so, that in Chandler’s case, Los Angeles became a character in its own right. I then segued into how I got the idea for writing The Last Matryoshka while visiting my mother’s downstairs neighbors, two lovely Russians who held house concerts in their apartment. It was when I reached the slide showing a group of émigré men playing chess on the Brighton Beach boardwalk that it hit me. Here I was, describing a book largely set in Moscow while showing pictures taken in Brooklyn to a group of graduate students in India!
As if to jar me out of my dream, one of the faculty members spoke up. “Do you think that mysteries are really a form of literature?” he asked. Fighting words—more like what I was used to. “Yes, as a matter of fact I do,” I replied. “Just because publishers find it convenient to classify books into genres in order to market them doesn’t mean that some are better than others. It depends on the writer.” I looked around the room and found a young woman I could tell was just dying to raise her hand. I looked directly at her and asked, “What do you think.” There was an eerie silence…perhaps I had defied some classroom etiquette of which I was unaware. Then she smiled. “I like reading Agatha Christie and I think her books are every bit as good as Charles Dickens,” she said. A girl after my own heart. We were off and running then—even the quiet students leaned forward in their seats to listen.
Afterwards the professor who had challenged me came up to apologize. “Are you kidding?” I asked. “You made it happen.”
Before I left, they draped a beautiful, orange shawl around my shoulders, as is the tradition with honored guests. By that time the classroom was close to inferno temperature and sweltering under the hot wool scarf I did my best not to pass out. Then came the flowers. I could get used to this.