Monday, August 4, 2014

Finding Our Stories

If you set a story in an exotic place, someone invariably will ask you why you chose it. I set a mystery series in South India, and I have lots of reasons to do so. There are the obvious ones and the not so obvious ones. I love India and have lived and traveled there. I know the country and some of the people, and I can work out a story in that setting. India is an exotic setting that attracts some readers who otherwise wouldn't read a mystery. Like me, they want to read about India from different perspectives, and a mystery novel is one of them. So, those are the general ones.

Lakshmee at her temple.
A very real and not so obvious reason is that I want to write about women, and in Kerala I meet a lot of women who tell me their stories. The women of Kerala continue a long and illustrious tradition of operatic tales of woe that have changed little over the centuries. They are found in the old literature as well as at today's kitchen table.

During my first visit, in 1976, I learned enough of the local language to be able to carry on simple conversations with most people. I certainly couldn't dissect a novel, but I could read and discuss the main newspaper articles, get around on buses without English language signs, and listen to tales of woe. If I sat down to have a bowl of fruit with a vendor at the beach, I heard all about her life. Each encounter like this can be considered nothing more than a pleasant interlude for a foreigner, or each one can be recast as the door into a story.

The first story came from Lakshmee, our maidservant, who told us tales about her family and everyone else's. These stories were never malicious or unkind, but often involved the final years of the British in India, the odd and hilarious ways Indians in other parts of India behaved (South Indian women are very liberated, and North Indian women must cover their faces if the father-in-law enters the room). Story: A devout worshiper of Shiva who performs puja twice a day continues to see the world through the perspective of the matrilineal system she has grown up with long after Western ways have been adopted.

Lakshmee & cousin at Kanya Kumari
I met her cousin, who was Catholic. The conversion of one branch of Lakshmee's family to Catholicism three generations earlier had opened an unbridgeable gap, but Lakshmee and her cousin found common ground in their declining years. Both women traveled with me to Kanya Kumari, where the confluence of three bodies of water is considered holy for Hindus. Both women sought to bathe in it, or at least sprinkle themselves with the water. Story: After three generations, two cousins of different faiths, one Hindu and the other Catholic, come together.

Muslim village woman
Kerala is home to every great world religion, including Islam. When I traveled into the hills one Sunday afternoon, I met two women out walking. One asked me to take her photograph. This angered her younger companion, who walked on, leaving her friend behind. The older woman talked to me at length about her family, not all of which I understood. Both the photograph and the conversation were unusual because she was Muslim, and Muslims are forbidden to have representational images. (Flora and script are acceptable.) Story: A woman who lives in a small, conservative village breaks the rules to talk to a stranger passing through.

Fisherwoman in the city
Because I often stay in a hotel on the beach, I meet a lot of fisherwomen. We see them in the city selling fish house to house, in the markets, and along the city and outer roads. If they have time, they will tell me their problems, ask me about mine (I try to offer something worth listening to), and sometimes ask for a photograph, though they don't seem to want a copy. 

The exception is a woman I met in a narrow lane in Trivandrum, who stopped me, posed for a photo, and then gave me her address. Story: A woman of strong will who has no time for the foolishness of foreign tourists goes out of her way to have her photo taken and to ensure she will get a copy.

Despite the differences in culture and history, women throughout the world are not themselves different. We live very similar lives, face the same challenges, and dream about the same things--a better life for ourselves and our families. In Kerala I listen to stories, offer what sympathy I can, and imagine plots rolling out for another book.


  1. Engrossing background - a universe of stories, any one of which can be spun further, deeper. Thanks for this!

  2. Thanks for commenting, Marian. Henry James stopped people from telling to much of a story they heard so he would be free to let his imagination run with it. We don't need much to get started.