Thursday, September 8, 2022

Expatriate Life from James W. Ziskin

How has your life shaped your writing? 

This week’s question gives me the chance to discuss my years of living, working, and traveling in India, and how those experiences shaped the writing of my upcoming release, Bombay Monsoon (Oceanview, December 6, 2022). 

First some background on the novel:

The year is 1975. Danny Jacobs is an ambitious, young American journalist who’s just arrived in Bombay for a new assignment. He’s soon caught up in the chaos of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s domestic “Emergency.”

Willy Smets is Danny’s enigmatic expat neighbor. He’s a charming man, but with suspicious connections. As a monsoon drenches Bombay, Danny falls hard for Sushmita, Smets’s beguiling and clever lover. And the infatuation is mutual.

"The Emergency," a virtual coup by the prime minister, is only the first twist in the high-stakes drama of Danny’s new life in India. The assassination of a police officer by a Marxist extremist, as well as Danny’s obsession with the inscrutable Sushmita, conspire to put his career—and life—in jeopardy. And, of course, the temptations of Willy Smets’s seductive personality sit squarely at the heart of the matter.

Now, about my experience in India. 

I love India just as it is. The beautiful and the not so beautiful. Over the past twenty-five years, I’ve been fortunate enough to make fifty-six separate trips to India. Yes, fifty-six. I got married there, and have visited my in-laws India and Bombay (Mumbai) many times since. A few years after our wedding, I had the crazy idea of setting up a back office in India for the company where my wife and I were were working. That project took months to finish, and we spent lots of time in country dealing with government bureaucrats, hiring, and office hunting. Later, as the business grew, I made three of four trips a year to India for about ten years. And since jet lag and expensive airfare were involved, I usually stayed for three or four weeks each time to get the most bang for our buck out of the trip. For years, I worked with colleagues in our Bangalore office, then later in a second facility we set up in Pune (known as Poona in 1975 when my book is set). Today there are more than 3,000 employees working in those two centers.

I lived in Pune for eighteen months. Much of the action of Bombay Monsoon takes place in Pune, and I relied heavily on my experiences there to set the scene. Pune in 1975 was small and quaint compared to what it has become today: a powerful industrial and technological metropolis of about 7 million people. That’s 70 lakhs if you’re counting in Indian terms. (A lakh is 100,000.) In 1975, the population was about 1.3 million or 13 lakhs. Does anyone have a guess for how much a crore is? If so, go ahead and leave a comment below.

I first visited Pune in the 1990s. Many of the highly developed areas and bustling communities you find today did not exist then. The occasional herd of buffalo competed with motorized traffic just a kilometer or so from the heart of Koregaon Park, an area that figures prominently in Bombay Monsoon. Today, the farmland and wilderness that sat adjacent to Koregaon Park are gone. High rises, residential societies, and businesses have sprung up as the city grew.

I have family in Bombay and have spent months that have added up to years there. All told, counting my time in Bangalore, Pune, and Bombay, I have clocked nearly four years in India. I’ve stayed in high-end business hotels (like my character Danny Jacobs), and I’ve lived like a local in an apartment in Pune and a South Bombay block of flats. I’ve enjoyed living on a diet of pure veg dinners from every corner of India (almost): Gujarati thalis, South Indian dosas and idlis, chana batura from the north, Bengali mishti doi, and delicious chaat from Bombay. I wasn’t eating as a tourist, but at home—mostly—with relatives.

I’ve endured the monsoons and nearly lost my mind climbing the terrifying road up the Western Ghats in the backseat of a hired car. Attended funerals, too. But I’ve also celebrated birthdays, anniversaries, Dussera, Ganesh Chaturthi, Holi, and Diwali many times in my second home.

I should add, however, that I was an expatriate living a comfortable existence. But that’s the experience of my protagonist, too. Write what you know, they say. I don’t exactly agree with that advice, but writing from experience does give you a head start.

My years in India, coupled with the expertise of Indian family and friends, helped me write what I hope is a realistic portrait of life in Bombay and Poona in the 1970s. So far, the early reviews of Bombay Monsoon have praised the sense of time and place. If you’d like to take a trip back to 1975 through the eyes of an expatriate, enjoy some thrills and danger—and maybe a little romance—this book might be for you.

Look for Bombay Monsoon on December 6, 2022.


Ann Mason said...

As an early reader, I don’t remember when I’ve not only enjoyed but learned so much from a book. Thank you for excellent prose combined with the unfamiliar history — to me — of The Emergency. Congratulations!

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to read it. I’ve never been to India, so some armchair travel will be wonderful. Someday, maybe I'll make it in person.

Susan C Shea said...

So much of what you're writing about here comes through in the novel. I can still get sympathetic faintness remembering your vivid descriptions of being in a car on the terrifying Western Ghat road! And that bit about the Emergency made my limited understanding much clearer. Obviously, you love India, and you passed that along in BOMBAY MONSOON.