Rani is a journalist in a small local newspaper in Bareilly, India. Besides her schoolteacher father, who is also the neighborhood poet and drunk, her family includes two sisters and a mother, Shakuntala, who has a past history of her own. The mother had run away from a small village, Rampur, in India, rebelling against a powerful father, who was forcing her to marry an ambitious and morally dubious suitor, Vir Singh. She leaves behind her only other sister, Savitri, who ends up marrying the jilted man. Besides being unethical, this son-in-law also had a wealthy first wife, who died in questionable circumstances, leaving behind a traumatized young son called Durlabh.
In the years that Shakuntala is away from Rampur, Vir Singh inherits both the wealth and the political legacy her father leaves behind after his death. Vir also rises in power and becomes a Member of Parliament from the dominant national party. His eldest son, Durlabh, from his first wife, is now engaged to the daughter of the Chief Minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh. This will end up solidifying Vir Singh’s position both in the party and the State.
Twenty-five years after being disowned by her family, Shakuntala receives a letter from her sister, Savitri. Rani has been invited by her aunt to come to Rampur to help in the preparations for the forthcoming marriage. “I am unwell,” says Savitri, “and cannot do this by myself.” As enticement, she also adds that this will soften Vir Singh and improve relations between the two families for the future.
Shakuntala takes this invitation as an opportunity for her daughter to get details and photographs of the estate, so they can lay claim to her share. The Supreme Court of India, she says, now allows daughters an equal share in inherited family property.
With curiosity and a sense of purpose, Rani sets forth on the journey to Rampur, where she hopes, if nothing else, she will at least get a good story for her newspaper. She meets her three unfriendly cousins and the long suffering Durlabh, who seems incapable of standing up to anybody. The Aunt seems to have her own reasons for inviting Rani, which might just call for seducing Durlabh away from his powerfully connected fiancée in order to clear the way for her own wastrel son, Vijay. Meanwhile, the daughter of the house, Anjali, is playing a dangerous game in consorting with a lower caste boy from the village, who is the son of a political rival of Vir Singh. The youngest son, Roop, is also playing with fire when he begins to pursue the angry bastard of Vir Singh, who is born of the village courtesan clever enough to have contrived a good education for her son.
In this dangerous household where she witnesses Vir Singh commit murder, Rani navigates her way to keep herself, and others she hold dear, safe. Will Rani achieve her goal of securing her mother’s share of the ancestral property and bring the two families together? Will she stop her Uncle from wantonly destroying the lives of others, and get a scoop for her newspaper?
Read the book to find out what happens!
“Rani of Rampur” by Suneeta Misra was recommended to me by a fellow reviewer and I am glad he praised it the way he did. It is an excellent murder mystery, or at least that is how it is advertised in some places, but it is also so much more. It is the story of a dysfunctional family, a story about family values and the caste system in India, about Village life, about politics and corruption.
The heroine, journalist Rani, is sent to assist her aunt with a family wedding where she gets drawn into the investigation of her uncle’s murder while courting romance with the groom of the forthcoming wedding.
This book really works on so many levels and anyone who has read other works set in India will appreciate how hard it is to translate this remote way of living to a Western audience, yet Suneeta Misra does a lovely job creating an understanding of the setting and the motifs of the characters/
I loved every word of the story and highly recommend it to those already familiar with the world the story is set in and those who know little about it. I have an admittedly strong liking of the Indian culture and its literature but I prefer this book to many of the well acclaimed novels from the subcontinent and urge you to dive in to it and let yourself be amazed.
Interview with Suneeta Misra:
How did you come to writing in the first place?
I have viewed myself as a storyteller for as long as I can remember. I heard stories at the feet at my two grandmothers who though not schooled in letters, were wise beyond measure. Their wisdom came as much from their experiences and the tragedies they endured, as from their courage to meet life’s challenges head on. I am a world history teacher, documentary film-maker, and now a writer. All these roles to me amount to what my grandmothers did so long ago; tell their stories, and hope someone, somewhere will glean something from what they had to share – be it wisdom or simple entertainment.
Why a murder mystery and why the wedding setting?
I grew up reading murder mysteries. In India, because of our history as a colonized society, we obsessed over British writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. I feel, moreover, that the mystery genre is a great context within which to explore human relationships and motivations.
Where weddings are concerned, everyone in India loves to be invited to a big fat wedding, complete with elephants and palanquins – the grander, the better. India is a country where the modern and feudal, coexist side by side. We have state of the art software companies and we have grand traditional arranged marriage where people waste millions of rupees to impress their family and friends. The poor and the village folk are not exempt from these grand theatrical productions. An impoverished family will often borrow much more than what they can comfortably pay back, to get a daughter married. A son’s marriage is easier because the girl’s family has the burden of paying the bills and a dowry to gratify the groom’s family. Therefore, an Indian wedding is a fascinating context within which to explore human emotions such as greed, ambition, and envy.
When did you first have the idea for this book?
Having been raised in an urban milieu, I decided to travel to an Indian village last summer to explore the “real” India which is where more than half its people still live. Since I had no village to call my own, I “borrowed” a friend’s village in the interiors of eastern Uttar Pradesh. I shot two documentaries in the village, chronicling the developments made in the area of education for girls, and especially the lowest of the low, the dalit girls. I documented many stories of girls who showed great courage in the face of challenges. Out of these stories grew a desire to create a fictional story of a strong Indian girl, who takes on challenges that come her way without the need of a prince charming to save her. This story is meant for a new adult (18-25) audience and so I was striving to drive the point home that Indian women should make themselves so capable that no one can question their capabilities. The teacher in me is unfortunately, always looking for lessons learned.
How long did it take you to write?
About six months back, during the summer of 2012, I broke my leg. Being confined at home, gave me the motivation to finally put my ideas to paper. I started to first write short stories and scripts one of which, “Recuperation,” is being made into a short film with the help of a storytelling group to which I belong. Once I started writing, it was hard to stop and I soon graduated to longer stories. Rani of Rampur grew out of this exercise. Another story that I have written but not yet polished, is “Daredevil Durga” which is the tale of an autistic girl, again in a rural milieu, who overcomes challenges, helps protect her family, and in the process, solve a murder mystery. Just like “Rani” refers to a queen in Hindi, Durga refers both to a goddess in Indian mythology who is a slayer of demons and to a warrior queen who fought the British in the 1500s. The editing process is a killer though. Being a teacher, I have too much of an ego to accept outside help. I initially did all the editing myself, and then brought in my daughter, a writer in her own right, to help me to fine tune the manuscript. I do plan to find a good outside editor the next time around if only to make the process less tedious.
How comfortable do you feel writing about an Eastern culture for a Western audience? Do you write for the Western audience?
I think a good story should appeal to all audiences, eastern or western. In fact, I love the historical novels of David Liss, which are set in the Europe of the 1700s, an environment and ethos completely alien to me. Yet I found myself loving those stories and gaining an understanding of another culture and historical period at the same time. Then, there are the stories of Junot Diaz and Lisa See, which are set in Latin America and China, both of which are set in a different culture and yet have become hugely popular.
How do you write? What is your writing environment like?
I have a little sunroom at the back of my house where I write, surrounded by nature and somewhat isolated from the modern world outside. I can write only when I am isolated from everyone and everything else. The marketing of my first book is proving to be a great big distraction. I hate having to check my blogs, writing sites, social media, day in and day out. It takes away from the writing and depresses the heck out of me when I see the flat lines of the sales chart. I need to bring some balance and complete my next book. Towards that end, I have asked a friend to help out with the publicity.
How many rewrites did it take you?
I first wrote it down as a script in my own language, Hindi, and then translated it into English, in a story format. I still hope to make it into a film one day. It took me a couple of rewrites to add in the details to give it a sense of place, and depth to the characters. The editing, as I said, was the worst part. Between my daughter and me, we must have read it at least seven times.
Who are your editors and how do you quality control your books?
My daughter and I are the editors and none of my readers as yet, have complained about the quality of writing, though two have commented on my “formal” style of writing which is different from American English. By “formal” I think they mean “British” which is a little more long winded, than the direct American style often referred to as “plain speaking.”
Who are your favourite authors / influences?
I love the works of many writers. I adore F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose use of the English language and ability to manipulate words is magical. I love an Indian writer, R.K. Narayan, whose simple and minimalist writing style evokes the foibles and idiosyncrasies of ordinary Indians living in both the cities and villages of India. I love Amitav Ghosh, a relatively new Indian writer, for bringing colonial Indian history alive in the “Sea of Poppies.” I also enjoyed Junot Diaz’s magical realism as a form of story-telling that evokes the brutality of the Latin American experiences in a palatable but authentic format.
Who would play your characters in a movie? Who would you want to direct it?
This is a difficult question for me to answer because your audience is unfamiliar with the Indian actors I have in mind for enacting the roles of the main characters. I would like to direct such a film myself and I am making short films and taking film classes to work towards that goal. If I ever wrote a story with a western protagonist, I could think of no one better than Johnny Depp. I do have a historical story in mind set during the time of colonial India….! I like directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Guillermo Del Toro, who have a unique way of looking at the world.
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