|Little Friends of Pongala|
Susan Oleksiw writes the Anita Ray series featuring an Indian American photographer living at her aunt's tourist hotel in South India She also writes the Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva. Learn more about Susan and her books, view her photographs of India and read an Anita Ray short story at her website.
Readers often ask writers where our characters come from, and I have to admit that I don’t know. Anita Ray, the Indian American woman living in her aunt’s tourist hotel in South India, popped up in a short story. She walked onto the page fully formed.
Anita appeared as a photographer in the very first line of the first story, “A Murder Made in India” (AHMM October 2003). She used a film camera in the first stories but switched to digital later on. She uses a Pentax, as do I. (I long for a Leica, but I’m realistic—not in the budget.)
A professional photographer recently pointed out to me that in most fiction the protagonist who is a photographer could just as easily be a lawyer, a teacher, or anything else. After the first mention of photography, it plays no significant role in the story. That comment made me think about how Anita uses photography in her investigations.
Anita uses the camera to get close to situations where others are barred. Photographers sometimes have access where others are denied. In India that may in part be a result of a generally high regard for artists, but Anita takes advantage of that. She’s nosy and she uses her camera to get in closer. But she also thinks better when she’s holding it, as do I.
|Fishermen on the beach|
Anita also has a photography gallery, and this brings her closer to the tourists that fill the hotels and restaurants along the beaches. She is close to the ground, so to speak, and knows what’s going on from her fellow vendors along the beach. Anita’s gallery also gives me a chance to display her “take” on people, Indians and foreigners alike, especially those who might be involved in a suspicious death.
In Under the Eye of Kali, the first Anita Ray novel, a postcard sent by an earlier visitor and now posted on her gallery bulletin board turns out to be a clue to the murder. Anita pursues a particular foreigner on the basis of her reaction to the postcard.
In For the Love of Parvati, Anita takes a few shots of the corpse she discovers when she realizes that the man didn’t die a natural death, and no one else seems concerned about the marks on his wrists and the injuries to his shoulder and arm.
I’ve been using Anita’s profession as a photographer in obvious ways that advance the plot, by giving her access to suspects and a way to record evidence of violent death. But as a photographer, Anita sees the world a little differently. Because she has done portrait work, she recognizes shifts in body language—the tilt of a head, the tightening of shoulders, the nearly imperceptible movement of hands—and reads them along with the words spoken. She recognizes when a scene has been staged, or a room reorganized to conceal something. She has strong observational skills.
Anita also knows that some of the best photographs are accidents, the ones you take at the last minute when you’re leaving the market after taking a dozen shots of fish sellers, or while waiting for the autorickshaw driver to finish his elevenses. She has learned to look carefully at each shot when she prints out a contact sheet or uploads to the computer. She studies each photograph for information that eluded her when she pushed the button. This is how she discovers the identity of a murderer in a short story, “The Photographer and the Lover” (AHMM April 2005).
For a long time I thought about photography as an adjunct to writing, a way to get to know India better so that my stories felt more authentic. But the experience of photography itself influences the person taking the shot, and can be more revealing than the story being told. A friend who appraises art once pointed out that my photographs are much more emotional than my fiction. I wondered about this until I remembered another rule for writers. Writers are often told to ignore the censor in their head and just write. Apparently I have no censor as a photographer, and as a result I reveal more. I look at photography as another way to tell a story, to get inside a different world. But in truth it’s another way for me to get my feeling about something onto paper, for others to view. Working out the role of Anita’s photography in the story is some of the best fun I have, and I’m already at work on the fourth Anita Ray, where the camera plays an even more important role.
For the Love of Parvati
In the foothills of South India a man struggles against ropes tying him to an old bridge while the monsoon rages and wild animals forage for food. In the valley below, Anita Ray and Auntie Meena are stopped at a roadblock while their car is searched.
When Anita and Meena arrive at their destination, Lalita Amma s household is in turmoil. During a break in the rain, Anita discovers a body washed into the riverbank. The police whisk away the corpse and refuse to answer questions.
For the Love of Parvati brings Anita Ray face to face with a killer determined to exact revenge for a code of honor broken, a lover determined to rescue his beloved, and a woman desperate to build a new life.