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Please check the Piggies on the Railway – A Kasthuri Kumar Mystery page (tab on the blog header)  for updates, excerpts, press coverage and other opinion.

Tribune India, March 28, 2010 ALAS! Lady-detectives, Indian lady-detectives are elusive literary creatures. Enter Kasthuri Kumar aka Katie, detective with a buzz and two bumbling feet. And ‘seasoned’ chick-lit writer Smita Jain pulls her off with elan. So apart from the mysteries the book holds (the title being one of them) what works is the plot. Ludicrous in parts, hilarious in others and mad-hatterish for good measure…you will feel the author’s relish as she takes on one preposterous situation after another playing out a rather cheeky plot.

The writing is breezy, racy. The language is colloquial and fun, irreverent too. And it is not just her characters, even the sub-plots are funny, eliciting that smile while you sit there unbelieving that someone could actually write all this down!

Tehelka, April 2, 2010 - WITH JAIN’S first novel, the bestselling Kkrishnaa’s Konfessions, being spun into a film, her second effort heralds a new mystery series. This chicklit-detective romp follows sassy investigator Kasthuri Kumar as she tracks a missing Bollywood starlet…entertaining.

The Statesman, New Delhi, April 4, 2010 - There’s a new type of detective hitting the Mumbai beat, Kasthuri Kumar, a.k.a. Katie. Smita Jain is a script writer for TV serials and knows what makes a popular page turner with a frothy mix of sex, humour and twists and turns of the plot…Enough to keep chick lit readers entertained with her crisscrosses for a pleasant while.

ALREADY OUT  

    

“Since I had had the misfortune of laying my hands on the cursed telescope my life had gone berserk, I thought miserably. I had witnessed a murder, been shot at (by a supari killer, no less), spent a night in the slammer and seen a man killed right in front of me. But having my story and screenplays stolen — that really took the cake.”    

How far would you go to get what you want?    

a) Steal b) Scam c) Seduce    

For Kkrishnaa, the 20-something, impulsive, gutsy and unapologetically ambitious scriptwriter of television soap operas, the answer would be d) all of the above.    

And what she wants most right now is to retain her long-running, hugely successful primetime show Kkangan Souten Ke. Unfortunately for her, she has writer’s block and knows it. What is worse, her Creative Director knows it, and is threatening to hand over the pen to Kkrishnaa’s erstwhile love and current adversary, Dev Trivedi.    

Kkrishnaa must find inspiration if she wants to keep the show. So she decides to spy on her neighbours, a decision that unfortunately leads to her witnessing a murder. And thence ensues a rambunctious, rollercoaster ride as Kkrishnaa desperately attempts to keep her job, resist Dev Trivedi’s charms – and oh yes – avoid getting killed….    

A wickedly funny, rip-roaring read.    

Businessworld     

A Whodunit with a little bit of high level office politics, good dose of humour and romance…. author Smita Jain knows her job….makes the narrative pacy…     

Time Out    

A toothsome devil’s food cupcake of a novel…. has the right blend of wit, sex and twists to keep this reader interested.     

Deccan Chronicle     

Move over Bridget Jones, We now have our own Kkrishnaa, writer of TV soaps, young, attractive, single, and living alone in the big bad city of Mumbai… just what the urban English-speaking professional young woman was waiting for. The style is clever, irreverent and witty. It is an action filled page turner… an unpretentious, rollicking romp through the lanes and by lanes of Mumbai.     

Financial Express     

Wow, when someone pulls off a clever mix of two popular genres and indigenises them to boot, that’s quite a coup.     

Indian Express    

You don’t have to like Kkrishnaa but you sure can’t ignore her… hilarious, rip-roaring.    

Mail Today     

Healthy dose of what goes behind making melodramas with a lot of dhang dhnag schvoom schvoom moments…effortless pace and stylish prose has the ability to hook her readers.    

People    

Action packed…entertaining read…never a quiet moment…suitable for a Bollywood action flick.    

The Pioneer    

Pacy read for the monsoon…light, fun writing is still a good bet.    

Mid-Day    

Refreshingly young, wickedly humourous.      

     

So, we’ve been here all of fifteen days when one of our neighbours, an American, invites us for dinner….at five in the evening! My stomach lurches at the thought of eating a full meal at five and not only because I’ve had a relatively late Nandini thali lunch. So I am like, are you sure it’s dinner, and not high tea? I mean I know Americans eat early but even by their standards five is a tad too early.

But then the hubby educates me, a North America-virgin, on the concept of Thanksgiving. He tells me that the women have usually been slaving all day long and it’s usually the first meal of the day which is served any time it’s ready. In this case it happens to be five. All of a sudden a certain Friends episode starts to make sense (the one where they force Monica to cook a thanksgiving spread and then ditch her to go do other pressing things like watch ball game).

So we walk to the party, dutifully clutching a bottle of Old Monk. The American loves the drink and understandably so. It’s the only Indian hooch that’s worth having. Other than Kingfisher, of course (the one bottled in/near Mumbai. The Delhi Kingfisher is the pits).

The American promptly takes the Old Monk and starts swigging straight from the bottle. It makes me think of the Hindi film dialogue, agar mard a bachcha hai to seedha botal se peeke dikhga.

The party consists of an eclectic mix of people. Artists and animators from America, one of whom looks like a skinny HOG, complete with a bandana and boots and tattoos. There’s a young couple engaged to be married. Then there’s an American of Malloo origin and the host straightaway asks me if I like Malloos. The Malloo and I, both are taken aback by the bluntness of the question. 

“What about Malloo Christians?” the American persists mischievously. Both the Malloo and I blush and look away from each other. “They’re all right,” I mumble.

It’s embarrassing as a people to be so transparent to others. On the other hand, it doesn’t take a very astute person to deduce that no one likes anyone from another state in India.

Everybody at the party has been there since noon. The men have been watching a ball game and the women, well, like all good wives, they have been slaving in the kitchen, helping the hostess arrange the potluck dinner. The common theme, though, is that everyone has been drinking. Like, a lot. This makes them indiscreet and share confidences of a personal nature with us.

The female half of the engaged couple wonders if people can see them have sex ’cos they don’t have curtains. The women stop whatever it is we were doing (what were we doing? Ah yes, drinking). We look at each other, our bloodshot eyes containing the same query. OMG, did she really say that? A part of me (the sensationalist writer/immature attention seeker part) is envious that it was someone else who brought the party to a halt.

I want to say, “Well if they couldn’t earlier, they will certainly try harder now,” but I don’t.

More tomorrow…

Meanwhile, a little later, I’m kinda alone with the male half of the engaged couple, trying to fill that thing called the uncomfortable silence.

As usually happens in such situations (it’s practically a blueprint. Notice it next time), we begin the social interaction by swigging from our bottles and smiling at each other dorkishly. Then we both speak at the same time.

 “So…”

 “So…”

 “You first,” he invites.

 I open my mouth to speak, only to realise I don’t really have anything to say. Meanwhile, he’s looking at me expectantly. So I rack my brains…except the pressure of situation gets to me and my mind goes blank.

 For God’s sake, it’s not like I was on the stage in front of a room full of people! Just say something clever and witty and….

“So, you have sex with your curtains open?” I blurt out.

 And noncommittal.

 Before my horrified eyes, the guy squints at me and says, “Sorry?”

 Is that sorry as in I can’t believe you said that or sorry as in I didn’t catch ya?

 It is possible that he didn’t hear me. What with the music, the ball game and screaming kids, it is pretty loud. Thankfully, it is the latter. One would think that having been granted a reprieve like that I would make amends. Not me, no, sir.

“Why are you getting married?” I ask next.

After he overcomes his initial shock over such a bald question, he gazes into the distance as he ponders the imponderable.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” I say hastily.

His mouth forms into an O as he thoughtfully exhales. “No, no, you’re right. I don’t know why I’m getting married. I don’t want to.” And he goes on to talk about the redundancy of the institution called marriage.

Crap.

I can see the woman hovering nearby. Out of the corner of my eyes I see her approaching. I start panicking. “Oh no, no, no.”

“No, you’re right. Marriage is a fucked up institution. I’m going to tell her after the party that I need more time.”

“Oh my God!” 

Too late.

We both turn around to see the woman behind us, staring at us, her face ashen with shock.

Before you judge me, you’ve got to understand, I spend most of day, alone. Sometimes (very rarely), when the work is going along great, I’m happy, but mostly, I’m in a bad mood.  I have no conversations with any human beings apart from my maid, cook, gardener and the car wash guy. Which is a good thing because they are the perfect targets for my ire. Besides my work comprises thinking of ways to subject my heroines to potentially humiliating situations. So, is it any wonder that I have zero social skills?

Anyway, to drag a long story longer, my faux pass (is that the plural for faux pas?) don’t stop there. Meanwhile, after having swigged a half bottle of Old Monk (on top of the beer he’d been slugging since noon), the host decides the time is just right for a moonlit motorbike drive. Apparently he’s some kind of a bike aficionado ’cos he has a garage full of bikes. He invites me to take my pick of the bike or ride pillion, whatever I fancy. I fancy staying out, I tell him. He shrugs his shoulders and calls me a loser. He then similarly dares the men, and men being men, cannot resist a challenge.

 I saunter back to terrace to join the women folk.

 “You didn’t join them?” The hostess wants to know.

 “Are you crazy? With them being so drunk and all?”

 Her eyes widen in horror. She starts hyperventilating and rushes to talk to her hubby. To no avail. As any woman will tell you, reasoning with a sober man is next to impossible. Add booze to the equation and you have a better hope of India wining the world cup. She rushes back and glares at me balefully. “I need an intervention.” (how American’s love this intervention business.)

 So all the women rush downstairs but by then the men have already left. They return after a nail biting two hours. We hear that the host, sloshed as he was, fell off his bike a couple of times on the kuchcha road and knocked over the society barricades for which he was fines 500 bucks. But other than that he was none the worse for wear. And thus ends our eventful thanksgiving.

Changes

Okay, I’m back after a looooong break. In my defence, there are extenuating factors. I was in the process of shifting cities and, like settling into any new place, it took me while to find my feet in Bangalore. That’s right, I am now a resident of namma Bengaluru. Actually I’m in a far flung suburb of Bengaluru called Whitefield where, initially, I rubbed shoulders with goras and celebrated Thanksgiving (more on that later) and Christmas (more on that later still).

How did that go? How does any interaction with they proudly display their (that’s assimilation into Indian culture by casually discussing THE place for best dosa (it’s not) and equally nonchalantly bitch about Raja with equal vehemence.

But then we moved out of Palm Meadows and into a more Indianised community where, reassuringly, we’re planning a bhang-filled Holi party (definitely more on that later).

I’ve been to the city called Bengaluru six times, seven, including the time I went to UB City to see Led Zepp (lica, as it turned out). More on that later.

I’ve seen precisely one movie (in a theatre). Otherwise my run rate of at least a movie a day continues. And since you ask, it was Band Baaja Baaraat, or as they write here, Band Baaja Bharath.

Let’s see, what else have I been up to?  I’ve been rechristened, Smitha.

And, oh yes, this appeared in a paper in Sweden. Google translation.

That’s right, I’ve been farting. A lot.

Soon as we arrived at Villa Urbani, we dumped our stuff in our room and performed the barest of ablutions. Then we willed our tired, sleep deprived bodies to forsake the air-conditioned comfort of our digs in favour of a twenty minute walk to the city centre in 35°C. After all we had to optimise our three days in Roma. Plus, it was two o’clock local time and my blood alcohol was dangerously low. The last beer (birra from now on) I had was the flight and at ten o’clock local time.

So, armed with a map, thoughtfully provided by Laura, we started out, soaking up the atmosphere and getting into the Roman state of mind. En route, I came to a screeching halt outside a bar-slash-cafe advertising happy hours near Ponte Sisto, the pedestrian bridge over the Tiber. Sucker that I am for happy hours, in we went with the intention of buying our drinks and drinking them in the charming piazza outside.

To our puzzlement, when we went up to the barman, he asked us if we wanted to sit inside or outside? Inside, by the window or by the wall? I ran an eye around and saw that the bar was mostly empty, inside and outside. “Does it matter?”

“Different charges for different tables,” he said.

And that is how we were introduced to the peculiar Italian system of differential pricing. Anyway, we bought the cheapest table – we had gone in for happy hours after all ­– and OMG, was it a dump! It happened to be a tiny two-seater along the only walled portion of the bar.  The rest of the tables inside were by the window overlooking the magnificent Tiber. And by wall I mean a vertical, flat column coated with stubborn dirt and grime and some orangeish streaks reminiscent of stains left by projectile paan-spit. Shudder.

So we sat there in that dump, all strait-jacketed on our stools, mindful of not touching anything but our glasses. I had a standard 330 ml (33 cl as all liquids are in centilitres in Italy) or a small ‘piccolo’ birra, which cost me €2.50 whereas MH had a standard Jack Daniels (60 ml or an Indian large peg measure as it happens) for the same amount. The alcohol assimilated quickly, strategically downed as it was speedily, and on an empty stomach.

From then on the walk was more pleasant and the miles simply vaporised. We walked to the nearest phone shop, bought a local SIM card from with a ‘special rate of 3 cents a minute for calls to India.’ From then it was on to the Pantheon, Piazza Novona…what, did you think I was going to describe the monuments? Well, this isn’t that kind of a blog, simply b’cos I’m not the sightseeing kinda person. I’m not averse to seeing monuments or anything – I’ll see a monument if it’s on my way – I’m just more interested in art galleries and worthy museums.

We spent a couple of hours wandering around aimlessly and snapping pictures. We also sat in an open air cafe in Piazza Novona and had a drink. I asked for a birra but promptly changed my order to house wine when I discovered I could get an entire half litre carafe of vino della casa for the price of one. And it was very good, too, worth every cent of its €3 price tag. Besides, comparing apples to apples, it was 5% alcohol vs 40%, so it was a win-win situation all around.

We’d already decided that we’d dine at Trastevere and sample the fabled nightlife so, at about 7 p.m., we decide to start walking back. We had noticed, while walking to the Pantheon, both banks of the Tiber, on either side of Ponte Sisto consisted of restaurants and bars. At the time it was relatively early in the day and everything was shut. Now, as we were walking back, things were beginning to come to life. Mind you, they weren’t swinging yet – Italians, like the Spanish, eat relatively late  – but you could get a drink.

We chose a bar near a makeshift stage that seemed to be a beehive of activity and settled down with our drinks. Judging by the plethora of musical instruments and the neo-gothic looks sported by most young people around the stage was being set for a rock music performance. We lingered over our drinks, hoping that we’d get to see a sound check-slash-rehearsal, but the band showed us no love. We could have hung around some more but the sky, which had become overcast during the afternoon, started looking positively gloomy. We didn’t mind getting wet, but we had an expensive Nikon that begged consideration.

But, Nikon or not, we still had to eat. So we decided that we’d begin the hike back to Villa Urbani and just stop at a restaurant on the way. It was while we were executing our ingenious plan that we came across the most cheerful looking pizza parlour with a display that was a veritable Holi battleground. This was somewhat serendipitous because I spotted the pizzeria at the same time the swollen clouds above emptied their bellies in a hydrous deluge. So, construing this to be a nudge from the Gods above, we sauntered in.

And by God was it a good decision! I had two slices – one with a zucchini topping and one with a Rucola (Rocket) topping. And those two slices were, as I drunkenly blubbered to the pizza lady, “the best pizza I’ve eaten. Ever.” And to think there was no cheese involved, only olive oil. The base was thin and crisp, the sauce was delicately flavoured and it was baked to perfection.

Afterwards, since it was still raining, we sat around – surprise, surprise – drinking some more. I asked the pizza lady to recommend a gelateria and she mentioned Checco’s (pronounced Keiko) in Trastevere. We left that for another night, wrapped our precious Nikon in plastic and dashed the uno kilometre or so to Villa Urbani.

I’m back after a holiday (yes, another one) which saw me travelling through the length and breadth of Italy. The reason for this extravagance was my approaching birthday and my hubby’s (hereafter referred to as MH) desire to make it special. Otherwise three holidays in a year in quick succession is bit much even for a sybarite like myself.

We arrived upon Italy as the destination based upon several considerations. One, it is in Europe and I absolutely adore Europe and two, we hadn’t been to Italy. The most compelling considerations for us cheap Indians however, was that fact Italy being a part of PIIGS, and reeling under the severest of recessions should be cheaper. Perhaps the stable and ever appreciating Euro (a veritable mystery) should’ve have alerted us otherwise, in any case, the notion was soon dispelled. At an average room rate of € 100 per day, where the fuck was the recession?

After a whole lot of research a tentative itinerary was chalked out. Starting out in Rome, our travels were to take us through Tuscany, to Siena, Volterra, Lucca and Florence and end in Vicenza, a modest-sized industrial town in northern Italy.

July 30

We left Mumbai on July 30 and flew Lufthansa into Frankfurt which is also where we cleared immigration. Apparently, to get a Schengen via the Italian Embassy is a royal pain in the ass and so we got ours from the Swiss Embassy. The flight itself was uneventful as all my flights are. I think it’s my good karma to which MH retorts, “Only if the spirits you imbibe in copious amounts are called good karma.”

We landed at Fiumicino Airport, Rome, or as the locals indignantly point out, “Roma! There’s no such place as Rome,” at twelve thirty on July 30. As promised by Laura, the hostess of our B&B, there was a car waiting for us. It was weird to see a man, spiffier than the relationship manager at my bank drag my strolley to the car. I struggled with the urge to grab my stuff back and had to constantly remind myself that he was the driver and that I was paying him to do that. And, at €30, handsomely too.

Initially when Laura offered to arrange a pick up or us, I thought the price tag of €30 a little pricey. However, a quick glance at the rates on romashuttle.com – FYI, there was nothing available for less than €45 – and I accepted with alacrity. 

In Roma, we stayed at a charming B&B called Villa Urbani, a five-seven minute walk from Trastevere. Many tourists prefer staying in the centre of Rome, near Termini station, in and around post code 184 area. While that is certainly close to the sights, the happening area is Trastevere, literally translated as ‘across the Tiber.’ This area is full of bars and restaurants and buzzing with activity till the wee hours of the morning. And if that isn’t enough to convince anyone, this is where Romans like to hang out.

We were lucky to find Villa Urbani too. The rooms and bathrooms are huge, clean and bright and the air conditioning works. If you think the last bit about the aircon is weird, read some reviews on Tripadvisor. Most bad reviews are about over booking and faulty air conditioning. I reckon we could have found something closer, for the same price (€100 per day), something in the heart of Trastevere but the room quality (more importantly, the bathroom quality) would’ve been dodgy at best. Anyone who’s ever travelled in Europe will tell you that rooms tend to be poky at the best of hotels.

Besides did we really want to be in the heart of Trastevere? A few years ago, maybe. Now, I’m sufficiently advanced in age to appreciate quiet, restful sleep at night and Villa Urbani was far enough to guarantee just that.

Chick lit meets crime fic, with a dash of fun

Normally I’m a little sceptical about this whole new chick-lit-meets-crime-fic genre that seems to have mushroomed recently. It either winds up being really angsty (tough female heroine has never found love and is treated badly) or really cliché (she is saved in the nick of time by her handsome, studly supervisor) or just unable to stick to a genre (skipping wildly from here to there in the attempts to be Agatha Christie meets Marian Keyes.) Anything that is ‘something meets something’ is usually a book you should avoid. Remember that advice. It’ll come in handy someday.

But, I’m always happy to change my mind. (Isn’t that one of the very fun prerogatives of being a woman?) And so when Piggies On The Railway landed on my bedside reading pile, I picked it up with interest, but not much hope. And boy, was I wrong. This book made me eat my words….Read the rest of it.

I feel like a model

And as I write this heading above, the chicklit writer in me can’t resist adding: Which means fabulous. Okay so I also feel exhausted from too much exercise, faint from too little food, asphyxiated from too many cigarettes…but I’m thin. As the wise Kate Moss said, articulating what women worldwide know to be the gospel truth, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”

However, that is not what this post is about. Earlier this week I felt that that Piggies’ publicity needed another push. So I logged into Gmail, opened the chat window and wrote to my PR person (henceforth known as AT).

I began the conversation with my usual, I’m not feeling the love. Which I think it’s a cute opening salvo. AT, however, complains, saying she feels I’m doing diva act. The whole I’m-throwing-a-tantrum-because-I’m feeling-ignored which, frankly, is as far from the truth as John Abraham is from making it to the A list.

I am not a diva. I don’t demand round the clock attendance. Okay, so she can call me once a day and affirm to me that my books are selling like hot cakes and that I’m the best there is. And occasionally, just occasionally, like once a day, she can send me a compilation of press clippings also affirming the same.

Oh dear. In my defence, I said I’m not a diva. I didn’t say I’m not a neurotic writer.

Anyway, coming back to the Piggies publicity push, I mean it was topping all bestseller lists and everything but that’s precisely why I felt we needed to prod it along NOW. “Stoke the fire while it’s burning and all that, old girl,” I said.

I was taken aback when she agreed. “Quelle surprise,” I said, jumping across the English channels, if only linguistically.

She said that she had already contacted numerous publications and arranged for me to comment on a host of issues for various publications. Then she logged out of chat and called me on my cell. “Hold on,” she said. “D just called me. She’s on the other line. I’ll conference you.”

“Hey, D,” she said after a while. “So as I was saying why don’t you get Smita’s views on Handy Investment Tips for Housewives?”

Now AT had either forgotten to tell D she had conferenced me, or she’d told her, but had also encouraged her to be free with her opinion about me. Fire the gun from someone else’s shoulder and all that. I’m leaning towards the latter.

“Smita Jain? But she’s a…chicklit writer!” The way D said the last sentence, with a pause after a as though she was looking for the right word, and a kind of squealy emphasis on the word chicklit, left me in no doubt that she didn’t exactly mean it was like asking Einstein to comment on high school physics.

Derision. From a journo who’d just last week written that the French Open final was played between Rafael Nadal and Roland Garros! This was almost too much to bear.

I was left fuming. As Kasthuri says in Chapter One, “if (s)he thought (s)he was dealing with a brainless twit (s)he had another think coming. It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him(her)  about my excellent, eighty-percent-plus-all-the-way academic record, and multiple degrees in economics and finance just to drive home the point.”

But of course I didn’t. I didn’t want to upset D. I didn’t want her writing Smita Jain’s latest novel Piggies on the Railway is based on a popular nursery rhyme, did I?

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