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June 9, 2000

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Mumbai masala

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Canadian-born and England-bred author Leslie Forbes' love affair with India began when she visited the sub-continent to do research for a British radio documentary on the history of Indian spice trade. From being wary about the poverty and pollution in India, she was totally "bowled over" by the Mogul gardens, Bombay Talkies and Indian curry houses.

It was here that she met a very charming Bollywood film director, who a local gossip columnist told her later, was widely suspected of fatally pushing his first wife off a balcony.

This formed the crux of her first novel, Bombay Ice. Though, she's written a few books on the Indian cuisine earlier -- in this novel, she manages to unravel the glamour, grandeur and grease that cakes the Bombay film industry, adding to her inimitable style a dash of humour and panache. In an interview, she talks to Firdaus Ali about rosewater, roasted chickpeas and the rains...

What were your first thoughts when landed on the Indian soil?

Before going to India I worried that the poverty and dirt would oppress me. Within minutes of first arriving there (June 1988, in Delhi, temperature 122 F), to research Remarkable Feasts, a book about feasting round the world, beginning with Idd-ul-Fitr and going on to a wedding in Kashmir) I was enchanted by the smell of rosewater, roasting chickpeas, open drains, burning cow dung from the campfires, cooking rotis, jasmine, simmering dal -- the smell of all human life, I'd call it.

I loved the death-defying antics of the motor rickshaw drivers, my favourite mode of transport, the Ambassador taxis, the street life and the trains, the extraordinary palaces and the desert mud huts decorated with rice powder, the incredible generosity of people, the great sense of humour, the contact with a deeply religious country.

I especially love that India is living all its centuries at once, tribal people next to quantum physicists, and trying to organize them all into the largest democracy in the world. For me, India represents the worst and best of this world we've made, the hideous and the beautiful, the corrupt and the saintly. No modern person can afford to ignore what's going on there and what has gone on since 1947.

Bombay Ice is based on your experiences of the Bombay film industry. How did this subject get to be the genesis of your book?

The Indian radio programmes on food, movies and culture I did for the BBC in 1993-94 left me with too many characters, too many notes unused. For example, I had dined with a charming Bombay director whom I was later told had murdered his first wife by pushing her off a balcony (the opening to Bombay Ice). I never learned if this was true or not. It made me interested in the difference between what we accept as 'history' vs. 'story', how we can seldom tell if something is true or not because truth is a question of viewpoint (witness the current war in Serbia). India's view of what British Empire did is different from Britain's. Neither is true or false.

Did the Bombay film industry come as a surprise to you?

Bollywood seemed like Hollywood in the 30s-50s, like the world of LA Confidential, both corrupt and glamorous, a place Jimmy Cagney would feel at home if re-incarnated.

The Choli ke peechhe kya hai? song, notorious throughout the remotest corners of India in 1993, banned for obscenity on All India Radio, surprised me. It is impossible to imagine such a song -- mildly suggestive even at its crudest -- causing such a furore in the West. I made a radio programme about the Choli song for BBC.

I approached famous Indian directors with the unbeatable line, "Hello, I'm Leslie Forbes. Choli ke peechhe kya hai? (roughly,: What is beneath my blouse?)".

Their considered answers to what exactly lay beneath my blouse varied from Merchant-Ivory veteran Shashi Kapoor's "A heart", to Bollywood cynic Mahesh Bhatt's "A very fine pair of boobs".

Any idiosyncrasies of Bollywood stars that you can remember?

Shashi's love of eating and the great 12-course brunch he served me in his apartment on top of Malabar Hill, Mahesh Bhatt's wicked sense of humour and wide reading, and Shyam Benegal's extraordinarily learned discourse, explaining Indian popular film in the context of Indian history while around us the monsoon thundered and roared like a movie tempest.

How close is real life to reel life in Bombay?

Not close. Most Bombay films are love stories, for a start, in a country and culture where arranged marriage is still the norm. Reel life is a cheap escape route for thousands of people who need it and will never be able to afford it. But there are themes in Bollywood films that are central to understanding India: the emphasis on family traditions, the importance of mum (and/or Mother India), song and dance as an integral part of Indian culture. I go into all this in my book.

Can you recount some positive and negative experiences with Bollywood stars/people associated with the Indian film industry?

They're in the book, cleverly disguised!

Is the book somewhat autobiographical? Or maybe based on some real life experiences?

All novels are somewhat autobiographical; they come from within the author's experience. Some of the Bollywood incidents in the book did happen to me, although I've then enlarged them and altered them to fit the stor

The computer radio editing techniques used to 'catch' the villains were pioneered by a wonderful BBC producer called Matt Thompson, while working in our series, The Indian Spice Trail.

Rosalind (the protagonist) of the novel) is an extreme version of me in some ways, although I am not half-Indian (except in spirit), and my parents were married for 60 years, I have two brothers and one older sister, who is nothing like Miranda (my sister who is married to a film director in the novel).

What has been the reaction of people who have read it so far? The book was published in hard back across Britain, Germany, Canada and America in June/July 1998. There were great reviews Britain, Germany, New York Times, mixed but generally sensational reviews across America, and outstanding reviews by Indian writers Shashi Tharoor (The Washington Post, July 5, 1999) and Bombay-born Keith Garebian ( The Toronto Globe & Mail, 16 May 1998). Warner Brothers have just optioned the film rights, and all the publishers have paid lots more for rights to my next novel, which is a good sign.

Recipes From The Indian Spice Trail, is based on Indian cuisine. How did you go about collecting recipes? What do you personally think of Indian cooking?

Recipes From The Indian Spice Trail is based on a trip and series of radio interviews I did for BBC Radio in 1993 (some of which became the basis for Bombay Ice), investigating the old spice trade routes across India. We collected recipes from everyone we met -- Jewish spice traders in Cochin; from the prime minister of the last nizam of Hyderabad; from the Shashi Kapoor's cook in Bombay... I love Indian vegetarian cooking, especially that of Kerala, Gujarat, and Bombay. I eat it a lot at my favourite Indian restaurant in the world, RASA, in Dering Street, London.

Both Bombay Ice and your next novel are inspired by murders, intrigue and crime. Is this merely a coincidence?

I give you Umberto Eco's answer when asked why he wrote The Name of the Rose as a crime novel -- because the central psychological and philosophical question is always: whodunnit? That is, who is really to blame? How far back do we go to find the guilty party? This is of great interest to me when looking at the Indians', Africans', Jamaicans' -- and, yes, Canadians' -- relationship to Britain and that modern empire-building country, the USA. Also, to such situations that are in modern Serbia/Albania/Kosovo.

I did a 12-part series for BBC Radio called Crimescapes, investigating with 12 crime writer the kinds of crimes that occurred in different cities round Europe, and whether a certain kind of crime applies to a certain kind of landscape. This research led directly to Bombay Ice, and the way the real monsoon and the movie Tempest relate to different kinds of crimes.

Can you elaborate on the theme of your next novel?

It's called Fish, Blood & Bone, which is the brand name of a popular garden fertilizer. You could call it a genetic ghost story about the power of such anonymous things as genes (cancer genes, 'green' genes, 'suicide' genes) to affect our lives more than the most famous and influential people in history. Theme: anonymity vs fame.

Briefly, an American girl with no history inherits an old house and garden in London and discovers, when her best friend is killed there, that she has inherited more history than she wants. The investigation takes her on a trip with a group of scientists into the Himalayan region in search of an elusive 'green' gene believed to cure cancer (and into her own past, which involves the affair between a famous Victorian British botanical painter and an 'anonymous' Indian botanist).

You share a special relationship with India, now that your third book is also based on India, this time on an Indian living abroad. How do you feel about this?

India is an inexhaustible mine of stories, storytellers, painting subjects. What more could a writer and painter ask for?

Is there a vast difference between Indians living in India and those settled abroad?

I couldn't generalize. Depends on the Indians, their sex, cultural background, and where and how they settled. A Bangladeshi garment-worker living with her family in an East London tenement and speaking no English would share very little with my friend Jatinder Verma who was born to Gujarati parents in Tanzania, kicked out by that tyrannical regime, got his PhD at Oxford University, was the first Indian to direct at Britain's National Theatre. He calls himself a coconut: brown on the outside, white within. I don't think skin colour matters a damn, but cultural background does.

Do you have plans to visit India again soon?

I usually go once a year. Went in November 1998, to Calcutta, Kalimpong and Sikkim and will probably return again very soon.

(Bombay Ice is published by McArthur & Company Publishing Ltd. Price: CA $ 8.99)

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