Research Notes · 10/10/2014

Faint Promise of Rain

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Anjali Mitter Duva writes about Faint Promise of Rain from She Writes Press.

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In Rajasthan, a desert state in the northwest of India, many five-year old children have never seen rain. In the winter of 2001, as I prepared for a trip to the fortress city of Jaisalmer — a return to a favorite childhood destination, to which I was eager to introduce my husband — I read this striking fact in a guidebook. Most memorable was the imagery that followed: in the royal palaces, the walls of the children’s rooms were often painted with black and blue cloud designs so that when it finally did rain, the little ones would not be afraid.

A few weeks later, I sat among jewel-toned cushions of silk and cotton on an outdoor settee, and marveled at the fact that the walls were covered in tapestries encrusted with silver thread and mirror-work. We were in a courtyard within a turret of the medieval fortress in the city of Jaisalmer, yet the décor was much like that of an indoor space. Of course — there was so little threat of rain that it didn’t make much difference whether one was in or out. I was charmed by this, and at the same time my visit to Jaisalmer called forth childhood memories of travel there, sensations and reactions that were already a part of me. There was something so timeless about the setting, the fortress steeped in legends of battles, sieges and war elephants, my own memories of riding a camel into the desert. It was all begging for a story. I returned to snowy New England with the base layer of a novel already laid — in essence, the first stage of research already accomplished — although I didn’t know it yet.

Back home, I needed a reminder of the warm sandstone temples, the color-saturated fabrics, the spices. At the same time, I had been searching for a new physical activity to try out, and I set my sights on kathak, a percussive and dramatic classical dance that I’d seen during a childhood visit to India. Serendipity intervened: six blocks from our apartment, at a bustling dance center, a kathak teacher was holding classes on Sunday mornings. The moment I set foot into the studio, I was smitten. Jingling ankle bells, syncopated rhythms of the tabla (drums), precise footwork, lightning fast turns punctuated by perfect stillness. I attended every weekend, and after class, I would jot down new compositions and patterns so as not to forget them, making up my own system for recording what for generations had been an oral tradition. I tried to put on paper what my body was learning. It was a new form of research.

Soon I learned of the history of the dance, a storytelling art form over a thousand years old. Beginning among itinerant minstrels, it moved into Hindu temples where it became a devotional dance. Then, under Mughal rule, kathak was brought into Muslim courts as a form of entertainment, performed by courtesans. Outlawed by the British in the 1860s for being supposedly immoral, it was kept alive by prostitutes in red light districts, then re-emerged onto the national and international stage in the 1920s and 1930s. From my own knowledge of India’s history, I soon discerned how the stories of the country and of the dance paralleled each other, with matching upheavals as power changed hands in India from Hindu kings to Muslim Emperors to British colonialists and back into Indian hands.

One gharana, or branch, of kathak traces its lineage to Rajasthan. I could easily picture a dancer in a temple there, among the carved sandstone pillars and walls. As a twelve-year old, I had watched a girl perhaps a bit younger than me performing a folk dance at an outdoor restaurant while my parents and I sipped mango lassis. She came to mind now, as the story of kathak and the setting of Jaisalmer started to converge in my imagination.

At this point, I started jotting down notes. They joined the image from the guidebook, which I had copied down before our trip. I had the sense that something big was taking form, and so I started using a large notebook with graph paper pages, with plenty of room for whatever this big thing would be. I’d never written a book before, and it would be months — three or four chapters in, and just as I found out I was carrying our first child — before I would admit it to myself. And when I finally did, I realized this would be not a single book, but the first in a set of four, each set at a time of change and upheaval in India.

I followed the month-by-month development of our baby on a pregnancy web site, and my search for a name for our child doubled as a search for names for the characters forming in my mind: A little girl, born into a family of temple dancers. A mother fearing what the future would bring. A father intent on preserving his tradition. A son turning his back to dance in favor of the glory of battle.

My research then turned both broader and much more specific. I read up on the history of Rajasthan, of Jaisalmer, and of kathak. I read passages of the great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, whose stories are so often featured in kathak. I spent hours in Internet research for the details: what birds fly across the Thar desert sky? What food items did caravans bring along the Spice Route? What grains were cultivated, and how was the land irrigated? In what order do a horse’s hoofs touch the ground as it canters, trots and gallops, and do their sounds match the dance patterns in the way I hoped for a certain scene to come alive?

The layers and types of research added up: the sounds, smells and sights of Jaisalmer embedded in my memories; my kinetic experience on the dance floor every week; Rajasthani legends and Hindu mythology; and the facts of history all combined to bring about Faint Promise of Rain. But really, the research all began without my ever being aware of it, and the story emerged as though it had always been there, waiting for someone to collect all its pieces.

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Anjali Mitter Duva is an Indian-American writer raised in France. She is the author of Faint Promise of Rain (She Writes Press, October 2014) and a co-founder of Chhandika, a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching and promoting the Indian classical dance form called kathak. Educated at Brown University and MIT, she lives near Boston with her husband and two daughters. (www.anjalimitterduva.com)