Award-winning Baltimore crime novelist Sujata Massey turns to historical fiction

'The Sleeping Dictionary' explores India in years leading up to independence from British rule

  • Mystery writer Sujata Massey on the porch of her Tuxedo Park home with her dog, Charlie.
Mystery writer Sujata Massey on the porch of her Tuxedo Park… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
September 09, 2013|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

Sujata Massey opened the door of her refrigerator and pulled out a curry made from pink potatoes and zucchini. It was the best way she could think of to demonstrate what's going on inside her head when she sits down to write a novel.

"I'm an odd person," says Massey, who recently returned with her family to Baltimore after a six-year hiatus. "This is the kind of thing I make, and my kids are not excited by the look of it. If I make a hamburger, I make it with Indian spices. There will never be a tuna casserole in this house. The way I think and the things that appeal to me are just a little bit different."

It's no coincidence that recipes for chingri bhapey (or mustard shrimp), rice made with cardamom and cinnamon and Independence trifle are included in an appendix to "The Sleeping Dictionary," Massey's newly released 11th novel.

The 49-year-old author doesn't so much write a novel as cook one, blending together a quarter teaspoon of this and a cup of that to create a stew that pays homage to its ingredients while simultaneously transforming them.

As she puts it: "Every book has a unique set of circumstances. I have sort of made myself my own world."

"The Sleeping Dictionary," Massey's first historical novel, might seem to be a significant departure from the 10-novel, award-winning Rei Shimura mystery series for which the author has been known. But for all its epic sweep, the new book contains many of the flavors that have characterized Massey's writing since 1986, when she began her career by covering food and fashion for The Evening Sun.

The novel is set in India during the waning years of British rule from 1925 through the end of World War II. It takes its title from a term used by British officers to refer to their native paramours, who educated them in Indian customs and traditions.

The novel tells the story of a young peasant girl known variously as Pom, Pamela and Kamala, who makes her way from West Bengal to Calcutta in the 1930s. She becomes involved in a love triangle between a well-born Indian lawyer fighting for his country's independence and a member of the British colonial society working to change the system from within.

When Massey appears Thursday night at the Ivy Bookshop, she'll talk about her research methods, which include scouring libraries on three continents. "The Sleeping Dictionary" concludes with a bibliography of roughly a dozen pages, and Massey's website ( reproduces black-and-white photos of India during the late Raj, including several locations mentioned in the novel.

Even before Simon & Schuster published "The Sleeping Dictionary" in the U.S. on Aug. 20, the 528-page book had touched off a bidding war among India's English-language publishers. The novel was sold to Penguin Books India and is scheduled to be released as "City of Palaces" in May 2014. It has also been sold to publishers in Italy and Turkey.

Massey's Indian editor, Ambar Chatterjee, writes in an email that he was eager to acquire "The Sleeping Dictionary" because it fills a void in his country for historical fiction.

"One would expect a lot of writers from the subcontinent to mine our rich history for the purpose of good storytelling," Chatterjee writes.

"But curiously, this does not happen as often as one would expect. Historical fiction as a genre is not as well established in India as it is in the West. As a result, it's difficult to come across a historical novel that is truly satisfying, something you can relish.

"Sujata Massey, however, comes as a breath of fresh air. From the nuanced characters to the meticulous historical detail, her novel is simply unputdownable, and we are confident that it will do very well here."

As Chatterjee points out, Massey takes enormous pains with details — and not just in the novel. She is quick to provide the picky facts that reporters care about. She volunteers, for instance, that her new home near the Eddie's on Roland Avenue isn't in Roland Park, but in Tuxedo Park.

Unprompted, she spells out the name of the technique used to decorate one of her hands with a temporary henna tattoo — Mehndi — which she acquired when she attended an Indian wedding. When asked about specific dates, she doesn't say "sometime in the 1980s or 1990s." She says "1986" or occasionally, "September 1997."

This habit reflects more than just journalistic training. It's also a manifestation of a palate so refined that it can pick up seemingly insignificant differences. A fact is for Massey a celebration of the individual, the specific, the particular. Even the smallest true piece of information represents a doorway she can open to a unique land.

"A good storyteller," Massey says, "needs to look for things in the world that not everyone notices."

As a product of two cultures who has spent most of her life living in a third, Massey has become adept at interpreting subtle cues from the dominant culture so as to learn how to best navigate the existing power structure

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