by James W. Ziskin
Bombay Monsoon is set in 1975 India against the backdrop of the Emergency, the twenty-one-month period of rule-by-decree and suspension of civil liberties in the world’s largest democracy. In writing Bombay Monsoon, I leaned on my varied experience of expatriate life, in France, Italy, and—of course—India. There’s a long list of stellar expatriate and international thrillers, from le Carré to Greene to Forsyth to Ludlum. And many more. I devoured their novels for their suspense, intrigue, and exotic settings. In fact, it was my love of travel and far-off places that inspired me to write this book.
Danny Jacobs is Bombay Monsoon’s so-called hero. I say “so-called” because he’s unusually naïve and trusting for a reporter who’s been roughed up by the police in Pinochet’s Chile and hit by shrapnel in Vietnam. His egalitarian views and basic human decency might well be hurdles in his career. He’s trying to make his mark in difficult foreign settings, after all. And qualities such as kindness and lack of guile are likely to put him at risk in dangerous situations.
A young, ambitious American journalist, Danny is working for a growing wire service. He arrives in Bombay (Mumbai) for a long-term assignment just as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declares a domestic emergency. That gives her the power to suspend due process, throw her political opponents in jail, and clamp down hard on the press, which puts Danny in a headlock. Thanks to the censor, he can’t report on the Emergency, the only news his boss in New York is interested in.
The first time I met Willy Smets, he told me I could think of Indians either as the obstacles to my happiness or the means to achieve it.
Danny’s friendly, outgoing nature make him the typical unsuspecting American abroad. He’s trusting, which is a recipe for disaster in danger zones and hot spots. Yes, he’s curious about Indian culture and politics and eager to learn. But he’s also a romantic, susceptible to falling in love “at the drop of a skirt.” And in Danny’s case, it’s not a skirt he falls for, but a silk sari. Sushmita is the beguiling lover of Danny’s new acquaintance and fellow expat, Willy Smets. And Sushmita seems to return Danny’s interest.
Or does she?
Her name was Sushmita. Easily half Smets’s age, she was a couple of years younger than I was, too. An extremely attractive girl, she was sexy, but hardly perfect. There was that one slightly crooked incisor, for example, and a small scar at the side of her right eye, caused perhaps by a childhood fall. And those matrimonial classifieds in Indian newspapers might have described her complexion as dusky. Shameful, I thought. She wasn’t quite as fair-skinned as the Hindi film starlets, but so what. I found her enchanting. I entertained a brief fantasy, wondering what chances I might have with such a woman. Then it became painfully clear that, not only was she uninterested in me, she was unavailable.
Expatriate life is often a stranger-in-a-strange-land story. When living overseas, you meet, befriend, and socialize with fellow strangers, people you might not associate with back home. You forge a closeness born of shared cultural history and familiarity. And foreignness. But that’s not necessarily the best way to find an authentic experience of your host country. Or the wisest choice of friends.
“Cheers,” Harlan said, offering his glass for a clink. “You know what’s great about international travel, Dan? Meeting folks from back home. Folks you’d never give a second thought to if you ran into them stateside.”
The comfort of the known is tempting. Which is the case for Danny Jacobs. He lets himself be seduced by the wealth and largess of the enigmatic Willy Smets, even as he falls for Willy’s young lover. And that brews up a dangerous concoction for an innocent living abroad.
In so many ways, my own expatriate adventures mirror Danny’s. Though I was not a journalist in India, I have spent four years there working and traveling. Made fifty-six separate trips there. Yes, fifty-six. I was married there, worked there, lived there, and traveled the same dangerous mountain roads Danny does, praying for my life the whole way. I’ve experienced the same culture shock and amazement he does, and the wonders, too. I learned to love India for everything she offers and hope I’ve managed to distill some of that love into Bombay Monsoon.
Bombay Monsoon presents an American’s reflections of a beautiful and baffling culture. It also explores the boundaries of loyalty and the temptations of betrayal. Mrs. Gandhi’s Emergency only complicates matters for Danny Jacobs, the quintessential stranger in a strange land. But the Emergency also serves to illuminate his views on the resilience—and fragility—of democracy, whether at home or abroad.
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