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Article: Divya’s debut novel is a thriller on stolen antiques

Following the launch at the SIBF 2018, this interview appeared in one of the region’s leading English dailies, the Khaleej Times

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The fiction title is a fast-paced thriller deal with the issue of idol theft and is a heady mix of crime, mystery, romance and the paranormal.

For debutant Indian novelist Divya Kumar, the protagonist in her maiden book The Shrine of Death had to be a woman. “It was a no-brainer,” she explained to Khaleej Times, after launching her book at the Sharjah International Book Fair late last week.

The Dubai-based author and former journalist’s first book was published by Bloomsbury India in April 2018. The fiction title is a fast-paced thriller deal with the issue of idol theft and is a heady mix of crime, mystery, romance and the paranormal.

“The book is a fictionalised account of actual events that occurred in Tamil Nadu in 2009 when a set of ancient Chola idols disappeared from an abandoned temple and were later discovered to have been smuggled out of the country,” said Kumar.

“This was the watershed case that eventually leads to the high-profile arrest of Manhattan-based art dealer and smuggler Subhash Kapoor.”

The book’s central character – Prabha Sinhan – is an IT professional who gets pulled into the murky world of idol theft and goes in search of her missing friend Sneha Pillai.

“Mainstream Indian media often portrays a certain stereotype of women in mass media. Like a manic pixie dream girl, or a virtuous, pious woman, or an oversexed glam doll, or even a confused, flaky millennial,” she added.

Kumar’s character had to be a relatable, regular young woman who was not epitomised in any manner. “I also wanted my character to be strong, stubborn, and fiercely loyal,” she said.

A former journalist of The Hindu newspaper in India, Kumar moved to Dubai in 2016. “I finished a big chunk of the editing and re-writing process in the UAE,” she added.

Though the book had its first release in India, Kumar said she is extremely proud of being part of the Sharjah book fair.

“I wanted to write fiction for pretty much my whole life. From childhood, I’ve had a set of unfinished books and manuscripts. I worked at The Hindu from 2006 – 2011, but I stopped working full-time after my daughter was born,” she said.

She began seriously working on the novel, and it took shape after details of the Chola idols case unearthed.

“I was still with The Hindu when the bust of the idol smuggling ring was in the news. From a local case in Tamil Nadu, the case went international as it was linked to an international crime ring. It was covered extensively in the India media and I followed it with a lot of interest.”

For Kumar, the theme was a perfect fit for her book as she got increasingly fascinated with the subject. “The plot evolved out the details of the case,” she added.

As she began writing the book, Kumar imagined it to be part of a trilogy. “I am definitely working on a sequel,” she added.

dhanusha@khaleejtimes.com

The original article appeared here in the Khaleej Times.

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Short Story: Murder in the Mirrors

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She carried the heavy laundry basket into the balcony, balancing it awkwardly against her growing belly. The winter sunshine was disconcertingly bright, the Dubai sky dusty blue in the gaps between high-rises. She was on the 10th floor, yet the glass-covered building opposite towered above her. He’d laughed when she called it a skyscraper. “It has only 18 floors. Real skyscrapers have 40 or 50.”

Wet clothes forgotten, she pressed against the cold metal of the railing, and looked at the building’s lake-green mirrored glass windows. There she was, the statuesque blonde sunbathing by the pool. The first time she’d seen her naked form, she’d frozen in shock. It had taken a moment to realise she wasn’t looking into a home in the building opposite, but at the reflection of her own building; that the woman wasn’t naked but in a bikini, by the pool, on the roof above her. Her gaze dropped eagerly down to the reflection of the balconies of other apartments in her building. She’d mapped them out now… 906, 806, 706 in a column under her own flat, and, to her left, 904, 804, 704… She’d never met or spoken to the people in these flats but, at these times, she felt connected to their lives. The maid in 806 had hung the clothes out to dry, pristine whites today, talking on her cell phone the whole time. The man on the seventh floor stood chain-smoking, ashtray balanced precariously on the railing. Her eyes flickered up again. There was the toddler in 906… her heart skipped a beat as he ran forward. Too close to the railing, baby! But a hand reached out and pulled him in, a voice scolding in a language she didn’t understand. He would know what language it was. But she couldn’t ask him. He’d think she was crazy, staring at the mirrors from her perch on the topmost floor. He wouldn’t understand. He was part of their world. Her days were spent alone in the flat, and even when she went out, she felt separate from the alien, glittering city and its alien, glittering people.

When she saw movement on one of the lower balconies, she stilled. Had someone moved into 504 already? Or was it 404, whose inhabitants she had never seen? The lower floors were harder to map, the images and angles warping in the mirrors. Four-oh-six was the flat with all the plants, so this had to be… But before she could get her bearing, it hit her that something was wrong. Very wrong. The couple, a tall, dark-haired man, and a thin woman with long, straight hair, seemed to be locked in some sort of tussle, an odd, otherworldly dance in the wavering mirror. Her heart was pounding, her hands gripping the railing hard and, as she leaned out further, the man’s thick arms rose, and his hands wrapped around the woman’s neck. The woman was struggling, clawing at his fingers. Call for help, you should call for help! But the other balconies lay empty now, and the road was too far down. As she looked around in panic, the sunlight bouncing off the glass caught her eyes, and she was blinded. When the dark spots cleared, the man and woman were gone. Only she was left on the 10th floor, trembling, her fingers locked tight around the railing.

***

“So, you’re telling me,” he said with exaggerated patience, “that a man strangled a woman in broad daylight, in his balcony, right here in this building, but you don’t know which floor or flat.” He dropped the spoon on his plate. “And now you want me to… what? Go knocking on our neighbours’ doors, asking, ‘excuse me, did you kill your wife?’”

Her face reddened in mute misery. She had watched from the balcony all afternoon, half-expecting a police car or an ambulance to arrive. But neither had. The balconies of 404 and 504 had remained resolutely empty. The maid came out in 806 and took in the clothes, still on her phone. The woman in 604 watered the plants. The man in 706 came out for his evening smoke. Then the sky darkened to ink blue, the mirrors turned mossy and opaque, and she saw no more.

“It has to be either 404 or 504, I’m quite sure,” she said, voice small.

He finished eating, and sat back. “It’s all these teleserials you watch. They fill your head with all sorts of nonsense. You need to go out, make friends. Did you even speak to the lady I introduced you to?”

“I didn’t imagine it,” she wanted to scream. But the protest died on her lips.

His voice softened. “You have to stop upsetting yourself like this. It’s not good for you or the baby.” He patted her arm. “We’ll go to the park tomorrow evening, what do you say?”

***

She pressed herself further into the corner of the mirrored lift. Going up. She had spent the night unable to sleep, and the morning staring into the green glass. Then, finally, she had changed into one of the few salwar-kameezes that still fit her, and got into the lift.

First, she had gone down to G, planning to ask the security guard if anyone had moved into 504. But when they’d reached the ground floor, she hadn’t moved, and had held her breath as the lift filled up again and began to go up. The delivery man got out on the first floor, the two women on floor three, their high heels clicking. The doors opened on four and five, but she didn’t get off, and the middle-aged man, the only other person in the lift, shot her a suspicious glance. He finally got off on six, and she heaved a sigh of relief. She reached for 10 on the lift’s panel — enough was enough — and then paused. She was alone now. The doors had closed, and the lift stood poised, in waiting… On an impulse, she pressed five. This time, when it stopped, she stepped off.

The corridor stretched out dimly on either side, all dark brown tiles and stale cooking smells. She turned left and walked to where she knew 504 would be, and there it was, front door open and large cartons and furniture and a child’s cycle strewn about outside. She stopped in surprise, and watched as a short, bespectacled man came out with two tall men in red t-shirts, obviously the movers. “These boxes have to go to the children’s room,” he was telling them. “Arre, carefully, or everything will break!”

He either didn’t see her, or didn’t acknowledge her. She slunk back to the lift, pulse racing. There was no way this could be the man she had seen in the balcony. Inside, her hand hovered over the fourth-floor button, but she pressed 10 instead. She knew now. It had to have been 404. Had to. She hugged her swollen stomach as she felt the baby squirm inside. Suddenly, all she wanted was to be back in the safety of her house.

***

When she heard the jingle of his keys outside the door that evening, she tensed. She was going to tell him what she’d found out, and tell him to ask the security about the mysterious tenants of 404. Obviously, something was wrong, that’s why the poor woman never ever came out, not even onto the balcony. God knows what had happened to her now…

Her heart sank as she realised he wasn’t alone. He opened the door, still talking to the person with him. “No, no, please come, have a cup of chai with us. I insist,” he was saying in an ingratiating tone. “Look, who I met,” he said to her. “He’s new in the building, works at Al Mostafawi, our parent company…”

But she wasn’t listening. It was the man from 504, small, bespectacled, balding. Did he recognise her? The man smiled perfunctorily. “I will join you another time,” he said. “My brother is waiting…”

“I invited him also… ah, there he is. Come in, come in.”

Even before the tall figure filled the doorway, she knew.

Not 404. It was never 404.

“Hello,” the brother said. His eyes were like green shards of glass. “Nice to see you again.”

***

Later, she couldn’t remember if he’d really said “again”, or if she’d imagined it. Snippets of the men’s conversation reached her as she hid in the kitchen, shaking. The brother used to work for Mostafawi too, but was leaving soon for the UK. He was getting married “to Mahmoud Mostafawi’s own niece”. The little man tittered. “After that he won’t even turn and look at us poor relations.”

That night, her husband could speak of nothing but the wedding and the billionaire’s niece.

And she thought of the girl on the balcony, the girl who was not the billionaire’s niece.

***

When she stepped into the balcony the next morning, it was overcast and chilly. No one was sunbathing on the roof. No laundry hung in 806. But he was waiting for her on 504. Their eyes met in the green mirror, and her world turned grey.

She was stumbling into the drawing room when she heard the lock turn, and she remembered that she hadn’t seen the spare key on the table that morning.

When they found her body, they called it a suicide. But the mirrors knew different. They knew.

Divya Kumar is a Dubai-based author whose first novel ‘The Shrine of Death’ will be published by Bloomsbury India in 2018

(This story originally appeared in BLink’s fourth anniversary fiction edition, as part of a series featuring the work of 2018 debut novelists.)

 

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Restaurant with a view, Dubai-style

A view of the Mall of the Emirates. See the ski slope?

As you’ve probably guessed from the subjects of these two most recent updates (they’ve been a long time coming, haven’t they? I’ve been a terrible blogger of late), I’ve been on a visit to Dubai. While there, I was living not far from the massive Mall of the Emirates — otherwise known as the mall with its own indoor ski slope — which pretty much dominates the landscape in the area. I mean, you can see that damn ski slope (covered of course, can’t have all that artificial snow melting in the desert sun) jutting out of the top of the mall’s roof from miles away; it looms in the horizon as you zoom down Sheikh Zayed Road and prepare to  turn off into Al Barsha (the area of Dubai where the the mall is located). With the possible exception of the local LuLu Hypermarket with its unapologetically garish, hard-to-miss red, green and purple signboard (part of a chain of huge and kitschy stores in the Gulf that Indians head to for all their needs, and the ultimate symbol of Malayali pride in the Middle-East, owned as it is by a Mallu who’s giving the sheikhs a run for their money), Mall of the Emirates is the single largest landmark in the area.

Which is why I found the name of this tiny roadside restaurant tucked away on one of the side streets by the humungous mall so very perfectly apt. Above a cheerful red and white canopy, the signboard of the restaurant proclaims simply, “Mall-View Restaurant.” It even has, beneath said canopy, little tables and chairs set out on the pavement, so its patrons can, presumably, sit, sip coffee, smoke a sheesha, and drink in the view of The Mall. Even if all you can see are tall, sand-coloured side walls of said mall. After all, everywhere else in the world, you have restaurants and bistros and hotels enthusiastically named “Sea-View” or “Ocean-View” or “Lake-View” or “Mountain-View” or “Spring-View” or “Park View”, even if you can only glimpse at a sliver of the ocean waves from one corner of the restaurant, or if you need to lean waaay over the rails of your hotel room balcony to actually see a dash of green from the park. It’s all about location, and owners have for years and years taken advantage of any sort of proximity to city landmarks to make their establishments seem more attractive.

Well, what are the landmarks of Dubai? Malls, malls, malls and more malls, right? Okay, there’s the sail-shaped super-swish Burj Al Arab hotel, and the world’s tallest building (at least I think it still is… who can keep up these days?), the Burj Khalifa (which, incidentally is linked to — what else — the city’s biggest mall, the Dubai Mall). But apart from that, all you have as distinguishable landmarks in a city covered with homogeneous, glass-fronted skyscrapers are its malls. You have the ridiculously exclusive pyramid-shaped Wafi Mall, you have the Aspen of Dubai, the Mall of the Emirates, you have the Persian domes and Chinese pagodas of Ibn Battuta mall (it tracks the travels of Ibn Battuta, see), you have Madinat Jumeira, a mall modeled to look like an old-world souq (ironically one of the few chances you’ll have to see any traditional architecture in Dubai), and you have the mall that’s so big, it’s called a city and has its own waterfront — Festival City. Everything in Dubai revolves around these malls. You give directions based on these malls. Visitors plan their itinerary around how many malls they can cover in a day. Residents mark the passing of time by counting the number of new malls that have come up recently.

And so it is that Dubai boasts of probably the world’s first ‘Mall View Restaurant’. It makes such perfect sense, doesn’t it? Why waste your time on Sea-View or Desert-View restaurants in this city? This savvy restaurenteur has it figured out just right; he’s positioned his property close to and named it after one of the landmarks that really matter in Dubai’s landscape — that mecca of merchandising, the mall. Wish I’d taken a picture of it!

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Travel: Falconry in Dubai

Photo: Shyam Krishnamurthy

The sun is beating down hard on us when we arrive – a motley group of tourists from across the world – to watch a falconry display in Dubai late one afternoon. We’re on the edge of a vast expanse of open desert, smoothly undulating sand dunes as far as we can see. The setting couldn’t be more perfect.

But I’m feeling rather cynical, jaundiced really, after the camel ride we’d just been fobbed off with. The horsey ride I took on the Marina as a four-year-old was longer and more thrilling, and when (like said four-year-old) I’d tried to wheedle for a longer ride, I’d been denied with a firm ‘Yalla!’ by the Arab in charge.

Still, I wait patiently. After all, falconry in the U.A.E. is supposed to be something special, an ancient tradition that has morphed into a modern sport patronised by the rich and the powerful of the land. The falcons and their falconer arrive in a smart white four-wheel-drive vehicle, and I’m mildly disappointed as they dismount. I’d vaguely assumed that the birds would be bigger (I’d been picturing something more majestic, along the lines of a Bald Eagle), and their falconer would look more fierce.

Instead a slim, unassuming-looking young man in blinding white traditional garb goes about setting up his paraphernalia expressionlessly. The falcons – they’re Peregrines, I later find out – are tethered to a perch in the sand, with a delicately ornamental hood covering their eyes (it seems cruel to me that they’re blinded, until I find out that it’s needed to allow the birds to adjust their powerful vision to the new surroundings).

Still, with no change in expression, the falconer gets one of the birds to perch on his arm (covered with a cushiony cuff), and the tourists promptly erupt in a volley of photo-clicking. The bird is then transferred onto the arms of the more intrepid visitors and there’s even more picture-taking. After about 20 minutes of this, I’m convinced that the gentleman is soon going to pack up and leave, and if I asked for more, I’d get a stern ‘Yalla!’

Boy, am I wrong. Because once the pictures are taken, the real show begins. Out of an old bag comes a hapless pigeon tied to a long rope (the prey, I realise in a dawning mix of horror and awe), and one of the falcons is released from its hold, its hood removed. With a single shout, the falconer swings the pigeon into the air, and the falcon takes to flight. Swooping through the air, gliding and diving, the falcon suddenly doesn’t seem that small. Suddenly, it’s just as majestic as I’d imagined it would be.

Now begins a cat-and-mouse game between the falcon and the falconer, as they recreate the age-old chase of predator and prey, the pigeon swinging just out of the reach of the falcon each time it nears. Centuries ago, the Bedouins captured and trained these falcons to hunt for meat that would supplement their diet of dates and camel milk. Today, the falconer might be merely putting on a show for a group of tourists who ‘ooh’ and ‘ahhh’ with each swoop of the bird; but, I realise, some things are unchanged. Such as the intensity of the falcon’s attack, as it pounces, withdraws, re-assesses the situation and swoops down again in increasingly aggressive motions; and the skill and training of the falconer, as he matches wits with the predatory bird.

It’s like an airborne bull-fight, between the falconer who swings the prey away in increasingly wide loops, and the hungry falcon bearing down upon him. It’s fascinating, a little scary and borderline cruel, especially when the victorious falcon is tethered again after getting just a couple of pecks at the pigeon. Now falcon number two is released, and it becomes clear very early that this one isn’t following the script. It’s bigger, more ornery and less in control, and swerves dangerously close to the watching group of tourists a few times.

Turns out it’s because this one is newer to training although it’s older by six months (they’re both females, I’m told, and the first is just a year old). How long does it take to train them? I ask our laconic falconer later. He shrugs. “It depends on the brain of the falcon,” he says in his heavily-accented English, tapping his head. “Sometimes, a week is enough. Sometimes months.”

When the show is done (the second one brought to heel by our ever-calm falconer), the falcons are cooled down with water, and then, finally, allowed to have at the pigeon. As a group of delighted little kids watch (with gleeful shouts of ‘Ewwww gross!’), they rip into the pigeon in a National Geographic-style moment that’s both impossible to turn away from and faintly nauseating to watch.

The whole thing really is quite an adrenaline rush, and this is just the tame, touristy version of the sport. Definitely better than the camel ride. Yalla!

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Travel: The call of the fronds

 

Travelling into the Palm Jumeirah feels disappointingly… normal. I mean, here we are, driving onto a manmade island in the shape of a palm tree, an island whose engineering is something of a technological miracle. And it feels as though we were going down any other Dubai road, smooth and lined with painstakingly pruned greenery on either side.

Well, it is just another Dubai road, I’m reminded by my family. Albeit built on reclaimed land in the shape of the giant trunk of the giant palm in the middle of the Arabian Sea.

The aerial shots on the National Geographic documentary made it seem much cooler, I grumble.

Then I see the road signs, and my disappointment lifts. Because, you see, on Palm Jumeirah, you don’t have street names; you have frond names. Signs all around us read ‘Frond A to G’ or ‘Way to Frond D’, and it dawns on me (to my delight) that all those turns off to our left and right are actually the fronds of the giant palm. With perfect little houses on them. Finally, I declare, I’m feeling it – I really am in the middle of the world’s only island in the shape of a desert palm (or any other tree for that matter).

There’s more to come, as our laconic Malayali driver unexpectedly reveals himself to be a treasure trove of island gossip. These aren’t just any old frond-street houses, he tells us conspiratorially. That one, he points, belongs to none other than King Khan himself, and that one to football superstar and metrosexual extraordinaire David Beckham (I’m suitably impressed and make a mental note to Google for further goodies.) 

The fronds are where the bulk of the (ridiculously expensive) independent homes are – the main road is where the action is, or at least is supposed to be. Right now, the tall, elegant buildings that line the road wear a rather forlornly empty look. The economic downturn has hit the Palm project very hard, and the road that ought to be jumping with happening hotels, restaurants, clubs and stores lies still and quiet.

One joint that really is buzzing is the magnificent – there’s no other word for it – Atlantis at the heart of the island. The outrageously over-the-top hotel that was launched with much fanfare a couple of years ago is a rhapsody in beige and aquamarine, all soaring arches and towers. A thematic hotel based on the legendary Lost City of Atlantis (how fitting that it’s on an island that arose out of nothing in the middle of the sea), it boasts of a huge aquarium with an assortment of marine wildlife (65,000 animals in all), a maze of underwater tunnels and halls, décor that’s just the right mix of the mythological and the surreal, and of course, tons of water sports for the adventurous. (It’s so popular, in fact, that on this holiday, some of its public areas resemble a fish market more than a mysterious underwater kingdom.)

In the evening, we take a ride on the monorail shuttle that runs through the island. At every turn, the sea glints at us in the moonlight, and every building on the silent main street is beautifully, subtly lit. We’re confused by a stop that seems to have nothing there, until the monorail conductor explains it’s the site of what’s going to be the biggest mall in Dubai. It’s already the most amazing, he quips – it’s invisible. Like so many other ambitious projects on the island, this one too is stalled. In some ways, by nightfall, the Palm begins to resemble a ghost town, humbled by the worldwide recession. Then we see the Atlantis sparkling in the midst of it all, and it seems like perhaps there’s hope for the lost island of Palm Jumeirah.

DIVYA KUMAR

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