The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma was published in 2009. It was listed among the best non-fiction books of the year by Business Standard. If you'd like to glimpse some reader reviews, take a look at its Good Reads page.
Although it is technically out of print, The Painter can be spotted occasionally in second-hand book stalls. There is a Kindle version available here.
'Raja' Ravi Varma
He wasn't really a Raja (king), even though his grand daughter would become the Maharani (queen) of the state of Travancore which is in modern-day Kerala. Ravi Varma was born into an aristocratic family in Kilimanoor, a speck of a village that is a few hours away from Thiruvananthapuram. In a time when art was considered a lowly profession, Ravi Varma resolutely decided he was going to be a painter and that he'd give the art a respectability.
By the end of his life, Ravi Varma had — in an era of steam engines and carts — travelled from the southern tip of Travancore to Lahore and further up north. He'd hobnobbed with royalty (which may be one reason why the British assumed he was a Raja) and established himself as the most highly-paid artist in the country. Decades before anyone had grasped the concept of pop art, Ravi Varma realised that art needed to be accessible and not locked away in private palaces. So he set up a printing press that would be his financial ruin, but which we can thank for creating the genre of kitschy calendar art that remains wildly popular even today.
Set in an subcontinent that was slowly and proudly developing a sense of a united Indian identity, Ravi Varma's life as a painter reflects a country discovering itself and modernity.
Is it still a murder if there isn't a body?
Inspector Hadpude of Mumbai Police seems laidback and non-descript, but that's just him trying to make sure he remains unnoticed. Because if people notice him, especially at work, then maybe they'll remember an incident he wants everyone to forget. Sub-inspector Gabuji is a fish out of water in the police: her south-Mumbai sheen, the fact that she's a woman — everything about her marks out her unbelonging. And then there's the fierceness with which she guards her private life.
And these two, with all their little secrets and dark corners, aren't the real mystery. They're the ones doing the investigation.
Mumbai goes into a tizzy when celebrity gynaecologist Dr. Nandita Rai is charged with conducting female foeticide in her SoBo clinic. No one can believe Rai would do such a thing. Is she being targeted because someone wants to lash out at her construction magnate husband? Plus, Dr. Nandita Rai has her own stories and silences that make the investigation all the more complicated? Has the Mumbai Police made a terrible mistake? And is it wrong to treat foeticide like murder — after all, there isn't even a body... .
About foeticide in India
In 1994, India passed a law that made foeticide a criminal offence. The Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection Act) states quite clearly that it exists to regulate in what circumstances a foetus may be aborted for medical reasons and to prohibit "sex determination leading to female foeticide".
Twenty two years later, almost 18 people are convicted every year and that's just the tip of the iceberg. India's child sex ration continues to decline. It was at 945 girls to 1,000 boys in 1991 and according to the 2011 census, the number of girls is down to 918. Not only is there under-reporting, there are also some rather fabulous explanations given for the skewed sex ratio. In Delhi, one nursing home's rep said, "We have no control over this, it's God's selection." The sex ratio at this nursing home is 789 girls for every 1,000 boys.
By the way, random fact: male foetuses and infant boys are more fragile than girls. Not only are they more vulnerable to disease and medical complications in utero and soon after they're born, newborn boys are actually about four to six behind in development than newborn girls. Which means in the moment that they're born, girls are just a little bit ahead of boys. Evidently, that doesn't last very long in a patriarchal society, but interesting, no?