“What’s that?” Bins demands to know. “My iPad,” I say, innocently. “Aaaagh —!” exclaims Bins, “you KNOW what I mean!” I grin peacefully. There is nothing more satisfying than getting a rise out of someone while telling the absolute truth. But I relent. I am not a professional torturer after all. “Oh... you want to know what I’m reading on my iPad? It’s that book I was telling you about. By a young friend, who lives in New York, Radha Vatsal. It’s her debut novel.” Called a FRONT PAGE AFFAIR, it’s one of the few books I decided to read on Kindle via the iPad because I didn’t want to wait to get my copy in the mail.

“Aha!” says Bins. “Bias! You’re promoting a friend’s book!” I wave my hand in the air to erase his remarks from the atmosphere. “Pooh. I thought I’d try the first couple of pages and before I knew it, I was hooked.” “Nepotism,” mutters Bins. “It’s a murder mystery,” I say. “With a very unusual twist.” Bins contorts his face into a you’re-promoting-a-friend’s-book sneer. But I hold my ground. It really is an unusual and interesting twist: a fast-paced, historically accurate tale of dastardly doings set in the early years of the 20th century, in New York. The Duke of Sarajevo has just been shot, the Lusitania has been sunk but the US is dithering about wading across the Atlantic to enter the war. “The main character is a young woman journalist, starting out in her career, at a time when hardly any women chose to be employed.”

Bins narrows his eyes. He’s trying hard not to show that everything about the subject is interesting to him: the period, the attention to detail, the engagement with history. “But what’s the Indian angle?” he wants to know. “There isn’t one,” I say, feeling oddly triumphant. I’ve been feeling, lately, that Indian writers and readers alike need to spread their wings a bit. Be willing to engage with people, places and ideas that have no direct connection to God’s Own Subcontinent. “It’s quite astonishing, how richly detailed it is. Yet it doesn’t feel forced. Like watching an authentic black-and-white Pathé documentary.” I know he will like the reference to the famous French series, with the cheeky little cockerel icon.

“Sounds like a gimmick to me,” sniffs Bins. “So specialised. Besides, a young woman journalist in those days! What could such a lady do? They had to wear those funny skirts with fringes and big hats...” I yawn and sigh. “Oh what a narrow view! There were many kinds of fashions in those days, just like these days. The murder is pretty interesting too. How and why it happens. The politics of those times.” Now I am openly grinning, while he scowls. “I think you would enjoy it.”

He puffs out his scraggly yellow moustache in a last-ditch attempt at resistance. “We-e-e-ll ... I won’t like to read anything on that sissy electronic gadget!” he says. “No worries. I’m getting the hard copy by mail,” I say. He gets up with a defeated air. “Where are you going?” I ask. “To make the tea, of course,” he says.

Manjula Padmanabhan, artist and author, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, in this weekly column

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