Saturday, May 21, 2022

A Very Different Type of Detective: a Guest Post by Harini Nagendra

 RHYS BOWEN: I was intrigued when Harini contacted me several months ago to read and blurb her new book. This is in a way familiar territory to me as my husband was for a long time sales manager for Air India, I have travelled all over India, including to Bangalore, where this book is set, and have close Indian friends. A book about an upper class Indian woman in the 1920s is fascinating for many reasons. I asked Harini what life was like for a woman in India at that time. How restricted was she? How could she possibly be a detective?

And here is her answer:

HARINI NAGENDRA:

In my day job as an academic and university professor, a great deal of my research is focused on the ecological history of Indian cities. In 2007, when the idea of the main character in my book – a feisty young Indian woman navigating colonial rule and societal expectations in 1920s Bangalore – came into my head, I was in my mother’s home, buried in a pile of digital archives. Old maps, photographs, gazettes, reports, ledger files, diaries, letters, biographies – volumes of good stuff. But all with one catch – almost all of them were written from the view of the British male traveler, missionary or administrator – with a few entertaining accounts from intrepid British women travelers.




Overall though, the voices of women in past times are fleeting, and the voices of Indian women almost completely absent in the colonial Indian archives. How is a writer to populate the characters of her world, in the absence of data? I found this lack of material to work with especially worrying – perhaps because I am so used to writing data-driven papers. Creating an entire book and a series out of thin air without real life information to base this on was intimidating!

I turned to my mother, and other relatives, to learn about the lives of women in earlier times. My husband’s aunt, now 96, went swimming in a sari in the local club’s swimming pool when she was young, in Madras/Chennai, and I know other women who did the same in the 1920s in Bangalore. So it was natural for me to put my protagonist, Kaveri, in a swimming pool in the opening scene. Kaveri swims with other young women during a time of day where the pool was reserved exclusively for the use of women, who could swim without fear of exposing themselves to strange men. This practice of reserving use of the pool and sports arenas for women at specific times is a common practice in India even today, and I knew I was unlikely to be wrong in assuming that such a convention existed in the 1920s.

Kaveri lives in a time when society dictated what women could and could not do, often enforced by other women. Her mother-in-law Bhargavi does not approve of Kaveri’s passion for mathematics, believing that too much studying makes a woman’s brains go soft. Contrast this with Kaveri’s grandmotherly neighbour Uma aunty, who always wanted to learn how to read and write, and is delighted when she learns that Kaveri is educated. Often, all it took was support from one family member, for a woman to flourish.

Ambi, a book by Vimala Murthy, documents the inspiring story of Amba Bai, Vimala’s grandmother. Married at 12 years, Ambi was widowed at the young age of 24, in 1913 – already a mother of three. With the support of her father, Ambi defied the disapproval of her mother to study further, becoming a teacher, and later Head Mistress of a girls’ high school. Sakamma was a well known coffee entrepreneur in Bangalore around the same time. A child bride, widowed early, Sakamma took over her husband’s large coffee estates. Sakamma was also one of the first women to join the Mysore Representative Assembly, in 1928 – until then the exclusive domain of men. In 1921, a woman journalist R. Kalyanamma launched Saraswati, a feminist magazine that tackled women’s issues like suffrage and child marriage. A child widow who never received a college education, Kalyanamma became a member of the Mysore University Senate, and founded a children’s association of learning that thrives even today.

The queens of Mysore State played a major role in women’s empowerment, establishing women’s schools and colleges and creating scholarships for women. But even the queens faced opposition from men in the education department, unable to establish a college of science for women in Bangalore for several years. And of course, education and empowerment was denied to so many women who did not have family support, like Uma aunty – as well as women from poor families, and from oppressed castes. Yet women, as we know, do not take subjugation lightly, or unquestioningly – they often found a way to work around societal challenges, and make things work for them, as best as they could!

From fragments of the stories of real women like Amba Bai, Sakamma and Kalyanamma, a writer must work to erect a scaffold of facts, around which imagination can take shape. If these women had not blazed the paths they did, we would not be able to do so much of what women take for granted today – from swimming in mixed-gender pools, to running industries, and contributing to university education!

 Book summary:

The Bangalore Detectives Club is the first in a charming, joyful crime series set in 1920s Bangalore, featuring sari-wearing detective Kaveri and her husband Ramu.

When clever, headstrong Kaveri moves to Bangalore to marry handsome young doctor Ramu, she's resigned herself to a quiet life. But that all changes the night of the party at the Century Club, where she escapes to the garden for some peace and quiet—and instead spots an uninvited guest in the shadows. Half an hour later, the party turns into a murder scene.

When a vulnerable woman is connected to the crime, Kaveri becomes determined to save her and launches a private investigation to find the killer, tracing his steps from an illustrious brothel to an Englishman's mansion. She soon finds that sleuthing in a sari isn't as hard as it seems when you have a talent for mathematics, a head for logic, and a doctor for a husband…

And she's going to need them all as the case leads her deeper into a hotbed of danger, sedition, and intrigue in Bangalore's darkest alleyways.

Bonus: A set of recipes for a quick, delicious south Indian meal at the end of the book!

RHYS: Definitely intriguing, isn't it? And a really good read too.

 

About the author:

Harini Nagendra is a professor of ecology from India, and has written a number of award-winning non-fiction books. The Bangalore Detectives Club is her debut crime fiction novel. Harini lives in Bangalore with her family, in a home filled with maps. She loves trees, mysteries, and traditional recipes.r

64 comments:

  1. Congratulations, Harini, on your debut novel. What an intriguing story Kaveri has to tell . . . and how brave were the trailblazing women in 1920s India who paved the way for all women.

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    1. Thank you Joan! These women were so brave indeed - and very inspiring!

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    2. Thank you Joan! These women were so brave indeed - and very inspiring! - Harini

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  2. HARINI: Congratulations on the start of an intriguing series with THE BANGALORE DETECTIVES CLUB. I enjoy reading Sujata Massey's Perveen Mistry series with Indian's first female lawyer working in 1920s Bombay, so I am sure to try your book.

    It's fortunate you were able to use the historical resources as well as memories/stories from your mother and other relatives to get insight into what women in 1920s India could/could not do. Kaveri sounds like a great protagonist: a headstrong trailblazer determined to use her intellect, with some help from her husband and other contacts, to get justice for the woman suspected of the crime. And including recipes for yummy Indian food in the book is a bonus!

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    1. Grace: Thank you! I love culinary mysteries, and books with food in them (who doesn't) - and always wanted to write one with Indian recipes. I hope you like these - they are from the south of India, which cuisine is less known (but equally delicious). - Harini

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    2. Two really good Indian restaurants in Ottawa that I eat at makes cuisine from Kerala.

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    3. That's great! Indian food is very diverse - Kerala cuisine is delicious, with its coconut base. In Karnataka, where my book is based, we also use a great deal of coconut, but in very different ways.

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    4. I agree Indian cuisine is diverse. Looking forward to seeing (and trying) the recipes in your book.

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  3. So many congratulations, Harini (waving hi to my fellow Guppy, too!). I must get my hands on this book.

    Good for you for continuing to dig until you found some accounts about and by women, and how wonderful you still have women alive who remember those times.

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    1. Edith - a big hello, thrilled to see this from you :-) Written documents can only tell you so much... and since the Indian tradition of memory-keeping is largely oral, there are few written records, especially sparse when it comes to women who were often excluded from the written word. I'm very fortunate indeed to have memories of conversations with my grandmother, who was born in 1908, and the stories of my mother's grandmother and other women relatives, of which my mother has a rich storehouse! -Harini

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  4. Becky Sue EpsteinMay 21, 2022 at 6:35 AM

    Sounds like a fascinating character, and an intriguing era to set these stories. Looking forward to reading!

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    1. Thank you Becky - I hope you enjoy the era and setting :-) -Harini

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  5. I am looking forward to reading this new novel set in India. Thanks, Rhys, for introducing it and the author.

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    1. Thank you Maurice - I look forward to it very much too! -Harini

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  6. Kaveri sounds like a charming and entertaining character, Harini. As another fan of Sujata Massey and the Indian culture, I very much look forward to meeting her and her doctor husband.

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    1. I'm a huge fan of Sujata Massey's books too, Karen! She's fabulous. I hope you enjoy reading about Kaveri and Ramu too :-) -Harini

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    2. Also, I just noticed your comment about coconut in the regional food. One of my favorites!

      And thank you for staying up at what must be a late hour for you to respond to comments. We always appreciate guest bloggers participating in the comment section.

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    3. Oh, it's early evening for me - 7 pm! I'm really enjoying this conversation. So much fun. -Harini

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    4. Karen, I agree with you about being appreciative of responses to comments. It is so nice to participate in a conversation and not just to leave a comment.

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  7. this sounds wonderful--right up my alley. Welcome Harini!

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  8. Harini, welcome and congratulations. It is very exciting to see the world from a totally different perspective and to visit a culture that I know very little about. Kudos on your perseverance in researching that time and place and creating a story which will bring all of us there with you! Your new book is a "must read" for me!

    Please tell us a bit about your area of ecology. What do you teach?

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    1. Hi Judy! I teach on the ecology of cities, and about how people can be a powerful force for conservation when they come together - the theme of people coming together from all walks of life to change things for the better, ground up, is a theme that runs through my non-fiction and fiction, and is very close to my heart. -Harini

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  9. This book sounds wonderful! Congratulations! I find it so sad that women's voices play such a small part in the written record. Good for you for broadening your search. Family stories passed through the generations can provide some lovely ideas.

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    1. Thanks Gillian - yes, it is so sad that we forget women's voices and ignore their thoughts because they never had a chance to write them down. There's a wonderful book - Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present - which collates women's voices from the times of the Buddha, to today, drawing on all kinds of old sources, from letters and diaries discovered in old trunks, to transcriptions of expositions by nuns and scholars. I stumbled across it while I was in college and was so moved. We do need to recover those voices, even if only in our imaginations. -Harini

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  10. I am just about to start THE BANGALORE DETECTIVES CLUB today. First time reading in this genre for me.

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    1. That's great to hear - I do hope you like it! (first-time fiction author nerves...) -Harini

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  11. The research that you did, combined with your own personal history sounds like they really delivered for you in writing this book, Harini - We're so happy to have you here on Jungle Red. Wondering if your background in ecology informed the story... Or if you had to consciously set it aside to write this.

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    1. Hallie, it is great to be here - I am a regular reader of Jungle Red, never picked up the courage to post! That's such a great question. I've done extensive research on the ecological history of Bangalore, for over 15 years, and have a non-fiction book on this theme (Nature in the City: Bengaluru). So there's a lot that went in - the differences in the ecology of the Indian or native parts of the city with their ubiquitous cows, monkeys and coconut trees vs the British cantonment with their landscaped gardens and bungalows, for example - or the absolutely fabulous true story of the tigress in the Lal Bagh zoo who refused to rear her cubs, who were then suckled by a street dog... I had to set aside my non-fiction and newspaper writing instincts, which are to keep things short and crisp - and I did have to take out chunks of ecological setting description when I revised, because I have a definite tendency to overdo it! -Harini

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  12. Hank Phillippi RyanMay 21, 2022 at 9:28 AM

    Oh Harini, standing ovation! ( and yay guppies!) it’s marvelous that your imagination was fired by the LACK of documentation—and your description of it being part of a scaffold is brilliant. Now that your mind has started working that way, is it more comfortable and logical? And “sleuthing is a sari” is so perfect—but I cannot imagine swimming in one. Did you try it? :-) Congratulations! Cannot wait to read this!

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    1. Hank, thank you! Writing book two in the series (which I recently sent off to the editors) was as nerve wracking as book 1 - I felt I must be mad, trying to construct an entire historical narrative from thin air. Then I started writing, and I have gotten better at silencing my inner critic during the first draft - but it definitely didn't feel any more logical or comfortable. It was rather as though I was walking on a cloud, and the moment I opened my eyes to reality, I would fall down! But I do have absolutely masses of information on old Bangalore, including a lot of oral history interviews with women from various backgrounds - from my day job, which has been to study the city for over 15 years. That helps - a lot.
      I can't swim - alas - but I know many women who did, and do still swim in a sari - across rural India, that's still how women swim, in local wells, ponds and rivers! I can't imagine how they do it, they must be incredibly strong to be able to, with all those yards of wet cloth. -Harini

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    2. Also, the Guppies are simply the best. As a debut fiction author trying to publish in the US while living in India - the Guppies have been a font of information, and encouragement! -Harini

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    3. (Hank, we're all still waiting to hear about who Diaz is from your comment yesterday!)

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    4. Hank Phillippi RyanMay 21, 2022 at 11:27 AM

      We’re all…what? Okay let me look.

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    5. Yup, count me in as one of those who were wondering WHO IS DIAZ, lol.

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    6. Oh, that’s so funny! Because if I were dictating, as I often do as you know, that isn’t what would come out! and I tried it a couple of times a minute ago just to see. It was supposed to be “and I.” Our invisible dog is named Wheatie (an invisible wheaten terrier), so that isn’t who that was :-) You all are hilarious!

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    7. LOL! Thanks. But now you must include dear Diaz in future mentions of your household...

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    8. Ha ha, thanks for solving the mystery about Diaz!

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  13. Harini, I'm going to be getting my hands on this book as quickly as possible! Congratulations! Love your comment about having to edit your ecological setting descriptions from your fiction--passions overlapping! (Flora here, blogger prefers me to remain anonymous today).

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    1. Hi Flora! I'm having the same challenge with staying 'anonymous' - I tried a bunch of different options, ended up creating a blog for myself somehow (?) but can't figure out how to get my name onto this. You'd think, as someone who works with data, I would be more tech-savvy, but clearly not. I hope you like the book! -Harini

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  14. This is Deb Romano. Blogger won’t let me me post as myself today.

    Harini, I look forward to reading your series. I’m already a fan of Sujata Massey’s series about Perveen and I‘ve been hoping to find another historical fiction series about women in India. And here this fell right into my lap this morning!

    DebRo/Deb Romano

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    1. Deb, I'm a huge fan of Sujata's books too! Another great series about women in India is Vaseem Khan's Malabar House series, set in Bombay just after independence, with a young policewoman

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  15. Wow, this sounds like fun. Congratulations on both the first and the nascent second novel! I think your academic work sounds interesting too. I am a fan of mystery writers who are also academics from Dorothy Sayers through Amanda Cross and beyond. The image of a "scaffold of facts" and the ensuing imagination is compelling as it describes a process which I suspect lends depth and credence to the story. I am looking forward to these.

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    1. Thank you. I am a huge fan of mystery writers who are academics too - Barbara Mertz comes to mind! -Harini

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  16. Congratulations, Harini! I am looking forward to reading your new book. I know very little about your culture but I would love to know more.

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    1. Thank you Judi - I hope you enjoy this foray into colonial Bangalore. -Harini

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  17. I am so excited about this new book! I love books set in India. One of my uncles lived there in the '40's and talked about his time there a lot. I look forward to reading a series set there especially with a woman detective.

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    1. That's so interesting - the 40's were such a rich time of change! -Harini

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  18. I am a fan of several historical mystery series set in India. I can't wait to read yours! Congratulations and good luck, Harini!

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    1. Thanks Pat! There are such good historical mysteries set in India - I'm a big fan of several myself :-) -Harini

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  19. This topic resonates with me. In the 1970s and 1980s I worked for a gold jewelry company and traveled the Caribbean extensively. Many of the store owners were Indian and I became friendly with them and their families. In those nascent days of women's lib, talk among the women often turned to the very marked cultural differences and how things were both changing and remaining the same for my Indian friends.

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    1. Kait - this sounds fascinating. The lives of the Indian diaspora are rich - I hope to get Kaveri to travel some day and interact with Indian women from other parts of the world. -Harini

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  20. Sorry I am late this morning! Harini, welcome to JRW and congratulations on your debut novel! Your story sounds really interesting. I added your book to my reading list. I have been watching GOOD KARMA HOSPITAL on Acorn TV.

    Because of a few bad experiences swimming (a boy tried to take off my swim suit), I like the idea of women only swimming. They do not have to worry about the harassment.

    Questions:

    Is it true that when a woman becomes a widow, the custom is that the widow is burned at the pyre ?

    How did your widows survive after their husbands died?

    Diana

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    1. Hi Diana. I'm so sorry to hear about your bad experiences with swimming. Women-only timings are a great way for women to swim and hang out in the community of women in safe spaces. The custom you refer to, which is called sati, was only prevalent across some parts of India - not very widespread in south India. The women I spoke of - the coffee entrepreneur, journalist and school principal - were supported by their families. Often all it took was the support of one family member for them to make it. Many of them had very supportive fathers who were determined that their daughter should be able to make a better future for herself, via education.

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  21. Hi Harini, and welcome to Jungle Red! Your book sounds fascinating and I've just ordered it! Congratulations on all your starred reviews! How terrific that the Guppies helped you on your journey to publication.

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    1. Thank you Deborah! The Guppies are the best. I hope you enjoy the book. -Harini

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  22. This looks absolutely fantastic, Harini! I've loved Nev Marsh's A MURDER IN OLD BOMBAY and have been on the lookout for more Indian historical mysteries. There is a LOT of historical fiction from the point of view of the British; it's a welcome change to see more great stories coming from Indian writers.

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    1. Julia: Nev Marsh's book is terrific, and yes I completely agree - I loved books like HRF Keating's Inspector Ghote series, but it is lovely to see more books coming out from the Indian perspective. -Harini

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  23. Harini, I was fascinated all the way through your post here at Jungle Reds today. Your desire to capture the voices of Indian women of the past, to preserve a history of times when few women from that country and culture could speak out for themselves is and admirable pursuit. I love your willingness to take on creating stories from the scant information available, and I applaud your using real women to help fill in some blanks.

    For quite a long time, I didn't think I was much interested in fiction, mystery or otherwise, set in India. And, then came along Sujata Massey's The Sleeping Dictionary, and I was gobsmacked by how much the setting and the women of India had to offer me. Of course, Sujata's Perveen Mistry is wonderful, too, and your historical mysteries with Kaveri fit right in with those so wonderfully. I love to expand my reading when I find a period and setting I enjoy. One of the best parts about your series and others who write books set in India with Indian characters is that readers get to discover the culture as well as the physical setting. I do have a few books I really enjoyed set in India with British characters being the focus, but I am so glad that in the last decade readers are finding more and more books in which we can become ensconced in the wonder of Indian's land and people. Off to order your book.

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    1. Hi Kathy - thank you! Sujata's magnificent series blazed the way - and there are so many terrific series now based in colonial India, from the Indian perspective: including from Vaseem Khan, Nev March and Abir Mukherjee. I do hope you enjoy The Bangalore Detectives Club. -Harini

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  24. How refreshing to have an historical mystery from the POV of an Indian woman. I think this is fabulous, Harini. My knowledge of India in the 1920's is sparse, so I can't wait to read it!

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    1. Jenn: I'm a huge fan of your books here! Very thrilled to hear from you. I hope you like the book! -Harini

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  25. I have to get your book, Harini. I love reading stories involving women from other places and other times

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    1. Thank you Danielle! I love reading these kinds of stories too - and learning about parts of the world I may not otherwise get to! -Harini

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