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The Henna Artist. A Homage and a Delightful Ride For The Senses

In her debut novel, Alka Joshi reimagines her mother’s life through a strong character that, with skillful resolve, defies the strict social rules for women in mid-Twenty Century’s India.

As an adult, and after several decades of living in the United States, Alka Joshi returned to her native India with her mother. Guided by her, Joshi immersed herself in the intoxicating atmosphere of colors, sounds, delicious foods, spices, long-standing traditions, and a cultural history that resonated deeply with her. It brought back the lost feeling of her childhood in Jaipur. The effect of returning there was crucial for the author. From those experiences, Lakshmi, the main character of The Henna Artist was born. Joshi imagined the life her mother might have had in India if she had found the means when she was still a teenager. So Lakshmi would be that independent, albeit fictitious, woman that her mother could not be.

The book was a project that took Joshi ten years to complete, after careful research and several trips back to India. In her own words,¨My mother gave me the gift of choices and freedoms she did not have. This novel is my gift for her.¨

Alka Joshi was born in India and raised in the U.S. since the age of nine. She has a B.A. from Stanford University and spent three decades in advertising and marketing before obtaining her MFA from California College of Arts. At age 62, Joshi published her debut novel, The Henna Artist, which immediately became a New York Times bestseller. It also was a Reese Witherspoon Bookclub pick and Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Currently is being developed into an episodic series by Miramax T.V. The sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, premieres in June 2021. The trilogy ends with a third volume expected in 2022.

 The Henna Artist is your debut novel, published last year, and it has been very successful despite the pandemic. Awarded an impressive array of prizes and honors, it brings India alive and takes the western reader to an exotic and mostly unknown world. 

I wanted to tell that there are many sides of India, many different kinds of peoples and styles. Even if they have only one idea of what the country is, they may find another type of peoples there, living a different life. Albert Einstein once said about India: «We owe a lot to Indians who taught us how to count, without which no scientific discovery could have been made.» Many in the West do not give India credit for all its contributions to mathematics, science, exploration, discovery, and engineering. It is an integral part of our history that even many South Asians do not know. Now, as an adult, I can communicate and pass my vision of India as I know it.

You were born in India, and your parents brought you to America as a child. How was your experience as a student in the Midwest?

It was very confusing. When I came to the United States, they started telling me what their idea of India was, and as a child, I did not understand what they were talking about because that was not the India I knew. I came from India, where everybody in my class looked like me, the color of skin, the same background, middle class. But Americans assumed I must be from a much lower socioeconomic class. I must be illiterate and learned English to come here.

They did not know that in India, we learn English at school from day one. Most Indians are polyglots; they do not know only one language. It was also the impression that I was less sophisticated, less civilized, that I must eat on the floor, and not know how to use a knife and fork.

So, the word I would use to describe my early years is confusion.

The impression that people around me had of India was very negative. They did not know of the capacity that that country had to survive and prosper. It is a people who refused to die or give up, resisted, and grew stronger and stronger.

Another thing that struck me was that it was always about where I was from anywhere I went. But their impression of India was so negative. Everything was negative. They knew nothing of the colors, the traditions, or the history. They knew nothing of years of invasions and colonization, the raping and pillaging of all of the gold and wealth, spices and silk in India. Of the fact that these people are still surviving and thriving today refused to die or give up. Instead, they endured and are becoming stronger and stronger each day.

People here thought India was a terrible place to live and felt sorry for me. I became ashamed as a girl. I was nine years old, and nobody looked like me except for my brothers, and everybody around me believes I came from a filthy place, so I thought that maybe I do. Perhaps the place where I came from is horrible, and I stopped acknowledging where I came from. I just ignored it. I did not want to talk about it.

When I was older and learned about my heritage, I realized that I came from a phenomenal country, rich in culture and that some of the traditions that are alive today have survived for centuries. Things that I mention in The Henna Artist, herbal medication, the art craft of henna, which is a soothing and calming practice, and useful, as henna painting cools the body and the plant grows in scorching climates. So when I came into my own, I said to myself, they didn’t know about all these parts of India. And that is what I got to tell in the book.

When you decided to enter the Master of Arts program at California College of Arts, you already had your own successful marketing business. At the time, were you already writing a draft, or the storyline of the book came later, during the creative writing classes?

It was almost simultaneous. A few years before I entered the MFA program, I had taken my husband’s advice and started taking evening writing classes. In these classes, we were learning how to write a short story. I have never written a short story before, and as I started to write, I realized that the richest experiences I had were from India. Those were still so vivid in my memory, so embedded in my DNA, and that’s what I wanted to write about. That was the most vital part of my past. So, I started to write about it, and I noticed that my writing instructors’ reactions and the students in my classes were very positive. They wanted to know more about the Indian experience. By the time I got into the MFA program, I had the idea to write this particular story and not just a short story, a book. I wanted somehow to incorporate a reimagining of my mother’s life.

You visited Jaipur with your mother. Tell us about your experience of returning as an adult to your birthplace with her and how it inspired you to create Lakshmi, the strong protagonist of The Henna Artist. She was not a typical woman in the 1950s’ India.

At the start of the MFA program, I started to take my mother back and forth to Jaipur. I was spending more time with her and learning about her past. I realized that it was pretty remarkable for a woman raised so traditionally, grew to have this arranged marriage, and immediately had children. A woman who did not decide to make her own choices allowed me to have all those choices. It was important for her too.

While I was in the MFA program, I was thinking about my mother and thinking how her life would have been for her if she had all those choices. Then I thought, what about if I created a character like Lakshmi, and if that person got to be more independent?

While I was spending more time with my mother in Jaipur, we did all the things she would have liked to do when she lived there. We went to the bazaar, looking for saris for jewelry, and it was so much fun to see all those different goods being sold at the same time. In India, bazaars are so busy all the time. We also visited the Jaipur Palace. My mother told me that before leaving for America, she had tea there with the Maharani, who invited all the families’ wives who were about to leave the country. From her descriptions, I took the palace’s idea and the image of a Maharani for the book.

At eighteen, her father thought she was «a little older, a spinster, and if he waited more, he could never find her a partner.» My mother must have been feeling very bad. She didn’t want to disappoint her family, and if she stayed in college the way she wanted, she would have let them down. So my mother dropped out of school, and at twenty-two, she already had three children. Every time a baby was born, she suffered from postpartum depression.

We traveled to Agra, where my mother spent most of the schooling years. I went with my mother to her old school, visited the classrooms, and I had a chance to see how my mother would have been educated. While there, I was navigating all these foreign things for me. My father would never have told me at eighteen, «You have to get back home now. You are going to get married to this engineer.» My mother could never escape this marriage. She told me that at eighteen, her father thought she was «a bit old, a spinster, and if he waited longer, he would never be able to get a partner for her.» Can you imagine? My mother might have felt awful, that she was a disappointment for her family and let him down if she would stay in college as she wanted. So my mother went home, and by twenty-two, she had three kids. And then, every time she had a baby, she had post-partum depression. At the time, few knew what that was, not even in America in the 1950s. So she was left to her own devices. Nobody understood why she would not be able to get up in the morning to take care of her baby.

That was why I did all this research on what would you feed a woman with depression, and that is why in the story, Lakshmi feeds the Maharani fruits, spices, and herbs used in India for centuries to help. There is so much knowledge passed on by women in India and other cultures that help accomplish something or heal the body.

I have always been a feminist. I don’t shy of that word. And I think my mother was a feminist because she raised me to make my own decisions. I was always told I was too brash, too outspoken, and a troublemaker if I spoke by myself. That did upset me. I wondered why men always have the final say-so on how we women should act or live? So when I started to reimagine my mother’s life (as Lakshmi), I thought the protagonist could never escape the fact of her marriage, so what if she could have left her marriage before the children came? At eighteen, my mother knew nothing about sex or where children come from. What if a mature woman understood reproductive functions and how to keep herself childless in a herbal way? That is when I decided who would be the person to teach Lakshmi to stay childless. A woman by herself and with children would never survive at that time. She would need the support of the whole family to raise them. Without Lakshmi learning from her mother-in-law, she never would have left the marriage. So you see how I started to build the character based on what she needed to do. I needed her to escape a marriage. I needed her to set up her career and her own rules for her life.

The country’s independence from British rule was in the 1940s. Did that significant experience influence the choice of the story’s timeframe?

Yes, it was a considerable influence. The partition of India came in 1947, and then it gained independence from the British. At the time of partition, there were a lot of movements. India was a big country, and before leaving, the British decided to create a country for Muslims, Pakistan, and the rest would be India. The Pakistani government decided that if people were not Muslims and wanted to keep their house and lands, they should convert to Islam. That is what many did. They did not move away, leaving family and life there. The Indian government said to Muslims, «you can move or stay. It is the same». So many Muslims went to Pakistan to live, and millions stayed in India.

At the time of the independence and years later, when The Henna Artist starts, there was strong confidence in the ability of Indians to recreate their economy, school system, and policies for their people. There was great excitement in the country. There were three hundred million Indians that wanted to be part of the exuberant times. So I thought nobody has written about them, they were the majority of Indians, and the partition did not impact them. Still, they were very much engaged in India’s rebuilding, which I wanted to write about.

People in India are very class and caste conscious. They can live their lives and continue with their activities, but they know that the boy who comes to bring the milk is of another breed, and they do not socialize with him. It’s like here in America. I’m not inviting my gardener or housekeeper to dinner.

Even Indians don’t know today how exciting it was for the country to recreate itself. I wanted to talk about that. My father gave me this idea, as he was one of the engineers who helped rebuild India. It was essential for me to talk about that time of pride, rebuilding self-esteem, when people have independence from an oppressor. That’s what I wanted to talk about. Remember that before the British, India had four or five centuries of Mongol rule, and then all those explorers from the north that came and go pillaging. India had so many oppressors through the centuries. And finally, that was the moment in which it did not have that anymore.

In your novel, there is a fluid exchange between casts in India, although from afar, it seems a very rigid and established order.  

People in India are very aware of their social class, socioeconomic class, and caste. They don’t over-talk about it, but they are all very aware of it. They tend to live their lives and go on with their business, but they know that the guy who comes to bring the milk is from another cast, but they do not socialize with him. It is like here in America. I am not going to invite my gardener or housekeeper to dinner. They are very aware of the classes, all kinds of people you engage in daily but differently.

Another thing that many do not realize is that in India people live in the same neighborhoods. Like here, you live next door with people of different religions or different classes. That doesn’t mean that you don’t work or do business together or your children don’t go to the same school. I wanted to let people know that there are symbiotic relationships between people of different religions in India. It is an ordinary course of being. Like everywhere, now and then, there are conflicts, but it does not mean that people cannot live in peace together.

Lakshmi has a goal: to build her own home, and she is pretty steadfast about it. It seems like a metaphor for her growth and maturity.

I think that what I am projecting there is my own experience in life. At one point, I realized that I have moved into the category of an adult, I have a mortgage, have money in the bank, and I have worked so hard on the house, every detail, even landscaping. And then, when the relationship felt apart, I thought it would be so heart-wrenching to leave the house. I have pulled my heart and soul into this endeavor that makes me an adult, I thought. But then, when it came the time to leave the house and sell it, I did not feel that. I felt completely free. It was as if the house had been an albatross around my neck, and it felt as if I was an obligation in a way that I did not realize it was almost a prison.

I think that this happens sometimes. At times, we cling to what we know so desperately because we think, oh, my gosh, if I let it go, my entire world will come apart. And then when you let it go, you realize that the world is still going on, that it did not fall apart. I wanted Lakshmi to have the same experience and let go of owning things to become independent. It does not have anything to do with it. You feel free when you let things go.

I know that you meant this story as a series of three volumes. Is the second one near publishing? 

Yes. I have The Secret Keeper of Jaipur right here. It is done and will be out in stores on June 22nd.

This book is taking place twelve years after The Henna Artist, and Malik is fully grown. So many of my readers love the character of Malik, and I like him. So I decided to write The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, about Malik when he becomes an adult.

The third book is a volume that has many things that I have written for The Henna Artist and never got to include in the final novel. This is Radha’s story as an adult, so that the third book will advance the story other six years. Her son, the baby she gave up in The Henna Artist, is now eighteen years old, and he accidentally finds out he is adopted, so now he is going looking for his birth mother.

Radha lives in Paris; she is a perfumer, has a Parisian husband and two little girls, and the family she always wanted. So I am researching perfumes and all the ingredients to write about it. Also, this third book explores what it is like for adoptees and adopted parents to deal with this matter. At the same time, I am trying to study Indians who have moved to different countries. I enjoy the research for my books. I do all the research first, and then some small parts would go into a book. But the research is the fun part.

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