The novel, which is set in post-Independence 50s era sensitively explores the challenges and limited choices Indian women had in those days.
The protagonist, Lakshmi’s narrative of a young bride who runs away from unhappy arranged marriage to find her identity as a henna artist in Jaipur is both uplifting and admirable.
Excerpts from the interview with the California-based author
You have vividly described the Rajasthani culture despite having moved to the US at the age of nine. Were all these observations made during your multiple trips with your mother from 2008-2011?
During the first nine years of my life, my family lived in Jodhpur, Jaipur, Bikaner, Banswara, and Chandigarh because my father, an engineer for the State of Rajasthan, was either promoted or transferred or was studying for his Masters. We spent a few summers in Shimla to escape the Rajasthani heat. My extended family resides primarily in Jaipur; that’s the reason my younger brother bought a condo in Jaipur, where I accompanied my mother for five visits from 2009 to 2011. In 2019, I wanted to interview women about their status today as compared to the 1950s of the novels, so I visited 5 Indian cities: Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, and, of course, Jaipur.
Were you inspired by your mother, who had an arranged marriage at 18 and three kids by 22?
My mother Sudha didn’t have much power over her destiny; she married the man her parents had selected, didn’t have the opportunity to finish college, and devoted her life to her husband and children. But she made sure that I, her only daughter, would be able to choose my own future and determine my career. How much courage and forward thinking that must have taken! I was inspired to reinvent her life as Lakshmi in The Henna Artist and give her the agency she and many women of her generation never had.
Lakshmi is neither Ms Goody Two shoes nor is she the vamp. Did her just evolve naturally?
Lakshmi looks like my mother with her light eyes and golden beauty. She has my mother’s strength and resilience and her creative spirit. I prefer to think of Lakshmi as strategic rather than manipulative, which has a negative connotation. Lakshmi knows that as a woman without a husband and children, she is an anomaly in Indian society. She is vulnerable to prying eyes, wagging tongues and wayward husbands, so she’s careful to plan her every move in ways that protect her as well as enrich her. I didn’t have a complete story arc until a year after I started writing it. Over the course of 10 years as I deepened the characters and refined the scenes between them, the story grew into The Henna Artist.
Radha’s decision to have the child as a single mother and not opt for an abortion with the sister giving in seems a bit too radical for the 50s. What is your opinion?
I believe girls as young as Radha-and even younger-know their minds, know what they want. By the time they’re old enough to marry, these same girls have been cautioned not to speak too loudly, not to dress provocatively, not to appear smarter than boys, not to want more than they’re allowed, not to give voice to their real thoughts. In Radha, I wanted to create a girl who hasn’t yet had her spirit beaten down. Radha uses her smarts to find Lakshmi — the sister she’d never met — and goes on to challenge Lakshmi’s beliefs about how a proper woman is supposed to look and act.
How different do you think your life would have been had your parents continued to live in India?
I know I would have gone to university, as would my brothers, because my father has a Ph.D., and is keen on education. Perhaps I would have had a traditional Indian marriage and several children. Beyond that, I’m not sure. Isn’t it interesting that I reimagined my mother’s life but have a harder time reimagining my own?
You live with your husband and two pups in California? Can you share a little bit about your daily life?
We’re both fiction writers, so we love to read and write. Brad reads more non-fiction than I do; I read fiction almost exclusively, mostly stories that take place in other cultures where I can learn about the food, daily lives, and languages of people different from me. We live by the California coast in an area filled with hummingbirds, seagulls and butterflies — it’s peaceful, beautiful and conducive to writing. My husband loves to cycle and I love to walk. We both use physical movement to help move our writing forward. Of course, our dogs help with that by asking us to walk them several times a day — they’re very considerate that way!
How did the book get picked up by Reese’s Book Club and what kind of reactions have you received post that?
I believe Hollywood talent scouts are always on the lookout for properties their clients might find interesting, which is perhaps how The Henna Artist reached Reese Witherspoon. The reaction from readers, who adore and respect Reese’s female-centric choices, was immediate. The Henna Artist shot up the New York Times Bestseller list, as well as the LA Times, Amazon Summer Reads, and various other lists. Since the release of the novel on March 3, 2020, I’ve participated in over 100 virtual book club discussions as well as numerous podcasts, radio interviews and bookstore events worldwide. In the time of COVID, magic does happen.
You are working on a sequel to this book with some of the characters. The book had hinted at a possible romance between Lakshmi and the doctor? Will the relationship evolve in version 2?
You’ll have to read the sequel to find the answer to that one! The sequel, The Royal Jewel Cinema, will be published in July, 2021. It centres on Malik, who is now 20 years old, and reprises many of the characters in The Henna Artist. After that, there will be a third book in the trilogy, which deals with Radha as a grown, married woman living in France whose son comes looking for his birth mother.