Are you enjoying our content? Don’t miss out! Sign up!
India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
When I worked for ad agencies, I would write 30-second to one-minute commercials with several characters. After several rounds of edits from my managers and clients, the approved commercial could be sent to production for casting, filming, and post-production. The whole process took a month or two, and I would move on to another assignment, another client, other characters. I loved doing it.
Several decades later, I started writing a novel that eventually became “The Henna Artist.” It would take 10 years to get it into the hands of a publisher. I didn’t know it then, but those 10 years were a luxury! Ten years to talk to my characters, eat with them, swim with them, sleep with them. These characters were more than one-minute wonders.
I was fascinated by their backstories, their foibles, joys, and frustrations of daily life – something I never experienced in my job as a copywriter. When I listened to the characters of my novel – really listened – I learned things about myself no therapy session could uncover.
For example, Lakshmi, the protagonist of “The Henna Artist,” reveals nothing about herself while gleaning everything about her clients’ wants and needs simply by listening and punctuating the conversation with a few choice questions. She goes further. She steps into the kitchens and back-of-house realms of the serving class. Her affection for them is genuine, but so is her wily extraction of their house gossip.
I found myself wishing I were more like Lakshmi. Unlike me, she’s so subtle, so deft
at gauging the temperature of those around her. She never missteps or overreaches. So it comes as a surprise when she breaks her usual pattern in a self-destructive fashion. Had I done that in real life, I would have been beside myself, unable to recover from the shame and humiliation. But Lakshmi uses the event to reinvent herself.
I wondered: Is she trying to teach me that if I were to take such a leap, I, too, might find novel directions to explore — directions that might be uncomfortable at first but that might teach me something
Florence & Parvati
The character of Florence in my third novel, “The Perfumist of Paris,” and Parvati’s character in my second, “The Secret Keeper of Jaipur,” reinforced something I’d always suspected but hadn’t been able to articulate. In different ways, these women wear a hard shell that protects a soft, vulnerable center. As I dug deeper, I found a strain of profound sadness in each woman. Parvati craves the attention of her husband, a charming philanderer who seems to have time for everyone except her. To reclaim agency, she becomes the doyenne of her social circle. Florence’s distant relationship with her son — something she wishes to change — causes her to direct her misery at her daughter-in-law, Radha.
If I could uncover the hurts behind those who wear distant, disapproving, or dismissive masks, would I feel more empathy for them? It’s a hard thing to do, but the characters of Radha and Lakshmi find it within themselves valuable to try. They are far better women than I.
Upon reading the initial draft of “The Henna Artist,” my editor at MIRA/Harper Collins suggested I take a second look at Lakshmi’s estranged husband, Hari. Why would I want to, I asked. He’s a wife abuser, a liar, and a blackmailer. Still, my editor implored me to find his humanity. All my other characters were good and bad, which made them human; why couldn’t I find the good in Hari? she asked.
For several months, I resisted her. Finally, on a walk with Hari (I’m serious!), I asked him why he’d been cruel to his wife. He was reluctant at first, then angry, then contrite. I completely understood his reasoning: the betrayal he felt by her stubborn childlessness and how that conflicted with his patriarchal upbringing. He had been raised to be lord and master of his household; why was his wife so resistant? What he told me changed the ending of the novel, which became richer, and far more complex. It gave readers insights into the flawed relationship of these two characters and their need to forgive each other. Neither was completely innocent; neither was completely guilty.
My editor forced me to talk to the character I detested most because I didn’t understand him. Once I could — and this could apply to anyone in my life with whom I don’t resonate — I saw a side of him that I could like, respect, and even love.
My characters live in me forever. Thank goodness for that, because I would miss them terribly if they left me. If it wasn’t for these complicated, warm, tortured, resourceful, funny, lovely characters, I would never have finished a trilogy that resonates with readers around the world. They’ve taught me life lessons. They’ve given me hope and courage. They’ve loved me back.
Northern Californa-based Alka Joshi is the international bestselling author of “The Henna Artist” and “The Secret Keeper of Jaipur.” Her third novel, “The Perfumist of Paris,” comes out in March 2023.
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA NEWS GROUP.