Alka Joshi has created so many characters I encountered as a young girl in Jaipur; they literally walk off the pages of her book. But much as I admired the discreet, determined Lakshmi in The Henna Artist, my heart went out to the headstrong Radha, who leaps before she lingers. The Perfumist of Paris, the third book in Joshi’s The Jaipur Trilogy, is Radha’s story.
Joshi was fortunate (as she reveals in the exclusive Q & A for India Currents) to spend hours with master perfumers researching the details of Radha’s foray into the blending parfums. This sensibility has distilled beautifully into the book.
Radha vests herself in a new life in Paris with the affectionate Pierre. They share cumin and garlic spiced Garbanzo beans and Coq au Vin. Read French and Indian fables to their daughters. Entertain the gregarious Mathilde and Pierre’s mother Florence. Make love.
Radha’s destiny blooms with her job. She forms an alliance with Antoine, her benefactor at a departmental store, who encourages her to be curious about the basics of fragrances and the emotions they evoke. Through Antoine she meets the impeccable Delphine Silbermann, at the House of Yves.
To Radha’s delight, although she does not have a degree in chemistry, she is assigned a new project to make a perfume for a mysterious client based on a famous painting by a French artist: Eduard Manet’s Olympia from 1863.
She spends hours studying the model in the painting. Her unblemished skin. Donned in nothing but extravagant silk mules. A bouquet of flowers with peonies, a dahlia, violets. An onyx charm. A hibiscus tucked behind her ear. Radha is mesmerized.
She spends hours studying the painting.An inscrutable expression. Ca m’est egal! Radha is obsessed.
She conjures up subtle scents to capture Olympia’s essence: it’s not amber, it’s not bergamot, it’s not cedar, it’s not carnation. Olympia’s musk is more elusive.
Her husband resents her time away from her domestic duties. She almost loses heart, but an inner voice urges her to keep trying.
Then, she makes a trip to India, where she meets two courtesans, Hazi and Nasreen. They introduce her to Mr. Mehta and his box of delightful attars. She reconciles with her decision to focus on her career.
Somewhere in the story lives young Niki, born out of wedlock to Radha, and trying to belong.
IC: When did you conceive of this novel?
AJ: I’d written an epilogue for The Henna Artist where I’d revealed where each of the major characters had landed 10 years later. Lakshmi married Dr. Kumar. Malik was just finishing up at the Bishop Cotton School for Boys in Shimla, and Radha was living in Paris with the husband she had eloped with and she worked in the fragrance industry.
This epilogue was cut from the novel by one of my editors, but it laid the groundwork for The Perfumist Of Paris. I knew exactly what Radha was doing at the time her firstborn, Niki, was reaching adulthood. And I knew she loved working with scent as much as she’d enjoyed her work with henna paste and mixing paints for the old man in her village.
IC: Is Radha inspired by your own identity? Rundo Rani Badi Sayani… phir bhi karti hai man mani…
AJ: Radha is a complete work of fiction. I’ve never had a sister, but I’m a keen observer of people. I could well imagine how a hardheaded, naïve girl might act. Like her sister, Radha is focused, and she’s a hard worker. She has a natural propensity for working with chemical compounds: mixing different ingredients to make henna paste smoother than her sister Lakshmi could; learning how to mix paint for old man Munchi in the village where she was born. And now, working with the chemistry of perfume creation.
The rhyme [rundo rani…] was something my father made up and always sang to me (and still does, even though I’m now 64!) It makes me laugh!
IC: Did you write Radha’s character arc first, or develop it simultaneously with the turmoil in her life and turn of events?
AJ: I knew from the beginning that Niki would come back into Radha’s life. And that she worked with perfume. I knew I wanted to explore how Radha had dealt with the guilt of destroying Lakshmi’s business, and of giving up her baby. Beyond that, I didn’t know the arc of the story.
The scenes flowed from one to the next. What’s exciting for me as a writer is that I’m also along for the ride with my readers. I don’t know the ending of my novels until I’m there!
IC: How is she similar/different from her sister Lakshmi or the other female characters in the book?
Radha is far more impulsive than Lakshmi, who is sometimes too reticent for her own good. In her younger years, Radha would speak her mind without thinking. As an adult, she’s learned to curb her speech.
She resists what she sees as her mother-in-law’s attempts to control her until she realizes Florence is lonely and actually wants to form a deeper connection to her son’s family.
Mathilde protected Radha at school, keeping her from being bullied. She’s looked after Radha, but when she needs looking after, Radha fails her, too wrapped up in her own life. Delphine, Radha’s boss, is a success in a man’s world. She is decisive, strategic and a mentor to Radha, in whom she sees promise. Radha listens to her, hangs on her every word.
IC: What was the most exciting and rewarding part about whisking Radha away to Paris? Was it a love at first sight with Pierre? Was it a sense of adventure?
AJ: Radha’s whole life is a risk-taking adventure. It’s as if she’s addicted to risk. She falls for this adventurous Parisian who came to India to work with one of the eminent architects of his time. Pierre loves Radha’s curious nature. They decide to marry and return to Paris.
For Radha, I think it was a chance to escape the pain of everything she had gone through in her young life: the betrayal of Ravi, the way she ruined her sister’s carefully curated life, and the relinquishing of her firstborn. She wanted to get as far away from the memories as possible. But as we all know, we cannot escape our memories.
IC: Tell us about the research you did in Paris. What was so special about Olympia that it caught your eye over other paintings?
AJ: I loved the research because I learned so much about the business of perfume and how generous the master perfumers were in sharing their knowledge with me.
My B.A. is in Art History. I’ve known about Olympia forever, having first visited the Jeu de Paume (which is no longer a museum) in 1974, the year I set the story. I love Manet’s work and wondered about this woman he used in many of his paintings. Was she his lover? A friend? Was she paid for posing?
IC: I love the way you anchored Olympia to bring Radha and Niki together. Why give Radha another heartbreak?
AJ: When Radha finally atones for the heartache she caused in the lives of others, it’s time to look at her own life and assess what she’s been running away from. Is her love for Pierre founded on how he made escape possible for her, or is she truly in love with the man himself? Also, she’s found a passion for her work that he’s trying to take away from her. And you know that as stubborn as she is, Radha isn’t going to put up with that.
IC: For your research, did you visit establishments of the “ladies of pleasure?”
AJ: I’ve never visited a house of pleasure, but I can well imagine them after reading up on the courtesans. Did you know they were so wealthy that they heavily supported the independence movement?
I always knew the courtesans protected and loved Lakshmi when she was just a young woman trying to escape an abusive marriage.
IC: The most sensitive story is about the young Niki, born out of wedlock and trying to belong.
AJ: I interviewed women who had had to give up a baby born out of wedlock. Their stories were so heartbreaking. I also spoke to adoptees to see how they felt when they learned who their birth parents were. Some were very emotional about it, while others were matter-of-fact, preferring their adoptive parents to their birth parents.
IC: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this fine work?
AJ: To make the reader feel that they’re on the ride with me. I have to know how many steps there are from Radha’s apartment to her work. I have to take the reader on a walk with Hazi to the fragrance godowns and make the reader feel they’re watching the workers go about their tasks. I have to sit the reader down in front of Olympia and understand what she’s feeling.
IC: Are there other projects you are working on?
AJ: I’m on to my fourth novel, set in Shimla, Prague, Florence, Paris and London in 1937. It’s not part of the trilogy, but it is centered on a woman’s quest to come to terms with her father’s abandonment of her and her mother.
IC: Any final words?
AJ: I write for two main reasons: to promote the idea that all women deserve agency to make the decisions that impact their future; and to show the world how many positive contributions India has made to the world.
In The Perfumist Of Paris, I focus on the many ingredients used to make global perfumes that have been exported and harvested from India for centuries.
In The Secret Keeper Of Jaipur, I focus on the gold and gem cutting business of India that supplies the world with its luxury jewelry.
In The Henna Artist, I focus on the herbal remedies and healing power of arts like henna—contributions that can only come from centuries of experience.