CULTURE

Emirates Airline Festival of Literature: In conversation with Alka Joshi

Alka Joshi

Born in India, Alka Joshi has lived in the United States since the age of nine. She ran her own advertising and PR agency for 30 years before publishing her debut novel at age 62. Launched in 2020, The Henna Artist immediately became a New York Times bestseller and is now being developed into a television series. Joshi’s sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, launched in 2021, further expanding the stories of the characters in her debut novel, which is set in India. This will be followed by the third book in the trilogy in 2023.

Your debut novel became an instant bestseller and now, a TV production is in the works. You’re an amazing success story, how does it feel?

“I feel that I have finally arrived at the place I was meant to be all along. There’s no way that I could have got here at the age of 20, 30 or 40. It took as long as it did for me to reach here so that I could feel that I was ready to start writing the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. There is a quote from Rabindranath Tagore, and it is one of my epigraphs in the book. It says, ‘The traveller has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end.’ I am not at the innermost yet, but I am getting there. I feel like I had to go through all the other experiences of my life – work, relationships, loss and grief – in order for me to now be able to write about them in a way that I can have other people understand what I’m saying.”

What inspired you to tell the story of Lakshmi in The Henna Artist? 

“As I was hanging out with my mother in Jaipur, I realised that I had not been back to India, my birth nation, for decades. It made me feel like I was seeing India through my mother’s eyes. She took me to the school that she was enrolled in when my grandfather called her back to Rajasthan to get her married. At 18, she left school, married my dad and had three children within four years. Her whole life was about being a mother and wife. My father was an engineer and one of those people helping to rebuild India post Independence, so we were constantly moving from one city to the next. Finally, my dad said we were moving to the United States. Through all of these things, I realised that my mother never had a life of her own. She was always trying to meet societal expectations or taking care of the other people in her life. So I thought, what if I could give my mother the life that she has always afforded me in the form of Lakshmi, my main character. In The Henna Artist, we meet Lakshmi at the age of 30, who was really successful at building a life of her very own and that’s what I would have loved to have for my mother.”

How did The Secret Keeper of Jaipur come about?

“After wrapping up The Henna Artist, I was six months away from its launch. That’s when Malik from the book started talking to me and telling me to write his story. There was so much that got cut out in The Henna Artist that didn’t make it into the book. I felt like I had to let people know about this character that had become so large in my imagination. And, of course, I had to bring Lakshmi back as she is still a big part of what Malik does in his life.”

You ran an advertising and PR agency for 30 years. How and when did you decide to start working on your debut novel?

“There was never an exact moment. When the 2008 recession came along, I had to take stock of what was going to happen over the next two years. Managing my agency for so many years, I knew that every time there was a recession, there was a two-year lag in income. So I thought, I have two years to do something with my life. My husband had always been encouraging me to write fiction for years. He said, ‘You write advertising for a living but I think you can expand the stories that you write.’ It took 16 years into our marriage for me to enrol in a Master of Fine Arts programme in Creative Writing. Also, a couple of years before that, when I had started taking some evening classes just for something to do, my instructor was always so complimentary about my writing. I think it was that encouragement that kept me going and I ended up finishing a draft of The Henna Artist for my master’s thesis. Of course, it would still be another 10 years and 30 drafts before that would become something that my agent was willing to sell to a publisher.”

Was the trilogy something you envisioned even before the first book was out?

“Not at all. After I finished The Henna Artist, it was really Malik’s voice that carried me into the second book. As I was finishing up The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, I was trying to figure out how to work Radha, who was now in Paris, into the second story that’s taking place in Jaipur and Shimla. It seemed like I was going to have to shoehorn her in there and there was already so much going on. And so I thought I cannot also include Radha’s story in this; I’m going to have to write a third book about her, about her story, how she ended up in Paris and what she’s doing there. That’s how the trilogy came about. I absolutely had no idea all those years ago when I started writing The Henna Artist in 2008 that it would turn out to be a trilogy.”  

Tell us about the upcoming Netflix series based on The Henna Artist. 

“The way that I write, I describe everything visually as it’s happening in my imagination, so I saw every chapter of The Henna Artist almost as an episode on TV. I love to stream shows where I get hooked on characters that I want to watch episode after episode, season after season. That’s why I really wanted The Henna Artist to be a streaming TV series. So we got proposals and I also got to choose the team, including Freida Pinto, who not only wanted to play Lakshmi but also wanted to executive produce. One of my requests of the production company was that they hire women – and primarily South Asian women – for the writers’ room because so many of our stories are told by people other than us. Also, The Henna Artist is a story about women’s agency and about women coming into their own, gaining dignity and power within the limited world that they are allowed to be in and so it was very important for me to have women in the writers’ room. In my life, I have been given so many opportunities and I wanted to pay that forward.” 

For more information, visit emirateslitfest.com

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