My father tells this story: When I was five, my father’s mother spooned more subji and chapatti onto my brothers’ plates than mine. My mother stopped him. “In my house,” she said, “my daughter is equal to my sons.” My mother –—always –—was my champion.She, who had an arranged marriage at 18 and three children by the age of 22, never had the choices she wanted me to have: whom to marry, when to marry, whether to have children, what to study, what to do with my life.
I began to imagine a different life for her. What if she had been allowed to complete
her B.A. before she married? What career would she have pursued? What if she had
raised her children in India, and not in America –—a country whose language it took
her 30 years to master?
The Henna Artist
is the life I imagined my mother might have lived. Lakshmi, like
my mother, has blue-green eyes, lustrous hair and a creative spark. Unlike my mother,
Lakshmi flees her marriage and reinvents herself as a henna artist in Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital, during the heady years just after India’s independence. She defies convention. She clings fiercely to a life of her own making.It took ten years – and a great deal of research – to write
The Henna Artist
. I quizzed my father and mother endlessly about the era following the British Raj (both my parents were born in the 1930s and married in 1955). I read about India’s medicinal plants, ayurvedic and aromatherapy remedies, the history of henna – how it’s made and why it’s so important in Indian culture), the British in Rajasthan, the education of girls in that era and the caste system, and how it affected the lives of those defined by it.
I traveled several times to Jaipur, where I interviewed Rajput families, shopkeepers in the Pink City, women my age and their urban daughters, teachers at the Maharani Gayatri Devi School for Girls, ayurvedic doctors, and, of course, henna artists. I spoke at schools and colleges, asked questions, danced at glorious weddings, and drank copious cups of chai.
Lastly, I read authors whose stories took place in the years before and after India’s independence: Kamala Markandaya, Ruth Prawar Jhabwala, RK Narayan, Anita Desai, VS Naipul, Rohintin Mistry, Amitav Ghosh, Manil Suri, Thrity Umrigar, Shoba Rao. I searched for, and devoured, gorgeous fiction focused on Indian women:
Nectar in A Sieve, The Age of Shiva, An Obedient Father, Cracking India, The Inheritance of Loss, Godaan, Sister of My Heart, Water, A Princess Remembers, Girls Burn Brighter, Clear Light of Day.
I also read brilliant post-colonial, works by non-Indian authors such as Jamaica Kincaid, Chinua Achebe, Khaled Hosseini, Chimamanda Adichie and Edwidge Danticat.
Although my mother did not live long enough to see the novel published, she lives in every breath Lakshmi takes and every word she utters. Through Lakshmi, my mother revels in a world of choices she never had in life.