What if my Mother Had Happened to Life?
If you’d told me at the age of 20 or 30 or 40 that I was going to write a bestselling novel, I would have laughed. It was the farthest thing from my mind. Yet, at age 63, I’m now a full-time author, working on the third novel of a trilogy. How did that happen?
In my 20s and 30s, I was still moving in and out of relationships. My biological clock wasn’t ticking, and I wasn’t in a hurry to marry. Like everyone else, I was learning how to include another person in my life, my space, my future. I also wanted to establish a career. But first, I had to figure out what that career was. I tried insurance, graphic design, advertising, marketing, event production and eventually started my own agency.
During the time leading up to my fifth decade, there’d been glorious triumphs and crushing frustrations. There were cry-into-my-pillow heartaches and heartful moments of bliss. There was loneliness and loving warmth and betrayal. Life, I learned, was imperfect. People were imperfect. I was imperfect. I made mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes had lovely endings; sometimes they didn’t.
One thing was clear: Life didn’t happen to me; I happened to life. I was responsible for all the choices I made.
But another revelation dawned in my 50s: my mother’s life had happened to her. Raised in a traditional Indian family, she’d been told whom and when to marry. Without access to birth control, she’d been overwhelmed by three babies and as many bouts of post-partum depressions in the first four years of marriage. She’d always walked several paces behind my father, never calling him by his first name, which would have been disrespectful to the patriarch. She made fresh chapattis for my father whether he arrived from work at five o’clock or nine at night.
How courageous of her, then, to have consciously raised her only daughter so differently. Although she wore saris long after we’d immigrated to the U.S., she encouraged me to dress as freely as American girls did; halter tops, hotpants, bikinis, the whole works! At 18, she took me to the doctor to get birth control pills and gently advised that I wasn’t obligated to marry the first man I slept with. After I left home, she sent me little homemade cards, dried flowers carefully pasted inside, telling me how smart, brave and beautiful I was—something no one had ever done for her.
I was my mother’s rebellion.
So when it came time to write, the idea of inventing an alternate life for my mother, where she happened to life, loomed large in my imagination. Lakshmi, a woman who deserted her marriage and forged her own path as a henna artist and herbalist, became the protagonist of The Henna Artist. Did she wrestle with the choices she made in her life? Of course—as we all do. Did she learn from those choices? Absolutely. Was she imperfect? Brilliantly so.
At 51, I enrolled in a Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) program in Creative Writing to realize my mother’s re-imagined life.
Mom and I made many trips to Jaipur during my MFA. She shared anecdotes from her girlhood, her early marriage, experiences of motherhood and her teenage yearnings. Most of what she recounted made it into the stories of one or another character in The Henna Artist. Above all, the book’s mantra was her message to me: that all women deserve to make the choices that determine their destiny.
In the 10 years and 30 drafts it took me to bring my debut novel to readers, the characters took on a life of their own. As soon as the first manuscript went to the printer, Malik, Lakshmi’s helper, insisted I write his story. My readers agreed.
The Secret Keeper of Jaipur began with a scene. Nimmi, a young tribal woman, is arranging her floral wares to sell at her stall on the Shimla pedestrian mall. At her feet are her two young children in a basket woven by her hand. A man and a woman are making a beeline for her stall. As they come closer, I realize the man is Malik, now 20 years old, next to a 42-year-old Lakshmi. Lakshmi is fascinated by the flora Nimmi has collected from the upper Himalayan mountains. I spy a connection—chemistry—between Malik and Nimmi. I see Lakshmi watching them; she doesn’t approve.
This is how I write: scenes come to me as mini-movies where characters are saying and doing things. I know each character wants something but I don’t know yet what it is. So I ask myself questions that will need to be answered: What is Malik doing now that he has graduated from his boarding school? Why does Lakshmi disapprove of Malik’s beloved and will she try to prevent their relationship? What will Nimmi’s response be to Lakshmi’s actions? Where is Jay Kumar in all this? I know he lured Lakshmi to Shimla, but did they eventually marry?
Oh, how I love the answering these questions! As I do, another short film begins playing on the screen of my imagination. I realize that’s the next scene, which will lead to more questions and answers. What joy there is in creating this world piece by piece!
Storytelling is so rewarding now that I’m older. I can imbue my narrative with my thoughts on life, thoughts based on my experiences, my loves, my losses. My characters are allowed to be imperfect –they’re so much more interesting when they make mistakes. But the mistakes are theirs. Because life didn’t happen to them; they happened to life.
(c) Alka Joshi
Author photograph (c) Garry Bailey
About The Secret Keeper of Jaipur:
In New York Times bestselling author Alka Joshi’s intriguing new novel, henna artist Lakshmi arranges for her protégé, Malik, to intern at the Jaipur Palace in this tale rich in character, atmosphere, and lavish storytelling.
It’s the spring of 1969, and Lakshmi, now married to Dr. Jay Kumar, directs the Healing Garden in Shimla. Malik has finished his private school education. At twenty, he has just met a young woman named Nimmi when he leaves to apprentice at the Facilities Office of the Jaipur Royal Palace. Their latest project: a state-of-the-art cinema.
Malik soon finds that not much has changed as he navigates the Pink City of his childhood. Power and money still move seamlessly among the wealthy class, and favors flow from Jaipur’s Royal Palace, but only if certain secrets remain buried. When the cinema’s balcony tragically collapses on opening night, blame is placed where it is convenient. But Malik suspects something far darker and sets out to uncover the truth. As a former street child, he always knew to keep his own counsel; it’s a lesson that will serve him as he untangles a web of lies.
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