Writer Alka Joshi: On Indian Women, Bollywood Films, and Reese Witherspoon
Writer Alka Joshi: On Indian Women, Bollywood Films, and Reese Witherspoon

The author of Artists from Jaipur (published by Inspiria) told Cosmo how she wrote her first novel and why she abandoned a successful career in marketing.

Can you say a few words about the plot of Artists from Jaipur? Is this a real story? Did your mom inspire you for the novel?

"The Artist from Jaipur" is the story of Lakshmi, who decides to leave her husband because she is unhappy in marriage and to start an independent life; he is anameren to earn his living with his talents - the ability to draw beautiful mehendi (henna patterns on the skin) and healing. At the same time, India is taking its first steps as an independent state, re-feeling its national identity. I dedicated this book to my mother, whose name was Sudha; she was married to my father at the age of eighteen, and by the time she was twenty-two she had already given birth to three children. She didn't have the opportunity to go to college or pursue a career - in short, she couldn't choose her destiny. I was the only girl in the family, and my mother did not want for me the same life in the bosom of the patriarchal tradition, in which I would not have the right to vote.


My father often recalls one incident - I was about four then - my grandmother served me and my brothers with food, and my portion turned out to be much smaller; the mother asked the mother-in-law what she was doing, and the grandmother answered her: “They are boys, they need to eat more”; and my mother said: "Not in my house!" She forbade her to treat me differently than with my brothers - an incredible insolence in relation to elders at that time! Mom has always defended my right to make my own decisions - be it marriage, family or career. I am so grateful to her for the opportunity to live a free life that I decided to create Lakshmi - a heroine who looks like her mother, but who won the independence that she was deprived of.


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Tell us a little about your father. Do I understand correctly that he had a serious impact on your literary career?

My father is now 89 years old and still leads an active life, goes swimming and plays bridge every day. Dr. Ramesh S. Joshi is Professor Emeritus at the University of Calgary in Canada and a specialist in civil engineering. He always believed in the power of science and did his best to ensure that my brothers and I received a good education. When I started writing about India in the 1950s, I relied heavily on his photographic memory to convey the spirit of the era. Both he and his mother were born in the 1930s, having found colonial India, the period of the struggle for independence and the sovereign state of India (1947). The Pope remembers with what energy and optimism the Indians looked to the future when the era of colonization came to an end. This became the background of my story: despite the fact that the country has changed a lot, the role of women has remained the same. My father reads most of my drafts, corrects historical inaccuracies, supports my ambitions and tells everyone about my books. He is my main fan!

What turned out to be the most difficult part of writing the book? I know that you have been working on your first novel for over ten years…

The hardest part was accepting the fact that the bulk of writing a novel is editing. I thought I would finish the manuscript, correct a couple of paragraphs here and there, and, like magic, the book would be published. But just like the art of a cook or a composer, writing takes practice and practice. You need to spend time with your characters, study their emotions, think through their stories. It is necessary to reread what has been written over and over again - preferably aloud - in order to understand how individual words change the rhythm of a particular sentence. You need to listen to those who know and know more than you - editors, agents, mentors, early readers - to realize that it might be worth rewriting or deleting chapters or characters that don't add value to the novel. The Jaipur Artist had thirty draft manuscripts!

When you wrote the book, you were still working in marketing. How did you manage to keep up with everything? Was it difficult?

“To keep up with everything” is a utopian idea! It implies that we are able to keep everything under control. Most people just prioritize based on how things turn out. When I first started writing, my business was going through hard times due to the 2008 US mortgage crisis (which triggered the global crisis). I entered a two-year full-time master's program in writing and tried to absorb as much knowledge as possible during this time, the result of my thesis was the first draft of the manuscript "The Artists from Jaipur". When things got better again at the marketing agency, I almost completely stopped writing. Over the next eight years, I alternately took up the book and left the manuscript until it was finally published in March 2020 - just before the outbreak of the pandemic.


Are you currently engaged in some kind of marketing projects?

I stopped taking new advertising and marketing projects in 2018 when I signed a contract with MIRABooks. Eighteen months after the first contract, I signed the second one for the sequel; and a year later they bought the rights to the third book of the Jaipur Trilogy. So now the writer is my main profession.

Lakshmi, the heroine of your book, draws mehendi. Is henna painting still important in India?

Mehendi has been an important art throughout Asia, the Middle East and northern Africa for thousands of years. Patterns applied to the body or hair soothe, decorate, cool, sometimes even heal. Mehendi is still used on hands and feet during weddings, festivals and other celebrations in over twenty countries. And of course, many in Asia use henna instead of hair dye to hide gray hair. Mehendi artists earn decent money in India, enough to support their families.

Why did you leave India in due time?

My father decided to write his PhD in Civil Engineering at the University of Iowa in the United States. We moved when I was nine and my brothers were eight and eleven. By the time my father received his second master's degree and his doctorate, we were already teenagers and wanted to stay in America.


Did you follow some Indian tradition when you moved to America?

While my mother was alive, she did not let us forget many ancient traditions. For example, every New Year's, she cooked cowpeas and made us eat them because it brings good luck. When my husband and I became engaged, she performed the arati ceremony, thus she blessed our union and solemnly accepted the "new son" into the family. It was very beautiful! Of course, I still make my mom's curry.

Russian people are very fond of Bollywood films. Unlike your book, they usually have a happy ending. Why is the fate of a woman portrayed so differently in Indian cinema and in your book?

Bollywood films are made in order to give hope, they are full of optimism, so they have a lot of dances, songs and always a happy ending. I tell stories about people who could be alive: who have their own strengths and weaknesses, their own principles and weaknesses, they experience victories and defeats. These are the characters that I learn from when I read books myself. In other words, I write about people who are not perfect, like you and me. In real life, there is not always a happy ending. For example, when marriages break up, one of the partners after the divorce is always happier than the other. It seems to me that Lakshmi at the end chooses the path in which she sees the meaning, in which there is something more for her.

Do you share the ideas of feminism?

I believe in the right of every woman to choose her future, I believe that all possible options should be available to her so that she can make her own choice, an informed choice. I was lucky to be born in a world where all the roads were open in front of me, as a woman, and I sincerely wish that my sisters in all corners of the earth, like me, had the opportunity to choose.

How often do you visit India now?

While I was writing my first novel, I traveled to India six times. I wanted to visit the Himalayas while working on The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, because the novel introduces nomads living high in the mountains, but the pandemic interrupted my plans. But at least I managed to fly to Paris for the third book, because it takes place in India and Paris. I hope to visit India again in 2023, because around that time filming of the mini-series of The Artist from Jaipur will begin.

Has the life of women in India changed since the 1950s? Has it become lighter or, on the contrary, heavier?

In general, women from the middle or upper classes now have a lot more freedom. The middle class has grown so much over the past thirty years that parents have the opportunity to send both sons and daughters to universities. Education, in turn, enables many young women to get decent jobs and self-sustainability. It is easier for them to make decisions about marriage. Many now marry for love, choosing a partner outside their caste, and abandon arranged marriage (about 70-80% of marriages remain arranged and are concluded within the caste to which the parents belong). Educated girls openly tell their parents when they want to get married, when they think about having children, whether they want to live with their father-in-law or not. Unfortunately, the destinies of women from less well-off strata of the population have not changed radically; their lives are reminiscent of Lakshmi and Rada's young years in the village, as I described them.

I know Reese Witherspoon chose your novel for her book club. Do you consider this event a personal achievement?

The release of The Artists from Jaipur in March 2020 coincided with the WHO's announcement of a global pandemic. As a result, all promotional activities for the novel were canceled. Bookstores and libraries were closed. I was desperate. How can people read my book if they don’t hear about it, don’t find it on the bookshelves? And then my editor called me and told me that Reese Witherspoon had chosen The Artist From Jaipur as the main book for May. I was numb from surprise and for the first few seconds I was silent, trying to figure out if I had heard wrong. This call was followed by a period of active work - we quickly prepared texts and videos about the book for social networks and the Reese website. I was absolutely delighted! I will always be grateful to this incredible woman and her understanding and patient assistants for creating a fantastic media platform for female authors. Reese's influence, the work of my wonderful team at MIRA (imprint HarperCollins) and 600 book club meetings have helped make The Artist of Jaipur a worldwide bestseller.

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