The biggest surprise for me is hearing from all these women about how the book has inspired them to change their lives.
Born in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, author Alka Joshi is overwhelmed by the incredible response that her debut novel has received. A Reese Witherspoon-endorsed Hello Sunshine Book Club pick, “The Henna Artist” is a New York Times Bestseller, USA Today Bestseller, Publishers Weekly, and Toronto Star Bestseller, amongst other accolades. The universal love for her novel came as a welcome surprise to Joshi, who is now working on her second and third novels.
“The Henna Artist” chronicles the story of 17-year-old Lakshmi who deserts an abusive marriage to make her way to the vibrant city of Jaipur. Set in the 1950s, Lakshmi becomes the most celebrated henna artist and trustworthy confidant to the wealthy women of the upper class. Lakshmi’s carefully crafted life is threatened when her estranged husband shows up at her door with Lakshmi’s younger sister, Radha, whom she didn’t know existed. How will Lakshmi protect the life of independence she’s created in India, the same country torn asunder after the departure of the British? Lakshmi must now straddle the difficult line of using her talents to not only pursue her independent life but also uplift those around her.
As I conversed with Joshi over the phone, it was very clear to me that both our mothers had very similar life trajectories. Her mother, similar to mine, moved from her family home directly to her husband’s. Both were homemakers who weren’t given the choice to pursue a career, but both made sure that their daughters could.
Even though she didn’t have control over her life, or a lot of power in the major decisions in her life, she made sure her only daughter was able to make all those decisions. She passed along the power to say, “I want this, and I don’t want that.”
Her mother’s influence is what inspired her to write “The Henna Artist,” a reimagining of her mother’s life as an independent woman. When Joshi first began writing the novel ten years ago, she was ferrying her mother back and forth to Jaipur for home visits. Unfortunately, her mother passed away three years after Joshi started writing the novel. It would take Joshi another seven years to complete “The Henna Artist.” But the journey she had with her mother to India is what reignited her love for the country.
Joshi has lived in the US since the age of nine. She graduated with a BA from Stanford University, and in 2011, she obtained her MFA in Creative Writing from the California College of Arts in San Francisco, California.
When we first came to America in 1967, we lived in Iowa, where my father was getting his doctorate in civil engineering. My brothers and I were the only brown kids at school. As a nine-year-old kid, I didn’t know how to answer questions about the caste system, systemic poverty, arranged marriages—questions that befuddled me. I realized that Americans had a very negative perception of my birth country.
For the longest time, Joshi didn’t want anything to do with India. It would be decades before she returned to the country with her mother—five times over a two-year period. She browsed the markets that her mother used to frequent, and the fruits and vegetables and spices they didn’t sell in America. She visited stores with her mother as salesmen pulled out one sari after another. She marveled at how gorgeous the patterns and fabrics were and how no two women ever seemed to wear the same outfit.
On these trips to India, Joshi and her mother Sudha talked about her mother’s girlhood; the books and magazines she liked to read as a girl, the movies she adored, what India was like in 1955—the year Sudha was arranged in marriage to Joshi’s father. All these details took flight in Joshi’s imagination and reemerged in the story of Lakshmi, the henna artist.
One of the most wonderful outcomes of my writing journey has been the respect and appreciation I’ve gained for my birth culture. I began to think, “What an amazingly rich, vibrant culture I come from.”
It is not a surprise, then, that most of the acclaim for Joshi’s work acknowledges the evocative imagery present in her work. The Monterey Herald noted the “rich sensory details [that] saturate the reader in visual images throughout the book.” As I was reading the novel, it was as though I was sitting beside Lakshmi as she delicately applied henna whilst absorbing the fragrant cooking fire, colorful saris and crisp dialogue of surrounding women.
So much of what the women are going through in the novel is what I’ve observed women dealing with every single day. I was concerned that topics like contraception, abortion and the choice to remain childless might be too much for readers to handle. But now, when I talk to women around the world in Zoom book club chats, they validate the need to discuss these issues openly. Many of them have lived through Lakshmi’s life. They’ve survived and thrived and revel in a book that captures their experiences.
The paperback version of “The Henna Artist”—and its sequel, “The Royal Jewel Cinema”—will be out in April 2021. Joshi hopes to be able to go back to India by then to visit many of her new fans.
I recently participated in a Zoom call with student council members of a private school in Jaipur. Afterward, they told me over 4000 people had watched the event. Even if I touch the life of one, two, or twenty of those attendees who are now motivated to do something with their lives other than what had been predestined for them, I feel like my 10-year-journey to create “The Henna Artist” has been worth it.
January 16, 2023January 16, 2023 6min readBy Sejal Sehmi
I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.”
Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind.
Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too.
Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,
I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.
During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance.
The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose!
Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type — the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way.
It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits,
Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you.
I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance.
But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,
The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour?
I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?
A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride!
I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.
“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.
In celebration of Kirthana Ramisetthi’s second novel “Advika and the Hollywood Wives,” BGM literary editor Nimarta Narang is publishing this short story by the acclaimed author. This piece chronicles the evolution of a writer’s life through their ever-changing author’s bio. In the details, from the change in last name to the new address, we observe how Gigi grows into Genevieve and the life events that make her into the writer she becomes.
“My Picnic,” published in the Oakwood Elementary Storytime Scrapbook
Gigi Maguire loves strawberries, “Smurfs,” and being a first grader. Her favorite word is ‘hooray.’ This is her first short story.
“Sunshine Day,”published in Oakwood Elementary KidTale
Gigi Maguire is a fifth grader in Ms. Troll’s class. She loves writing stories more than anything in the whole world, except for peanut butter.
“What Rhymes with Witch?,” published in BeezKneez.com
Gigi Maguire is a high school junior living in the Bay Area. Her favorite writers are Sylvia Plath and J.K. Rowling. If she can’t attend Hogwarts, she’ll settle for Sarah Lawrence or NYU.
“On Her 21st Birthday,” published in LitEnds
Gigi Laurene Maguire is a writer and recent graduate from Sarah Lawrence College. Her favorite writers are Sylvia Plath, Alice Munro, and Mahatma Gandhi. She is making her big move to New York City in the fall.
“Valentine’s Day in a Can,” published in Writerly
Gigi Laurene Maguire is a freelance writer who loves the written word, Ireland in springtime, and “La Vie En Rose.” She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.
“Unspoken Ballads of Literal Heartbreak,” published in Weau Dunque Review
Gigi Laurene Maguire is an assistant editor at ScienceLife.com. Her work has appeared in Writerly and is forthcoming in Pancake House and Schooner’s Weekly. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.
“The Mistress of Self-Loathing,” published in Story Day
Gigi L. Maguire is the editor-in-chief of Small Business Weekly. Her work has appeared Writerly, Story Day, Pancake House, and Schooner’s Weekly. She’s currently working on a novel about witches. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, with her tabby cat Sabrina.
“The Distance in Your Eyes,” published in The Canton Review
Gigi L. Maguire is a freelance writer and digital marketing specialist. Her work has appeared in Writerly, Story Day, and is forthcoming in Idaho Centennial. She’s working on a novel and a short story collection. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.
“Auspicious,” published in BookWorks
Genevieve L. Maguire’s work appears or will appear in The Canton Review, Mark’s End, Bishop Quarterly, and Idaho Centennial. A second runner-up for the Imelda Granteaux Award for Fiction, she is writing a novel and a memoir. Genevieve lives in Brooklyn.
“Meditate, Mediate,” published in Ripcord
Genevieve L. Maguire’s fiction appears or will appear in BookWorks, The Canton Review, Berkeley Standard, and elsewhere. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she is an MFA candidate at New York University. She lives in Brooklyn with her boyfriend and their two cats.
“Chaat & Chew,” published in The Carnegie Review
Genevieve L. Maguire’s fiction appears in Ploughshares, Ripcord, The Cambridge Review, and elsewhere. She received her master’s in creative writing from New York University. Her short story “Meditate, Mediate” has been optioned by Academy Award nominee Janet De La Mer’s production company, Femme! Productions. She lives in Brooklyn with her fiancé, their three cats, and a non-singing canary.
“Urdhva Hastasana Under a Banyan Tree” published in The Paris Review
Genevieve Maguire-Mehta’s fiction has been hailed as “breathtakingly lyrical” by Margaret Atwood. She is the recipient of the Whiting Prize for Short Fiction and an Ivy Fellow. Her fiction has appeared in The Carnegie Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She lives with her husband Manoj in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
“Reaching New (Jackson) Heights,” performed by Lana Del Rey on NPR’s “Shorts” series
Genevieve Maguire-Mehta’s fiction has been hailed as “effervescent” by Alice Munro and “breathtakingly lyrical” by Margaret Atwood. She is the recipient of the Whiting Prize for Short Fiction and an Ivy Fellow. Her work appears or has appeared in The Paris Review,Elle, The Carnegie Review, and elsewhere. She lives with her husband in Park Slope, Brooklyn with their feisty menagerie of animals.
“The Bhagavad Gina,” published in The New Yorker
Genevieve Maguire-Mehta is the recipient of the Whiting Prize of Short Fiction and is a McClennen Arts Colony scholar. Her work appears or has appeared in The Paris Review,Elle, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a novel. She lives with her husband and daughter in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
“When Two Becomes None,” published in American Quarterly
Genevieve Maguire’s writing has received dozens of accolades, most recently the Luciana Vowel Prize for Female Fiction. Praised by Alice Munro as “effervescent,” her work has appeared in more than twenty publications, including The New Yorker, and The Paris Review. She lives with her daughter Priyanka in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
“The Day We Learned Desire is a Winding Path,” published by Capricorn Rising Press
Genevieve Maguire is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in more than thirty publications, including The New Yorker and The Paris Review. She lives with her daughter in a 100-year-old farmhouse in Woodstock, New York. “The Day We Learned Desire is a Winding Path” is her first novel. Visit her website at genevievemagauthor.com.
“Hairy Arms and Coconut Oil,” published in MotherReader
Genevieve MaguireDunblatt is a novelist, homeopath, and part-time yoga instructor. She has seen her critically-acclaimed short stories published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She lives with her husband Benji and daughter Priyanka in Jacksonville, Florida.
“Priya Pinker’s Mother Gets a Life,” published by Capricorn Rising Press
Genevieve M.Dunblatt is the author of two novels, including “The Day We Learned Desire is a Winding Path.” An aura reader, faith healer, and yoga instructor, she has seen her critically-acclaimed short stories published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She lives with her husband in Jacksonville, Florida. Visit genevieveauthormag.com to learn more about her writing, and genevieveauthormag.com/hearthappy for her wellness services.
“Comma, Coma,” published in Read-A-Day Journal
Genevieve Maguire is the author of “The Day We Learned Desire is a Winding Path” and “Priya Pinker’s Mother Gets a Life.” She has seen her critically-acclaimed short stories published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. Alice Munro has called her writing “effervescent.” She lives in Jacksonville, Florida.
“Next Stop New York,” published in The Lunar Reader
Genevieve Maguire is the author of “The Day We Learned Desire is a Winding Path” and “Priya Pinker’s Mother Gets a Life.” She lives in New Jersey.
“What you do is not who you are. Our capitalist society spends a lot of time trying to convince us that we are our work, but we don’t have to fall for it.”
When I first met Joy Batra, she wasn’t an author. She was a multi-hyphenated individual who floored me with her charm and her aura. Joy not only had gone to business school and law school at one of the most prestigious universities in America, but she also valued her hobbies and her passions that were completely extraneous to her working persona. Her nontraditional career path was one that, at first glance, confused me. “I’m a dancer and freelancer,” she had said, and I batted my eyes as if she was talking in a foreign language. What’s a freelancer? Why and how did she come to identify herself as a dancer, when her degrees all point to business and law?
Joy Batra’s therapeutic and timely book “Freelance Mindset” provides relevant stories, guidelines, and motivation to take ownership of your career and financial well-being. Particularly, the book is centered around the pros and cons of life as a freelancer and practical advice for how to get started as one. At its core, the “Freelance Mindset” encourages diving deep into the relationship between career and identity, and how the balance of both relate back to your life view.
In the words of Batra:
“Freelancing is a way to scratch a creative itch that is completely unrelated to their day jobs…Freelancing harnesses that independent streak and turns it into a long- term advantage.”
Batra’s older sister’s advice is written with forthright humbleness and glaring humility. Batra leads us through the fear of facing our existential fears about careers, productivity, and creativity. She leans into the psychological aspects of how we develop our careers, and reminds us to approach work not just with serious compassion but also with childhood play:
“You are naturally curious and passionate. As a child, before you needed to think deeply about money, you probably played games, had imaginary friends, and competed in sports. Those instincts might get buried as we grow up, but they don’t disappear altogether.”
Batra also provides us with a diverse cast of inspirational freelancers who provide their honest perspectives across a wide range of domains from being a professional clown to actors to writers. Especially noticeable is the attention paid to South Asian women through notable interviews with Vyjayanthi Vadrevu, Saumya Dave, and more. On social media, it’s easy to find these women and immediately applaud their success, but behind the scenes, it takes a lot of grit, persistence, and determination to reach the successful level of freelancing that you see. Batra encourages a spiritual way of thinking that is marked by rational needs (ex. Maslow’s hierarchy): not to seek immediate gratification and corporate climbing, but rather to view life as a “jungle gym” as coined by Patricia Sellers. Taking risks is part of life, and just like entrepreneurship, freelancing is just as ambitious and off-the-beaten path, despite stigmatization.
“One of the strange paradoxes of the working world is that entrepreneurship is fetishized and freelancing is stigmatized.”
I recommend the “Freelance Mindset” to anyone who is starting out their career in these economically uncertain times, as well as seasoned workers who are looking for inspiration or a shift in their career life. Whether or not you are considering becoming a freelancer in a certain domain, this book is the practical wake-up call that workers and employees need in order to reorient their purpose and poise themselves for a mindset of success. I view this book as a “lifer,” one to read every few years to ground myself and think critically about the choices I make and where I devote my time.
I leave you with this quote:
“We can adopt the new belief that no single job will meet all our financial, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical needs…We have one self, and we must figure out how to integrate it into the various situations we find ourselves in.“
You can purchase a copy of the Freelance Mindset here. Follow Joy Batra on Twitter and Instagram for more content!