My Wedding Henna + The Henna Artist’s Bighearted Alka Joshi on Saris

Photo of Alka Joshi, author of "The Henna Artist."

“When’s the last time you read something unapologetically pro-choice — and that’s as empowering as it is romantic? Me? Never. I’m eager to read Joshi’s follow-up novel! I wish there were more novels that discuss pro-choice issues head-on. Joshi’s enchanting story is set in 1950s India, told from a woman’s point of view, about the choices we’re given, and how much we can make with them. In addition, the audiobook version’s narrator, Sneha Mathan, is marvelous!”

~ My review of The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi for Amazon and Goodreads

I absolutely adore books (after all, I’m writing two)! Whenever I finish reading an exceptional novel, I review it on Goodreads and Amazon. Sure, not all stories resonate with me. As a tender-hearted author, I know too well the blood, sweat, and tears that even a crappy book demands, so I let other people review those.

Afterward, I email the novelist to thank them for making my life more thoughtful and maybe even fun. Ditto for any audiobook performer involved. Some thank me back, and on the days my stars are aligned, they agree to contribute to Happiness Between Tails.

Anyone who doesn’t read The Henna Artist is missing out. Clearly it’s written by a generous spirit. Just glance through Alka’s website and Youtube channel, where she lauds other authors to the extent that she poses with their books! Here she is, holding Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic as she says how grateful she is for it. Btw, I love that book too, so she’s got good taste to her credit as well lol 🙂

Bighearted author Alka Joshi lauds Bighearted author Alka Joshi lauds “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert in a video.

Allow me to digress a moment: Henna, oh, henna, you magical green powder! You enhance my hair, and you make lovely temporary tattoos!…

Photo of da-AL's henna-tattooed hands. The day before I got married, I drove to Los Angeles’ Little India for these gorgeous henna tattoos.

They’re far more forgiving than the permanent ink ones, and brides aren’t allowed to do housework until they’ve worn off…

Photo of my henna tattooed hands and feet. I needed just the right sandals to show off my enhanced tootsies!

Dusting off my photos to show you these provided an excuse to reconnect with Chris Miller, the super-talented photographer (check out her Instagram too) who was beyond kind to gift them to my sweetie and me. Back when she shot them, we both worked for the Beach Reporter, a Manhattan Beach community weekly. I reported on Hermosa Beach while she worked as a private event photog and as the publication’s photojournalist.

Wedding party photo of Khashayar and da-AL. It seems like yesterday when you’re having fun…

Back to our esteemed guest: Alka was born in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India. At the age of nine, she moved to the United States. Eventually she graduated from Stanford University and worked in advertising, public relations, and owned a marketing consultancy. Moreover, she has a Creative Writing MFA from Cal Arts San Francisco. The Henna Artist is her first book. In less than a year, it’s a huge success! The sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, is set for July, plus the third book in the trilogy will come out in 2022. Above and beyond that, she’s an executive producer for the novel’s upcoming Miramax TV series!

What follows are her thoughts on women in India. Note that when she speaks of how women, in this case architects, are often undermined, India is not the only country that restricts us. Unfortunately, I’ve met women architects in the United States who encounter discrimination here too…

Alka Joshi, author of Alka Joshi, author of “The Henna Artist” and more!…

“The Sari vs. Modern India” by Alka Joshi

In January 2019, the Architecture faculty at Ansal University in Gurgaon, just outside New Delhi, received an email from the registrar to attend a convocation.

Architecture faculty at Ansal University in Gurgaon's news bulletin board. Architecture faculty at Ansal University in Gurgaon’s news bulletin board.

It requested formal dress: “trouser, coat and tie for men” and “saris for women.”

Students wear western clothes. Students wear western clothes.

This sparked a lively, funny, albeit very polite, conversation on WhatsApp among the female faculty, who normally wear trousers, Western blouses/tops, or salwar kameez (long tunics with legging-like bottoms) most days.

“I may not wear a sari…I don’t even own one!”

“I do not even know how to wear a sari.”

“[I’m] not against saris. But at 7:30 in the morning, especially when I’m not used to it is definitely a challenge.”

“Can’t tie one at 7am and drive…and get through the day!”

“No sari. Impossible to wear and report at 7:30 in the morning.”

“Why a sari at all?”

“If the women must wear a sari, wouldn’t a *dhoti be more in sync for the men?”

*(Now mostly worn by village men, a dhoti is a white cloth from five to seven yards in length, wrapped loosely around the legs and tied in a knot at the waist. While dhotis have gone out of fashion, saris are still a mainstay of female couture for weddings, special occasions and family gatherings.)

This Adjunct Prof of Architecture chose to leave her sari (if she has one) at home. This Adjunct Prof of Architecture chose to leave her sari (if she has one) at home.

“We are all sensible enough to know what to wear. Most of us might even have worn saris to the event without being asked. But when you tell us exactly what to wear, we are going to have something to say,” laughs Monisha Sharma, associate professor. “Our Dean, who is female, told us to just look as smart as we do every day, so that’s what we’ll do.”

Associate Professor Monisha Sharma prefers a salwar kameez over a sari when she’s teaching. Associate Professor Monisha Sharma prefers a salwar kameez over a sari when she’s teaching.

In addition to teaching in the Architecture school, these women are working architects. At construction sites they are often greeted with curious expressions: Can women really be architects? Are these women here to tell us what to do?

One professor told me that she had organized a site visit to a factory for her students. When they got to the site, the founder only responded to the junior male faculty who had accompanied her, choosing not to acknowledge her at all. 

Similarly, a female architect who was managing a project for her father’s structural engineering firm was not being consulted by the construction team until her father ordered them to talk only to her. She was, after all, the project manager and the only one who could answer their questions.

Architecture Professor in India. “At 7:30 in the morning, I don’t have time to gather and pleat a sari. It’s a lot of work!”

To someone like me, who’s been raised in the West since the age of nine, it’s surprising that the women’s reaction is not anger (that would have been my response, along with bewilderment and confusion). 

Instead, the Indian women laugh it off. “We have already made our mark in our profession,” they say. “We don’t need to hit them over the head with it.”

At the convocation, the female faculty wore Western trouser suits. Not a sari in sight.

There’s more than one way to make a statement.

Are dress codes unbiased where you work?…

Flamenco Fusion by da-AL

“Flamenco & the Sitting Cat” is the title of the first of my soon-to-be self-published novels. The ‘Sitting Cat’ part of the title refers to the geographical shape of Iran…

Map of Iran out lined in shape of a Sitting Cat.
Map of Iran outlined in the shape of a Sitting Cat.

I grew up with only classical music — and flamenco music and dance. My father, who left Barcelona in his mid-20s, wanted it that way. Since I left home at 18, it’s a gift to watch any type of dance I like and to listen to every kind of music that comes my way.

Shahrokh Moshkin Ghalam respectfully and lovingly fuses dance cultures.
Shahrokh Moshkin Ghalam respectfully and lovingly fuses dance cultures.

I still love classical — and flamenco! Especially fascinating to me is when flamenco is fused with the dance of Iran, where my husband was raised. Shahrokh Moshkin Ghalam is an Iranian dancer now residing in France. Flamenco is as much about individuality as it is about technique — it accommodates all cultures, all forms of beauty.

If only politics were as intent on creating a climate of ‘we’ rather than an ‘us vs. them’!

The way Ghalam (click here for his Facebook page) fuses dance styles is respectful and hypnotic…

For more flamenco, check out Part 3: Marvelous Madrid — Flamenco

What fusion art do you enjoy?

Shipra’s Indian Wedding Guide for Girls: a few of my thoughts by da-AL

Everyone should read Shipra’s imaginative fun packed blog. My fave of her posts:

Indian Wedding Guide for Girls
This post is my favorite example of Shipra’s wit and wisdom.

When I let her know how much I enjoyed it, here’s what developed:

I love how bloggers welcome each other so quickly.An interesting discussion had begun.This is what really got me to comparing our cultures.

As our discussion lingers in my mind, here’s some additional thoughts:

  • Real women speaking out everywhere, rather than merely famous ones, can only help everyone. That’s why blogs are wonderful!
  • Shipra’s description of Indian weddings, mothering, and stunted careers for women makes me grateful for my choices here in the U.S.
  • American weddings are often influenced by reality TV, sitcoms, and superstars, despite few of us being as prosperous we’re portrayed. Some weddings and marriages are traditional, while others are not. Some parents pressure for grandkids, others don’t. Either way, I don’t think parents have as much control over their kids as they do in other countries. For one thing, we’re too affluent to have to answer wholly to them. For another, our culture is too much about independence, even though more and more adult children are living with their parents longer.
  • Married, educated, working outside of the home — or not — women’s status in American still has a way to go. It’s decades since we won the right to choose whether to bring a child to term, yet today we’re forced to renew our fight to keep that right. Women earn only 77% of what men do. As ever, they do most of the childrearing, with little help from social programs.

Its easy to idealize other places when images are is filtered through politics and for-profit media. American researchers report that people elsewhere aren’t as lonely as us, that they’re happier, eat better and less, are trimmer, treat their elders better, and often live longer.

Los Angeles is a cultural kaleidoscope. When I travel abroad, it takes me a while to get acclimated to the lack of diverse people, home decors, and places to eat.

All the same, even with politics aside, immigrants have a tough time here. The more years they’re here, the less they have common with the folks they left behind. Their American-born kids grew up entirely different from them, and their grandkids all the more so.

Many immigrants complain that Americans aren’t into fun and socializing, that we work too many hours, that our families live too far apart, that youngsters are too materialistic. But those same people moved here to leave behind social and familial pressures, to set aside fun and socializing so they could earn lots of money.

As for career and motherhood, American women grapple with the same biological and career clocks as in India. To our advantage, while some parental pressure for grandkids is real, it’s usually not as intense as elsewhere. In my case, I feel fortunate that my personality side-stepped maternal pressures. I didn’t think I was cut out for motherhood until my happy marriage at age forty, when I fell for a man who does his best to be a fair partner. Since him, my attitude switched from, ‘kids aren’t for me,’ to, ‘if it happened, it happened.’

A good measure of this is thanks to the fact that, while I’m not wealthy, I’m not poor by American standards. For me, adoption has always be a viable option. It’s not appealing to me, though, when I consider how it usually involves politics and profiteering. Fertility procedures can involve shady business motives as well as physical risks. To my mind, parenthood is best left to the truly motivated.

Dear Reader, please feel free to join in the conversation.

Shipra’s blog.

Shipra’s post on Indian weddings.

National Organization of Women’s factsheet on U.S. women’s pay in comparison to that of American men.