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Updated: Jun 22, 2023


Article Published on: 19TH JAN 2023 |

In 2008, when the global recession slowed work at my advertising/marketing agency, I decided—20 years after my husband first suggested it—to enroll in a two-year Master's program. At 51, I would learn how to write a novel.

In 2008, when the global recession slowed work at my advertising/marketing agency, I decided—20 years after my husband first suggested it—to enroll in a two-year Master's program. At 51, I would learn how to write a novel.


The Henna Artist became my Master's thesis. Within the next year, however, my mother died. Overwhelmed with grief, I stopped writing altogether.

A year later, my thesis advisor called to check up on me. When I told her about my mother, she suggested that working on the book could be good therapy and recommended some edits. She sent my revised manuscript to her agent Emma Sweeney, who loved it. And just like that, I had a literary agent!

I pictured myself singing books to a long line of readers, the way it happened in the movies. But Emma felt the manuscript needed work. She had me trim 140 pages—a painful task. She made another suggestion: hire a developmental editor. More rewrites? I cried.

My editor sent me 15 pages of extensive changes. What?? After seven years, I still had more work to do.

I stopped writing. Again.

A year later, I came across the manuscript. Curious, I started reading. Not bad, I thought, and decided to take a second look at the editor’s suggestions and make the changes.

Emma sold that final manuscript to MIRA Books, a division of Harper Collins—10 years and 30 drafts after I’d first conceived Lakshmi. A year later, MIRA bought the sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, before the first book appeared in stores.

I waited for my release date: March 10, 2020. On March 11, all hell broke loose! A global pandemic. My book launch: is canceled. Bookstores: closed. Libraries: closed. Amazon: only shipping essential supplies. What now?

Like a superhero, Reese Witherspoon to the rescue! She selected The Henna Artist as her May Bookclub pick!! More miracles: bookstores started shipping books; libraries arranged curbside pickups.

My book shot up on the New York Times Bestseller List. Movie companies called. I chose the Miramax team with Freida Pinto starring as Lakshmi.

To date, The Henna Artist has been translated into 23 languages. I’ve joined more than 550 book club discussions around the world. Readers are loving The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, and I’m writing the third book in The Jaipur Trilogy.


"The Secret Keeper of Jaipur tackles the themes of parent-adult child relationships, the consequences of past actions, LGBTQ issues, and, as always in my novels, how South Asia’s rich, ancient culture has contributed to world development."

The Secret Keeper of Jaipur began with a scene. Nimmi, a young tribal woman, is arranging flora she has harvested from the upper elevations of the Himalayas at her stall on the Shimla Mall. Two young children are playing at her feet in a basket woven by her hand. In the distance, Malik, a former street child, now a 20-year-old boarding school-educated young man, is leading his guardian Lakshmi to the stall because he knows Lakshmi will be interested in adding Nimmi’s exotic plants to her Healing Garden in Shimla. Lakshmi notices the chemistry between Malik and Nimmi but doesn’t approve of their alliance.

I knew then that Lakshmi would arrange for Malik to apprentice at the Palace in Jaipur. There, he would encounter characters from the first book, The Henna Artist: the successful Singhs, the Dowager Maharani and the younger queen, the Agarwals, and their son Niki. And I knew Malik would unwittingly become party to an underworld smuggling scheme that would lead him right back to the mountains of Shimla, to his beloved Nimmi, and to Lakshmi.




It’s May in Jaipur and already sweltering. The theatre is air-conditioned, but the air outside is fresher than the odor of a thousand bodies pressed close together inside the theatre. Ravi’s wife, Sheela, refuses the chai and the food, claiming it’s too hot to eat. Her baby daughter has fallen asleep on her shoulder, the warmth of her small body making Sheela squirm. Sheela puffs out her cheeks and walks over to a stall selling khuskhus fans. A bead of sweat glides down her bare neck and disappears into the back of her blouse. I force myself to look away.

Parvati is proudly showing off her four-year-old granddaughter Rita to the society matrons who have come to say hello. “Tumara naam batao, bheti.” Kanta is chatting gaily with friends. Samir and Manu are being congratulated for their work on the cinema house who have shown up for the gala affair. I look around for Ravi, who was with them earlier, and wonder why he would miss this opportunity to be in the limelight. It’s not like him.

As always, I’m watching and listening, something Auntie Boss taught me to do well. In my next letter to her and Nimmi in Shimla, I’ll be able to tell them what the moviegoers thought of the leading lady’s hairstyle or the color of her sari (I’ll wager Nimmi has never seen a movie in her life!). I’ll also be able to tell them that most of the ladies of Jaipur would marry the handsome Dev Anand given half a chance.

I see Sheela coming back to join our group, waving her fan in front of her face. Parvati reaches up to lift damp curls away from the sleeping baby’s forehead. Sheela is looking past her mother-in-law. I follow her gaze to the corner of the cinema house. That’s when I notice Ravi escorting the younger actress out the side door. Sheela’s eyes narrow as her husband and the starlet disappear in the darkness, away from the throng. I know there’s a loading dock there. It’s also where the drivers for the maharani and the actors are waiting to whisk them away.

We hear the bell announcing that intermission is almost over. The second half of the film is about to begin. I check my watch. It was now 9:30 p.m. Sheela’s girls should be in bed, but Ravi had insisted that the family be present and seen by the public at his big moment. I’m sure Sheela fought him on it. She prefers to have the ayah look after the girls. The crowd files back into the lobby and through the open doors of the theater. I had chai wallahs the empty tea glasses the chai wallas making their rounds. Banana leaves on which chaat was sold litter the ground. A fragrance of food served and eaten— not wholly unpleasant —lingers in the air. I lift Rita, Ravi’s other daughter, whose eyes have started to droop and hoist her onto my shoulder.

I follow the rest of the group inside the lobby. Before we make it through the doors, we hear a yawning creak, then a complaining groan, and then suddenly the roar of a thousand pounds of cement, brick, rebar, and drywall crashing down.


Q: What was your first thought when you started writing and when?

A: I’d never intended to be a writer. I always thought I’d be drawing, sketching, or painting in some capacity. At 28, when I applied for my first job as an art director at an advertising agency, the Creative Directors asked me to join their team as a writer; they said my portfolio clearly showed I was a strong writer. Surprised but determined to eventually secure an art director position, I accepted. As it turned out, I loved writing commercials—those amazing, entertaining mini-stories taking place in 60 seconds or less. I was building characters and scenes, writing dialogue, and developing a beginning, middle, and end to each story. With my art background, it was easy to create those worlds in my imagination. But it would be many decades before I would enroll in a Master's program in Creative Writing and many more years—not until the age of 62—before I would publish my first novel, The Henna Artist.

Q: Does writing energize or exhaust you?

A: I’m never more energized than when I’m in the midst of a scene, working with characters as if I were the director of the production. I allow the scene to play itself out in my imagination. I move characters around—like chess pieces —and instruct them to try being less angry or more playful. Then I sit back and let the drama unfold. In this way, I get to know the characters so intimately that they begin to say and do things that completely surprise me. When that happens, I’m on cloud nine! Being able to give characters the freedom to reveal themselves is one of the greatest joys of being a writer. It’s also the reason I ended up writing a trilogy. The characters insisted I write the rest of their story, not merely stop at the happy ending. How they grow into their personalities, how their relationships with one another change—this is what inspires and engages me in what is ultimately their story.

Q: What are common traps for aspiring writers?

A: I could write a book about all the mistakes I made as a beginning writer! To start with, I thought I was done after my first draft. Then I thought my second draft was the final. What about my seventh draft? In the end, it took me 30 drafts to learn how to craft a novel. Writing is about rewriting—why didn’t they teach that in my MFA program? Most writers stop too soon and then are disappointed when their work doesn’t find a publisher.

Another trap is that aspiring writers will focus more on getting published than on why they’re writing. Every writer should ask themselves: why am I writing this story? Why now? Why am I the best person to write it? By keeping that intention as the main focus, a writer can maintain her true north. If she has a deeply personal reason for delving into her project, that intention will resonate with readers in a visceral way.

Yet another reason aspiring writers get discouraged is thinking that the world will discover their true talent without their active participation. Many writers, most of whom are introverts, prefer to remain in the shadows after their work finds a publishing home. They think: if my work is good enough, people will find it. But why a writer chose their subject matter and how they talk about it incites readers to pick up their books. Writing is only half the work of getting the book into readers’ hands.

Q: What is your writing Kryptonite?

A: Because I started life as an artist (an introverted one), I learned to observe my surroundings in detail. After all, you can’t draw a leaf without noticing its every vein, the changes in hue from its tip to where it attaches to the branch, and whether the edges are ragged or smooth. In the same way, I learned to watch people: the way they interact with one another, what they say, what I can feel them thinking, and what they don’t say. I also paid attention to whether there was a hum in the air or the crow of a rooster, whether I could smell freshly cut grass or the stink of an overripe banana, whether it was muggy or whether the breeze was making goosebumps rise on my skin. It’s that sensory input and my ability to put it into words that produces my literary juice.

Q: Have you ever gotten writer’s block?

A: Maddeningly, no. Everything inspires me to create stories: a conversation with a stranger at the supermarket, the scent of my shampoo, garlic wafting from a neighbor’s kitchen, music from my husband’s CDs, my dogs digging in the sand—literally everything!

Q: Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?

A: No.

Q: Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

A: I write the stories I want to read. I like reading about strong women, so my stories always have formidable personalities—women who are determined and persistent in their intentions. I like reading about real people, with all their strengths and weaknesses, joys and sorrows, triumphs and defeats. So I create imperfect characters, leaving room to develop and transform. I love historical fiction because our past determines our future and I’m curious about how we came to be. I love researching history to lend authenticity to my fiction.

Another paramount issue for me as a writer is that for so long, stories about South Asians have been told from the Western perspective, the point of view of the colonizers. I want to tell these stories from a South Asian lens, which is such a vital part of my DNA: the subtle nuances of culture, its fragrant flora, and food, its class and caste divide, the intricate familial relationships, and the depth of knowledge and wisdom accumulated over millennia. My intention is to show how life was (and is) actually lived in South Asia, the real story behind why India needed to rebuild itself after being ravaged by the British, the subtle and not-so-subtle ways patriarchy keeps women from achieving equality, and the continual struggle to preserve ancient tradition while incorporating modern modalities.

Q: Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?

A: I think it would be difficult to write well-developed characters without being able to feel their emotions in any given situation. Whether we’re writing science fiction or mystery or historical fiction, it’s our ability to write characters readers can empathize with on an emotional level that marks the bestseller from the average book. The story is key, but the characters are king (and queen)!

Q: How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?

A: Publishing The Henna Artist didn’t change my writing process in any way. I still write in my pajamas in bed. It’s where I feel the most comfortable. My dogs are sleeping beside me. My husband is off cycling or writing in his own studio. I never attempt to write on a blank page. By the time I start, I’d been processing scenes and characters in my imagination for months as I walked, rode my bike, took a shower, or drove my car. The only thing that changed is how long it takes me to write the final draft. The Henna Artist took 10 years; The Secret Keeper of Jaipur and the third book I’m currently writing in the trilogy are only taking two years each. I’m writing about the same characters so I don’t have to reinvent their likes, dislikes, or quirks of personality. I already know how they’ll react in any situation.

Q: How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

A: I had started researching a new novel right after The Henna Artist was sent to the printers. I hadn’t gotten very far before 20-year-old Malik insisted I write The Secret Keeper of Jaipur. He had grown into such a strong character in the first book that he would not leave my imagination. Six months after I began writing his story, The Henna Artist was released and I discovered, much to my amazement, that readers wanted to know more about Malik as well. He must have loomed large in their imagination, too!

Q: What does literary success look like to you?

A: Literary success means I make a living as a full-time author. I have the privilege of creating stories and using my imagination for the rest of my days on this planet. And I have the honor of interacting with passionate readers who find comfort, inspiration, and courage in my story and my characters—it feels as if they are a part of my amazing tribe!

Q: What’s the best way to market your books?

A: I’ve learned about marketing my books through experience. You and your publisher will collaborate on some of them; others will be completely up to you; the best methods will arise from trial and error. Before your book’s release, traditional publishers will set up a few media interviews for you and send a press release to local, regional, and national media outlets they feel are appropriate. They’ll follow up with a few of those outlets which they feel are the most promising for features or book reviews. If pre-orders for the book are strong, the publisher will step up their promotional efforts on trade media like Goodreads or Bookbub.

Social media is your promotional playground, so be proactive. You can post about your subject matter, your research, your inspiration, or anything that relates to you! Try all the platforms, pay for promotional ads, and look at the analytics to determine which are best for you. You need to interact with your readers by responding to their messages, questions, and requests to meet with you virtually. They took the time to buy your book; now it’s your turn to return the favor by giving them some of your time.

Q: What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

A: My research and world-building go hand-in-hand. The research is threefold: reading books, watching movies and documentaries, and interviewing people who lived in the period I’m writing about. For The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, I found fantastic articles about the nomadic tribes of the Himalayas and their knowledge of medicinal herbs, India’s Gold Control Act, and how gold is smuggled into South Asia. Sheep shearing videos on YouTube filled the gaps in my knowledge about Himalayan shepherds. My father, who worked as a civil engineer in Rajasthan in the 50s and 60s, enlightened me about construction/engineering issues that could cause a building like the fictional Royal Jewel Cinema to collapse. (Eerily enough, the launch date of the novel in America was two days before the Miami condo complex collapsed).

Q: How do you feel about being featured on the front cover of DE MODE?

A: DE MODE is a high-quality, professionally produced arts and culture magazine. I’m deeply honored to be featured on its front cover as a writer who is bringing stories of the rich South heritage to the global stage, to highlight how much the East has contributed to the West, to spotlight the resilience of our people—especially the women—in the face of centuries of colonization, invasion, and domination by other forces.

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