If you love fiction novels and if you haven’t read The Henna Artist — I am extremely jealous of you because you still have so much to look forward to. Alka Joshi’s portrayal of India in the 1950s will leave you mesmerized. As the minutes fly by in the world she has built, you will get to meet all the intriguing, complicated, brave and colorful characters of this story, all of whom will stay with you long after you have finished the book.
What stood out to me the most was the use of all the different proverbs that are sprinkled so effortlessly all through her writing. Having grown up in India, I remember all these proverbs being used colloquially. I have created a list of all the proverbs used in the book and the use of those in the context of my brown upbringing. So here goes …
- When the goddess of wealth comes to give you her blessings, you shouldn’t leave the room to wash your face.
In Hindi, this proverb is something like जब लक्ष्मी तिलक करती हो, मुंह धोने नहीं जाना चाहिए. There are 33 million gods and goddesses in the Hindu religion. Naturally, we have a Goddess of wealth as well. Her name is Lakshmi (लक्ष्मी). This proverb means that when a great opportunity arrives, you should take it.
In a daily conversation in a brown household, you could see it being used like:
Me: Mom, I understand that this job will pay me enough but I am not excited about this work. I am not passionate about it.
Mom: What? I dont understand some words in your sentences. “Passion” ? My child, when the goddess of wealth comes to give you her blessings, you shouldn’t leave the room to wash your face.
2. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind
This proverb was coined by none other than Mahatma Gandhi. It is based on his ideology of non-violence. What he meant was that you can’t solve violence with more violence. Isn’t this more relevant than ever in today’s world!?
3. Only a fool lives in water and remains an enemy of the crocodile
This is one of my favorites. I think it is similar to “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. It is used while admonishing someone to not make enemies with powerful people. To let you in on a little secret — I know for a fact that this is Alka Joshi’s favorite proverb. To learn more about how I know this, listen to my podcast Brown Girl Read where we discuss The Henna Artist with none other than Alka Joshi.
4. Stretch your legs only as far as your bed.
I have heard this so many times from my mom all my life. It means that limit your spending to your earnings. But it is also used to admonish someone to not dream too big.
70% of the time, a typical conversation with an Indian mom could end up in the use of this proverb. As an example
You: Mom I think I am going to start my own business.
Your Mom: “Stretch your legs only as far as your bed, you stupid person”
5. What does a silly monkey know of the taste of ginger
I don’t know what the story is behind this proverb. I don’t know why a monkey would even be interested in tasting ginger. But the meaning of this proverb is basically to say that a monkey would not know how to appreciate fine things in life. I think “monkey” here is a metaphor for a poor person, a fool, or just someone who has bad taste in things.
Me: Can I just say that Sabyasachi lehengas look really pretty but they are definitely not worth the price. Who would pay $20,000 for a skirt and a top, no matter how fancy?
Friend: I cant believe you think like that. Sabyasachi lehenga for my wedding is my one and only dream. But at some level I expected this from you because you know, what does a silly monkey know of the taste of ginger.
6. One who cannot dance blames the floor
It is used in the context of a person who blames others or something else for his failures. It means that a bad craftsman blames his tools.
I agree some people have one and only one motto in life — to blame someone else or something else and get on with their lives. But some genuine people do not want to blame someone else and are genuinely stuck with someone or something. This one awesome proverb helps you tackle both use cases. And it helps you sound so smart and wise.
Me: I can’t cook tonight because I broke my hip during the workout.
Husband: Stop making excuses. One who cannot dance blames the floor.
7. The one-eyed man is a king among the blind
The context for using this is that someone who has little knowledge of the subject acts like an all-knowing king among the crowd of people who don’t know anything. But I remember another saying — half knowledge is a dangerous thing. Not sure what track to follow here.
You can sound cool saying it though. Or use it as a euphemism at work.
Colleague 1: Hey do you know anything about the new software?
Colleague2: No, I think Josh knows. He is so arrogant about it as well.
Colleague1: Of course! He is acting like a king among the blind.
10. To a clerk a bribe; to a brahmin a gift
It is used in the book to make the hypocrisy in the Indian caste-system evident. If you gift something to a businessman (clerk) to get your work done, it could be considered a bribe but if you gift it with the same intentions to a priest (brahmin), it will be a “gift” because in that case, it becomes a gift to the “God”.
11. Two echoes in a well are louder than one
This is generally used in the context that the voice of a community is louder and stronger. Something like “united we stand, divided we fall”.
Me: Let’s support the cause for legalizing marijuana today in downtown.
Friend: I am already here. Please come. Two echoes in a well are louder than one.
Me: ahem! Are you high?
12. Men will eat even unripe fruit if it’s placed in front of them
My mom never said this to me but I can see her saying something like this if my teenage had gone for a little longer than it is intended to. This means that men don’t care who the girl is as long as they are getting to sleep with her. Or maybe like “they will have sex with everything that moves”.
Me: Mom, can I go out with Ravi tonight?
Mom: That’s a guy’s name. Remember, men will eat even unripe fruit if it’s placed in front of them. Also, a girl alone in the world is like an open vault full of money and jewels.
13. What is the use of crying when the birds have eaten the whole farm
I have saved the best for the last. I heard this proverb in 6th grade and it has stuck with me for so long. It is self-explanatory — there is no point in regretting what has already happened. Some people say that the moral of this proverb is to do everything on time and to not procrastinate. I think the real moral is to let go of your mistakes. Get up, dust yourself off, and move on. Something like “Don’t cry over spilled milk”.
Well, so these were all the proverbs used in the book. I highly recommend reading it. It is one of the best fiction novels I have read this year.
I co-host a podcast called Brown Girls Read with Daman Tiwana. We discuss books, culture, and anecdotes on our podcast. Soon we are bringing you an episode on The Henna Artist and we have Alka Joshi as the guest in our episode. We are extremely excited about it. I hope you guys find it as much fun as we did while recording and discussing it with Alka Joshi. Keep Listening!