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Book Review: ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ by Sharell Cook

'Henna for the Broken-Hearted' by Sharell Cook, 2011 (Pan Macmillan)

One of my first Inside the Bloggers Studio interviewees was Sharell Cook of ‘Diary of a White Indian Housewife’. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to meet Sharell and her husband in Mumbai and even more lucky to count them both as friends.

It’s as a friend that I write this post full of pride for Sharell, because she is finally a published author. ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ hit the shelves in Australia a week or so ago, and it’s great to see Sharell’s straightforwardly elegant prose gracing the pages of a real live book, not just on the computer screen. And while I’ll refer to her in the first person throughout this review (we are on first name terms, after all), I won’t be biased. Well, not too biased. I hope.

The book is closely tied to the blog Sharell has written for the past few years. ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ tells her story of making an unexpected transition from Australia to India, finding love and a chief purpose in life – writing – along the way. It all sounds very ‘Eat Pray Love’, especially with a title like ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’, but this book is much better written, more informative and more resonant than Elizabeth Gilbert’s me-me-me-memoir. The title even makes sense once you read the introduction, linking the slow reveal of henna designs as they are painted to the unfurling of meaning in one’s own life.

The book follows Sharell through heartbreak in Australia, volunteer work in Kolkata, falling in love with an Indian man and – after some eye-opening experiences in the beach town of Varkala and Himalayan village Manali – eventually settling in Mumbai as an Indian housewife. If you’ve been following Sharell’s blog for a long time, a lot of this will sound quite familiar, but the facts are presented in ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ in a longer and more cohesive form. Rather than coming across as a series of connected vignettes, the book actually feels a book, as in a single story that we follow from the first page to the last.

However, an interesting sense I get from the book is that rather than having a traditional ‘ending’, ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ gives a clear sense that Sharell’s life went on beyond the confines of its pages. We’re dropped into Sharell’s life for a few years, privy to a period of incredible upheaval, but we know that the end is not actually The End. Sharell makes no claim to understand everything about India, married life, or even about herself, and we can feel that the learning continues after the last page. I, for one, will be clamouring for a sequel.

What ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ really offers, though, is an honest new voice. I’ve always found Sharell to write on just about any subject with fundamental truth and honesty, but without compromising on elegance. I think that’s what sets the book apart from most transitional stories. There are no attempts to trick the reader by writing floridly around a point; instead, Sharell tells it exactly like it happened, warts and all, and she does so in a way that illuminates the deeper truths behind her experiences – truths many of us will be able to relate to. In her honesty, Sharell transcends simply narrating her own experience and speaks to all of us.

Probably the strongest section of the book is when Sharell is slowly getting to grips with Kolkata and falling in love with her husband-to-be. Their courtship is incredibly sweet and romantic, a real-life fairytale, but tempered with the reality of Sharell’s freshly broken heart and the more immediate challenge of dealing with daily life in India. She gives a good sense of what it feels like to drop yourself in such a foreign environment, and what the adaptation process is like. It’s slow, and there’s no single ‘eureka’ moment of understanding. If you put your mind to it, though, there are many small understandings along the way, each adding to a slowly growing knowledge and understanding of one’s surroundings. This is what happens to Sharell the longer she spends in India, and it’s what happened to me too.

On the other hand, I do have a criticism: the book is too short. Yes, I know it sounds like I’m pandering, but there were often moments where I wanted more detail about a particular event, like some of her experiences in Varkala and Manali. Still, the book is about a transformative process over a number of years, not so much the small details. Cramming those years into 300 pages without losing all sense of perspective is an admirable feat, and anyway, there are plenty of small details to flesh out the story and make it more real.

I recommend ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’. It certainly isn’t for everyone, particularly folks who have no interest in India or in alternative healing therapies (which also feature at certain points of the book). However, those with an interest in transitional stories, cross-cultural experiences and the essence of true love – and figuring what that means – will find it fascinating.

Congratulations, Sharell. Here’s to many more!

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‘I felt that my life was going down an unusual path, and I wanted to share it’

Having sindoor put on forehead during wedding

Sharell Cook is the author of Diary of a White Indian Housewife, a blog about her life as a white (Australian) woman married to an Indian man in Mumbai. Her subjects can spring from anywhere in the maelstrom of activity that surrounds her – visits with her new family, learning Indian recipes, the ongoing frustrations one inevitably feels as an outsider in India, and many moments of introspection at the path she has followed in life, to name just a few regular sources of inspiration.

Though a good number of her posts are illustrated with photographs, particularly the often amusing Snapshots of India, the biggest draw is her focused, straightforward storytelling. She seems to understand (or perhaps not even consider) the strength of the tales she has to tell and just gets out of the way, letting the various characters, locations and feelings in her life shine. Not surprisingly, she has a book in the works, with release slated for mid-to-late 2011.

If you glance at the comments on Sharell’s blog you will notice that she has legions of adoring fans – including myself – with whom she cheerily interacts. As such, she was willing to answer a few questions. All photos used with permission.

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Why did you start blogging?

I started blogging for a number of reasons. One of them was because I felt that my life was going down an unusual path, and I wanted to share it with people so that they could benefit. I’d been trawling the blogs of people who were in a similar situation as me, but they didn’t always contain the information and detail I was looking for. So, I thought I’d write from the heart about my life and the kinds of things I would be interested in reading. Plus, I did have a notion in my head that I wanted to write a book some day. I thought having a blog would be a good platform with which to establish a presence and market myself to publishers. But still, I got a surprise when a publisher actually got in touch with me after reading my blog.

You mention a journal in your writing. Do you see ‘Diary of a White Indian Housewife’ as an extension of that journal?

I do, because primarily I write for myself, and my blog is where I record my experiences and thoughts. I’ve actually given up writing in my journal now. My blog is it!

Arabic mehendi

What is your first memory of writing creatively?

I think my first memory defines why I was always supposed to be a writer! It was in my first year of school. The teacher told the class to narrate (obviously we couldn’t write properly at that young age, so the teacher had to write down what we were saying for us) and illustrate a story about something of our choice. Apparently, I was the only child who actually came up with a proper story. The rest of them just described situations and things.

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

Oh, there are so many things — but they’re always the small things. Usually, something to do with nature.  A butterfly, a sunset or sunrise, the ocean, the smell of the mountains. An unexpected smile is always beautiful too.

With sunflowers in Mumbai

Are you equal parts white, Indian, and a housewife, or does one of these labels apply to you more than the others?

This is such an interesting question.  Funnily enough, being constantly surrounded by lovely brown skinned people, these days I often forget I’m white until someone treats me as such. I don’t feel like I’m a foreigner living in India anymore, and I find that I have trouble relating to many foreigners living in India. Often, I actually feel like I’m Indian, but sometimes I get reminded that I’ll “never be Indian” so I have a bit of an identity crisis. I do feel like I’m a housewife though, despite the fact that I work. I don’t keep staff (only a maid who comes every second day to wash the floors) and I’m always at home since I work from home.

You live in Mumbai, one of the world’s most populated and varied cities. What is the first piece of advice you would give to another outsider coming to live there?

Just let go of any expectations about how you think things should be, and be prepared to adjust.  You can live as grandly or as simply as you want in Mumbai, but you can never escape the day to day frustrations that come from living in India. In Mumbai, we have world class bars and shopping malls, but a severe traffic problem, water shortage, and lack of space.  The problems are different to the ones you might find elsewhere in India, but they’re still there. You just have to accept it for what it is. And don’t try and replicate the life you had elsewhere.

Homemade fish curry

The phrase ‘the real India’ is one that foreigners tend to use, usually to make a distinction between how they used to perceive India and how they perceive it, or something about it, after going and spending time there. Of all the experiences you’ve had in India, which one, by your estimation, felt most like that so-called ‘real India’?

I actually see the “real India” more as the “dual India”.  Everything about India is real, from a luxury hotel to a vendor selling vegetables from his wooden cart.  However, an experience that I had that felt most like the so called “real India” was having to deal with corrupt customs officials at the customs office, when trying to retrieve 2 boxes of personal items that I had sent over. I don’t want to focus on something obviously so negative, but I’ve chosen this example from the point that corruption is everywhere in India, at all levels, and it affects the rich as well as the poor. There’s no escaping from it.

Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

Not really, but if I had to pick one, it would be the one about how India helped me find my purpose in life. I’m really interested in people’s transformational stories.

Name two countries: one you’d like to visit, and one you’d like to visit again.

A country I’d like to visit: Brazil.  A country I’d like to visit again: Spain.

Guests dancing at wedding

Do you believe in God?

I believe that God is a name for the universal energy and consciousness that is present everywhere. All religions have the same aim, that is bringing people closer to the one entity labeled as “God”.

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This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire.  (Apologies to James Lipton.)  To view the archive, click the category tag in the ‘By Category’ section at the top right of this page.

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