The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi: The Fascinating Vibes of 1950s India

The Henna Artist

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Book Review: The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

Harlequin Books / MIRA. Publication Date 20 Feb 2020
Genre: Historical Women Fiction (I got an e-ARC from Netgalley)

This is a wonderful book and weaves the story of a struggling woman in a rich tapestry of recently-independent India. The story is set in the post independent times of mid 1950s in Jaipur. The cover is gorgeous. The prose is equally gorgeous and transports us back to those times, particularly in the elite and the lower-middle sections of the society.

Lakshmi Shastri is a woman of upper caste, but economically weak. She escaped her abusive husband from a remote backward village of Uttar Pradesh & driven by instinct of survival carves out her position as a henna artist. Starting initially with courtesans of Agra, then with some help she moves to Jaipur where she is able to get some high class clientele including the royalty.

Though Lakshmi is a henna artist, her real income is from her understanding of herbal therapies she learnt from her mother-in-law, which she uses to heal people. The most significant of this side business, which is the seamier side of her business, is that she provides solution for abortion to unwanted babies through her ‘tea sachet’.

“there were three kinds of karma: the accumulated karma from all our past lives; the karma we created in this life; and the karma we stored to ripen in our future lives.”

The Henna Artist, Alka Joshi

The issues relating to women, like unwanted pregnancies, child marriage and the situations faced by underage mothers are brought to fore, besides the aspect of barrenness. The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 is also alluded to which enables the main character to get a divorce.

Initially, it may seem that Lakshmi is ambitious, perhaps even crafty, but her ambition is driven by her wish to be able to pay for a small house of her own. However, her peace is shaken with arrival of her thirteen years old sister, Radha (who is seventeen years younger), about whose existence she is not aware. Radha arrives along with Lakshmi’s husband whom she had abandoned fifteen years ago & among the two there have been no communication in the intervening years.

And then, Lakshmi’s life is not only shaken but blown up by the carefree and and somewhat immature Radha, who not only adopts to the ways of the city but also gets into an affair with son of Lakshmi’s rich high society client and gets pregnant! Besides, father of the boy has a soft corner for Lakshmi, and at one point, they also get intimate!

The dynamics of relation between Lakshmi and Radha very well brings forth the generation-gap, which is palpable.

And then with these complications, it becomes story of Lakshmi as to how she extricates herself from the sticky situation where she stands to loose everything – her clientele, her reputation, her income. “I spent thirteen years building a life. Now my appointment book is empty. Page after page – nothing.”

I loved the dynamics between Lakshmi and Malik, the errand boy. I loved the setting and the behavioural aspects in the palace. The story is a continuous dilemma and struggle between being independent and being bound by limitations posed by family. I also loved the attachment to heritage that in one scene the main character is collecting the shards of the broken henna pot which belonged to her mother-in-law, reminded me of the book Remnants of a Separation (by Aanchal Malhotra)

“Success was ephemeral—and fluid—as I’d found out the hard way. It came. It went. It changed you from the outside, but not from the inside. Inside, I was still the same girl who dreamed of a destiny greater than she was allowed. Did I really need the house to prove I had skill, talent, ambition, intelligence? What if—”

The Henna Artist, Alka Joshi

On the flip side, it seemed as if the author tried to push in many things in the story. Caste aspect for one was unneeded. The story could have well done without the “fallen brahmin” aspect as it hardly makes sense. The main character could access the elite society of Jaipur of 1950s, and perhaps one of the primary reason was that she was a brahmin. Right? It is anyone’s guess if Lakshmi would have been a Dalit, would she have access to such clientele including the royalty?

Besides, ruing the main character to be a “fallen brahmin” in one stroke takes away the pride reflected by her in her profession. “The low-caste shudra women painted… simple dots, dashes, triangels… My patterns were more intricate; they told stories of the women I served. My henna paste was finer and silkier than the mixture the shudra women used.”

Overall, worth the read and peek into the life of those times.

You can also watch the author speaking about this book in this YouTube video

The downloaded content is only for personal use and not for redistribution.

Copyright © Anup Mukherjee

You may also like to read: A Distant Heart by Sonali Dev: Beautiful Writing

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