"The Henna Artist" by Alka Joshi
Updated: May 25
I had been looking forward to a book event planned for March 31 at Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park. Author Alka Joshi was to speak about her debut novel The Henna Artist.
And then of course, like numerous other events, it was cancelled. As March began, it became increasingly clear that life as we know it was changing. Covid-19.
With this cloud hanging over all our heads, I welcomed the opportunity to pick up The Henna Artist. The image on the cover is attractive and inviting: a woman walking under some decorated arches in what may be a palace in Rajasthan, with ornate chandeliers visible above. In the inner flap, the picture of the author is lovely – a striking composition of gray, red and blue (hair, lips, eyes.)
This eloquent, engaging novel is the story of Lakshmi Shastri, a strong woman who seizes her independence from an abusive marriage and poverty, and slowly climbs the ladder of security with rungs built by hard work, creativity and determination.
She was born in a village in Uttar Pradesh to an educated father who embraced alcohol after being slighted by the British, and a helpless, long-suffering mother. Lakshmi reluctantly leaves home when her marriage is arranged to a man who turns out to be abusive and violent. She grows to love his mother, her Saasuji, who taught her how to heal with herbs.
Eventually, she cannot bear it anymore and runs away, bringing shame upon her parents and the village where she grew up. Joshi has an eloquent passage on this concept of family honor.
On fleeing from husband, she goes to Agra, seeking refuge among the “ladies of the night.” From them and the locales they hailed from, she learned intricate designs which came to define her artistry: Persian peacocks, Turkish figtree leaves, Afghan mountain birds, Moroccan fans.
From Agra, Lakshmi comes to Jaipur where most of the novel is set. Samir Singh, an architect, and his wife Parvati become her patrons. Through Parvati’s introductions, Lakshmi meets various clients whom she would come to call “my ladies.” She also meets members of the royal family – two maharanis. Malik, her helper, a boy of around 8, accompanies Lakshmi to her appointments, carrying her accoutrements.
Lakshmi’s success with herb treatments captures the attention of Samir’s friend Dr. Jay Kumar, a doctor trained in Western medicine.
One day, a 14-year old girl, Radha, arrives at her doorstep, a sister she never knew she had, born after Lakshmi had fled from her marriage. Radha’s arrival complicates Lakshmi’s carefully constructed world. As with any teenager, her eagerness to absorb all the new experiences to which she’s introduced, as well as her innocence, lead to complicating circumstances.
All through the book, Joshi’s detailed descriptions of the characters, their appearance, their surroundings and their states of mind are evocative and paint an engaging portrait. The high points in her business bore captivating descriptions of lavish lifestyles, elegant homes, even palaces, and extravagant parties. When her luck turns, the places she frequents are increasingly dreary, with poignant descriptions.
Here are a few lines of what she sees on her way to the palace for the first time.
The descriptions of nature, birds and their movements are quite lovely.
Motherhood is a theme that permeates the book. There are many mothers in the story. Lakshmi’s helpless mother in her village. Her mother-in-law, Saasuji, whom she loves and reveres, having learned about healing from her. One discovering that Lakshmi has run away, Saasuji checks her money and herbs, and discovers that they are gone. “Shabash,” she exclaims, well done, capturing in a word her wishes and aspirations for her daughter-in-law to build her own life.
There are women longing for motherhood, who seek Lakshmi’s help following one miscarriage after another. There are women who wish to avoid motherhood, using Lakshmi’s herbs to prevent conception or terminate a pregnancy. There are women who become pregnant by choice or by accident, unintentional/accidental mothers, who circumstances make it impossible for them to keep the child. There is a mother whose child has been removed from her due to the father’s superstitious fear that the child would cause his death. All these women, indeed all the characters are portrayed with compassion. Varied as their circumstances and choices are, nobody is demonized. Not even Hari, the abusive husband.
The book is sprinkled with quotes and references to English literature. Lakshmi’s father was an English teacher, and both his daughters, Lakshmi and Radha, have absorbed his love of books, and speak of Shakespeare and poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Jane Eyre, and even Lady Chatterley’s lover. Dr. Jay Kumar quotes Dickens in one of his letters to Lakshmi, from the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities: “…it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness.” Perhaps the Anglophilia is representative of the post-Independence era in which the book is set; it was, after all, only a few decades later that Salman Rushdie would burst into the literary world and plop Indian writing in English firmly on the literary map.
I was thrown off by the transliteration of some Indian words. The words for son and daughter are ordinarily written as Beta and Beti, but here they are written as Behta and Behti. The core of Hindu philosophy, is the Bhagavad Gita. Oddly, here it is spelled as the Bahagvad Gita. Twice. In my experience transliteration is tied closely to pronunciation in the original script. These transliterations are not drawn from the Devanagari script with which I am most familiar. For me, these were odd choices of spelling, and gave me pause. I wondered if they were typos, but they appear a few times throughout the book, spelled thus.
This is a story of two worlds: of the immensely wealthy, who move in clubs and palaces, with numerous staff to cook, clean, shop – and the world of the service class, the ones who cook, clean, shop, apply henna, dye hair, offer herbal home remedies. The Henna Artist brings both worlds to life, allowing the reader to move between them and glimpse into both with ease.
There are a few interesting, informative and even amusing sections provided as appendices: one on henna and its history, a henna recipe from Radha who mixed the finest paste, and a recipe for rabri from the royal palace.
There is also a section on caste. However, while the characters are described as belonging to various castes, the daily injustices, injuries and insults of which Joshi writes struck me more as socio-economic. The difference between the haves and the have-nots. Except for a passing mention of caste regarding the installation of WCs (water closets / toilets,) it isn’t woven into the narrative.
Also, while the story is set in the 1950s and post-independence Jaipur, and the historical touches add flourishes to the story, it is not a historical account.
Perhaps another way of saying it is that the strength of its book lies not as much on historical accuracy or any in-depth portrayal of caste differences, but in the engaging story and the well-developed characters.
Joshi thanks her parents in the Acknowledgments section, and notes that her mother, married at 18 and a mother of two by 22, inspired the story. A beautiful tribute indeed. I’m sure her mother is proud.
When we get out of this COVID-19 crisis, I hope Alka Joshi and The Henna Artist get the book tour they deserve. I sure look forward to seeing her at Kepler’s some day.
Note: Kepler's of Menlo Park is hosting an online event with writer Alka Joshi on her book “The Henna Artist” on Wednesday, May 27th, 2020 at 7:00pm Pacific Time. See details here.