By Alka Joshi

Released : 17/10/2020

Reviewed : 11/10/2020

Reviewed by : Meesha Luwang

In India, individual shame did not exist. Humiliation spread as easily as oil on wax paper, to the entire family, even to distant cousins, uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews. The rumour mongers made sure of that. Blame lay heavily in my chest.”
Alka Joshi’s debut novel is one of the most stunning debut novels I’ve read in a long time. The author has done a marvellous job of capturing the richness, vividness, and colours of India. You can also feel the confusion-tinged hope in the characters as they try to take hold of their destiny in a newly independent India.

This lushly told story transports the reader back in time to 1950s newly-independent India. Our protagonist, Lakshmi, is a well respected henna artist in Jaipur catering to the elites and royals of Jaipur. Her flare for herbal medicine, which was taught to her by her mother-in-law, and which she serves as delicacies to her ultra rich clients makes her position as Jaipur’s top henna artist unchallenged and makes her privy to the gossips and power-play among the elites. As the story progresses, you find yourself surrounded by the scents of the spices and herbs Lakshmi used to heal, and the beautiful traditions that guide her path. Along the way you also discover a strong woman who risked everything to leave her abusive husband 10 years back and fight to carve out a new life for herself. One day she is confronted with the past she ran away from – her 13 year old sister Radha. As she tries to take care of her sister and teaches her the ways of the world, her carefully stacked cards came tumbling down. She finds herself on a new path that could completely change the course of her life and allow her to confront the pains and choices of her past.

The book gives a vivid look at life in the 50s and it is quite rich in culture and imagery. But at its core, this is a story about a woman’s search for independence and her attempts at redemption. The characters also felt entirely realistic and they deeply resonated with me. While the changing nature of characters, the post independence society, and the scandalous lives of the ultra rich made for an interesting read, the core of this book is about women and I think there was so much to relate to as a woman. The book beautifully handled issues such as casteism, class divide, subjugation of women, women forced to struggle with their husbands infidelities quietly, the way divorced or widowed woman are treated by society, and how women who try to stand up for themselves are pulled down by society. Though the story is set in 1955-56 India, it is sad to think that women’s role in society has improved by only a tiny fraction even though we like to pretend otherwise.
The Henna Artist is so complex and engrossing that I would highly recommend it to everyone. It was such a delight to read and I can’t wait for the sequel where we’ll get to meet grown up versions of the younger characters. I truly hope that in the next book Lakshmi finds the peace she deserves.

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