The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi (Mira Books 2020)
Reviewed by Angela Gualtieri
Historical fiction opens the gateway to a different time and place. The settings themselves make readers long for somewhere they’ve never been. This is the case in Alka Joshi’s debut novel, The Henna Artist.
Set in the 1950s, The Henna Artist transports us back to India a few years after gaining independence from the British. Joshi’s vivid imagery makes India’s past crawl off the page, bringing it to life: “We entered a colonnade flanked by lush gardens. Topiary elephants frolicked on the lawns. Live peacocks pranced around circular fountains. Stone urns sprouted honeysuckle, jasmine and sweet pea” (142). Amidst the color and beauty of historical India, Joshi also gives us a taste of the social, economic, and political climates of the time, shedding light on the difficulties for people of lower castes and women.
Navigating us through the novel is Joshi’s protagonist, Lakshmi Sastri. We meet Lakshmi as a 30-year-old henna artist and side herbalist, working for Jaipur’s caste elite and saving to pay off her dream house. Lakshmi learned the art of healing from her saas, her mother-in-law, before fleeing her abusive marriage. This choice brought shame upon not only herself, but her family, driving her into poverty. Lakshmi exchanges her herbal contraceptive teas with courtesans for room and board, where she learns henna. Her skillful artistry and gift for herbs eventually brings her to Jaipur. Throughout the novel, Lakshmi struggles with her desire for success while still trying to heal those she encounters as her saas taught her.
Her life forever changes with the reappearance of her abusive husband. He brings with him a sister, Radha, whom Lakshmi didn’t know she had. Shamed by her past, Lakshmi blames herself for Radha’s misfortunes, attempting to make amends: “Saasuji once told me there were three kinds of karma: the accumulated karma from all of our past lives; the karma we created in this life; and the karma we stored to ripen in our future lives” (79).
However, the sisters’ relationship is difficult and turbulent. Radha is young, carefree, and idealistic without a full understanding of the new world around her. Their strife comes to a head when Radha makes a choice someone of her age shouldn’t have to make, forcing Lakshmi to reevaluate her ambitious goals: “Where she saw joy, I saw hardship. Where she saw love, I saw responsibility, obligation. Could they both be two sides of the same coin? Hadn’t I experienced both love and duty, delight and exasperation, since she entered my life?” (301). Joshi displays a realistic sense of not only family relationships, but sibling bonds, especially between sisters.
Besides themes of family and love, Lakshmi represents the freedom of choice as she follows her path to finding her true self. Lakshmi chooses to leave her abusive marriage against societal expectations and makes her way in a world attempting to oppress her based on gender and class. Rising up against tradition, Lakshmi solves not only the complications of both her life and her ladies’, but also recognizes the person she was always meant to be: “For years, I’ve been serving women who only needed me to make them feel better. In Shimla, I’ll be serving people who want me to make them feel better. Because they’re truly suffering. Those are the people saas trained me to work with. They need me. And I want to be with them” (332).
Joshi’s heroine reminds us of the power of choice and the freedom we have to take control of our destiny. Life challenges the image we have of ourselves and the societal expectations we abide by, but like Lakshmi, we find our own path leading to our true selves.
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