The Henna Artist

By Alka Jain (author)
The Henna Artist  is - A Historical Fiction…
A Historical Fiction by a Debut author’s first attempt?
These few things drew me towards the book and finally compelled me to pick it for a read which I have enjoyed thoroughly. It’s simply vivid and riveting in narrating the hardships of a woman’s struggle in a society pivoting between the traditionalism and the modernity.
The fact, that Henna Artist, newly published in March 2020, is a Historical Fiction genre was quite a surprise to me, and being an avid reader exploring new realms urged me to dive deep into the story to unravel a world that is at once fascinating, stark and cruel in it’s own way …
Let’s know a bit about  the background of the author before we continue…
The author, Alka Joshi, was born in the desert state of Rajasthan in India. In 1967, her family immigrated to America. She is a graduate of Stanford University (BA) and California College of Arts (MFA). She is currently working on the sequel to The Henna Artist, which Harper Collins has also recently bought. Prior to writing “The Henna Artist”, Alka ran an advertising and marketing agency for 30 years. So, it can be said that Alka Joshi is an American-Indian debut author who has narrated an absolutely phenomenal journey of the protagonist in her beautifully crafted novel “The Henna Artist”.  The Henna Artist is her first novel without any doubt is a beautifully written story of Independence, family, motherhood and human conditions.
This book has streaks of racism in some aspects but every page of it is a sensory experience to a whole new world. “The Henna Artist” has been claimed to be New York Times Bestseller, USA Today Bestseller, Publishers Weekly Bestseller, Toronto Star Bestseller and Calgary Herald Bestseller. Here is one of the compliments on the Novel:
“[An] eloquent debut…Joshi’s evocative descriptions capture India’s sensory ambience (horse-drawn tongas, pungent cooking fires and incense, and colorful saris), drawing readers deep into her moving story. Joshi masterfully balances a yearning for self-discovery with the need for familial love.” 
Alka Joshi shares her writing and publishing process on her YouTube channel: click here
The cover page of the Novel has artistically captured the warm wonderful red color of Henna and the protagonist walking into the Palace, where we find the Lakshmi, speaks volume about the plot of the story. It has even captured the elegance of the people and the time period very well on the cover page of the novel where we find Jaipur by depicting the architecturally rich palace and the warm hues used to do complete justice to the novel story and protagonist. Alka Joshi’s marvelous novel, The Henna Artist has everyone talking. Including Reese Witherspoon who chose it as a Hello Sunshine Book Club Pick. Reese said,
This vivid story is so rich and complex…reading about Lakshmi’s journey from escaping an abusive marriage to becoming one of the most sought-after henna artists in Jaipur captivated me from the first chapter to the final page.
More of Reese Witherspoon views on this amazing novel can be grabbed here:
What does the novel tell you about the role of the Henna artist in Indian culture in general and in wedding traditions in particular? What does the henna itself symbolize? Did the description of any of Lakshmi’s henna applications will particularly appeal to you?
Let us try to find out all these intriguing facts about the novel…
A beguiling and beautifully written story of a strong, intelligent and independent woman is all “The Henna Artist” is about. The author, Alka Joshi, has remarkably crafted the story in the backdrop of 1950s India, just few years after independence from British regime. Infact, the story being woven in that era, depicts few of the British colonial streaks that were still prevalent even after attaining independence.  The beautiful and vibrant city of Jaipur, the capital of the northern state of Rajasthan in India, is where we find the protagonist of the story, Lakshmi Sastri. It is there that we meet Lakshmi, a woman in her thirties, working as a henna artist, problem solver, and a confidant of sorts to the influential and high-cast women of the city. 
If we rewind the story a bit, we can find the key to the unique characteristics of the protagonist as portrayed by the author. Lakshmi is escaping an abusive arrange marriage to which she was forcibly tied to at a very young age of 17 years. She being the daughter of an alcoholic school master had dreamt of continuing her education and even carrying on her college studies in art and literature. Life with it’s adversities and India with it prevalent traditional customs had altogether a different story written for her. Lakshmi unwillingly got married to a man she did not love and moreover that man turned out to be an abusive husband. Her only ray of hope was her mother-in-law who being a healer shared her knowledge of herbs and folk medicine with Lakshmi.
 Her journey of independence commences in Jaipur where after long years of struggle, she establishes herself as a well-known ‘Henna artist’ and a confidante among the affluent women of upper class. She also carries on a side business as an herbalist, a trade and skill which she learnt from her mother-in-law. Lakshmi makes good use of her artistic skills, as her original designs and mandalas gain much popularity among the affluent women of the society. She being a skilled herbalist is able to create delicious Indian treats to ease her client’s ailments and issues, as well as provide tea sachets that serve as birth control measure.
Keeping the secrets of wealthy safe, she hardly discloses her dark past secrets. Lakshmi’s business is booming. She’s even planning to meet the maharani at the palace. But Lakshmi’s world is turned on its head when her unknown younger sister, Radha, shows up with Hari, her abusive husband. When Radha enters Lakshmi’s life, Lakshmi becomes responsible for raising her headstrong younger sister. Radha, on the other hand, called “Bad Luck Girl” by her small town’s gossip-eaters, didn’t know Lakshmi existed until she realized her mother was burning letters as soon as they arrived. Lakshmi didn’t know Radha existed either until she saw her sister in the flesh. Their green-blue eyes match perfectly. Lakshmi dutifully takes Radha under her wings, but her spirited little sister wants to explore her new city and all its delights, and soon several mis-steps taken by Radha lead Lakshmi to all hell breaking loose.
Set in the 1950s, just eight years after India’s independence from Britain, this lush novel reveals the intimate lives of India’s elite while reckoning with the hardscrabble lot of the people who served them. Lakshmi’s sister, Radha soon learns her own hard lessons about the entitlement of the upper classes, a lesson that threatens the independence Lakshmi has slowly earned for herself. Still she perseveres, applying her talents and lifting up those that surround her as she does. Alka Joshi has constructed a bewitching glimpse into the not-so-distant past with a tough heroine well worth cheering on. 
The Novel, “The Henna Artist” brings forth many issues of newly Independent India…
The story develops a number of important themes: the persistence of the caste system and social customs in 1955 India, the importance of family, the resilience and creativity of women, the corrosive nature of deeply kept secrets, and more. Of course, the push-pull of the sibling relationship is at the heart of the novel as well. Lakshmi's new life has been built on her hard work and resourcefulness, but also on a complex bed of lies that continues to fester. When things start to unravel, how will she manage to rebuild her life and, just as importantly, her relationship with her younger sister is worth noting?
 It goes without saying, that the book is extremely captivating and evocative. The plot and characters are vivid and well defined. It brings forth sights of grandeur and poverty existing in 1950s in India. The author has managed to provide the historical backdrop of the affluent class in 1950s where we get a glimpse of caste system, superstitious beliefs, abusive marriages and dark secrets. The social, economic and political stratum is even introduced well and exquisite writing style makes it all together a piece to relish.
There are readers who have found a little dramatizing of the caste system in 1950s India, especially relating to women in particular. Since it is historical, so we can say, yes it is crafted well in 1950s India backdrop with fiction elements in it as to write about caste in a credible or thoughtfully imagined way would be to write more of cruelty or injustice. India and infact many countries still have difficulties with caste and religious identity which are part of the reason why the country finds itself in turmoil today as well.
“The Henna Artist” cannot be said as a slow burn as it moves comfortably and in a luxurious pace. The author has succeeded well in engrossing her readers with her prose which are rhythmic and alluring, and her story characters are absolutely multidimensional and vivid.  The author has a straightforward voice that isn’t pre-occupied with long descriptions. Lakshmi Sastri is a very relatable character and the novel is an amiable and entertaining debut novel about significant themes – balancing family with personal ambition – that allows readers to escape into a fantasy teeming with sensory pleasure. The Henna Artist was a wonderful read. It’s a book that should appeal to many, but especially to women in their thirties and older. 
It’s a story about finding the courage to go your own way, make your own decisions, and accept the consequences. But also to reevaluate truths you’ve taken for granted as age and life-experience allows us a more multifaceted outlook on life.
This book was the authors’ first attempt at writing was hard to believe. The reviews even have inputs from other sources to ensure you get the most out of it. A fabulous story of women struggles and empowerment.
Will highly recommend reading it :)
"Alka Joshi’s debut novel is so evocative, so expressive and so exotic  that it leads me to suggest she drop whatever else she is doing and write a second novel — like now."
My Rating: 9/10
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Happy Reading!!