Alka Joshi is a debut novelist who used her mother’s life and her imagination to create The Henna Artist. It’s a very strong story that entranced me from moment one. In a nutshell, our heroine is Lakshmi and the time is 1950s India. Women still aren’t treated like full humans with independent agency, which makes her escape from an abusive marriage even more meaningful.
Still, her career as a henna artist and semi-traditional herbalist is quite dependent on at least one man. Not to mention all the hoity toity women of the Brahmin caste for whom she draws henna. In that spirit, Joshi creates a unique exploration of women’s roles at that time and place in history.
It’s also a family story, since right at the beginning, Lakshmi’s younger sister comes to Jaipur from the tiny village where they were born. Lakshmi moved to her husband’s village and then left again before her sister was born, so she didn’t know her sister existed. And this means that the teenager and the sister nearly twice her age must learn to coexist. The conflicts between country bumpkin and sophisticated career woman are sometimes funny and often striking.
As the story progressed, it became more predictable and less unique. Nevertheless, I liked Lakshmi. Of course, I relate to her chutzpah and entrepreneurial spirit. She also has an interesting dichotomy of personality. She’s clearly driven, likes beautiful things, and has a plan to succeed. But other times, she’s remarkably shallow and selfish.
Her sister Rahda is everything you expect from a teenage character. She’s impetuous, naïve, and doesn’t understand life in the big city. I alternately loved her and wanted to toss her out into the monsoon until she grows up.
What most fascinated me was what we’d now call the alternative herbal and medical practices Lakshmi learned from her mother-in-law. That women in India believed a certain henna design painted on their feet (or other body parts) would induce pregnancy. Or that simple oils and massage, plus henna and herbs could give a woman energy and reduce lethargy. Those are the passages when Joshi drew me completely into the moment.
But, as I said, many events in the last third of the book are entirely predictable. That’s partly a function of author choices, and partly reflects the actualities of the times. Still, I enjoyed immersing myself in the culture of India.
I recommend this book if you’re searching for historical fiction with a strong female heroine.
Pair with Sister, Outsider by Audre Lorde, which is a group of essays about the experience of Black women. The two books have similar themes, despite being from completely different places and times.