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I had been looking forward to a book event planned for March 31st 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 canceled. As March began, it became increasingly clear that life as we know it was changing.

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.

This eloquent, engaging novel is the story of Lakshmi Shastri, a strong woman who seizes her independence out of an abusive marriage and a life of poverty, by slowly climbing the ladder of security with rungs built by hard work, creativity, and determination.

Born in a village in Uttar Pradesh to an educated father turned alcoholic after being slighted by the British and a helpless mother, Lakshmi reluctantly leaves her home when her marriage is arranged to an abusive and violent man. She grows to love his mother, her Saasuji, who teaches 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.

From UP to Agra to Jaipur, Lakshmi finally settles and is embraced by Samir Singh, an architect, and his wife, Parvati, who become patrons of her art (henna) and healing. Through Parvati’s introductions, Lakshmi meets members of the royal family – two maharanis. Lakshmi’s success with herb treatments also 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. Radha’s arrival complicates Lakshmi’s carefully constructed world. As with any teenager, Radha’s eagerness to absorb all the new experiences combined with her innocence leads to complicated circumstances.

All through the book, Joshi’s detailed descriptions of the characters, their appearance, surroundings, and their state of mind are evocative and paint an engaging portrait. The high points in Lakshmi’s timeline bore captivating descriptions of lavish lifestyles, elegant homes, 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. Once 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, whose 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 the characters are portrayed with compassion and 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. We interact with Shakespeare, 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 daughter and son are ordinarily written as Beti and Beta, but here they are written as Behti and Behta. 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.

This is a story of two worlds: one of the immensely wealthy, who move in clubs and palaces, with numerous staff to cook, clean, shop; and one 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 – henna and its history, a henna recipe from Radha, and a Rabri recipe from the royal palace. 

There is also a section on caste. While the characters are described as belonging to various castes, the daily injustices and injuries 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, post-independence Jaipur with historical touches add flourishes to the story, it is not a historical account. 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 someday.

In the meantime, Kepler’s of Menlo Park is hosting an online event with writer Alka Joshi on her book “The Henna Artist” on Wednesday, May 27th at 7:00pm. Learn more about the event and sign up here to listen to Alka Joshi in conversation with journalist, Angie Coiro.

Raji Pillai lives in the SF Bay Area, and writes at www.rajiwrites.com where this article was originally published. 

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