The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi



In some ways reading this book reminded me of watching one of those 1950s Douglas Sirk films – lush, colorful, melodramatic, but with an underlying social commentary. The book takes place in Jaipur India in the 1950s, a few years after India gained independence from British colonial rule. The book centers on Lakshmi, a woman in her thirties who makes a living as a henna artist and an herbalist and healer for wealthy women. Lakshmi has worked very hard to establish her business and her position, after having escaped an abusive marriage as a teenager and come to the city to build a life for herself. Her dream is to build a house of her own, and she is nearly there when her life is disrupted by the arrival of Rahda, Lakshmi’s 13 year old sister, after the death of their parents. Lakshmi was not aware she had a sister, given that when she ran away from her marriage as a teenager, her parents were ostracized by their community and have refused contact with her. Lakshmi had not wanted to have children, and struggles with being responsible for Rahda, who has grown up in difficult circumstances and was considered to be bad luck back home. Rahda is obsessed with British literature and Hollywood movies, and bristles under Lakshmi’s attempts to make her understand and follow the rules and restrictive role demanded by Lakshmi’s work catering to the elite of Jaipur. Rahda’s choices, and in many ways her very existence, ultimately jeopardize Lakshmi’s precarious role in this world.

I appreciated the ways in which the stark realities of poverty, abuse, unwanted pregnancy, and the narrow and restrictive roles of caste and gender, refuse to stay out of sight in this book, no matter how hard the wealthy characters, and to some extent Lakshmi herself, try to ignore them. While Lakshmi’s independence and success are admirable, It is painful at times to watch her struggle to keep her role in this wealthy society in light of the cruelty it often shows to those like her and her sister. But I also appreciated that there is compassion shown to almost all of the characters in the book, with empathy particularly for the difficulties and challenges of even the most privileged women, whose lives on the surface seem easy. This is a highly readable book, and there is a sequel that is coming out in June which I very much look forward to reading.

I listened to the audio version of this book on Hoopla. The book is also available at the Library, and as both an eBook and an audiobook on Libby/Overdrive. The sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, is on order at the Library.


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