Book Review

Young woman banks on talent to secure freedom

Henna
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Summary

  • What better way to express appreciation for one’s mother than to write a book about her, mixing fact with fiction to create a full picture of who that mother was, or might have been had she fulfilled all that she was capable of becoming.

What better way to express appreciation for one’s mother than to write a book about her, mixing fact with fiction to create a full picture of who that mother was, or might have been had she fulfilled all that she was capable of becoming.

In Alka Joshi’s best seller novel, The Henna Artist, the writer did just that! With her formidable imagination (honed at Stanford University and San Francisco College of Art), she creates a charming and captivating tale about a young woman, Lakshmi, who at 17 rebels against her culture by fleeing an abusive marriage.

Making her way to Jaipur, the busy capital of Rajasthan (where Joshi grew up until age nine, after which her parents relocated to the US), Lakshmi lands on her feet.

Having a talent for art that evolves into her becoming a highly sought-after henna artist, she also knows how to heal using local plants and indigenous wisdom.

Granted, she started her practice in the ‘red light’ district where prostitutes used her potions to stay childless, her status is elevated when one of her major clients, Samir, promises to connect her with elite who love henna.

This leads to her working for the wife of the late Maharaja, where she proves the potency of her healing powers.

But the life of the hard-working Lakshmi is turned upside down when, first, her husband, Hari, tracks her down, and then, the sister she never knew she had, shows up.

Rada is only 13, but she absorbs city life like a sponge. She’s precocious but impulsive and so naïve that she gets pregnant by an upper-class lad who has no intention of marrying this star-struck little girl. What’s worse, Lakshmi has been matchmaking with his parents to help arrange a marriage that is meant to be a commercial coup.

What Joshi does so beautifully is reveal all the complexities of class and caste in the post-colonial India of the 1950s. Lakshmi comes from the highest Brahmin caste. But her father was a poor schoolteacher whose fate was sealed once he protested against the British prior to Independence.

As such, Lakshmi grew up well-read but dirt-poor. Her story is also set at a crossroads where the traditional and the modern, the old and new India collide.

We watch the clever, ambitious Lakshmi navigate these social divides with finesse, charm, subtly and a touch of magic. Her number one resource is her skill as a henna artist, which surpassed other women’s artistry. But the fragility of her social status is quickly exposed once her sister’s caprice leads to the crumbling of her henna career.

Ultimately, it’s Lakshmi’s skill as a traditional healer that proves to be what sustains her and has the most enduring value in the end.

The Henna Artist is set in India, but its theme of a young resourceful woman rebelling against convention and wanting freedom, a fulfilling career, and financial independence is universal.

The fact that the novel is already translated into 18 languages confirms it.