The Henna Artist

by Alka Joshi

It is 1950’s India, a time when the traditional is merging with the modern, yet the castes are still very much defined. Teen-aged Lakshmi escapes an abusive marriage to the city of Jaipur and becomes a highly sought-after henna artist. She has worked hard to earn the trust of her ladies – the wealthy upper class who share their secrets at their henna sessions, yet Lakshmi’s secrets remain hidden.

Lakshmi has carefully cultivated her reputation through her wise advice and unique henna designs that enhance the women’s lives. She has learned a lot about herbal remedies and her henna is known to have healing properties. Being high in demand has allowed her to scrimp and save enough money to build herself a house, a major step on the road to her independence. As with any life that is built on secrets, whether your own or others, the life is a fragile one that can easily shatter.

One day, Lakshmi’s life is thrown into tumult when her husband tracks her down and brings with him not only his own troubles, but also a younger sister she did not know she had. Despite this new development, Lakshmi takes her sister, Radhi, in and tries to continue to work in the life she has so carefully fostered. With a few hiccups, she manages to hold on until a serious complication threatens to ruin everything she has built.

This is a deeply layered story showing the struggles of one young woman who works to carve out a new independent life for herself at a time when women are still the lower class, and poor women are below that. It is Lakshmi’s strength and determination that help her to carry on and support her family and survive her being cast out by those who once welcomed her.

I highly recommend Joshi’s novel. It gives you a lot to think about and draws a colourful picture of life in India in the transitioning 1950’s.