Alka Joshi’s debut novel “The Henna Artist” tells the story of Lakshmi Shastri, a young woman attempting to build a better life for herself in 1950s Jaipur, India. As a young girl Lakshmi found the courage to run away from an abusive marriage and reinvented herself as a gifted henna artist. As she helps the wealthy women of Jaipur feel beautiful, Lakshmi’s greatest desire is to earn enough money to build a home for herself and earn the forgiveness of her estranged parents. Lakshmi’s tidy life is turned upside down when her estranged husband shows up at her door with a young girl, who claims to be her younger sister.
I absolutely loved reading this novel. Ms. Joshi paints such a vivid picture of life in 1950s India that I even found myself googling the various Hindu gods, articles of clothing and food that she described so that I could learn more about them. I also have such respect and admiration for the main character, Lakshmi. This is a woman, who found the courage to leave everything she knew on the off chance that there is something better waiting for her. Coming from an immigrant family, I found myself relating to some of her struggles.
I feel that despite all the hardships that Lakshmi faced in her life, it was the appearance of her younger sister Radha that proved to be the biggest trial for her. Lakshmi feels so close to her goal and the appearance of a previously unknown sister puts a major wrench in her plans. Due to their vastly different personalities and her sense of guilt, Lakshmi struggles to connect with Radha. In my opinion, Ms. Joshi does a great job exploring the theme of community and the caste system in India. She explores how Lakshmi is in some ways a double outcast though she is in daily proximity with Jaipur’s upper class. By becoming a talented henna artist, Lakshmi finds a lucrative profession, but becomes an outcast to her upper class Brahmin caste. At the same time, by leaving her abusive husband she becomes an outcast within the village community she was raised in and brings shame on her already downtrodden family. Coming from a society that prizes individuality it is so easy to forget that in many cultures around the world the individual is less important than the community. Lakshmi makes choices that are best for her, but her family pays the price and she has to live with the guilt of that. Perhaps if Lakshmi wasn’t so guilt stricken and focused on making up for it she would have realized sooner the mess that her sister Radha has gotten herself into and been able to prevent some of the heartache that both then have to live through.
I strongly recommend this book and give it a 5 out of 5.