Book Review: The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

Book Review: The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

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Henna art is a tradition in Asian communities that is followed for any auspicious or important occasions. The process of applying henna is called mehndi in the Indian subcontinent. Women apply mehndi on their palms, hands, feet, or parts of the body they believe need to be positively affected by the benefits of the henna paste. It is this beautiful tradition and belief that Alka Joshi harnesses in The Henna Artist, a book that is not only vivid in its descriptions, but is also easy to read.

The Henna Artist is a story set in 1955 of a young girl, Lakshmi, who runs away from an abusive husband with an intention of making her own life. She leaves behind parents, and a not-yet-born younger sister (who she doesn’t know exists), who have to bear the brunt. But she does want to make it up to her parents once she starts making her living as a henna artist in Jaipur. It isn’t that simple, though. Her parents are now no more, something Lakshmi doesn’t know. And her teenage sister, Radha, comes looking for her, having herself run away from the toxicity of the village towards an orphan girl.

Lakshmi is shocked to find out she has a sister, but she takes Radha in, for she is the only family she has. But for all the work Lakshmi has put in over the years, spotting opportunities from a mile away, saying yes and saying no at the appropriate times, and making sure her dream of owning her own house comes true, Radha’s appearance alongside the husband that Lakshmi ran away from is about to spill open a can of worms that are going to crawl into everything that she has been working for. How Lakshmi deals with this forms the entire story.

The Henna Artist is lucidly written with a simple flow of story and plot points that makes you want to keep reading the book. It is fast-paced, too, and this, combined with the easy language makes it a highly engaging read.

It explores caste and caste differences in the immediate post-Independence era and talks about the general attitude towards women trying to make a life in those times while combining it with a brand of literary modernity that makes you smile as you read it. The characters are well fleshed out, with every single one of their actions spawning reasons in your head as you go and you begin to understand them, even if you don’t agree with them.

Lakshmi’s tenacity combined with her acceptance of reality is commendable. That makes her a realist, and to have been one in those times, needs even more praise. It isn’t easy being a woman now, much less being, or trying to be an independent one post-Independence. To see her navigate through life in the way she does, without losing her sanity, her morals and values, is inspiring in its own way.

Another character who is absolutely adorable and adds a hundred positive points to The Henna Artist is Malik, Lakshmi’s little assistant who exhibits a wisdom beyond his years. He somehow turns into this sort of superhero figure where you heave a sigh of relief the moment he appears in the story. It’s strange, the kind of hold he has.

While the book has a lot of pluses that we can take away from it, including bits of history and bits of tradition, there are certain other things that grate on one’s nerve because of how off they feel. Here are some points:

1. It feels like the author has written this book to cater to white audiences / readers because of using Hindi words and terms the way that white people might pronounce them. For example: ‘burri’ for ‘badi’, meaning ‘big’ or ‘much’; ‘Swaraswati’ for ‘Saraswati’, who is the goddess of wisdom; ‘bheti’ for ‘beti’, meaning daughter – there are more strewn throughout, but these appear through the book.

2. Lakshmi blames herself for everything that happens in the book! It’s like she can’t sleep if she goes one page without saying, “It was all my fault.” That got annoying after a while.

3. Radha is an absolute brat. Appalling to no end. Yes, she is a teenager, but to make it look like all she wanted was for Lakshmi to be a leg up into high society and then end up being a stereotypical woman as patriarchy dictates was not a great thing to see.

4. I’ve read a lot about this book saying it has a lot of caste representation. My question is: where? Just two castes are mentioned, and the high castes are just stereotypically represented as being superficial and gossipy.

If one can ignore these issues and concentrate on the positives, or even if one acknowledges them while reading the book, The Henna Artist is an engaging, compelling story in its own way. The author wields the power to involve you in the characters’ stories, to make you root for good to happen, and hope for impending evils to slide away. And that’s never a bad reason to turn a book away from your threshold.

The sequel to this book, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, releases on 22nd June, 2021. 

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