“The Henna Artist” by Alka Joshi

“The Henna Artist” was the third book that I read this year and probably one of the books that I read the fastest. On the reading notes, my Goodreads tells me that I am about 11 books behind my yearly goal but I have high hopes for my sabbatical to improve on this. In the meantime, I am trying to read at the best speed I can.

I liked “The Henna Artist” a lot because of its complexity and richness. The storyline itself in the book was interesting but I also learned so much about India in the 60s and the whole dynamics between the British and the Indian casts. I love when the books have an interesting historical backdrop and “The Henna Artist” was definitely one of those. In terms of that, it reminded me a bit about “Agent Sonya” that I read last year about a Soviet spy with the nickname Sonya and how she spent her time in Asia before the Second World War. I feel like there is so much interesting history that sometimes gets overlooked by the biggest events and I find these personal accounts in specific historical settings extremely enlightening.

In the story itself, the main character is Lakshmi and she is a successful henna artist who has a lot of rich clients. With her hard work over 10 years, she managed to collect enough money to build her own house which is just about to be finished and her biggest wish is to invite her parents to show them what she has earned and created. Everything seems to be going well for her until one day her husband from whom she escaped because of violence and her sister who she didn’t know existed show up on the porch of her door and inform her that her parents are dead. From that moment, we are starting to get a glimpse into Lakshmi’s past and how she was abused by her husband, the reasons of her escape as well as her side business of helping rich women abort unwanted children with herbal medicine. Additionally, she is also now getting a new responsibility for her 13-year-old sister whom she never met and does not really know. From that point on, we are getting to know Lakshmi’s character and personality as well as how she navigates different layers of society.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot as it gets quite interesting and at places unexpected. I also found the book to be quite well written with a good balance of cultural context and good writing. Here are some quotes from the book that I liked:

***

What independence had changed was our people. You could see it in the way they stood, chests puffed as if they could finally allow themselves to breathe. You saw it in the way they walked – purposefully, pridefully – to their temples. The way they haggled – more boldly than before – with the vendors in the bazaar.

***

My younger sister was lively and curious, which was good, but she was also untamed – and that could be a dangerous combination.

***

Success was ephemeral – and fluid – as I’d found out the hard way. It came. It went. It changes you from the outside, but not from the inside. Inside, I was still the same girl who dreamed of a destiny greater than she was allowed. Did I really need the house to prove I had skill, talent, ambition, intelligence? What if – All at once I felt lighter. It was the same weightlessness I had felt in Shimla. I breathed deeply. As if I could already smell the bracing air of the blue Himalayan mountains.

***

I really enjoyed this book and definitely recommend it as a read!

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