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Review: The Henna Artist, by Alka Joshi
Mira, 2020. 342 pp. $27

It’s 1955, eight years since India received its independence, and Lakshmi Shastri feels as though she too has finally earned her own. At thirty, living in Jaipur, Rajasthan, she has saved enough money to buy a house, something she’s always wanted, both to live without a landlady and for the respect and prestige owning property brings. Lakshmi’s practice in herbal medicine has grown, but she’s even better known for her henna artistry, in which she paints designs on women’s bodies for decoration, good luck, and as a health treatment. Word has gotten around among upper-class women that Lakshmi is capable, discreet, and above reproach; the last quality matters the most.

Mehndi (henna paste) applied to hands (courtesy AKS.9955 via Wikimedia Commons)

Consequently, none of them know that her parents married her off at fifteen because they couldn’t feed her — not that such a tale would bother them. Rather, when Lakshmi tired of her husband’s beatings, administered because she remained childless and therefore shamed him, she brought even greater shame by running away. If her clients knew that story, they’d cut her dead. Another unsavory secret: She earned her keep for years among courtesans, decorating them with henna and supplying herbal contraceptives and abortifacients. Now, in Jaipur, she still doles out these remedies, but under the table, often to rich men who pass them on to their mistresses.

But this income, though more or less comfortable, won’t pay for the cost overruns on Lakshmi’s house; her contractor demands payment. So, to cement her standing, garner an entrée to the maharani’s palace, and collect a nice piece of change, Lakshmi tries to broker a marriage between the son of her most important customer and the daughter of another wealthy client. Still, she has no reason to suspect that trouble beckons, until her abandoned husband tracks her down and hands over a sister she didn’t know she had, thirteen-year-old Radha. Explaining the girl’s sudden appearance, strange accent, and unpolished manners tests Lakshmi’s diplomatic skills (perhaps not enough, I think), but the real problem is Radha’s ungovernable character. The girl’s own desire for independence, too much, too fast, causes conflict between the siblings.

This setup, though complicated, promises a remarkable novel, and in the most important ways, Joshi delivers handsomely. The Henna Artist has its soap-opera arias, but the author redeems them somewhat by lingering in those moments, adding meaning, or returning to them. Problems that seem to resolve actually don’t, and a crucial one that defies solution is the gross inequity between men and women.

Lakshmi rails against it in her heart. Yet she still feels the shame she brought on herself, her parents, and her husband. This duality rings true, a woman perhaps slightly ahead of her time who can’t escape her split perspective — ideals in one frame, and cruel knowledge of cultural and social reality in the other. Contrasting her with Radha, a brilliant stroke, widens the split. Lakshmi wants her sister to escape the male-dominated trap to the extent she can. But Radha craves the familial love she never got, and though Lakshmi would want that herself, she’s cynical about it.

Joshi also provides a detailed social context, and a fascinating one it is, in which, for instance, individual shame doesn’t exist. “Humiliation spread, as easily as oil on wax paper, to the entire family,” which includes distant cousins. Another aspect, which Joshi reveals without hitting you over the head, involves upper-class preferences for the former colonial masters’ habits. Witness this passage, which, aside from the difference in costume from the British, evokes the certainty of superiority, the right to rule:

The Maharaja of Jaipur was easy to identify… the long brocaded coat, white leggings, ornamented headdress. He carried himself like the sportsman he was — chest thrust out, legs planted firmly on the ground, strong calves — taking up more physical space than his companions, including two nawabs, their Muslim headdresses and elaborately jeweled coats rivaling the maharaja’s.

Such preferences extend to hairstyles, luxuries, reading matter, and schooling. Closer to Joshi’s story, the two teenagers whose marriage she hopes to arrange are the most spoiled products of wealth and social position you can imagine. The chase for money and prestige runs through these pages and twists Lakshmi’s life.

I wish, however, that Lakshmi didn’t beat herself up quite so often, especially to apologize for what she didn’t do. I believe her powerful urge for self-blame, but if repeated too much, I begin to wonder whether a character showing such masochistic impulses could have achieved what she’s been credited with. Or is the author trying to burnish her protagonist’s image as a person of conscience? To me, she’d be more believable, therefore more appealing, with slightly less earnestness. But that said, The Henna Artist is a fine novel, well worth your time.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from bookshop.org, an online retailer that splits its receipts with independent bookstores.