When India acquired its hard-fought freedom, ushering in a new world order for its citizens, reveling in modernity albeit clutching to age-old customs and traditions while reeling under the after-shock of the British Raj, Lakshmi Shashtri, a sought out henna-artist amongst the upper class women, was also trying to create a new life for herself. Married at a tender age to an abusive husband, Lakshmi runs away to the pink city, Jaipur, carving a space for herself; applying henna to wealthy women, and supplying contraceptive herbs to mistresses of young married men. Lakhsmi soon becomes a confidant, the healer of ailments to maharanis of Jaipur, dipping her toes in matchmaking too, and expanding her talents that were far too many. But soon everything she’s built so hard, starts crumbling, as she finds herself at life’s crossroads. Her husband Hari has tracked her down, and with him, brought another liability– Lakshmi’s sister who up until now didn’t exist. As Lakshmi tries to keep her family affair private from the gossipers, things start getting out of hand.
The 1950s India was breathing in nationalism, freedom, and development. Alka’s richly crafted backdrop of post-independent India made the characters come alive. Her dramatization of her surroundings, and intricate details of saris, tongas, the palace and ambient makes readers live vicariously through her words. But at the heart of the novel, lies women’s agency, and the freedom to make one’s own choices. Lakshmi discarded societal expectations and norms, and stood her ground, her faith in her talent always unwavering. While themes of family and self-discovery take center stage in the novel, Alka has embedded in her story the prevalent caste-system, the economic disparity and gender inequality. She paints an unflattering picture of divided India in the 1950s: the wealthy and high-caste society with their palaces and servants, and the other forgotten-half, who live hand to mouth every day.
This book was born out of an attempt to imagine how her mother’s life would’ve turned out had she not been married and had kids at a tender age. Alka mentions in NY Times: My mother never had the decision-making powers, but she gave me so much latitude, so much freedom. I wanted to give her that gift back,” …“I can’t change her life, but I can change it in fiction. I can create a character who leaves her marriage and goes off and finds herself and finds her destiny, and her financial and emotional independence. That’s where ‘The Henna Artist’ came from.”
The Henna Artist is a beautiful story, with vibrant characters and a protagonist I was rooting for right from the beginning. The sequel to The Henna Artist comes out next year and I’m ready for it!