The Henna Artist is set in the pink city of Jaipur, India, and follows Lakshmi, a namesake of the goddess of wealth. Lakshmi has abandoned her husband, Hari, and now works in Jaipur applying dizzying henna designs to the city’s most elite women. Lakshmi is also a skilled herbalist, and she creates delicious Indian treats to ease her clients’ ailments and issues, as well as tea sachets that serve as birth control. She learned all of these skills from her mother-in-law, a kind and talented woman.
Lakshmi’s business is booming. She’s even planning to meet the maharani at the palace. But Lakshmi’s world is turned on its head when her sister, Radha, shows up with Hari. Radha, called “Bad Luck Girl” by her small town’s gossip-eaters, didn’t know Lakshmi existed until she realized her mother was burning letters as soon as they arrived. Lakshmi didn’t know Radha existed either until she saw her sister in the flesh. Their green-blue eyes match perfectly.
Lakshmi dutifully takes Radha under her wing, but her spirited little sister wants to explore her new city and all its delights, and soon several missteps lead to all hell breaking loose.
Rich in detail and bright with tastes and textures, The Henna Artist is a fabulous glimpse into Indian culture in the 1950s. You’ll notice certain remnants of British colonization, and you’ll see how Western culture permeates Jaipur. Throughout her first novel, Alka Joshi explores the complex relationships of women in India, offering an introduction into the caste system that separates and defines people, and comments on the often invisible yet deeply important labor that’s deemed “women’s work.”
Joshi’s prose is rhythmic and alluring, and her characters are multidimensional and alive. This is a novel of hope, ambition and healing.