Compelling Historical Fiction: The Henna Artist, by Alka Joshi

It’s difficult to enumerate the many ways in which this historical novel impressed and delighted me. To begin with the most fundamental of fiction requisites, Joshi excels in conjuring the sights, sounds, scents, and savors of mid-twentieth century India. Descriptions of aromas (geranium, thyme, frangipani, jasmine, peppermint) and concoctions (pakoras, chapattis, masala, pilau, and lassis) grace the page and tantalize the reader. Having traveled in both North and South India on various occasions, such sensory details inevitably evoke familiar and fond associations.

But unfamiliarity with the subcontinent and its history won’t put readers at a disadvantage. Joshi deftly slips in bits of culture and history, intuitively sensing where explanation is required and avoiding excess. Readers are neither left in the dark nor overwhelmed with information. Nor does Joshi indulge in gratuitous detail. Personal narratives intertwine with the broad sweep of history; everything serves a purpose.

Joshi also succeeds in representing with credibility and respect the diverse classes, castes, and worldviews of India, along with their associated beliefs, habits, and lifestyles. Villagers transplanted to the city of Jaipur, the wealthy elite, and the palace royals all figure into the action. Some hold to time-honored traditions, while others study in London and routinely don Western attire. Joshi effectively evokes mid-century tensions between old and new, traditional and progressive, acknowledging that both can be problematic. The narrative avoids both unmitigated nostalgia and blind modernism.

The henna artist of the title is one of the villagers who has left to seek a new life. By the time we meet her she has established a wealthy clientele and saved enough money to invest in a home of her own. It initially struck me as an unlikely scenario for a single woman of the 1950s. But Joshi puts the case to us convincingly. Lakshmi is a high-caste Brahmin, after all, though regarded as fallen because she touches her clients’ feet.

Throughout, Lakshmi presents as a flawed but sympathetic protagonist, caught between competing loyalties and desires. Despite regularly sending money to her parents, she berates herself for having deserted them when she left her abusive husband, to whom she had been given in marriage at fifteen. When Lakshmi’s thirteen-year-old sister shows up in Jaipur, Lakshmi is delighted to find she still has family after learning her parents are both deceased. But she soon finds it difficult—and perhaps even imprudent—to grant her newfound sister the same freedom she desires for herself.

Joshi succeeds in showing us vexed situations and thorny issues (i.e. abortion) from multiple angles. All her multifaceted characters evoke sympathy—even the villains. In Dickensian style Joshi supplies a meaningful role for even minor characters and sees them through to a satisfying conclusion.

Without giving away too much (stop here if you want to remain wholly in the dark), I will say only that Lakshmi ultimately–and admirably–relinquishes the need to measure up to the standards of the social elites she serves. She sets aside the external markers of success for a life that is internally more satisfying and, some might say, more worthwhile.

I was already infatuated with The Henna Artist before learning that Joshi became a debut author at age sixty-two. Having passed the mid-century mark myself with a still-unpublished historical novel, I find her example inspiring.

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