Have you ever loved a book so much that when you reached The End you didn’t know what next to next begin? –Not because you fell short of another book on your TBR pile, but simply because no book could match up to what you’d just read?
Well… two months ago, shortly after the release of Duty and Desire on June 2, I came across a Reese Witherspoon, Hello Sunshine Book Club pick—THE HENNA ARTIST—by Internationally Bestselling Author, Alka Joshi, downloaded the book on my Kindle (because I couldn’t wait for 3 days shipping) and was blown away by the story and the author!
The Henna Artist is set in the 1950s in Jaipur, Rajasthan (where I’m from) and travels to the fictitious city of Ajar and back. In a period when women were defined solely by their husband’s financial and social standings, the family they married into and were treated second class, the main character Lakshmi Shastri, in her mid-twenties, escapes an abusive marriage and sets out to carve her own destiny as a henna artist.
Lakshmi’s dream, huge aspirations for a woman from Rajasthan at the time, is to build her own home and take care of her parents. Her security lies in living life on her terms and conditions. The world of henna builds her foundation and is as beautiful and detailed as the terrazzo floor at her home’s front entrance, she wishes to have decorated to perfection.
Everything Lakshmi strategizes goes according to plan until her thirteen-year-old sister, Radha, and abusive husband find her. Shocked, Lakshmi learns the fate of her parents and suffers financial loss as her husband robs her of her savings and dreams. Full of grit and determination, Laskhmi straddles the worlds of royalty, boudoirs of the upper class and poorest of the poor. She orchestrates alliances—like a matchmaker in hiding—while hiding secrets of her own.
Any more, and I’ll spill the story. So let me pause and say that I haven’t read a book this riveting and compelling since The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.
The power of Joshi’s writing, her ability to bring Lakshmi, Radha, Malik and many more to life—including Madho Singh the parrot—immersed me in a time and era of Jaipur I would have never thought to explore. Joshi addresses issues like abortion, women’s roles, their place and expectations from society with the same swift hand all master storytellers do—with beautiful strokes of the henna reed.
But here’s what Joshi’s book did for me which no other book has until now.
Joshi assured the little girl in me that I didn’t need to hide from my heritage anymore. You see, having grown up in Hong Kong we spent many summers in Jaipur and Bareilley and returned to home base before the start of another school year. My classmates narrated their five-star vacations in Brighton or Plymouth or somewhere in the south of England or California or Disneyland in the U.S. and I’d listen with regret that I didn’t get to travel the world. Embarrassed to share my Jaipur and Bareilley experiences, I curled my fingers laced with faded orange henna that now looked like a contagious disease and tucked them between my thigh and the wooden school chair. Who in the class would even know about Jaipur or Bareilley? Would any of my friends or teacher be able to pronounce the names anyway?
Thanks to Joshi that little girl doesn’t have to hide or fabricate supposed summer holidays she wished she’d had. That little girl can revel in the truth that Jaipur is now a globally recognized name not just because of the Jaipur Literary Festival but the world-wide success of The Henna Artist.
Together, the little girl and I turn the pages of this beautiful creation once more as we re-read the hard copy version of the book back-to-back. After all, what can follow the success of such an intricately woven and crafted page-turner?
Another read of ‘The Henna Artist’