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The Henna Artist

The Jaipur Trilogy #1

by Alka Joshi

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi X
The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi
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A Mesmerizing Read
I received a copy of The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi from This review reflects my own thoughts and opinions without bias for having received the free book. The Henna Artist is Joshi’s first novel. Joshi runs an advertising and marketing firm. Born in India and raised in the US, Joshi has lived in India, France, Italy, and the US. On her Web site, Joshi focuses on her advertising and marketing abilities, but The Henna Artist is also featured.
When I began reading about Lakshmi, a woman of thirty, who is a renowned henna artist in Jaipur, I could hardly put the book down. Lakshmi’s father had been a school teacher, but he fought for freedom from the British and was demoted to a tiny village and had to live with his family on a reduced salary. His response to the shame was alcohol.
At fifteen, Lakshmi finds her mother has accepted a marriage proposal to Hari Shastri. Although Lakshmi begs her mother to allow her to continue to live at home and find a job, her mother will not relent. Lakshmi marries Hari and moves into the house with Hari and his mother. Lakshmi’s mother-in-law, teaches Lakshmi how to gather and use herbal medicines including herbs that will help women conceive and other herbs which help women abort an unwanted pregnancy.
Often, the desire to end the pregnancy occurs because the women are too poor to feed the children they have much less another one. Lakshmi becomes quite skilled by working with her mother-in-law. Hari, Lakshmi’s husband turns out to be much less than kind, unlike his mother. He beats Lakshmi and becomes more and more disappointed when she does not bear him a son.
Finally, Lakshmi takes money she knows her mother-in-law has put aside and runs away. At first, she works with prostitutes, giving them potions to abort children and to cure disease. Samir Singh, a wealthy man from Jaipur, notices her and takes her to Jaipur, helping her set up a more legitimate business of drawing intricate henna designs on wealthy women including his wife, Parvati.
Lakshmi, a true artist, grinds her own henna paste. She also adds delicious treats to take to the ladies as she works on their henna designs. Steadily, she builds up her clientele until she meets many wealthy and influential women and their daughters. They trust Lakshmi and admire the designs she creates.
Lakshmi also uses her herbs to help women conceive when they long for an heir. The oils, lotions, and potions all help the women to overcome depression, illness, and barrenness. On the other side of the coin, she also continues to supply sachets of a tea that will cause a miscarriage. Samir discreetly requests these sachets for his mistresses and for his friends’ mistresses.

Lakshmi is having a home built with her own designs in the intricate tile floor. She dreams of bringing her parents to live with her so she can care for them and make up for running away. Instead of her parents, though, Lakshmi’s sister Radha, thirteen, appears. Radha was born the year Lakshmi ran away, so Lakshmi has never known about her sister.
Radha tells Lakshmi both their parents are dead. Lakshmi takes Radha in to care for her and teach her. Unfortunately, both Lakshmi and Radha get caught up in events that cause all of Lakshmi’s plans to fall apart. Yes, she and Radha move into the home Lakshmi has so lovingly designed in hopes of caring for her parents as they age. She has switched that allegiance to her sister, but forces outside Lakshmi’s control conspire to make the plans fail.
Because Lakshmi helps Joyce Harris, a British woman, with an abortion, Lakshmi meets Dr. Jay Kumar. Mrs. Harris fears the baby is not her husband’s but possibly an Indian man’s. She cannot take the chance of having a brown baby; she lies to Lakshmi about how far along she is. The sachets for tea that Lakshmi leaves with Mrs. Harris then cause Mrs. Harris to become very ill since she was more than four months along in the pregnancy.
Dr. Kumar is very impressed with Lakshmi’s talents and her herbal medicines. This meeting and the saving of Joyce Harris’s life create a strong impression on Dr. Kumar who then figures as an important ally in Lakshmi’s life.
Joshi makes the book come alive with the Indian traditions and the careful steps Lakshmi must always take to ensure that she maintains her place. She cannot be abrupt or haughty or act in any way that will displease the wealthy, privileged women she serves. She must bite her tongue and bow in order to keep them making appointments with her. When gossip makes its way around the ladies’ circle, Lakshmi is devastated and her business all but ruined.
At this point, another meeting with Dr. Kumar will be advantageous to Lakshmi and Radha and not in a romantic sense.
The other character I must describe is Malik, a young boy of indeterminate age, possibly eight when we first meet him. At least, he tells the Maharani Indira, the maharaja’s stepmother, “I prefer to be eight.” He is a wise young man with skills far above his age and education. Lakshmi had discovered him some time after she arrived in Jaipur. He becomes her right-hand man. I like Malik; he is a true survivor and an entrepreneur just as much as Lakshmi is.

A very engaging read
The Henna Artist has all the ingredients I look for in a great book: a strong (female) protagonist facing a seemingly insurmountable task who manages to survive admirably. To be honest, I knew very little about the culture/caste system in India. One will learn a lot about about this by reading this book.

I was immediately engaged by the characters. I wanted to know more about their lives and situations right from the beginning. I have often puzzled over arranged marriages. I have never been able to imagine myself in a culture where your future spouse is arranged by your parents. As former high school teacher when my classes were reading Romeo and Juliet, I used to ask my students if they could imagine the spouse their parents would select for them. Every time I asked the question was met with groans and generalized expressions of nausea. In all cases, my students thought their parents would choose the least eligible candidate as far as their personal happiness was concerned.

I finished reading The Henna Artist within two days of receiving it, but I hesitated writing the review to be sure I gave it the justice it deserved. Simply speaking, I loved it and was very sorry to see it end. I am looking forward to participating in the discussion because I am interested in other people's viewpoint on some of the plot turns. I will not mention those here however because they definitely would be "spoilers" for those who have not yet read the book.

My single criticism revolves around the inclusion of many Hindi words and phrases. Many (though not all) are included in an index in the back of the book. I found it very frustrating to constantly look up meanings. It severely disrupted the continuity of the novel. About half way through the book, I gave this up and tried to figure out from context. I think this would be a better book if this was remedied in an edit. However, I loved learning about India and its culture, and all the henna art stuff. It was a totally enjoyable new immersion.

Excellent Book
I was fortunate enough to get an advance copy of this book through BookBrowse and the publisher. Thank you. I will comment during the discussion when it opens up. A perfect read!
Kimberly Caipa

The Henna Artist
Beautifully detailed, the journey of Lakshmi, The Henna Artist transports the reader into 1950’s India, engaging all of your senses. When Lakshmi escapes an abusive husband from an arranged marriage she uses her strength, wisdom and knowledge of herbal remedies to build an intricately woven life with the Indian elite as a henna artist. I struggled not to rush through this page turning adventure as to savor it like one of Lakshmi’s treats with a warm cup of chai tea.
Jayne Dough

The Henna Artist; a compelling new novel by a new author!
I loved this novel for the compelling characters and delightful storytelling. It took me thousands of miles away to a place I’ve never been but that I could see, hear, taste and smell so clearly! I was sorry to see it end. I just wanted to live in that world.

Lakshmi is someone I wish I knew. I felt she would help me solve anything that was troubling me. She would listen and paint henna on me and tell me everything was going to be okay. I just loved the character and her work with the “ladies” of Jaipur.

I didn’t know anything about henna when I started reading this book. Had not idea that the art was thousands of years old, that it heals, that it’s impermanent, unlike tattoos. Loved learning all that stuff and way it’s woven into the story of a henna artist who is making a life for herself outside of cultural boundaries. If you like learning about ages-old crafts and natural rituals and traditions, you’ll love this book
AJ Bunuan

From the first few pages of the Henna Artist I knew at once that Alka Joshi had a true gift as a writer. She brought a part of the world unknown to me fully alive.

I sped through the pages eager to follow Lakshmi's efforts in becoming a woman of independence and self sufficiency.

The Henna Artist is a brilliant first novel from a writer whom I shall look forward to reading further captivating stories.
Bradley J. Owens

Alka Joshi's "The Henna Artist" is an evocative and engaging read
The Henna Artist is a beautifully realized and evocative novel set in mid-century India after independence.

The heroine, Lakshmi, flees her small village, and an abusive marriage to create a new life for herself in the larger city of Jaipur. A henna artist, healer, and cunning businesswoman, she finds her first clients among Jaipur's prostitutes. Just as she begins to gain success and make her reputation in the houses of the wealthier, and more discerning, Jaipur women, her plans are interrupted by the arrival in Jaipur of the husband she abandoned, and a younger sister that she didn't know she had.

I loved reading about this time in India's long history, the energy and excitement of a newly-independent nation, and the range of characters - from prostitutes to Maharanis to Lakshmi's young assistant, Malik, to a singularly charming talking parrot, Madho Singh.

Joshi has an understanding, and connection, to this place and period of history, and her depth of knowledge, skillful plotting and period descriptions make this novel an engaging and enthralling read.

OY, the glossary....
Enjoyed reading the story...but absolutely hated having to flip back and forth to the glossary. I'm somewhat familiar with Indian culture and enjoyed the vast majority of the story. But doing the "back and forth" interrupted the flow of my reading, and therefore my enjoyment. With so many words translated, perhaps the author could have put them at the bottom of the page in smaller type? Just a thought...
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