The Henna Artist is a rip-roaring “delicious” (aka sexual-tension in every one of its 342 pages) entertainer, but what makes it unique is that it refuses to pander to the stereotypes about India. Yes, the author takes advantage of our fascination for India’s fabulously quirky royals, but she does not stop there. She recreates an era that is broad in scope and yet vivid in details that are uniquely Indian. For instance, did you know that Henna has medicinal properties? In hot weather it is a natural cooling agent, among other things. Henna art also serves to illustrate the point that our ancient knowledge (science or literature) survives in the practices of the poor because the English educated are living Shakespeare and Hollywood. These days when India’s traditions, deliberately or out of ignorance, are miscast into sound bytes The Henna Artist teems with characters for whom caste is not as a trigger for hate, violence is no excuse for victimhood, rich-poor dynamics is not entrenched; good and bad coexist. Another aspect the author illustrates well is the importance of relationships to Indians. Lakshmi builds her business by learning from her mother-in-law (no saas-bahu drama); Malik is loyal (no religious trauma); Radha seeks out her sister. Yet modern methods are good too – as illustrated by my favorite character Jay. It is a retelling that resonates with what I know of India; not what has been penned into vogue by the intellect-erati. And it is one of the few books about India’s middle class (Lakshmi’s father lost everything fighting the British) that took advantage of its cultural heritage to create the largest, diverse democracy in the modern world. We are probably the last of the generation whose parents lived through that period of history so I feel time is running out for us and I am so glad Alka Joshi wrote this book. And made it eminently readable.
Our book club met Alka Joshi over zoom and we thanked her: “Your personal journey up to this point, your very entertaining story of how “The Henna Artist” got published, and the challenges you encountered along the way kept us all thoroughly engaged.” What also resonated with me was a sentence about “…changing opinions through fiction….”.
I love the cover, by the way, not the least because its title image is one I was thinking about using myself. But it does not apply to my book and it is perfect for The Henna Artist. Thanks to my book club, I found out in time! I happened to be looking for colorful, happy, grand images about India that are also historical and there aren’t that many and I am still thinking about it. Also, I am encouraged that someone may read my upcoming book (The House on East Canal Road is historical fiction in 1900-1947 India; just before where The Henna Artist starts, expected late 2021) now that Alka Joshi has kindled an interest in India not associated with romanticizing the Raj.
In an interview Alka Joshi says, “… I had a very hard time as a child reconciling the India of my childhood with the India of America’s perception…”. With this book she has gone a long way in changing that. Congratulations.
I look forward to reading Ms. Joshi’s next two books and seeing the movie (TV series).