A beautiful book cover, the promise of a traditional setting with a courageous woman protagonist and rave reviews from readers – Alka Joshi’s The Henna Artist ticks all the right boxes. However I picked the book because it was the choice of my book club and everyone was absolutely excited about this one.

A group of people reading the book with me, followed by a book discussion is just a very exciting proposition. So while I wait for the discussion, I must write what I think about the book.

The book is set in Jaipur in the mid 1950s and 30-year old Lakshmi is a much sought-after henna artist catering to the rich of the city and being privy to not just the secrets of the ladies but of the men as well. When Hari, the husband she had left years ago, turns up at her doorstep with a young girl who claims to be her sister, her life turns upside down. Soon she’s struggling to hold on to the financial independence she has carved for herself and her very reputation.

The storyline is captivating and has many twists and turns before it hurtles towards a conclusion, open enough for a sequel.

I liked the story but I had a few issues with the writing and the themes that were explored.

For one, I could not picturise the protagonist in my mind. There was not much physical description and Lakshmi just did not seem to fit into my idea of a woman in Jaipur, of that particular social strata and in that time period.

Lakshmi was also created to be unlikeable by the author I think. While I could understand her life story, her abusive marriage and an escape, her rise through sheer hard work and the taking of opportunities as they arose, I could not fathom her self-talk. She was guilty at every turn, thinking of her life choices and yet she’s manipulative and happy about it. Those two emotions seemed at loggerheads most of the time.

Radha, her younger sister too changes into an unlikeable character as the book progresses. From a timid girl she becomes a classist in just a few months, which is a little unbelievable. The kind of grudge she carries in her heart is also inexplicable after she’s lost all her family and comes to Jaipur to seek her only sister out.

Hari, Lakshmi’s husband is another character, whose transformation from an abusive, illiterate person to an empathetic healer is hard to fathom.

Many events in the story sound contrived. Things fall into place just too easily. It’s not the bigger, life-changing things but the smaller ones like the gift of the parrot from the palace to unlikely reconciliation between sisters to adoption of a child born out of wedlock to a loving family who had lost their own, that sound easy.

The setting didn’t work for me at all. It didn’t evoke the Jaipur of 1950s to me. Nor did it capture the spirit of Shimla in the few pages it was described. It felt too modern, even though it is just a few years after India achieved independence. Girls from remote villages in UP are well versed in the English classics with book keeping talents. It’s not just Lakshmi and Radha who are even more educated than the middle class but also Malik, the Muslim boy from an impoverished background who runs errands and buys things from market based on a list. All this feels very incongruous.

The thoughts that run in the minds of the characters are just too persistent. Every few pages we revisit Lakshmi’s guilt at abandoning her husband and bringing a bad name to her parents. For a woman who’s very sure of what she wants to do with her life, Lakshmi seems rather steeped in her past. The dialogues are repetitive as well. I had figured out how the book would end much before I reached the final chapters. The final nails in the coffin of her life in Jaipur were driven rather slow. Rather than feeling her pain, I only felt that the trope was overdone.

However, the book has its beauty. The henna description, the herbs and the potions, the life and times of the palace and the aristocracy come alive very well. The cruelty of the rich towards the poor is very believable. The story line is captivating and it’s a lovely portrayal of Indian culture to a foreign eye.

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