A fascinating glimpse into life in post-Raj India
I love books that introduce me to places and culture I know little about, and let me explore and discover whole new worlds. The Henna Artist, set in Jaipur in the post-Raj years, does this beautifully.
The story opens with 13-year-old orphan Radha fleeing her hostile community to live with her older sister in Jaipur. She’s never met Lakshmi, who at 17 years old had herself fled her abusive marriage. She is unaware she even has a little sister.
The narrative then switches to Lakshmi. She has made a new life for herself as a henna tattoo artist, catering to the whims of the rich and powerful Indian families who are reaping the benefits of the collapse of the Raj in 1947, around 10 years earlier.
Ambitious, and determined to better herself, Lakshmi employs all her talents to make money, not just as a henna artist, but as a healer.
Along with banishing her ladies’ headaches or their rough skin, she supplies remedies for the infertility of rich men’s desperate wives – and for the unwanted pregnancies of their mistresses.
She’s on the brink of wealth, hoping to win favour with the local royal family, when Radha arrives in her life.
At first, Lakshmi welcomes her sister dutifully – even gladly – hoping to give her all the advantages that she never had. She also hopes to assuage her guilt at the shame she brought on her parents by abandoning her marriage.
However Radha is no pliable child.
She’s feisty, independent and unwilling to bend to her sister’s stern demands of how she should behave in public and in private.
Soon her behaviour threatens the carefully curated life that Lakshmi has so painstakingly built for herself over the years.
But when things come to a head, should Lakshmi put all the blame on her wayward young sister? Or is it time for her to question her own motivation and behaviour, so far removed from the dreams she once held dear?
This is a wonderful story, rich and atmospheric.
From the little village of Ajar to the bustling streets of Jaipur to the elegant rooms of mansions and royal palaces, descriptive prose evokes the sights, sounds and smells of the different worlds Lakshmi inhabits.
It introduces us to so many different characters, too. There’s everyone from the spiteful gossip-eaters of Ajar to the prostitutes of Agra, the spoilt, indolent upper-class women of Jaipur, and their charming but careless husbands.
But none are two-dimensional. Characters are allowed to grow and develop.
So we see a different side to people like Samir Singh, Lakshmi’s mentor and ally; his wife Parvati, whose patronage she depends on; and her ex-husband Hari, whose appearance in Jaipur threatens her hard-fought equilibrium.
A particularly charming character is Malik, the young boy who acts as Lakshmi’s runner. He is fiercely loyal and determined to protect her at all costs.
Set against the background of a new-found independence from British rule, the theme of this story really is individual freedom.
In particular, it focuses on the right for women like Lakshmi and Radha to forge their own identities and lives.
But of course, with freedom comes responsibility, not just to yourself but to others. And that is something both Lakshmi and Radha have to come to terms with before they can find their own true happiness and peace.