“Independence changed everything. Independence changed nothing.”Alka Joshi, The Henna Artist
The Henna Artist follows Lakshmi, a woman who runs away from her husband at fifteen years old. She finds herself in Jaipur and quickly begins to work her way into the homes of the upper class families and eventually, even the palace. But, one day a ghost from her past brings her someone she had never known: a sister. Radha is much like Lakshmi, stubborn, impulsive, and desperate to make a good impression on her sister. As Lakshmi tries to balance her career and her growing obligation towards her new sister, she finds herself being spread thin and one wrong move could send her tumbling back into the streets that she had once escaped from.
Despite being fascinated with the history of India, this was my first post-independence fictional book. I thought it was extremely well-written and did a good job of exploring the nuances of the caste system in India and the world of post-British India. In terms of a story, the story flowed very well; it took the time to develop the characters so that they didn’t feel two-dimensional and it was easy to get attached to them. I found that this story was more character-driven than plot driven, which I normally don’t like but I thought that it was important in this story because the actions of each character have a sort of domino effect and the ending serves to start picking up the dominos and rebuilding.
In terms of the caste-system, the author makes it clear that Lakshmi is technically a higher caste than the women she serves, but doesn’t find that her work is shameful. She simply works to serve the women whose husbands have influence to allow her to keep moving forward in life. Lakshmi before Radha is ambitious to the point that it almost feels like she has lost her humanity. Her determination to avoid returning to the life that she lived before makes her a distant character because she seems emotionless. When Radha arrives, Lakshmi is forced to slow her ambitious moves and pay attention to her sister. But, Lakshmi is very concerned with appearances and Radha’s small-town mannerisms embarrass Lakshmi to the point that she begins to alienate Radha and keep her away from her clients. This is Lakshmi’s fatal mistake. The structure of this novel is beautiful because it can be seen as three different stages: before Lakshmi’s mistake, Lakshmi’s mistake, and after Lakshmi’s mistake. This structure aids in developing Lakshmi’s character and helping her earn back her humanity.
I also thought that Joshi did a phenomenal job with connecting all the characters. Lakshmi’s interactions with each character served a purpose in the overall story, even if they didn’t feel like that right away. There was no useless exposition or scenes that could’ve been cut. The book was exactly the right length to tell the story and expose the faults with the systems that were in place after India won its independence. While all the women that Lakshmi served were Indian, they continued to live under British influence. Many of the ladies studied in fancy English boarding schools and would send their sons there to avoid scandal. Lakshmi, unable to provide Radha with that, uses her connections to her own culture to help work her way up. When she has the opportunity to give Radha the Western-infleuced upbringing that she never got, it backfires. This furthers the theme about the importance of staying true to one’s culture. While Lakshmi may have lived poorly, the other ladies sacrificed their own happiness in order to live a lavish lifestyle. Their husbands constantly had affairs and while Lakshmi was considered a black sheep in the community because of her fallen status, she had the ability to live contentedly with what she had. But, her desire to fit in with the ladies she served led her to her downfall because it caused her to overlook her culture and family. Overall, this was a really nice read. I enjoyed the story even if it was a bit predictable at points. I appreciated that Joshi took the time to add descriptions of all her characters at the beginning of the book because that helped keep them straight while reading. I think stories like The Henna Artist are important because we very rarely see the effects of a war for independence on normal people. American independence is often the go-to for a successful story about independence but I think that India’s independence story is just as remarkable. Lakshmi’s whole family was affected by this fight for independence to the point that it ruined them. The upper class was able to maintain their position because they conformed to eurocentric ideals, even back then. This story is a great reminder that real people are impacted by these wars, not just the government.