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Books: Henna, Hardship, and Hope

By Monita Soni Email By Monita Soni
July 2020
Books: Henna, Hardship, and Hope

Intricate henna patterns become a metaphor for life in this widely praised, bestselling novel set in Rajasthan in the 1950s. MONITA SONI recommends it for your summer reading.

The Henna Artist (HarperCollins/MIRA), by Alka Joshi, is beautifully inspired, cleverly constructed, and rendered with skillful artistic precision—much like a mandala. Joshi writes the story of Lakshmi, a survivor against all odds, and in doing so, she also reveals the interesting back story of Rajasthan’s henna artists.

I was married in Jaipur. I remember the local lady in her ghagra-odhni who applied the bridal henna on my hands. She didn’t speak a word to me as I sat in my maternal uncle’s courtyard. I would have never guessed from the inscrutable expression in my henna lady’s eyes, as she made paisley and peacock patterns on my hand, that she had innate expertise with native herbs like lavender oils, tulsi powders, neem packets, and cotton tree bark sachets. Really, I had no idea about her life. I had Rajput, Sharma, Kshatriya, Jain, and Kayasth friends. Their cultural expressions and nuances were different but I never probed too deeply into their lives either.


In a startlingly honest account, Joshi exposes the appalling exploitation of women at the hands of men and other women. The story reminds us not to be taken in by the romantic ambiance, architecture, miniature paintings, and history of the princely state of Rajasthan; that there is much ugliness that lies behind the beautiful façade.

As I blend my Earl Grey tea into herbal henna to enhance the color of my own henna paste, I think about my mother who also grew up in Rajasthan. She went to Maharani Gayatri Devi (MGD) School dressed in crisp white salwar and sky blue tunics. An artist at heart herself, she traced beautiful patterns on pipal leaves during school recess. Mother always had henna on her hands, and she made the best henna mandalas in the shape of syrup-drenched ghevar on the palms of her mother, sisters, daughters, and granddaughters. My visit to Jaipur with my mother was sweet and fragrant like the besan laddoos made by Radha, one of the characters in this book.

When I visited the walled pink city of palaces, museums, temples, street vendors, and jewelers as a child, I wanted to live there forever. I remember meeting several characters with sunbaked skin, shimmering aqua eyes, and covert motives dressed in soft white muslins. But once I went back to Jaipur as a daughter-in-law dressed in pink at the young age of twenty, the city slowly lost its enchantment, just like it turns sour for the protagonist Lakshmi in the novel.

I highly recommend this brilliant debut by Alka Joshi. It is indeed a labor of love as it renders the saga of loss, survival, and lives intertwined in the most beautiful, intricate, and heartening henna motif.

Monita Soni, M.D., of Decatur, Alabama, grew up in Mumbai. A pathologist who diagnoses cancer in her day job, she is also a poet. You can hear her commentaries on “The Sundial Writers Corner” on WLRH 89.3 FM/HD, Huntsville, Alabama.

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