India is not just a place, it is an emotion — it is a land of vibrant colours, fragrances and snake charmers. The Henna Artist, is set in a land that belongs to royalty and ragpickers alike, and Alka Joshi helps dust the cobwebs settling into one's mind when one thinks of olden glitz and glory, making the picture crystal clear.
As an Indian born and brought up in the country, this book did not offer a new story, but provided a beautiful experience to my senses. The author's description of herbs and herbal compresses charmed me as a reader. The pounding with the pestle in the mortar felt like music; 'rabdi', 'dal bhatti' evoked feelings of nostalgia associated with an old world charm. The nip in the Jaipur air, the chiffon and satin of the royalty and the dusty pathways with huts and the million stories inside form a lethal combination — which is rightly being adapted into a series produced by Freida Pinto. She's also set to star in it.
A parallel world for her mother, Joshi created the India of 1950s — with its post-independence fervour; the royalty stuck between its own richness and foreign trends. Their fascination with Marilyn Monroe and Madhubala alike, a tug of war between modernity and tradition in thoughts, beliefs and action has been portrayed beautifully.
The world view from the eyes of Lakshmi, a peculiar Henna Artist, reflects one from which Indians haven't moved quite ahead. There are nautch girls, women who cannot afford to bring another mouth to feed into the world, women who become a source of support for each other in the absence of family. There are men with roving eyes, men who batter women, men who heal, men who support their families. As bonus, there are also traditional recipes, thanks to Mallik and the Royal Chef (other characters).
When Indian caste system had still not dissolved from the minds of people, Lakshmi chose to dream and find a way for herself. This book is a great read for anyone looking forward to soak in the sights, aromas, flavours, and pulse of India.