“Eloquent and moving…Joshi masterfully balances a yearning for self-discovery with the need for familial love.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
I have always loved mehndi or henna as it is referred to…. Everything from the smell of the ground paste to the fragrance of my hands after the paste has dried to how the bright orange/red/brown designs have me feeling happy and beautiful!
A very common design in my childhood was a big dot in the centre of the palm surrounded by smaller dots on the corners and ‘caps’ on the fingers. This could be done at home and didn’t need the finesse required to use a cone to draw fine designs that are very popular today.
Lakshmi, the heroine of this story, is a fine henna artist… One who has mastered the art of delicately etching designs on the hands and feet of the well to do women of Jaipur whom she refers to as her ‘ ladies’.
Running away from her village, her parents and a bad marriage at the age of 17, she has struggled to get to a point where she can dream of her own house which she has designed herself and is almost ready. She can’t wait to bring her parents over from her village, hoping her success will finally make them relent and forgive her for the grief and shame she caused them by her actions as a teenager.
In the decade she has spent in Jaipur, Lakshmi has molded herself into the person her wealthy ladies want her to be.. a confidant who will keep their secrets, a friend who always has just the design they need to feel wanted by their philandering husbands, a rich source of information about what’s happening in the other homes she goes to. Her job depends on her discretion so she never lets on that the men who pay her to make their women desirable and fertile, also pay her to make the ‘problems’ of their mistresses go away with her herbal remedies. Just 8 years after independence, this is an India striving to shrug away the influence of British rule while the upper classes cling on to the practices that make them feel better than everyone else.
Lakshmi’s world of henna and herbs is irrevocably changed by the arrival of the husband she ran away from, with the 13 yo sister she never even knew she had. Radha, her sister, is used to taking care of herself in the village, but longs for family and love. The sights of the city and the exposure to things she never knew could exist, make her resentful of her sister’s attempts to temper her. She sees it as Lakshmi’s need to control her and rebels.
Everything Lakshmi has worked so hard for suddenly seems out of reach. She struggles between her desire to go back to the comfort of the known and her love for her sister which means she has to change herself and unlearn all that she thought would ensure a happy future.
Touching on the plight of women in the India of the 1950’s, whether rich or poor, the travails of the caste system which was much more rigid then, the shenanigans of the wealthy elite who would do anything to hold onto their false pride and sometimes underserved honour, this is also a story that shows the colour and beauty that Lakshmi and artists like her brought into their world.
This is the story of a woman who was born in a time and place that was unfair even to those women who had everything handed to them on a platter and so, being poor, uneducated and alone, expected her to compromise and accept life on terms decided by others. But she refuses and makes the most of an innate talent to live life the way she wants. Her artistry isn’t only in her henna designs but also in the way she learns to make the best of the little she has to take her where she wants to be.
Added 25th February 2016