The Henna Artist By Alka Joshi

This poignant book captures the life of protagonist Lakshmi in Jaipur, India and beautifully depicts cultural elements of India during the 1950s. The reader is brought along the journey of Lakshmi as she tries to escape an abusive marriage and finds herself in a new city with nothing to her name. She eventually, finds her way by becoming a henna artist and herbal healer. In this book, I gained a new perspective on topics such as gender roles, the concept of arranged marriages, the caste system, the importance of henna, ayurvedic medicine, and more. Although the book is fictional, the author was born in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India and portrays her experiences and her mother’s experiences in India in her book. I have outlined several cultural aspects that I learned from the book as well as further research on these subjects.

Gender roles and subjugation of women was one of the main cultural idiosyncrasies I noticed in the book. Although, the book was set in the 1950s and gender roles have changed in India, the practice of arranged marriage is still common in India. Protagonist, Lakshmi was married off when she was only fifteen, because her family could no longer afford to feed her. This is a similar fate of many young Indian girls. Arranged marriages could be a way out for a family who was too poor to continue providing for their daughter or they could be used to increase the power of a family by connecting two families of royalty through marriage. Since arranged marriage is so common in India, most young girls welcome their parent’s guidance in choosing a match. Furthermore, dating is not common in India and parents do the work of arranging a match of with a person of suitable background. The match must be arranged within the same caste and social class in order to uphold the family’s reputation. Interestingly, these arrangements tend to have significant success, with India having the lowest divorce rate in the world. However, this might not necessarily mean the marriage is a happy one, since divorce was only legalized in 1955 and is still considered scandalous and improper. Therefore, the reason for low divorce rate could simply be the stigma behind divorce not necessarily successful marriages. Additionally, in the novel I noticed the prevalence of strict gender roles. Women are considered property of men and their job is to obey their husbands and care for their children. Lakshmi, faced constant abuse from her husband for failure to have a child, and many other women in the novel were victimized for not producing a male child. Before British colonization, female infanticide was common and only male children were valued. Additionally, throughout the novel the husbands often had mistresses while the wives were supposed to remain completely loyal. Women were constantly scrutinized by their husband’s family to determine if their domestic abilities were up to par and worthy of the husband. In the novel as well as in current parts of India, marriage and motherhood are the only appropriate role for women, and position of women in western society is frowned upon. Women continue to be subject to unequal opportunities, with Hindu and Muslim doctrines outlining the roles of women to procreate, support men, and continue the family lineage.

The caste system was another cultural significance I noticed in the book. Everyone in Jaipur was judged based on their caste. Marriage, jobs, and opportunities were all based on their immobile status in society. Lakshmi’s family was initially part of the Brahmin caste which was the highest caste in Hinduism, reserved for priests and esteemed teachers of Kshatriya warriors. However, due to her father’s involvement in the Indian Independence Movement, Lakshmi’s family lost all their money and respect. They were considered fallen Brahmin, because of her father’s failure to put her family first over his political priorities. These labels determine Lakshmi’s marriage potential and her future. Even in India today, the caste system is still influential, and Shudras or Dalits, the lower castes, are oppressed by upper castes. Additionally, inter-caste marriage is still frowned upon in certain parts of India. After India gained independence in 1947, laws were instigated to prevent discrimination against lower castes, but inequality still exists.

Henna, the namesake of the book, was a key ingredient in Indian culture in the 1950s and still is today. Henna is associated with luck, healing elements, and positive spirits. It was and continues to be utilized in weddings, baby showers, Hindu celebrations, and festivals to promote health and good fortune. Henna is considered to have healing properties and certain designs can impart different feelings. In the novel, Lakshmi made her living drawing designs on women to grant them fertility, prosperous marriage, or good health. Henna has been used for thousands of years by indigenous people in India, Egypt, Syria, and other countries and has been thought to improve spiritual connection with nature. Another common practice to promote health in India, is the use of herbal remedies. Lakshmi also made a living using herbs, essential oils, flowers, and fruits to heal those around her. She practiced the ayurvedic medicine approach stemming from natural and holistic remedies to cure physical and mental ailments. It is very common in India, for recipes for natural remedies to be passed down from generation to generation. These recipes are said to be passed down from Gods through meditation to ancient rishis and recorded in the Vedas. These texts outline the medicinal qualities of over 10,000 herbal plants and provides detail on thousands of medical conditions. Although, there has not been extensive research on the efficacy of these holistic approaches, I found it very interesting to read about the ways common plants can be used to heal.

Bridal Henna

Overall, this book provided me with incredible insight on aspects of Indian culture, and I encourage you to read it. This book enlightens readers on Indian culture and helps readers have a better understanding of traditions and how Indian customs have shaped the world today. Furthermore, it expanded my worldview and granted me further cultural relativism.

Article Sources: https://people.smu.edu/knw2399/2015/04/30/gender-oppression-inequality-and-gender-roles-in-india-and-southwestern-united-states-how-british-colonial-rule-and-american-internal-colonialism-perpetuated-gender-roles-and-oppression/ https://meissinger.com/uploads/3/6/2/1/3/6/2/1/3621232/arranging_a_marriage_in_india.pdf https://www.utpjournals.press/doi/abs/10.3138/jcfs.7.1.75 http://adaniel.tripod.com/modernindia.htm https://www.cnn.com/2016/02/23/asia/india-caste-system/index.html https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-35650616#:~:text=The%20caste%20system%20divides%20Hindus,the%20Hindu%20God%20of%20creation. https://www.learnreligions.com/mehendi-or-henna-dye-1770473 https://www.copperh2o.com/blogs/blog/ayurvedic-medicine-origin-history-and-principles https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5198827/ https://hennaartconnection.com/history-of-henna

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