• Bijal Patel

Chapatti, Chutney and Chai: A Story of Female Transgression in 1950s India

*All images in this post are owned and taken by me.*

Namaste. Join me as we visit the pink city of Jaipur, located in North West India, where you’ll learn about the rich culture and secrets it holds. You’re in for a bumpy ride as you encounter drama, whispers and fractured homes. This will be a lengthy one so grab your cup of chai and read with me.

My older sister and I ready for our 9 hour flight to Mumbai.
My older sister and I ready for our 9 hour flight to Mumbai.

I stumbled upon Alka Joshi’s The Henna Artist whilst stalking someone on Goodreads. I know, it’s ironic that I was being nosey like the stereotypical Indian Auntie portrayed in South Asian film and literature. I’m glad I came across it and I’m glad you have come across it too. Hopefully, I can persuade you to read about the pink city and love it just as much as I did.

A Brief History of Jaipur:

I remember visiting Jaipur when I was young (2011) as my mum wanted my sister and I to see India beyond the village we always knew and visited. I was young and naïve, a Londoner who thought India was overwhelmingly hot and boring and so we went touring through Mumbai, Agra, Delhi and then finally, Jaipur as our last stop before seeing my family in Gujarat. Here I am on a very long journey from Delhi to Jaipur probably dreaming about eating beans on waffles again and watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air every morning:

13 year old me catching some z's.

Although the Jaipur visit is a vague memory after being to so many places, I still remember the pink buildings with its intricate designs. The architecture was amazing and it’s crazy to think most of the entire city is painted pink. The Henna Artist is set in 1950s India, Rajasthan, after India gained independence on August 15th 1947 and the British left after their unwanted visit. India had faced casteism, religious conversions, theft and what some may label it as – t*rrorism. Many nationals escaped the torture the British Empire had put them through just as Lakshmi, our protagonist, had escaped her abusive marriage with Hari. Her divorce and independence serves as an allegory as India had to stabilise and recover from the torture they had been through.

It’s important to note that the book follows a story of secrets, debt, pregnancy, family ties, female empowerment, the caste system, divorce, a runaway bride and mistresses. We do not focus on clichés such as rape, a corrupt government and an anticipated love story as expected. Joshi digresses from such stereotypes and instead, her focal point is Lakshmi’s career, Lakshmi’s relationship with her new sister and keeping her clients’ secrets to herself.

Lakshmi’s story:

Lakshmi married at the tender age of fifteen to a man called Hari. We don’t know much about their relationship besides his abuse and pressure to conceive a child. We learn that she surprisingly had a positive relationship with her mother-in-law who taught her home remedies for some health issues (I don’t want to spoil the book for you too much.) Lakshmi flees from her marriage and pursues her career as a henna artist in Jaipur where she builds relationships and a good reputation with wealthy clients from a high caste. Lakshmi too was from a high caste so working for other women and serving their needs is a problem within itself.

One day, Lakshmi is startled with the arrival of her husband and a thirteen-year-old sister, Radha, that she never knew about. Radha reveals that her parents have passed away, leaving her with no money and an embarrassment to the village she’s from or what she describes it as, “the bad luck girl.” Whilst Lakshmi tackles a new relationship with her sister and client drama, her life begins to slowly fall into place as the life she always dreamed of finally has its bitter-sweet ending.

What’s the message of the story?

We learn that Lakshmi is a self-reliant and motivated individual who can overcome any obstacle that comes to her. She helps other unfortunate women like herself and uplifts the lives of those who live in a male-dominant and unfair society. Jaipur isn’t as flattering as some believe it to be, just like any city in the world. Lakshmi is living in a cruel and unjust 1950s after all.

Joshi weaves social criticism and judgement in the story from higher-classed Indian women who reveal issues in the society in which the story is set in. Abortion is illegal. A divorced woman is shameful. Being in debt is embarrassing. Men take ownership of women. The poor stay poor and the rich remain entitled. Lakshmi is a depiction of what every woman should aspire to be, she doesn’t stick to society’s norms and deals with her painful past by helping other women. She works for herself and builds her own home, this is something to look up to as no other female character in the story is like Lakshmi. From what I can remember, all of the women have rich husbands whose job is to give their wife money and children. Whilst the book introduces us to the beauty of nimbu pani, mandalas and rasmali, we get a sense of the ordinary lives of people, the salla kutta’s (sorry mum,) goonda’s and rickshaw-walla’s and mind my language but I think that’s beautiful.

If you’re not familiar with the Indian culture, I can assure you that you will be fluently speaking Hindi in no time after reading this book. I was already familiar with the language and people, but Joshi provides a character biography at the start of the book and a translation guide at the end of the book for you to refer to if in doubt. Alka Joshi makes you feel comfortable with the language and characters as she introduces them effortlessly, intricately, and slowly. So, enter Lakshmi’s secret life as you follow her journey from rags to riches. What are you waiting for? I want to discuss this book with someone!

IG: @bookswithbp

Look out for The Henna Artist sequel on the way as Lakshmi’s story transforms from page to screen. If you enjoy The Henna Artist or want to read something similar, you may like:

  • A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

  • The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

  • The Burning Bride by Manoj Kerai

Facts and Figures in relation to The Henna Artist:

  • The Special Marriage Act (1954) introduced divorce in India but was eventually reintroduced in 2012 to make divorce an easier process.

  • 1972 was the year that The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act was brought into place to limit the number of illegal abortions in India. As the book is set in the 1950s, abortion is illegal in the time-frame of the story.

  • 1 in 3 women in India are victims of domestic abuse. Police registered 103,272 cases in 2018, this does not include the women who remain silent and do not report crimes. Articles reveal that domestic violence numbers rose a considerable about during India’s lockdown order during the C*vid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, numbers cannot be accurately collated and documented.

  • India has the highest number of child brides in the world – 15 MILLION. 27% of the female-child population are married before their 18th birthday and 7% are married before their 15th birthday. Lakshmi was 15 when she married Hari.

  • Two-thirds of people in India are in poverty. They live on less than $2 a day, that is the equivalent of a bottle of water in the Western world.

Charities to help:

  • Railway ChildrenMany children like Lakshmi run away from abuse, violence and poverty. They use the railway to escape from their homes and are left helpless and homeless. They are scared and alone and dream of a life that you have lived.

  • Save the Children India Children have a destined future of poverty, no education and early physical labour due to their low caste or tribe. The charity helps to lift children from poverty and give them a life-changing education.

  • Shanti Bhavan Children’s ProjectThis charity has a close place in my heart after watching the Netflix documentary Daughters of Destiny. The charity helps children from low-economic homes and raises them from the tender age of 4 up to 18, housing and teaching them. They fund their entire education journey, through university and eventually up to their first day of paid work. 98% of children graduate from university and 97% are employed into full-time jobs.

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