23 Jun The Henna Artist and The Secret Keeper of Jaipur by Alka Joshi
Powerful, rich and engrossing
There’s a double delight in store for you with the paperback issue of The Henna Artist and the hardback publication of its follow-up The Secret Keeper of Jaipur.
Alka Joshi may have left India for the USA at just nine-years-old, but she knows how to conjure up the atmosphere of her ancestral home in the years following Indian independence from the UK in 1947.
Both books explore the theme of independence, in particular the right of women to follow their own path – not always easy for them in what is still, in the 1950s and 60s, a patriarchal state. But with strong female characters at the core of both books, The Henna Artist and The Secret Keeper of Jaipur will dispel any misconceptions you might have about life in India after the Raj.
Having left her abusive husband, henna artist Lakshmi is determined to forge her own future, while catering to the whims of the rich and powerful women of Jaipur. With her healing skills and natural talent, she not only decorates their hands and feet with henna, but soothes their headaches and helps their fertility – or, in the case of rich men’s mistresses, prevents the birth of potentially embarrassing offspring.
Many of them owe Lakshmi favours – and one day, she may call them in.
Having finally found her way into the palace of local royalty, she’s on the brink of wealth when her younger sister Radha appears in her life, threatening her carefully-curated independence.
Blinded by her ambitions for her sister, Lakshmi tries to guide her along a path of her choosing. But headstrong Radha has her own ideas and in challenging her sister, forces Lakshmi to examine just what is important in life – wealth, or happiness?
A wonderfully rich, descriptive story, The Henna Artist takes us from small villages to bustling city backstreets to the elegant rooms of Jaipur’s mansions and royal palaces, introducing us to characters as diverse as old dowager Queen Indira and street urchin Malik, Lakshmi’s young protégé.
The Secret Keeper of Jaipur (which can be read as a stand-alone) extends the sweeping panorama of the story to Shimla, and the foothills of the Himalayas where widowed flower seller Nimmi and her two small children struggle to make a living.
She and Malik, now grown up, meet and fall in love – but Malik has to return to Jaipur, where he becomes embroiled in the lives of the rich and powerful who once patronised Lakshmi, and despised him.
He goes to work for Samir Singh, an old patron of Lakshmi’s, whose construction company Singh-Sharma is responsible for building a brand new, opulent cinema house
When the building collapses on opening night, killing and injuring scores of people, Malik sets out to prove the culpability of those involved, making discoveries that link back to Shimla and an illegal, dangerous trade that goes on there. Can Lakshmi and Nimmi help him discover the truth?
Like The Henna Artist, this book’s strength lies in the wonderful characters who spring to life from its pages, and in the rich prose that evokes the sights, sounds and smells of bustling Jaipur and tranquil Shimla.
But the added element of the mystery Malik must solve, with its hints of duplicity and danger, adds a thrilling frisson to an already engrossing read.
The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi is published by Mira in paperback, RRP £9.99. The Secret Keeper of Jaipur is published by Mira in hardback, RRP £20
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