In an ever-changing world that asks us to read and think more diversely, I’ve tried to make an effort to select books written by more diverse authors, and thus, The Henna Artist appeared to be a perfect addition to that reading list. Set in India during 1950’s, the book tells the story of Lakshmi, a then 17-year old who escapes an abusive marriage and moves to the larger city of Jaipur to become a trusted Henna Artist for the aristocrats. As you can except from any Reese book club pick, there is betrayal, secrets, gossip, and infidelity.
The purpose in reading diverse authors is to open our world views, to give us entrance into another life that is not our own, and to build our empathy towards those that are not quite like us. Because the author has an Indian name, I expected to read a story that would enhance my knowledge of Indian society. However, I was quite disappointed with the authenticity of The Henna Artist and do not think I would recommend it. What I expected to be an entrance into a culture unknown to me ended up feeling just feeling like an American dime store novel, set in India.
When you live in a culture, you find yourself embedded in the quirky traits and subtle nuances of that culture that I do not believe can be discovered by simply doing a few Google searches and spending a couple of weeks in the country–the more time you spend acclimating to a culture, the more you become a product of that environment, which will inevitably reflect in your interactions with the world. This became apparent for me a few summers ago when I was in London and on the news station, the broadcasters laughed and bragged about how American acting schools were so poorly preparing their actors that 90% of American directors looked into British acting schools–I thought to myself, “That is so British!”–in Europe, it is customary to move to the center of the metro car while you wait for your stop, in California, people use their garages for storage and their driveways to park their cars, in some cultures, it is customary to dress up for school whereas other cultures, sweats and a t-shirt are acceptable. These nuances become just a way of living, a way of doing life–traits and behaviors that you are not aware of that I believe cannot be authentically represented unless you have been immersed in that culture yourself.
Upon more research about the author, I found that, while she is of Indian descent, Joshi spent most of her upbringing in America. While she took information from particularly her mother’s upbringing in India, and spent some time traveling to the country to research for the book, her ability to accurately represent these cultural nuances was limited.
(But, then again, this goes back to being a good writer, and as you know, I do not believe that just anyone should be able to write a widely-read novel).
The Henna Artist feels authentic, because the book does include a considerable amount of ‘cultural’ references . The characters have traditional Indian names for each other (Parvati, Laskshmi, Harvi). The characters eat traditional Indian food (biryani, tandoori, chicken tikki masala), go to familiar Indian places (Jaipur, The Himalayas, Calcutta), drink Chai tea, and discuss the caste system and the British rule–these superficial references could easily be Googled or observed. And, if I were an adamant Reese book club reader with very limited knowledge of Indian culture and no desire to learn more, due to these seemingly accurate cultural references, I would just assume that this is what people who live in India are like.
If I had this limited knowledge on the culture of India, after I read this book, I would think that the people of India are gossipy, back-stabbing, arrogant, violent, lawless. All of the men are disgusting perverts who cheat on their wives, and all of the women are money-hungry, ignorant, child-rearing subjects. While there may be *some* truth (as I feel the author was attempting to show the limitations of the caste system), I feel these stereotypes are still taken through the lens of the American colonist–everyone should live the way Americans do because it is the best and the right way to live. Everyone should be entrepreneurs and capitalists. Everyone should watch American movies and idolize American movie stars. And, anyone who does not live under these standards are bad, evil, wrong, and obviously less than. But, as we know, cultures cannot be ALL bad, and certainly the American way of life has its own faults–at the end of The Henna Artist, I am left feeling a little puffier about my status as an American, and a little less tolerant of Indian culture
In world where what we watch on TV, what we see on social media, and what we read in books dramatically impacts our perceptions of the world and reinforces stereotypes (especially in a present-COVID 19 era in which travel is limited and our access to other cultures IS limited by what we can access at our homes), I feel authors have an increasing responsibility to accurately and authentically represent the viewpoint and perspective in which they claim to represent–because the average book club reader will likely take these representations as TRUTH and carry these TRUTHS into their interactions with the world (In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo is exactly critical of this in her discussion of The Blind Side–a highly regarded movie, the story still portrays Leigh Anne Tuohy as the white savior and Michael Oher as the uneducated, only good for sports black athlete–thus, reinforcing the same stereotypes we are desperately trying to debunk).
This is where I feel The Henna Artist falls short and I feel that, while the author grew up in an Indian family (in America), she drew upon (what she felt) were her mother’s childhood experiences, and she spent (a month or two) over in India to research for the book, and then supplemented with little bit of Google research, she cannot possibly wrap those authentic cultural nuances into a story and characters that would help to create a fair, accurate, and authentic representation of Indian culture. Because as a reader, I trust the author and the main characters to present this viewpoint to me, and the traditional Indian name, food, and location references feel authentic, these stereotypes are reinforced for me that Indian society is bad (and American society is good).
Part of this, I think, is because our natural instinct is to trust our narrators–because the story is told through the main character’s point of view, we trust that the narrator must be good, must be moral, must be accurate (and if this is not true, we expect that our author will let us know, if not just subtly, like in the case of a Holden Caulfield, a Huck Finn, or a Pi Patel in Life of Pi.). The Henna Artist takes on the first person point of view of Lakshmi, so as the reader, we accept Lakshmi’s judgements–Samira is manipulative, Parvati is jealous, and Lakshmi’s work as an herbalist (providing miscarriage sachets to women) is honorable to a system that takes advantage of and severely limits women (or, at least, that is what our American colonial lens tells us to think). We take on these perceptions because Lakshmi, or rather the author, Joshi, TELLS us these are the perceptions we should have. Because we are not told otherwise, Lakshmi is a reliable narrator. She represents the “average” Indian women in 1950’s, and when everything works out for her in the end (again, another very American ‘happily ever after’ conclusion), we applaud her hardships and support her new budding romance with Dr. Kumar. We dust off the pages, close our book cover, and thank Joshi for giving us an glimpse into a different culture that (is presented as) different than our own.
My recommendation? If you are just looking for another sensational dime store novel about deceit, secrets, and gossip, then The Henna Artist might be for you. But, if you want to read something that is authentically Indian, I feel Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things may be a more authentic representation of Indian culture for you.