The Henna Artist - Alka Joshi Page 0,1

brother-in-law, the husband her older sister had abandoned all those years ago, in a nearby village. Perhaps he could help her find her sister.

“Why can’t I stay with you?” she had asked.

“It would not be proper,” the old man replied gently. He made his living painting images on the skeletons of peepal leaves. To console her, he’d given her a painting. Angry, she’d almost thrown it back at him until she saw that the image was of Lord Krishna, feeding a mango to his consort, Radha, her namesake. It was the most beautiful gift she had ever received.

Radha slows as she approaches the village threshing ground. Four yoked bulls walk in circles around a large flat stone, grinding wheat. Prem, who cares for the bulls, is sitting with his back against the hut, asleep. Quietly, she hurries past him to the narrow path that leads to Ganesh-ji’s temple. The shrine has a slender opening and, inside, a statue of Lord Ganesh. Gifts are arranged around the Elephant God’s feet: a young coconut, marigolds, a small pot of ghee, slices of mango. A cone of sandalwood incense releases a languid curl of smoke.

The girl lays Munchi-ji’s painting of Krishna in front of Ganesh-ji, the Remover of All Obstacles, and begs him to remove the curse of the Bad Luck Girl.

By the time she reaches her brother-in-law’s village ten miles to the west, it is late afternoon and the sun has moved closer to the horizon. She is sweating through her cotton blouse. Her feet and ankles are dusty, her mouth dry.

She is cautious, entering the village. She crouches in shrubs and hides behind trees. She knows an alone girl will not be treated kindly. She searches for a man who looks like the one Munchi-ji described.

She sees him. There. Squatting under the banyan tree, facing her. Her brother-in-law.

He has thick, oily, coal-black hair. A long, bumpy scar snakes from his bottom lip to his chin. He is not young but neither is he old. His bush-shirt is spotted with curry and his dhoti is stained with dust.

Then she notices the woman squatting in the dirt in front of the man. She is supporting her elbow with one hand, her forearm dangling at an unnatural angle. Her head is completely covered with her pallu, and she is talking to the man in a quiet whisper. Radha watches, wondering if her brother-in-law has taken another wife.

She picks up a small stone and throws it at him. She misses. The second time, she hits him in the thigh, but he merely flicks his hand, as if swatting away an insect. He is listening intently to the woman. Radha throws more pebbles, managing to hit him several times. At last, he lifts his head and looks around him.

Radha steps into the clearing so he can see her.

His eyes widen, as if he is looking at a ghost. He says, “Lakshmi?”



Jaipur, State of Rajasthan, India

November 15, 1955

Independence changed everything. Independence changed nothing. Eight years after the British left, we now had free government schools, running water and paved roads. But Jaipur still felt the same to me as it had ten years ago, the first time I stepped foot on its dusty soil. On the way to our first appointment of the morning, Malik and I nearly collided with a man carrying cement bags on his head when a bicycle cut between us. The cyclist, hugging a six-foot ladder under his arm, caused a horse carriage to sideswipe a pig, who ran squealing into a narrow alley. At one point, we stepped aside and waited for a raucous band of hijras to pass. The sari-clad, lipstick-wearing men were singing and dancing in front of a house to bless the birth of a baby boy. So accustomed were we to the odors of the city—cow dung, cooking fires, coconut hair oil, sandalwood incense and urine—that we barely noticed them.

What independence had changed was our people. You could see it in the way they stood, chests puffed, as if they could finally allow themselves to breathe. You saw it in the way they walked—purposefully, pridefully—to their temples. The way they haggled—more boldly than before—with the vendors in the bazaar.

Malik whistled for a tonga. He was a small boy, thin as a reed. His whistle, loud enough to be heard as far away as Bombay, always took me by surprise. He lifted our heavy tiffins into the horse carriage, and the tonga-walla begrudgingly took us the