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 Photo: Mihir Panchal
 Photo: Zoubin Zarin

India: Mehndi Girls
By Denise Reich

There’s a bronze statue of Shiva on the tall cabinet on the other side of the room. He’s beautiful and androgynous with flowing hair, a palm raised in benediction, and exquisitely sculpted lips curved in a slight smile.

I like Shiva. I like the statue of Shiva too. If I had the energy, I'd get up and have a closer look at him. The heat holds me back. My eyes sweep across the room to the other bodies sprawled out across the furniture, and I see that everyone else has the same idea. We're not going anywhere.

It’s evening, but the sun is still up. Golden rays catch on the brightly colored light bulbs hanging on strings outside the windows, illuminating them from the outside in. Ordinarily it would be beautiful, and ordinarily we'd probably want to hover along the windowsills and watch the sun set, but we're all so hot and sticky that we've been rendered catatonic. Some of us are slumped over the couch; some are draped across the chairs. I sit on the huge indoor sofa-swing that Nee’s grandparents have in the center of the parlor of their vast apartment gently propelling myself back and forth with my bare toes. The action makes me sweat even more, but the swinging is too much fun to keep still.

I'm in India for my best friend’s wedding. We're in Malad, a northern suburb of Mumbai, but I only know this because I've been told so. I've only been here for one night and one day, after all, so I haven't had time to learn very much. Yesterday morning I was on a plane; yesterday afternoon I was walking through Wat Pho in Bangkok, and now I'm honestly not sure which time zone I'm in. When Nee and her father collected me at the airport last night, it was late; as we sped along the crowded streets, the lights of the shops blurred before my eyes.

My lungs are still not accustomed to Mumbai air; it’s thick as soup and laced with diesel fumes. I've used my inhaler three times today already, and when I blow my nose, the tissues get sooty black. It is 42 degrees Celsius outside, which translates into something fairly ungodly in Fahrenheit, and it’s humid to boot. This morning Nee’s parents took us to the nearby beach where we dipped our feet in the Arabian Sea; it was too polluted to swim. The memory of the blue waves soothes me but makes the heat worse. In a day or so I won't notice it anymore. In fact, at the Garba tomorrow night I'll dance cheerfully for literally hours on end. For the moment, though, I'm fighting a strong desire to pass out.

There are preparations for the Garba and the wedding happening all through the apartment, so when the door opens and the artists strut in, I don't think anything of it. They're wearing beautiful Punjabi suits and heavy gold earrings; they hold long, flat makeup cases in their hands. They do not smile; the pleasantries they exchange with Savitri, Nee’s mother, are curt. It’s all business.

They're here, of course, to apply the mehndi, or henna, to the female members of the wedding party. Most specifically, they're here to work their magic on Nee, to paint the elaborate bridal mehndi that must cover her arms and legs. The only problem is that Nee doesn't happen to be in the flat at the moment. She’s on a shopping excursion with her fiancé and won't be back for a while. Nee’s mother apologetically explains the situation to the artists. They say nothing; they merely narrow their eyes and purse their lips. Even I can tell they're displeased. Savitri also sees the look and hastily tells them that they can start with the other ladies. This seems to appease them, and they nod and silently follow her into the depths of the apartment, makeup cases in tow.

The makeshift mehndi studio is set up in one of the larger bedrooms, one that is lush with marble floors and a balcony covered with plants. There’s no queue; there’s no order, and it’s glorious. If you want henna, you simply come in, sit down, and wait for the next artist to be available.

When the artist gets to me, she silently picks up one of my hands, turns it one way and then the other, takes a tube of henna, pauses, tilts my wrist to the side again, and begins to work. I know, without being asked, to keep my palm flexed and as still as possible.

There’s no plan; there’s no contemplation; the pen freely moves where it will. I watch, amazed as the curves begin to form shapes. Elaborate flowers blossom on my skin. Leaves snake across my wrist and settle on my forearm. Another artist, who has just finished with one of Nee’s cousins, settles down at my other side and starts working on my right hand. A paisley pattern blooms through the creases of my palm.

I'm not sure what they're doing, so I only know they're finished when they gently set my hands down and nod at me. “Thank you,” I say. The artists look up at me momentarily and nod before turning to the next guests.

When I walk out of the studio, my arms extended before me, one of Nee’s aunts herds me back toward the living room. I am admonished from doing anything that might disturb or smudge the henna. It will be hours before the color has properly soaked into the skin. My eyes widen. This mehndi business is much more serious than I had imagined.

Luckily, I am not alone in my captivity. Nima and Indu, who have already finished their sessions with the mehndi artists, are hanging out, comparing the brown swirls of color that dance across their skin. As the artists finish with the other women of the wedding party, young and old, they too amble into what has become the official henna recovery room.


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