It had been five hours and her 20-year-old body ached for being seated in the same position. Their heads bowed, two henna artists held her hands and feet daintily as they went about their jobs, adorning her with the colour of matrimony. The winter Delhi sun tanned her lovingly, and she regretted wearing a red sweater she could now not remove for fear of ruining the henna designs creeping steadily up her arms and legs.
She was slowly, surely, being tied up. In intangible chains of social codes. In an express train headed to a land of grief. Into her seat on flight Heartbreak.
Later, the mehendi artists worked on her sisters and sisters-in-law — a day’s work for which they would charge her parents Rs 12,000. She danced to the bhangra music along with the rest of her clan, her arms carefully lifted up in the air to avoid accidents, her jeans rolled up to the knees. She refused food, stayed away from even a drop of water on her palms, willed the henna to release its reddest shade onto her soft, fair palms. When night descended with its stern chill, she warmed her hands over the heater, wetted it with lemon and sugar, brushed it with sesame oil, used plastic bags to tie up her palms stiff with staying open all day, and slept a fitful night. She could not turn for fear of ruining the mehendi. She could not sleep for fear of what would happen the next morning — would the colour be dark, and announce to all the love of her groom who would bed her two nights later? Or would it be pale, and announce the failure of the marriage even before it began?
The olive green of the henna gave way to a lazy orange on her skin the next morning. An indifferent colour, it hadn’t tried very hard, despite having stayed on for almost 18 hours. She was sorely disappointed. Even when it turned a more respectable shade of rust by the time her nuptials came around a day later, she was distraught in her heart. “Don’t be superstitious,” her cousins and aunts told her. “You have soft hands, so the colour couldn’t hold. It happens. Don’t take it to heart. All these are blind beliefs, there is no truth to it.”
The colour didn’t hold — even 10 years into her marriage, the mehendi never grew dark on her palms. Every year, she tried. Every year, she was disappointed.
The marriage didn’t last either. She didn’t apply henna for eight years after her separation. It came to represent mixed feelings for her. She loved the sickly sweet fragrance of it, but she realised it was just not meant to be. She had soft hands. The colour refused to hold. It happens, she told herself. Don’t take it to heart. You don’t really need it anyway.
Then her second wedding rolled around. She was 38, she had grown kids. There was none of the drama of the first wedding, none of the sense of being princess for a day. Everything was practical, even her reason to get into a second marriage at all (“I want to save on rent”). It was to be a simple temple ceremony, no witnesses other than her immediate family, no dowry being offered on gilded trays, no shehnais, no bhangra, no sweetmeats save the one the newlyweds put into each other’s mouths after the deed was done. In the run-up to the wedding, there was no sense of impending change. There was no expectation, no fear. Not about him, not about her.
Three days before tying the knot, she thought, “I want mehendi; it’s been a long time.” But there wasn’t any time, there was housework to be done and guests to entertain. Even so, a night before D-day, she went to RK Puram market and asked a mehendi-wala on the side of the street there to come home and put mehendi for her. He said he would charge Rs 100. She said okay.
He didn’t turn up. He sent his 14-year-old apprentice instead. She was hesitant, and turned the boy away. Then she looked at the clock and realised it was getting late and she didn’t have time to wait for the senior fellow to show up. So she got her domestic help to holler to the boy from the window; he was just leaving on his bicycle; they gestured at him to come back up.
She changed into a comfortable cotton nightgown, sat down leisurely on her sofa in the living room. Over the next hour, the boy with the funky hair applied a decent design on her palms, watching the Hindi thriller 1920 on her television from the corner of his eye. She was bored, but it wasn’t so bad. She gave instructions to the help, to the kids, while the boy laboured away. Then she fed him a hearty meal; he wolfed it down, his eyes glued to the TV. He took his Rs 100 and left.
There was no lemon at home, so she couldn’t enhance the colour. Heeding her daughter’s advice, she wrapped her hands in cloth bags instead of plastic (noiseless solution), and tried to sleep. It was a fitful night — she was irritated by the bags, and her mind whirred with work to be done the next day. She woke at five and scratched the henna off, applying Vicks as the boy had advised. Then she forced herself back to sleep for a short while — she had to collect her daughter’s new term books and uniform the same morning, and then get dressed for her afternoon wedding. There was no time to waste on mehendi care.
When she took bath later, she noticed the colour distractedly — it was bright orange, a happy shade. “I guess that’s the best my hands can do; I’d just kept it for a few hours anyway,” she consoled herself, and went about sweating it out in school queues in the warm spring sun.
But by afternoon, the colour changed to rust, and by evening, it had turned a lush brown.
She stared at her hands in awe as her beautician did up her hair for the reception dinner. The colour got darker every passing hour. The morning after her wedding, it blushed heartily of unspoken desires and released relief. “What a lovely colour,” her friends crooned. She smiled down at her hands in a sense of marvel and possession. A sense of having achieved the unexpected. A sense of gratitude, pleasure, delight.
Don’t be superstitious, she reminded herself. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just an old wives’ tale. It was probably the Vicks.
Still, it was beautiful.
Nah, it was probably the Vicks.