Mehndi Magic at the Big, Fat Punjabi wedding . . .
I squat in front of the mehndi artist and extend my right palm. She shows me a dozen designs to choose from, and I pick an intricate paisley leaf, with spirals on the side. Within minutes, she's coaxed the dark-green mehndi color out of her plastic cone and on my outstretched palm much like squeezing icing onto a cake. She throws on some pink and turquoise glitter to match the lehnga I'm wearing. It looks pretty, but now I have to sit idly for at least an hour, giving the henna sufficient time to stain my palm. I'm not bothered though. I'm attending my cousin sister's wedding in India, and there're plenty of relatives I can talk to who'll help me pass the time.
Occasionally, a cousin appears magically with a small bowl of lemon juice and dabs a dipped cotton bowl over my painted palms, rendering them sticky and useless once again. This is a way to guarantee that the henna produces the coveted orange hue when washed off. Not that I care—I've been married for more years than I've been single. However, if the resulting color for the bride is not dark enough, there are whispers among the elders that the union might not be that strong. Of course, if the bride couldn't even produce a darker color of henna what is the guarantee of that union? Who can hope for the success of that relationship? What kind of offspring would such a marriage produce? Luckily, for the hapless bride, these days the mehndi artists are instructed to use the best mehndi in the market, the one guaranteed to produce good results so that fate can be relieved of delivering any unexpected messages through color.
I find that Westerners who know about Indian weddings only from movies, and folklore expect five-day feasts in which every invited guest takes a week off from work to enjoy intricate ceremonies involving choreographed elephants and ring-bearing monkeys. The reality is quite different. In modern India, the mehndi ceremony is a relaxed and intimate affair. Though open to both genders, the function is probably akin in its pampering and animated gossip to an American bridal party getting their hair and nails done. The bride and her closest friends and family sit on stools as young women hired for the occasion patiently squeeze henna into elaborate patterns on their arms. Female guests only get their palms done, but a bride's hand and feet are decorated nearly to her elbows and shins, like a lace glove, heightening her feminine appeal on her wedding night. The mehndiwalli also hides the groom's initials somewhere in the complicated web of drying dye which the groom has fun finding on the first night.
I look at the henna, a map of lines stretching across my palm. Could there be new fate lines, drawn to determine my future; these stylized shoots and twining flowers? I inhale the musky scent, draw it deep into my lungs and imagine myself in the midst of the peacock-and-parrot patterns, tendrils curling around my ankles, ferns reaching out to caress my face. Ah, what flights of fancy I may inhabit, even if momentary as long as the scent is still intoxicating . . .