i noticed that s.’s fingernails were half orange two days ago. i asked her about it and she pointed to the large bush growing outside. “henna plant.”
last night after we returned to the house after another long day of dusty travel, s.’s sweet face was beaming. as soon as we walked in the door, she held out the bowl of freshly crushed henna leaves mixed with buttermilk and spices. her eyes wide with excitement. it had been prepared for me.
the idea of these loving indian women preparing this for me was unreal. i didn’t know how to react, or what to ask, or what to expect. so i simply looked at the plate of henna closely, and i think i uttered a “wow, what a lovely color!” and i thanked her for preparing it. awkward and clumsy, as usual. (all of my los angeles sensibilities are useless in rural india.) but, i figured she’d tell me when it was time to apply it and what i'd need to do.
it’s funny…whether they gently tell me how to dress or when to sit or where to duck or watch my step, they have been taking such good care of me. i’ve never been so dependent on others but i’ve never had so many people constantly looking out for my well-being and comfort. and i never thought it would be so easy, so natural for me to submit myself completely to the care of someone else and trust them entirely to guide me. it’s humbling. independent, modern, american me. willingly, happily obeying. like a child.
they set up our dinner table on the roof of the house last night--surrounded by the top halves of banana trees with leaves moving to the usual warm breeze. we, the guests, were served first as usual, as the rest of the family stood by the table and watched us clumsily eat our rice and curries. this is always the most uncomfortable part of eating here. but eventually, everyone ate. some on the cement floor of the roof, using banana leaves as plates. eventually everyone’s hands were washed in basins with water poured from pitchers. and eventually the fathers went to bed.
when it was only a few of us remaining on the roof, s. brought the bowl of henna and sat me down next to the lamp. taking my hands in hers, she carefully molded thick clumps into a simple south indian design on my palms and fingertips. i don’t think i’ll ever forget that look of concentration on her face, even as she casually flipped her long, black braid of hair to her back every now and then. while she worked on my hands, her mother decorated my feet—a border around the edges and heels and a large, simple circle on the top of each foot.
d. was playing with my camera and took some photos of me. me with my hair tied back and disheveled, orange flowers from that morning hanging loosely, no make-up, the long scarf of my shalwaar dress falling off my shoulders. i felt oddly pretty, though. and despite my repeated objections, sm. and m. insisted on fanning me as the henna was being applied. it wasn’t a joke. it was very warm and humid. and it was a pure act of love.
one by one everyone wandered back downstairs to sleep except for s. and sm. we stayed awake and talked until the thick, wet, green mud had turned brown and dry. it took hours. then, finger by finger, my new sister and brother delicately scraped the henna off my hands and feet. this quiet ritual felt so personal. almost sacred. and what remained was a shockingly bright, lovely orange.
i looked closely at my palms and my pruned fingertips, now hardly recognizable. combined with hours-old mosquito repellent, it smelled deliciously earthy. sour and sweet. unlike any henna i have ever smelled before.
they examined the backs and fronts of my hands. “that’s a good color!” s. smiled a big smile, “it means you will have a good husband.” i smiled a big smile back at her and said, “good to know.” a smile showing all my teeth. and not even thinking about it. something i rarely do in los angeles. and i think it was at that moment that i realized how desperately i wanted the night to go on forever and ever…