I met my dear friend Vijay Chowdhary when I was in the fifth grade. My brother and I went to school with Vijay and his sister Renu. They were Marwaris originally from Rajasthan who had settled in Bengal and I quickly became fascinated with facets of their culture that were, up until then, unknown to me.
Bengali women in my family lined their heels with alta, a red dye that matched the traditional red bordered white saris they wore. But the women in Renu’s family adorned themselves with mehndi or henna.
On occasion, Renu’s mother would call upon mehndi artisans for a visit and I would tear away from home, running down the streets of New Alipur’s Block N to make sure I was included. The mehndi artisans were old Marwari women, their hands so crinkled and worn that the liquids involved in the process would trickle down the crevices of their skin like ancient rivers snaking from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal.
The women needed no tools. No brushes or tubes or pens or instruments used in modern-day beauty salons. They worked quickly and deftly with their fingers, applying the thicky, goopy paste made from a powder of dried henna leaves, lemon, tea, eucalyptus or nilgiri oil. It smelled heavenly.
The paste went on dark as they worked their magic on my hands. Intricate designs with paisleys, flowers, geometrics. I was mesmerized.
Renu and I hardly had the patience to sit for three hours for the mehndi to work its magic. But somehow we managed to keep still, applying a sugary concoction to make sure it didn’t dry and fall off our hands prematurely.
And then came the fun part. We scraped off the dried paste with butter knives and marveled at the burnt orange stains on our skin. My mother would get after me for not washing my hands properly for days after that — I wanted to preserve the henna as long as I possibly could.
These days, mehndi is everywhere in India. Everywhere here. You can find mehndi artists at craft fairs and salons. Was it Madonna who made the ancient Eastern practice trendy here? Or Gwen Stefani?
It’s so popular that you can get it done on the streets of Calcutta by village men who have decided to make a penny off the trend. So here I am in this photo, on the streets of Gariahat, Kolkata’s busiest Bengali shopping area, sitting on a cheap plastic stool on Rash Behari Avenue, getting my arms adorned.
I told Mr. Pal I had little time. “Ten minutes,” he said. “And one hundred rupees.”
He wanted extra for making it speedy. So I paid him what amounted to about $2, watched the world around me — and a whole new one emerging on my arms.