The Time I Scolded the Henna-Wallah

When I’m in India, I generally try to keep my feistiness to myself. But when someone messes with my family, my calm and polite facade crumbles. This time, I was able to be Demure Indian Amelia for 4 whole days, until the Mehndi party.

Henna, or mehndi, is a paste that’s artfully applied to the palms, arms and feet of the bride and her wedding guests. The mehndi party was the first official event as the bridal henna is an important aspect of the bride’s appearance. On the day of the party, the living room was cleared of furniture, the patio was decorated and delicious dishes could be smelled wafting in from the kitchen. All was ready for a steady stream of female (and male) guests to have mehndi applied.

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As I stood watching the henna artists carefully drawing swirls and flowers onto Ellen’s arm, I heard raised voices inside. Curious, I entered the living room only to find Vasudha, my mother in law, and the Chief Henna Guy engaged in a lively discussion. I struggled to grasp what was being said, but I did understand enough to get the idea: Vasudha had specifically requested that the Chief Henna Guy do her design. He, apparently, had double booked himself and was leaving her bridal henna up to his Faithful Assistants.

Understandably, this caused no small amount of upset. I felt my cheeks warming as I looked from my agitated mother in law, to my distraught sister in law to the unperturbed Chief Henna Guy. I have a big mouth, especially when injustice is involved, and this guy was clearly pulling one over on us. I also have a hard time reigning it in when someone hurts My People, and this guy was letting down a tired and frazzled bride who happens to be my dear Vasudha. Heart thumping, I took a step toward the conversation and opened my (big) mouth.

I don’t remember exactly what I said, or at what volume, but it definitely involved the rebuke, “Your job is to make people happy with henna. Does this bride look happy to you?!” I launched into a mini-tirade about responsibility and keeping one’s word. It was all very culturally sensitive, of course.

Chief Henna Guy looked at me, his mouthed curved in amusement. A few more pleas and promises were thrown out, and he left. I curled my toes awkwardly on the marble floor, wondering if I was about to receive a Cultural Norms & Practices Lesson about white daughter in laws not berating henna-wallahs. Instead, Vasudha turned to me with a smile that spoke of sincere thanks.

We laughed, the stress of the moment melting away.

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As Chief Henna Guy promised, his Faithful Assistants worked diligently ornamenting Vasudha’s arms and legs with intricate curls, swirls and motifs. The result was amazing.

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Henna photo inception...

Mohit hard at work

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After getting thoroughly be-henna-ed myself, I hung about for the requisite 2 hours of drying. I blared my Super Awesome Sangeet Playlist. We practiced our dances. We itched each others’ noses and fed one another sweets (one does not bend one’s wrists while waiting for henna to dry). We were even slathered in lemon + sugar. Then we were slathered in pickle oil. Allegedly, this makes the henna darker and last longer. At the very least, it’s a great mosquito attraction.

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As the guests flitted about donning their drying henna, we recounted the Henna-Wallah Debacle with amusement. Only later did we learn that the Chief Henna Guy was not actually a henna artist–he was simply the sales guy! Why or how he came to promise to do the henna and didn’t confess to the mix-up was never explained. Thankfully, his Faithful Assistants were very skilled henna artists. For Vasudha and I, the drama added a little masala, an outlet for spunk, and an occasion for sisterly bonding.

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If you liked Mohit’s incredible photos, be sure to check out his website

 

Categories: confusion, family, india, manners, wedding | Leave a comment

Tragedy and Hope at the Wagah Border

Two weeks ago, Joanna and I went to the Wagah border ceremony on the border of India and Pakistan. Four days later, a suicide bomber killed 60+ spectators on the Pakistani side of the same ceremony.

DSC_0125When I heard the news, I was sipping chai with an Afghani neighbour, safely home in Canada. The Urdu words seemed scrambled, and my mind was unable, or unwilling to order them. Sadly, I looked to Varun for clarification. His wide eyes confirmed the story.

Could it be? The very same place we had sat, just days earlier? 60 people–killed? For what?! My heart reeled from the sadness and horror of it.

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After the wedding and Diwali celebrations fizzled out and everyone had returned to work and home, Joanna and I remained in India for one extra week. We scoured the guidebook for ideas and considered the suggestions of friends and Indian family. Finally, we made a plan that included an overnight trip to Amritsar, a city in Punjab, located north west of New Delhi. While planning the trip, my Mother in law suggested we attend the Wagah border ceremony. One glance in the guidebook told me this was a must-see:

Every afternoon, just before sunset, members of the Indian and Pakistani military meet at the border post between Attari and Wagah to engage in a 30-minute display of military showmanship that verges on pure theatre. Officially, the purpose of the ceremony is to lower the national flag and formally close the border for the night, but what actually occurs is a bizarre mix of formal marching, flag-folding, chest beating, forceful stomping and almost comical high-stepping, as the two sides try to outdo each other in pomp and circumstance. The oiled moustaches and over-the-top dress uniforms only add to the theatrical mood.

India: Lonely Planet (2013)

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To reach the border and seating area, attendees walk about 1 kilometre from the parking lot. Along the road are various security check points, intermingled with vendors selling popcorn, peanuts and children offering face paintings of Indian or Pakistani flags. As we walked, Joanna and I marvelled at the incredibly festive atmosphere.

We were shepherded to an enclosed section for foreigners and VIP’s. On the road below, women were dancing to the Bollywood music that blared from the speakers.

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As I scanned the crowd and craned my neck to see the Pakistani crowds across the gate, a lump caught in my throat. I blinked back tears, thinking about the significance of such a ceremony. While there’s much about history, religion, politics and international relations of which I’m ignorant, the crippled relationship between India and Pakistan has always struck me as that of estranged brothers. I was moved by the possibility that such a ceremony could even proceed between two countries who have experienced such hostility and violence.

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The bus from Delhi to Lahore passes through the gates to open the ceremony

Not everyone perceives the ceremony with such nostalgia, as it has been described as, “carefully choreographed contempt.” Perhaps this is so. As we sat in the fading sunlight, Joanna and I wrestled to understand the mood of the event. Attendees on both sides were lead in pro-country cheers, flags were waved and soldiers marched with gusto. On the one hand, nationalism was proudly promoted. On the other hand, as a foreigner and someone who understands very little culturally and linguistically, I almost wondered if the ceremony was done in good fun.

Whether a hostile festival or a ironic gesture of friendship, in the days following the attack officials in both India and Pakistan decided to hold the ceremony despite the attacks. A Pakistani general remarked that continuing to hold the ceremony, “proved that terrorists can’t break the morale and zeal of the nation” (BBC article). Perhaps, this gruesome tragedy can serve to unite two nations against terrorism, not one another.

The excitement and levity of the Wagah border ceremony stand juxtaposed to the seriousness of national security and long-standing hatred. In the same way, there’s an odd mixture of optimism and conviction in continuing to hold the ceremony after a targeted attack. Perhaps the glimmer of light lies in this apparent contradiction: somewhere between hope and danger, between enmity and festivity, a commonality can be forged between people, regardless of creed or citizenship.

Photo credit: NPR.org

Photo credit: NPR.org

Categories: india, international, travel | Leave a comment

Fun With Words, Hindi Edition

I love words: learning them, using them, mocking my husband when he misuses them…Which means that my time in India is a smorgasbord of new words to learn–an endless source of intrigue for me and entertainment for those around me.

As I slowly attempt to learn Hindi, what I lack in skill, I make up for in misplaced confidence. In other words, I have no problem practicing my (poor) Hindi whenever the opportunity arises. Which, apparently, is every day.

Throughout church I picked out words I thought were important

Throughout church I picked out words I thought were important

As I stumble through consonants foreign to my ears and tongue, I’m slowly understanding why Varun makes some of the funny mistakes and hilarious connections he does. As a second language learner, your brain is constantly attempting to file, connect and interpret. Sometimes, this makes for laughable moments….

When I hear a new word, it often reminds me of a Bollywood song that contains the same or similar words.

On Sunday evening, I learned the Hindi word  for “world”, which sounds very similar to another word I learned that evening, “coriander”. Unfortunately for me, “world”, “coriander” and “bride” are all on the same shelf in my brain: “Hindi Words With Du—-a”. I absentmindedly began singing a famous song from DDLJ, that exclaims that the brave-hearted man gets the bride. Except in my version, the brave-hearted man gets the coriander. And the world.

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One day, I was singing an old Hindi song, Mere Sapno Ki Rani, the chorus of which essentially says, “Queen of my dreams, when will you come?” However, to my English-speaking tongue, the word “come” emerges remarkably similar to the word “nanny”. As I sat brushing my hair and singing softly, Vasudha erupted into laughter to hear me singing a love song to the Nanny of my dreams….

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Perhaps the hardest part about learning Hindi is the preponderance of consonants that vary ever so slightly based on aspiration and the placement of one’s tongue. For example, there are two T sounds, two D sounds, two G’s….one simply starts with the tongue at the back and moves forward, aspirating or not…et voila, a string of varied consonants emerge. Except that I cannot hear the difference between most of them. And I’m hopeless at imitating the difference.

Me: (In Hindi) We would like to buy some tea leaves. (Tea leaves sounds like “chai putti”)

Shanti: HAHAHAHA

Me: ?

Shanti: Chai putti. Chai putti nahi. (“Chai putti. Not chai putti”). 

I met her eager gaze, eyes wide. She went on to explain that “putti” is husband and “putti” is leaves. Apparently, I had asked to buy “chai husband”. Whatever that is.

And yes, I wrote the distinctions the exact same way because to my ear, they are the same word. Looks like someone needs to get back to studying…

Part of my alphabet chart...

Part of my alphabet chart…

On our trek back from Rajasthan, my brand new brother-in-law Vishal and my dear husband heard my pleas and wrote out the Hindi alphabet. Except that as I looked at it, they informed me they hadn’t written the vowels. Those would come later. Oh, and by the way, there are half consonants. How many, you ask? Every letter has one.

HELP!

Categories: communication, Hindi, language | 1 Comment

A Small Diwali Surprise

I’ve finally surfaced from piles of saris, platefuls of butter chicken and hours of delightful Hinglish conversations with relatives. Post-wedding we enjoyed a whirlwind trip to Agra and Jaipur, and now we’re back in Delhi to celebrate Diwali. Speaking of Diwali, I have a small Diwali surprise to share with y’all…..

Miraculously, Varun and I completed our dance without tripping, falling or crying out in distress.

And, because long ago I decided to appease readers at the expense of my own dignity, I’ve uploaded Joanna and Ellen’s dance. Friends, these girls are awesome. The Sangeet guests kept praising my ‘cousin-sisters’ and their epic dance skills.

Some day soon I’ll collect wedding pictures and share them! But for now, grab some gulab jammun, light some diyas and have a happy Diwali!

Vasudha and Vishal steal a quiet moment at the Sangeet

Vasudha and Vishal steal a quiet moment at the Sangeet

Categories: celebrations, dancing, wedding | 4 Comments

Of Henna and Dancing

I have stepped out of my normal life and into a Bollywood movie: choreographed dance, henna, sparkling saris and the good-natured chaos of wedding celebrations.

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Since we arrived in India on Sunday, we’ve had the privilege of joining various wedding preparations and festivities for the upcoming marriage of Vasudha and Vishal. Vasudha, my dearly-beloved and artistic sister-in-law will be married tomorrow to her best friend, Vishal. I am so excited to see them wed and to gain a new brother-in-law!!!

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I know, they’re gorgeous and creative.

So here I am, sitting in new Delhi sipping my first cup of chai for the day, listening to negotiations in Hindi about how to arrange furniture before guests come.

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People often ask me if Indian weddings really are 5 days. I’m still not sure what the answer is, but I know that since Sunday the house has been full of delicious food, dancing and joy-filled guests. Yesterday was perhaps the first official day of the marriage with the Shogun and the Mehendi party.

Shogun, as I learned yesterday, is the last official meeting of the parents before the marriage. As such, Varun’s parents, his Aunt, and Varun and myself went to Vishal’s house for tea (and sweets!) with his parents, his aunt and sister. It was such a neat time to get to know Vasudha’s future in-laws and to practice Being A Good Indian Daughter-In-Law (hint: smile. drink chai and eat all sweets proffered. try not to say anything stupid).

In the afternoon, the mehendi wallas came, the couches were pushed outside and the real fun began. Henna is one of my favourite parts of Indian weddings. Traditionally, brides and their guests have their hands and feet decorated in flowers and designs with the cool, brown liquid before the wedding.

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Joanna and Ellen have proven to be enthusiastic additions to the Rana Wedding.

While the henna was drying (2 hours!), we ate sweets and practiced our dances. Yes, this trip to India includes choreographed song and dance. I am truly living the dream.

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Except that Varun and I are not the most talented dancers.

When Vasudha told us 3 months ago we’d have to dance at her Sangeet, Varun swore he’d rather wash her dishes for the rest of her life. If you know how Varun feels about dish washing, you know that is a very generous offer.

And so, without further ado, because it’s already going viral among the wedding guests, I’ll share with you my latest Instagram video hit. Wait for the end:

My Dancing Fail

(you may have to download the video or check your cookies/plug-ins. I have no idea what I’m saying.)

Here’s the instagram link….

v and a fail

Tonight, I’ll perform this dance in a long, heavy skirt covered in sequins, while wearing heels, in front of a room full of 150+ “close friends and family”. Thankfully, this family has already sworn their love and allegiance to me for life.

Categories: bollywood, celebrations, dancing, family, hilarious, Hindi, india, wedding | 1 Comment