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The Time I Scolded the Henna-Wallah

Posted by on November 18, 2014

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.


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.



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.



Henna photo inception...

Mohit hard at work


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.



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.



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


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