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Mehndi--An Old Way to Connect with a New Me?

Mehndi--An Old Way to Connect with a New Me?

October 29, 2010

Mehndi--it's more than a pretty swirl or two.

I am impressed by tattoos. I’ve always been impressed by them--not the kanji, or the I Ching, or the the quotes so many people sport, but the detailed designs, the perfect balance between space and ink, found in mehndi, the henna that traditionally symbolizes a wedding. And yet, when I had my opportunity to get mehndi, I let it slide, mostly because Joe dislikes tattoos, and I didn’t want to start our marriage on the wrong foot.

Our wedding was not the first time I’d had mehndi. I helped apply it at my fuah’s wedding, and sported bright orange nails for months afterward--nails which almost landed me in detention several times, as my posh episcopalian school didn’t allow nail polish. For two weeks, I had to explain the cultural significance of my colored nails to teachers the school over while also assuring them that yes, I had tried nail polish remover and soaking my hands in dishwashing detergent.

At the time, I thought my teachers’ lack of knowledge about mehndi a one-off, something to laugh about. Yet later, when Joe and I were engaged, and during the planning for our wedding ceremonies, he expressed the same disdain for the practice--tattoos and body modification, aside from earrings, were outside his comfort zone. It took me weeks of sweetness--no small feat--to convince him mehndi was a necessary part of our wedding, and even then there were conditions. Only on his toenails; only in the palm of my hand, where it wouldn’t show in the pictures taken the following day, at our European ceremony. Then, it seemed like a little thing. In retrospect, I wish I’d fought a bit more.

Although I don’t think my choice to keep my mehndi simple makes me less of an Indian, I’m sorry I didn’t explain why it mattered to me. This is the bane of growing up mixed--words like “normal” and “expected” are two fold. Often, I find I don’t understand how much something matters to me until after the fact; I take my dual heritage and all that goes with it for granted. Years later--after finally getting mehndi a third time, at a small stall at an Oktoberfest celebration--I’m only just beginning to understand why mehndi matters.

It’s not exactly clear where mehndi originated, though there’s evidence Egypt’s pharaohs used it 5000 years ago. As a bridal ceremony, it seems to have begun in India and radiated outwards; mehndi is used at weddings as far afield as the Sudan. In some  countries, it’s used on any special occasion, including Diwali and after giving birth. It’s also used in some Jewish traditions. Styles vary regionally--some are very geometric, others use intricate scroll and flower work. Yet mehndi is an evolving art form, with new, contemporary and permanent tattoo styles, too.

Chatting with Neelam, the lady who did my Oktoberfest mehndi, I realized it was the mehndi’s historical connection I craved. As an adult with questionable Indian street cred, mehndi is something I can connect with, bond over. It doesn’t require fluent Hindi, or a darker skin; it’s not even a proper show of “Indianness”, since it’s culturally homeless, practiced outside of South Asia, in countries as far flung as Egypt and Morocco. Mehndi belongs to no Indian, yet all Indians; it’s 5000 (9000 according to one website) years of history are my history.

So I wish I’d fought, and gone all the way with my wedding mehndi. At least, I wish I’d been more articulate about why the ceremony mattered me, though I suspect that, even with a time machine and some killer flow charts, that’s impossible. I was born part Indian, yet I’m still growing into my Indianness, discovering it; nine years ago, even that seemingly simple statement was beyond me, partially because I spent so little time with Indians outside of my family, partially because I wasn’t ready to learn. And now? I intend to henna my hands for our anniversary, and maybe a few other special occasions too--I have 5000 years of history to add to.

1 Comment

  • Alfred Jones
    Alfred Jones
    02.11.10 04:52 AM
    What a refreshingly honest piece Peta (Mz Anderson?). Thank you for sharing this with us. Reading you brought up an interesting question: Is it better to accept symbols of cultural identity reflexively for what they are, arbitrary, but vital nonetheless? I'm not sure how I come down on that question. But my experience tells me one sane approach is to accept a custom or norm but to not put too fine a point on it. Like the last time my wife said I "had" to put on a kurta pajama for a Deepavali fete here in Wash DC. "But why?" I protested. "Because that's the done thing knucklehead, you have ten minutes!". It is so because it is so.

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