Tag Archives: Bengali

Photographing Death

The Hand that Kills: The knife used for the “halal cut”

DISCLAIMER: Some of the images may be offensive or too graphic. Please view at your own discretion.

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 13th March 2012.

I am not the senti type. I don’t cry at movies. When I have friends sobbing, I pat them. Awkwardly. Once, when I was five, I watched a chicken being slaughtered. Without flinching. So, when I went to buy mutton at the local mutton shop last week, the severed head of a goat lying a few meters away from my face did nothing to deter me from peering at it, curious.

“Where do you kill your goats?” I ask the guy.

Young and dapper in his lungi, Nafeez says, “Why! Right here!”

Not having seen him do it even once in the past two and half months I have been here in Calcutta, I prod, “But when?”

“At around 6:30-7:00 ish in the morning.”

That explains why. I am never up that early, except when I am headed to the fish market.

Before I can curb my tongue, I ask, a trifle too eager, “Can I watch? I mean, can I photograph?”

He smiles, “Sure…”

I am not sure why I make the request. I am not even sure why I have this sudden morbid desire to photograph the last few moments of an animal’s death. But what I am most not sure about is why he doesn’t react negatively to my strange request.

I arrive early. The shop is yet to open. The streets are getting busy with people rushing to work or school. Some of them give me stares. Dressed in my pjs and a hoodie, with my camera bag on a weekday, I must be an uncommon sight. I ignore the white noise, waiting patiently for Nafeez.

But Nafeez doesn’t show. It’s past seven. Another guy, much older in appearance, shows up. I have seen him before. I assumed he was Nafeez’s father. Or, assistant. I watch him open the locks, and sweep the front. I ask him about Nafeez. He shakes his head and asks me to call him, offering a number. I feel awkward about calling my local butcher, so I decline, indicating that it’s okay, I will wait.

I wait. It’s almost 7:30. The sun is at a high. The traffic is worse. The number of staring people has increased. I can feel myself sweating under my hoodie. I curse myself. I should have never come on a weekday.

Finally, Nafeez shows up. Smiling, headphones plugged into his ears. He is unapologetic. Instead, he gets to work. Quick.

His shop, like most butchers’ shops, is raised at a height. What I didn’t know was that there is a reason for that height. The shop houses live goats underneath its floor. Nafeez removes one of the floorboards, indicating inside, “Are you sure you will get good photos while standing outside?”

I peer into the darkness, the bleating of the scared goats much clear now. I see two to three goats scurrying around in circles in the enclosed space. One of them sticks its head out of the gap and bleats frantically. I imagine it saying “help!” I want to feel bad, but I feel nothing. My head says it’s going to die anyway. Might as well document it.

“You are right,” I say instead, as I climb onto the shop floor, making room for myself in a corner.

Nafeez takes a small knife, and reaches for one of the goats. It escapes him. He quickly reaches for another, trapping it with his thigh. I watch, unable to click. In a few seconds, he has cut into the jugular.

It strikes me that this is what “halal cut” is. I watch the goat struggle briefly and then die a slow, silent death, as its blood forms a small pool at Nafeez’s feet. I click. And, click. And, click.

A customer, an upper middle class Bengali babu, waits outside, impatient to get some fresh meat.

To Nafeez (in Hindi), “How long will this take? Should I go to that other shop?”

To me (in Bengali), “So, what is that you want to gain from taking these photos?”

Before I can defend myself, Nafeez answers on my behalf, “It’s her pleasure.”

I shrug.

“I love taking photos. It’s a hobby,” I say.

Later, I ponder over his words. Was it my “pleasure” to watch this poor beast die? Was I a sadist?

Someone I once knew was excited about his trip to Barcelona. The first thing I had asked him though, was whether he was going to see the bullfights.

“Uh… I don’t think so. I don’t really like the gore,” had been his answer.

Well, I don’t know about the gore, I had said, but think about it. The poor thing is going to die anyway. Shouldn’t you honour its death with your presence?

We had laughed about it. Ha, ha.

Now, the joke is on me.

Laugh, why don’t you?

Update: All of the photos from this collection were accepted recently by two different magazines. While “Fasting and Feasting,” “Death and Dying” and “The Hand that Kills,” made it into scissors and spackle, “Leftovers” was taken by Carnival Magazine. Oh, and I gifted a framed copy of “The Hand that Kills” to Nafeez. He couldn’t stop grinning.

Death and Dying : Nafeez holds the goat down as it bleeds to death

Leftovers

Fasting and Feasting

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A Childhood Confession

Left on my own

 

An edited version was published by South Asian Parent on 9th May 2011.

I grew up with a nanny. She wasn’t exactly hired help. In reality, she was my father’s mashi (mother’s sister). I called her dida (grandmother). 

It did not start off as dida as my nanny. I was initially left at a crèche, but their callous ways of not having changed my nappy for hours horrified my parents into looking for other suitable caregivers. Many came in succession. There was this one woman who would tie me up to a table so that I wouldn’t crawl away. Let me tell you, that woman lost her job before she could blink and say “What the …?!”

Dida was a good option. She had taken care of my baba as a child. She loved spending time with me, despite my barbaric tantrums (another story for another day). My parents begged her to become my nanny.

So as the story goes, both my parents had demanding jobs. While my ma had an erratic schedule with her air hostess job at Indian Airlines (she would be gone for days, sometimes slipping away at 4 am in the morning for an early morning flight), my baba would toil away at an engineering firm in Calcutta until late in the evening. It was the late 80’s, and they wanted the best for their only child. I was often left alone with my dida and the maid servant.

 For the most part, I was a happy child. I was a popular kid at school, and had friends in our apartment building to distract myself with. I was pampered. Fed the best of everything to maintain my health (I was an underweight child). If I ever threw a tantrum and refused to eat, the maid and dida would get scolded. When baba went away on long tours across the globe, he always brought me the best of chocolates and toys. I remember when even before the hand held video games came to India, I had one at my disposal.

Once my sister was born (I was nearly six), Ma decided to get flexible hours. She gave up flying and became a ground staff, to be able to spend more time at home with her new baby.

I remember being faintly resentful that she spent all her time with my sister, who couldn’t even talk yet. Sometimes, I wondered why she had not done this when I was younger. I was jealously possessive of my mother’s time. But don’t get me wrong. She was an awesome mother. She would make time to sit with me and have inane conversations about my day. She would make me study under her supervision, especially Bengali, which I faltered at. Sometimes, she lost her temper because I couldn’t remember simple spellings. She would feed me herself on her off-days, and sometimes, we would watch a video together. Those are my happiest memories.

A snatched moment

The year I turned nine, baba was transferred to Dubai, and Ma decided to give up her job to come with us. Now, I always had Ma at home. When I woke up, it wasn’t the maid shaking me awake, but my mom. When I came home from school, there was a glass of sherbet waiting for me, made by ma. Life was what I had imagined it to be, having watched my friends and their housewife moms.

I wonder if as kids we ask too much of our parents. At nine, I did not know what a sacrifice it had been for my ma to give up her job. I had no idea how depressed she was in a new country, with no one to talk to. I suppose at some level, her guilt made her leave her job. I wonder if it would have been any different if she had always been a stay-at-home mom. I ask her often, why did you not spend more time with me when we were in Calcutta? Her answer never changes, “We wanted the best for you. Our jobs afforded a good life for you”. But why did you decide to change after my sister was born? She doesn’t answer that one. Instead, she deflects it by saying, “I am here now, naa?” I suppose I can understand that at some level. Yet, there are moments when I feel that I could have been happier with Ma by my side as a child. To have her croon me to sleep, as a baby.

Because isn’t that what parents are supposed to do? Especially mothers? Strangely, I never craved for my father’s time as much as I did hers, even though he was always busy or away as well. But my mother made up for than enough with her presence post age nine. I cannot remember not having my Ma around after moving to Dubai. Even now, she makes it a point to call me every day. I have to gently remind her that I am not a child anymore. But she prefers calling me to my sister. Or, so I would like to believe.

I don’t know if having had a nanny for the formative years of my life changed me for better or for worse. But I do know that if we had not left India when we did, I might have held a grudge all my life.

Photographs: Copyright Sanchari Sur

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Doing the Bharatnatyam to Jazz on the Hyphen

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 14th April 2011.

A better life and

all that jazz;

isn’t that why we come here,

crawling on all fours, begging

for that permanent resident card,

begging to be let in?

All that jazz is

                                    wondering

when all that jazz could become

learning to dance

to an erratic tune,

and making it your own. 

– “All that Jazz,” a poem in progress by yours truly

Every time I think about who I am and where I belong to, I always come up with a big, fat hyphen. On one side of the hyphen, it says Indian, and on the other side, Canadian. Yes, that’s my label: Indo-Canadian.

Labels are not easy to live with, especially hyphenated labels. There is a sense of disorientation when it comes to choosing one side or the other. There never is only one side. Parts of me are fragments of Indian-ness and Canadian-ness, with no clear lines that distinguish the two. I have to live a perpetual balancing act, careful to negotiate my space on this hyphen.

Imagine this. You are at a social function [in Canada]. You meet somebody new. And you get asked:

“Where are you from?”

“Canada”

“No, where are you really from?”

For me, it’s easy to point to my origins, being an immigrant myself. But I have a friend who was born and brought up here, whose parents were migrants from Pakistan, but who has never, ever in his life stepped outside of the borders of Canada. He cannot speak Hindi/Urdu, speaks with a thick Canadian accent, and indulges into all of the normal “Canadian” guy activities. Of course, he won’t watch baseball, but that’s just him.

It’s tricky, though, to decide what activities are strictly Canadian, and what are not. What/who is Canadian? Canada is an amalgamation of countless different cultures. To be Canadian, is not to be “white Caucasian”. In fact, Russell Peters’ proclamation that “white Canadians” are a minority is probably true! No, no. What Canada really is a “tossed salad,” with its July 1st (Canada Day) and O’Canada (national anthem). If you haven’t realised how problematic that image is, let me point it out. Even tossed salads have distinguishable borders.

So, yes, I understand, that it makes it easier (for you) to pin down a label onto someone you have just met. It’s easy to say, “oh, so-and-so is a South Indian, so she must be a vegetarian, or so-and-so is Russian, so he must love vodka!” But even with simple labels, there are problems. Some people contend themselves with a broad term, like immigrants, or South Asians. Both are like brand names that signify a separate category. Immigrant signifies newness or, the perpetual “other”. While South Asian signifies a marginal community; again, the “other”. Do you see how there is a tendency to separate “Canadians” from the mainstream by the virtue of their (our) labels?

And, what about those who have multiple identities? Like Canadian author, M.G.Vassanji, who is an Indian who lived in Kenya and now lives here in Canada. Or, Kwai Yun Li (author of The Palm Leaf Fan and other stories), who was a Chinese born in India, and then moved to Canada. How do we categorise them? Or, should we even attempt?

The Palm Leaf Fan and Other Stories by Kwai Yun Li

There’s more to somebody than where they are from. And belongingness cannot be narrowed down to one area or place; take me for example. I am from India, and I have lived in Dubai for nine years, and recently I became a Canadian citizen. I am not just Indian or Canadian. I am not completely any one of these things, because there is more to who I am and what I identify with. My cultural identity cannot be pinned down to a category or label. Labels are after all static; while one’s cultural identity is dynamic. It’s ever changing.

Let us again imagine a conversation I had with X. X represents all those people I came across over time (and still do) in Canada:

“From Calcutta? You are Bengali, right? So, you must love fish!”

Yes, I am a Bengali from Calcutta, but much of Calcutta is made up of non-Bengalis. Also, I don’t love fish, although I grew up eating it.

“You people love sweets!”

No, I don’t possess a sweet tooth.

“Rabindra sangeet?”

Puts me to sleep.

This imaginary conversation can go on, but why bother? All the stereotypes will fall flat on their faces.

What I want to point out is, our hyphenated labelled existences are expected. We are expected to respond positively to these kinds of annoying and ignorant statements.

How shall I put it? I am… me. I am able to sing the Indian National anthem without a fault, while I still fumble on “O Canada…”. Yet, I feel more comfortable on Queen Street in Toronto than at Chowringhee in Calcutta. So, what does that make me?

But don’t misunderstand me. I am not confused. I know who I am. But, I don’t see why I have to explain who I am to a stranger I just met. My identity is my own.

Let’s start over. Hi, I am Sanchari. I belong to me. What about you?

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Marriage Aaj Kal*: An Ultra-Feminist Take on Arranged Marriages

From the Kamasutra

*Today and Yesterday 

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 3rd March 2011.

Chanakya of the Mauryan dynasty, and a prime minister of his time, is said to have remarked, “A good wife is one who serves her husband in the morning like a mother, loves him in the day like a sister and pleases him like a prostitute in the night.” It’s impossible to confirm whether he actually said this, but it isn’t too difficult to imagine based on the time period he hailed from. What I find strange is that after all these centuries Indian men still harbor a similar attitude. This attitude can be traced to the Kamasutra as well that he allegedly wrote (many historians assert that Vatsyayana, author of the book, and Chanakya are the one and the same). As mistakenly understood by many, the book is not just about the art of making love, but also about the male art of making love to women without committing sin. According to the ancient text, it is perfectly ok to sleep with another woman if there is an ulterior motive involved. For example, in an English translation by Deepak Chopra, a rule states that: “I love another woman, who is this woman’s best friend. If I sleep with this woman, I can get to the one I really want.” Another example, “By winning this woman over, I can kill her husband, whose riches I covet”. Note that these rules apply only to men, and deem it tolerable to objectify women in order to satisfy personal again.

But I don’t want to refer to ancient texts (or their translations) to give you the picture of unrealistic expectations of Indian men. Gayatri Gopinath, a queer theorist of diaspora, in her article “Nostalgia, Desire, Diaspora: South Asian Sexualities in Motion”, points out that patriarchal attitudes of men towards women not only exist in the homeland (India), but also in the diaspora. The female gender is viewed as “the symbolic center … [for] … “home” and “family””, and heteronormative female sexuality can only exist “within the familial and domestic space”. Thus, it is acceptable to be sexual if you are married and only with your husband, while homosexuality is either criminalized or ignored. Gopinath cites a real-life example, where the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA) was denied the right to march in the Federation of Indian Associations (FIA) sponsored annual India Day Parade, in New York City, both in 1995 and 1996. Consequently, the FIA is run by a group of Indian immigrant businessmen.

All this only leads up to the question of ‘why’. Why would these men be so hind sighted to ignore that women nowadays are free, independent agencies, who are not confined to traditional gender roles whether in India, or outside of India? The only answer, in my opinion, is their false sense of entitlement. They appear to believe that they have this ancient right to have these equally ancient expectations. As the SALGA example would suggest, men outside the “homeland,” have been unable to evolve beyond their view of traditional gender roles, as applied to women back in the homeland. Maybe, it can also be attributed to parental and societal pressure that plants the seeds of such inane ideas into their heads at tender ages, so that they grow up having expectations that only become more traditional with time. For example, this summer, when I was in Calcutta, a neighbor subjected me to a volley of questions. She is currently on the prowl for a bride for her younger son (who never wants to leave India). Some of her questions were:

Do you know how to cook?
Don’t you want to settle in India?
Do you know how to wear a sari?

All her questions were addressed with a smile. It was as if she hoped I wouldn’t see through her façade of “innocent” questioning. Instead of being mortified, I was faintly amused. Really? Do I represent the ideal future daughter-in-law for your “modern” son, who also expects to have a very traditional wife at home (ironically, chosen by his mother. Really, you can’t get more traditional than this!)? I had some questions for her too: Does he know how to cook? Doesn’t he want to settle abroad? And, why on earth does he talk with that put on accent? It sounds neither British, nor American. Just an Indian trying very hard to sound “foreign”!

Source: Meera Sapra's blog at http://lifesacomicstrip.blogspot.com/

However, don’t castigate me yet. I don’t have a problem with arranged marriage. On the whole, I find the concept very gratifying. It’s really very similar to set up dating. You say ‘yes’, only if you feel you are compatible. Yet, with the unrealistic expectations of Indian males (and in this case, their mothers) all around, it’s difficult for us women to find someone to “live” with.

To assuage the attitude of men here in Canada, I had a discussion with some of my male friends on the topic of marriage and what kind of qualities do they want in their future wives.

“She must know how to cook!”
“She should keep the house nice and tidy.”
“She should be a virgin!”

I was faintly aghast at such pronouncements. These were Indo-Canadian men living here in Toronto for the past ten-twelve years. Were they actually hoping to find the “wife” described by Chanakya? The irony was that not all of them were virgins, and none of them had any experience with cooking or cleaning.

In the case of my parents, I believe they got lucky when they found each other. Their’s was a love marriage. And, even though, my father is not exactly the most liberal man alive, he definitely didn’t hope for the ideal Chanakyan wife. And, since my mom works hard at home, and at the office (she is my dad’s business partner and they work together), I can only imagine her staring scornfully at Chanakya, if he had made the mistake of making that comment in her presence.

In my case, I too have the image of an ideal man in my head. He may not be THE ideal man, but ideal enough for me. He would be someone: who looks decent (this might appear a little vain on my part, but if I had to choose between the frog and the prince, the frog would probably end up dead face down in a pond somewhere); can clean, if not cook; and has a tolerant nature, since I tend to get impatient and lazy at times. He need not be a virgin. Most people I know of my age, are not. He need not be super intelligent. However, I wouldn’t tolerate a super idiot. And definitely, he must not have too many unrealistic expectations of my abilities. I cannot speak for other women, but my girlfriends also harbor similar “attainable” attributes within their future spouses. Yes, I do believe that we are the more rational gender, but that’s my personal bias.

So, I ask you, where do we women expect to find our men? And, where and when exactly do these men of today expect to find their women? With distorted realities clashing into each other, the answers may be “in our imaginations” and “never”.

I think I have come to terms with that reality. The question is: have you?

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To Soumitra, With Love

Soumitra Chatterjee (left) and Sharmila Tagore in Apur Sansar (1959)

Soumitra Chatterjee. The love of my life. He is extremely dependable. All I have to do is pop in one of his dvds, and he is right there. The shy smile, the quiet assured voice, the idealistic drive to do the “right” thing—all of these make up the many reasons why it is Soumitra, and not Uttam Kumar (his contemporary and perhaps, more sought after in the black and white era of Bengali cinema), that I hunger after. His many characters are responsible for making me fall in love with him again and again when I spy them on my television screen:

Pratulya in Baksha Badal/The Suitcase Affair (1965)

Amal in Charulata/The Lonely Wife (1964)

Ashim in Aranyer Din Ratri/Days and Nights in the Forest (1970)

Apu in Apur Sansar/The World of Apu (1959)

 And, so on.

As you can see, my love for Soumitra extends to his image circa late 50’s, 60’s and 70’s black and white Bengali movies.

Baba says I will be single forever, as there is no Soumitra now. Don’t get me wrong. Soumitra still exists at the age of 76. Married to his wife, Deepa, for the past 51 years. But my Soumitra is unattainable. He only exists within the colourless world of Bengali movies. And, in my head, of course.

So, what is to be done with this unrequited love?

Nothing, except day dream. Women of all ages had their chance decades ago. Now, it’s my turn.

This is my miniscule tribute to Soumitra Chatterjee. If I am lucky, I will get a chance to interview him someday.

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Mom Says I have to Date a Brown Man

 

Source: Lovecrusader.com

 

An edited version was published by South Asian Generation Next on 10th February 2011.

The day my mother found out I was dating K.B., she threw a fit, “But he’s white!” It did not matter that he was well-read, funny, had a great job with a well-known pharmaceutical company, was a true gentleman and had never once tried to get me into bed. And, when the relationship fell through, she said, “It could have never worked. He was white.” That is not why we broke-up, I reminded her. Sure, I remember getting stares while walking with him, holding hands, but I think that was mostly because he was 6”1 and I reign under 5”. 

In retrospect, it was not his colour my mom was referring to, but to his culture. She always insists that I marry someone from an Indian background so that I can connect with him on different levels. Sure, K.B. loved Bollywood movies. We even went for Om Shanti Om. However, while I remember enjoying the movie, he was busy speed-reading the subtitles. And later, he complained of a headache as a result of his speed-reading. 

Tasnuva Rabiyat, however, does not believe that a cultural difference is the problem. She firmly believes “[t]he biggest problem is where we grew up and how we grew up rather than cultural”. According to her, environmental conditioning differs from person to person, and regardless of race and background, if two people hail from the same environmental conditioning, they have a better chance of having a successful relationship. Born in Bangladesh and brought up in Canada, Tasnuva has been dating her American boyfriend, Justin, of a Polish-Italian descent for the past two years. For her, the “biggest problem” she might face with Justin is that of political differences, “It’s not [a] problem between chicken curry and fried chicken… It’s really a problem with the environmental differences…He comes from a very conservative political family [and] I come from a very liberal brown family.”

Justin and Tasnuva

For Reshma Dhrodia, on the other hand, it was a difference between belief systems (of the parents) that created initial hesitance on both sides. A former Phd student at York University and the current chair of the collective board at Toronto Rape Crisis Center, she has been dating her boyfriend, Tony, of  North Korean descent, for the last two and a half years. She smiles as she reminisces over how they met, “[We met] on Lavalife!” I squeal with surprise, “No way! Does that even work?!” She laughs and reveals, “I joined because I was trying to get over some guy… He was the first Lavalife date I went on.”

Tony and Reshma

And, obviously it worked for both of them. But what about the parents? Reshma smiles and continues, “My mom was a little hesitant and then she met him and really, really liked him. Tony was more nervous about telling his parents because they are… also very, very Christian.” Being a former Ismaili Muslim, and now an atheist, this was more of an issue for Tony’s parents rather than Reshma’s race. “It took him a while to reveal that he was dating me. Since then I have met his mom and [s]he still wants to me to accept Jesus… and she wants us to pump out kids. But I have told her to hold her horses on that!”

Both Reshma and Tasnuva admit that there has been an integration of some sort of the two cultures. Reshma reveals, “The biggest part of our cultures that we have each latched onto is food. I make curry on a regular basis. I have grown to really like Korean food. I have got recipes from his mom… I really enjoy spending time with his family and friends, who are primarily Korean… When I get invitations to weddings, they include him. We even went to Gerrard [street]… and got him a kurta”.

Tasnuva also mentions spending family holidays with Justin’s family, “I have gone over to his place and spent American Thanksgiving with them. I have never done that before and it was amazing. And [I have spent] Christmas and Easter [with them]”. I note a slight tinge of regret in her voice when she adds “and I want [Justin] to experience Eid and Ramadan… and Bengali culture”. She divulges the dilemma of being a South Asian woman, “Initially [my parents] had concerns just like any parent would. In fact, if I was dating anyone from my own culture… they would still have a problem because that’s how parents are [but] he did a great job in showing them respect… There is a problem with my parents. [They are like] ‘what do we call him when he comes over? I cannot call him your boyfriend’. I understand the kind of mindset they come from, and I will not change that. I will respect that.  He will be exposed to [my culture] when we get married or engaged”.

 What stood out of both relationships was that it was the eventual acceptance of both sets of parents that allows for these relationships to flourish. Tasnuva sounds grateful when she mentions that “[My parents] have had a love marriage. They basically accepted it on the fact that [Justin] is a good person. My dad is a super liberal person. I really got lucky with that.” Reshma also echoes similar sentiments, “No one really has blinked at [Tony and me] because of our relationship and I feel fortunate to have experienced our relationship that way. There was really no drama… A little bit of resistance on his side but I think both of our sets of parents are really supportive because they see that we love each other, support each other and are good for each other.” She laughs and adds, “[And a] couple of times we get told that we would make beautiful babies!”

So, mom, I know you want the best for me and want me to be happy, but if I happen to fall in love with a man from a different cultural background, all I have to say is, “But we would make beautiful babies!” Atleast you can take comfort in good-looking grandchildren, if nothing else.

Update: I wrote this article back in June 2010. Since then my parents have modified their attitude towards who I date or end up with. In fact, being with a brown guy is not as much as the issue as being with someone who can make their daughter happy.

Photographs of the couples: Copyrights belong to the individual owners.

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Mehndi Madness: Indian Wedding outside India (Part 1 of 2)

Bride's Mehndi (Hands)

What is it with Indian women and mehndi? Is it the smell (not too bad when its wet, but let it dry, and it really stinks!)? Is it the gooey brown gunk-like texture? The designs that swirl from the plastic mehndi cone, and mesmerize those who are watching on? Or, is it just a stereotypical wedding madness that contributes to the mehndi madness? 

"I want some on my feet too!"

Traditionally, Bengali weddings do not have a henna/mehndi ceremony. However, going with the current trend in the West, where over-ritualization has somehow become an intricate part of simulating an Indian wedding outside of India, not having a mehndi ceremony is almost as sacrilegious as a Hindu slaughtering a cow. 

 

My own encounter with mehndi started in middle school back in Dubai, where I was surrounded by muslim girls, many of whom were (or at least, considered themselves to be) mehndi experts. I have had them work their magic on my hands, as well as, those of the other girls in my class. Watching those 12-13 year old girls deftly handle a mehndi cone to produce designs out of pure imagination was an act of sheer wonder. 

Henna Artist hard at work

Years later, I am here again, at a family friend’s wedding—at the mehndi ceremony. The henna design artist is a young girl who is a fourth year student at University of Toronto. I hear many sceptical exclaims (in hushed tones) around me: “She is the henna artist? So young?” The disbelief is ripe in their voices.

The aunties are silenced, however, once their eyes rest on the henna designs on the bride’s hands and feet.

Bride's Mehndi (Feet)

Soon there is a line of aunties and kids alike waiting to get their hands, feet, arms and (in one lone case) back painted.  The excitement is palpable. 

 

“How long will this last?” 

“How should I remove it once it dries? Should I wash?” 

“How can I make the colours come out darker?” 

There is a deluge of unstoppable questions, while some in their carelessness, end up smudging their designs while they are still wet. 

“Oh no, can you fix this again?” 

At first, I try to stay away.  Pretend to be unruffled. Yet, something magnetic pulls me towards the phenomenon. 

“Fine,” I admit it slowly. “Paint one hand only.”

Photographs: Copyright Sanchari Sur

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