Destinations Magazine

Mehndi By Mandha

By Colleen Brynn @ColleenBrynn

The soft and sweet-spicy smell of the henna floated up to my nose. Her baby suckled away underneath the folds of her sari. Every now and then, she would look up at me with her misaligned eyes and smile, asking “This nice?” Each time, I would smile back and say, “Yes.” The 2 cones we bought together cost me 20 rupees, less than 50 Canadian cents. Mandha, the young mother who diligently squeezed henna from the green cone, toiled for hours, yet refused any form of payment. I was told not to give money (because money can be misused or taken away by a husband or family member) but to give something tangible for her personal use. I offered to buy her bindis when she touched the hanging selection beside the henna cones at the shop. She refused. She delicately thumbed the bracelets on the counter and refused those too.  So we sat in silence, our languages not intersecting, while her two children punctuated the experience with shouts and screams and giggles and curious touching at the dried henna. 


At the beginning of each tube, with a freshly snipped point, the henna would rush out in worm-like ejections. Mandha would swipe away the henna and rub it in her children’s hair, in her hair, or on her sari. While she drew on my skin, she would reach the tip back behind her head and put the tip of the cone in her hair and scratch to remove the excess. I observed how this scratching gave her a pensive demeanor, as if each time she scratched, she was thinking of her next move.

She had never done mehndi for anyone before, certainly not for anyone outside her family and definitely not for one of the foreign volunteers. Upon close inspection of her work, where she grew tired is evident, but where she was careful is just as obvious. It was a special experience for both of us, and the other mothers at the school made sure to check in on us from time to time to see how the designs were developing, to offer input, or to drizzle sugar water on the dried henna.

This was something I wanted to have done before I leave on Saturday, as a symbol of my time here and as a small souvenir while I travel around. The mehndi is by no means professionally done, but it is a beautiful reminder to me and will be a great conversation starter for the days while the stain remains on my skin.

Once my mehndi was complete, I went on a very special trip to the slum of Juhu, where many of my students reside. This is an opportunity all of the volunteers who come here have but only takes place after at least 2 weeks of volunteering. Visiting a slum takes on an entirely different meaning when one knows the residents of the slum, and the children especially. What surprised me most about my visit there was that I wasn’t upset by the conditions, that I wasn’t brought to tears and that I didn’t leave distraught. I think this speaks to what has become normal to me while I’ve been here, and comparing my thoughts at the beginning of my stay to my current thoughts is astounding.  This visit to the slum was a very special one for me, one that deserves a post entirely to itself, so I will leave this here for now…

This will be my last post from Mumbai before I take off on Saturday. I’m leaving with feelings of sadness and relief, hope and happiness, anticipation and resolve. The next month, and certainly the rest of the year, is going to be good.


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