the art of henna…

 as a little girl
 my love for henna
 awakened me
 and all of my senses
 in a way that has never left me

 even now the smell takes me back to india
 on the floor at my nanaji’s (grandfather’s) flat
 surrounded by the women and other children of the house
 as they prepared the food, readied the house and bride for the wedding to come
 with spirited conversation, singing, and eating that only comes when women gather
 to participate in the celebration and ritual of henna
 as they embrace and let go of one of their own

 it is this feeling, i realize, that i look most forward to whenever i go back to india
 the feeling of being a part of something bigger than me
 a family bigger than i ever imagined,
 ancient rituals and art passed on for generations
 and the earth itself

 for the art of henna starts with the henna plant
 considered auspicious
 the leaves of the plant are ground into a fine powder,
 which is mixed with water, made into a paste, and then applied with an artistry and beauty that still mesmerizes me

 as i boarded the train from the gateway of india to santa cruz
for my first class with zarna, who was to be my teacher for the next two weeks
 i work hard to quiet my nerves as my family’s concerns about me commuting alone
 invade my head and
 the “what if’s” start

 “what if” i am not good enough
 “what if” the art form i so admire eluded me
 “what if”

 but as the train pulled out of the station,
 and the streets, smells, and people of mumbai passed me by
 i felt exhilarated
 i did it
 i was here in mumbai
 on my own
 and about to completely immerse myself in my art
 and in so doing, my roots

 zarna lives in the same ‘suburb’ as my family
 in a building similar to theirs
 concrete, broken down and dirty on the outside
 but painted with color by the laundry hung out to dry
with narrow, dark stairwells and windows that let in very little light,
 protecting residents and visitors from the often oppressive heat of india

 as i climbed the stairs
 i realize that for the next two weeks
 i will become a part of her daily routine
in the home she has grown up in

 she invited me in
 her mother offered me chai
 we sat cross-legged on the couch in their living room
 and we began

 with a hand-made henna cone
 and a board to practice on
 i shyly put cone to board
 and draw a straight line as she instructed

 almost immediately she stopped me
 it was all wrong
 the way i was holding the cone
 the thickness of the henna
 the line itself

 so i spent the whole first day drawing mostly lines
 letting go of my pride and
 everything i thought i knew
 about the practice of henna
 to start over

 we spent the next two weeks
 progressing from lines, to circles, to shapes and shading
 she imparted her skills and knowledge about
 the different styles of henna—indian, arabic, and rose
 all the while sharing personal stories
 her joys—she was to be married
 her grief—for the loss of her brother
 and many other details of her life

 we had conversations leaning over the balcony
 as she collected mail from a bucket attached to a make-shift pulley

 we spent time in the kitchen
mixing the paste
 adding eucalyptus and clove oil
 and making the cone

 she shared her sketchbooks
 her mother’s hand-made jewelry
 her dreams

 it is this intimacy
 that i now realize made
 this experience even more profound

 it was a gift
 to practice and explore this art that i have loved
 since i was a little girl
 to better understand and appreciate its nuances, complexities and hidden secrets

 and to feel so connected to the women who came before me
 and the ones now
 who continue to
 honor it
 perfect it
 make it their own
 pass it on

 and now as i reflect on my time in mumbai
 in zarna’s home, learning and practicing
 i am profoundly grateful for the art of henna

 it is my east meets west
 a visual representation of my life story
 one that reminds me that i am not alone
 that we are all connected
 to the earth,
 our past,
 our ancestors and
 each other