mehndi! (or, i might have stumbled on a new annual tradition)


So last year, when I was trying to figure out what I was going to do for myself for my birthday, I was toying with the idea of getting a tattoo.  I don't have any tattoos, and it seemed like 45 was the perfect age to get one.  Something small and tasteful, I thought. Something simple, like the words "look for the light" in small script on the inside of my left wrist.

I mentioned my plans to Alex. 

"What? No."  Her eyes filled with sudden tears.  

I was shocked.  "Wait, why?  It'll be cute!  Just a tiny one, right here!" I pointed to my wrist. 

"Mom, no.  A permanent tattoo?  No." 

"I thought you'd approve!  Just a little ..." 

She composed herself, and looked at me coolly. 

"Mom, NO.  In fact," she inhaled deeply, "I forbid it." 

"You forbid it?  HOLD UP, Miss Missy."  I leveled my eyes at her.  "You seem to forget I'm the mom in this relationship.  You cannot forbid me."

She was undeterred.  Her voice remained calm, stoic.  "I forbid it."


I am not in the habit of having my daughter put her foot down with me, so while the Trini part of me was itching to give her a good lesson on what happens when little girls disrespect their elders, the rest of me was thinking that surely she's not crazy enough to tell me she forbids something unless it's really, really important to her.  So I reconsidered and decided against the tattoo. 

(Luckily, the camera I had ordered showed up on my birthday, so in the end, it didn't feel like I gave up too much.  In fact, I haven't seriously considered getting a tattoo since.) 

Then a couple of months ago, toward the end of the school year, I was picking up Alex after school, and noticed she had the shape of the sun on the back of her hand.  At first I thought she had taken a brown marker and drawn on herself, but then I realized what it was. 

"Alex, is that henna on your hand?" 

"Oh," she glanced at her hand.  "Yeah.  It's called a mehndi.  We were learning about India today in school." 

"Did someone come in and actually draw it on you?"

"Yes, one of the moms.  She's from India.  We all got one." 

"Yeah, they do them in Trinidad, too.  All the Hindu brides get them."  And then suddenly, that's when I knew.  "You, know, Alex, it's really beautiful.  I think I'm going to get a really fancy one for my birthday this year."  I narrowed my eyes.  "I don't supposed I could get your permission to have one, could I?"

She grinned.  "Of course you can.  Mehndis aren't permanent.  So yes, you may." 

So, it was settled.  As my birthday approached, I started Googling for henna tattoo artists in Houston.  While I'd had small henna tattoos before, I knew that for this birthday, I wanted the real deal:  someone who really knew what she was doing, a person to whom all the Indian brides who wanted henna tattoos in Houston would naturally turn for their big days.  

And that's how I found Soniya. 


Soniya is the owner and artist of The Original Henna Company,  in the Heights area of Houston.  Her space is located in a small bungalow, and when I entered I was surrounded by beautiful Indian art (some of them imported, some of them Soniya originals), jewelry and clothing.  There was Indian music playing on the sound system, and and Soniya greeted me with a wide smile.   She sat me down on a bench covered in Indian fabrics, and propped my left arm and elbow up with cushions.

"Are you ready?" she asked. 

"Then let's get to work." 



Using a tube that looked a lot like the one a cake decorator might use to ice a cake, Soniya began squeezing the henna out of the cone into really intricate designs on my arm.   She worked quickly, and I watched, astounded, as detailed paisleys and flowers appeared with just a few seemingly simple strokes. 

And as she worked, we talked.  I learned that Soniya was a scientist in Houston's Medical Center before deciding to follow in her mother's and grandmother's footsteps and become a henna artist.  Her work tends to be more contemporary, combining both Indian and Arab designs, while her mother's is more traditional.  

And as we talked, she worked. 


Not to get all woo-woo about it, but I'd like to go on record as saying there is something deeply nurturing about having someone make beautiful art on your skin (particularly when there are no needles -- or, you know, pain -- involved).   Watching her quickly make the gorgeous petals and swirls was downright hypnotic.


The design continued to become more and more detailed, on both the front and back of my arm and hand.  

I began to worry.  

"You know, Soniya," I said, "I've gotten small henna designs before, and they never last more than a day or two." 

"What?  They should last 2 weeks!" 

"I know, that's what they say, but they never do." 

"Okay, don't worry, I have just the thing." 

After she added the finishing touches to my fingers, she disappeared into a back room.


When she returned, she was stirring a small bowl with some liquid in it.   

"What's that?" 

"It's a mixture of sugar and lime juice," she answered, still stirring.  "This will make sure that the henna stays on your arm as long as possible." 

As the henna began drying and oxidizing into a dark black colour, she gently dabbed on the sugar/lime mixture on the design.  

"Now," she continued.  "Keep this on as long as possible -- for at least 5 hours or so.  Then when you get home, scrape the henna off with a credit card, and slather on some Vicks." 


"Yup.  And no showering for at least 24 hours.  Then you should be fine." 

I thanked her profusely, paid her and drove home, one-handed. 



Five hours later, the now-flaking henna was starting to itch a bit, and beginning to peel off.  So I got my credit card (actually, my minister's card -- I knew  that thing would come in handy), and began to scrape the henna off of my arm and hand, revealing the orange pattern underneath.  Then, per Soniya's instructions, I slathered on Vicks.  A lot  of Vicks.

My arm looked beautiful, but I smelled like the flu. 

The next day, however, the art had darkened, and it looked exactly as I'd hoped.


I've been taking really good care of it, and as of today, it still looks great.  And honestly, I think I'm going to make a yearly habit of this.  Aside from being very pretty and an exceedingly pleasant way to spend an hour, it's a wonderful birthday reminder to really enjoy the skin I was born in, you know?   

Besides, I suspect I'm never going to get a real tattoo.  

Alex is scary when she wants to be.