When I first told Rakesh, a mehndiwala at Delhi’s Hanuman Mandir who has been plying his trade for 17 years, that I wanted to do his job for a day, he laughed out loud.
But when he figured I was being serious about the offer, he started trying to dissuade me: he’d apparently had no customers for almost a week. Once it sunk in that I wasn’t going to go away, he brightened up and said, “Well, at least you’ll learn a new skill.”
I needed a few hours of training the day before I went to my ‘new job’. I learnt a mehndi design for ‘Ek haath aur bel’ (design of a palm and a vine trellis).
A pack of street urchins that had milled around loudly whispered among themselves that I must have been learning this for a kitty party. Rakesh deftly drew down the design in my notebook for me to memorise.
Me, I failed in my art class from nursery through to seven. In Class VIII, the drawing teacher asked me to bring a book to read while he completed the lesson in my art book himself, because he was so ashamed of my lack of talent. My mother almost fell off her chair laughing.
But there was a job to do. So, on the appointed day, I sat at Rakesh’s stall calling out to passersby, “Didi, mehndi lagwaalo” — for about an hour before anyone showed any interest. How can people just walk past, ignoring you like you don’t even exist? Rakesh’s answer was a Hindi version of ‘Them’s the breaks’.
Then arrived my first ‘customer’, Meenu Rana, recently shifted to Delhi from Jaipur. When I explained that I was in training, she laughed and said, “Don’t worry, in Jaipur we do this at family functions all the time. Do whatever you want.”
Her son Siddharth and daughter Juhi sat patiently while I laboured over her hand. I charged her the standard fee: Rs 25.
A few minutes later, I realised I had been truly accepted by the community of street children. Aakash, a runaway child, plonked a pattal of puri and alu-subzi in front of me and said, “Didi, jaldi khao, customer aane se pehle (Eat before your next customer arrives).”
As I sharpened my skills on another street child, awaiting the next customer, Rakesh told me: “There is no fixed fee. You look at the customer and judge what they can pay… if they’re very poor, do it for free.”
Two college girls arrived. They wanted only as much mehndi as they could get for Rs 10. Rakesh and I got to squiggling circles and leaves on the girls’ outstretched palms. They left none the wiser about what I really do.
Then came the day’s big fish: two foreign tourists who were disappointed because all the other artistes wanted at least Rs 5,000.
“To Indians we say mehndi, to foreigners we say henna,” Rakesh quipped. Thrilled when I told them that I would do it for Rs 2,000, they got their hands and feet hennaed. In all fairness to myself, they were quite happy with my work.
A few customers and four hours later, a general warning shout went up: “Committee aa rahi hai.”
The local authorities periodically raid the area because the mehndiwalas and mehndiwalis are not supposed to be squatting there. In the rush that ensued ended my day as a mehndiwali.