Festive Season – The Orange Mehndi

The Orange mehndi

We’ve heard of mehndi for weddings. Did you know that in many parts of North India, mehndi is a big part of Raksha Bandhan preparation?And if the mehndi comes out a dark red on the back of your hand, your brother loves you very much! In today’s story, Anju, a little girl sees that her mehndi is more orangish and is heart broken. But then, something happens to show her that it is not the colour of the mehndi that tells her how much her brother loves her!

The Orange Mehndi

I must hurry home,’ I said to myself and tucked the box under my arm. I had dropped off my school bag and gone straight to Sheela’s house to pick mehendi leaves from her garden. It takes time to clean out the little twigs and collect only the small oval leaves. The streets were busy as people rushed to prepare for Raksha Bandhan. “There is so much to do!” I thought. I must grind the mehendi leaves into a paste, complete my homework and other chores, help Ma make the jalebis, eat dinner and be ready to apply mehendi. Bhaia better give me lots of money. I smiled, thinking about Bhaia. He was my partner in crime.

I wove through the crowds in the market and turned into our street. “Arre! Where’s Didi? She isn’t waiting by the door!” I pushed the door open. Inside, the house was so cool and pleasant. The sweet smell of cardamom filled the room. I slammed the box on the table and ran to the kitchen. “Hey, you’ve started frying the jalebis without me!” SSSSSS, the hot oil sizzled as Ma poured circles of batter into it. Didi stood on the other side, fishing sweet sticky jalebis from the sugar syrup. They both looked up.

“Chal! We had to start so that we’ll be finished in time for this evening. Go grind the leaves and finish your chores.” Who can argue with Ma’s tone?

“Please, can I have one?” I stuck my hand out.

“Tomorrow!” Ma patted my hand away.

I went out to collect the box of mehendi leaves. Bhaia was holding it. “Hey, swipe one of those jalebis for me, and I’ll give you back your box!” he challenged me. “Bah! TOMORROW!” I stuck my tongue out, grabbed the box, and ran to the back, screaming, “MAAAAA!”

“ARJUN! TOMORROW!” Ma shook a long-handled chammach at my brother. He grinned at me and left. I washed the leaves and put them on the flat grinding stone. With each roll of the rock, my thoughts wandered. All the girls and aunties will be there to apply mehendi. Did they all make jalebis too? Bhaia and I were of one mind here. No matter what other sweets there are for Raksha Bandhan, the jalebi is the most important, the queen of sweets!

“Arre, Add more water, na?” Didi called out from the kitchen window, interrupting my pleasant daydreams. I looked at the stone. The leaves were crushed but not yet a paste. Swish, Swish, Swish! I used a spoon to mix the leaves and sprinkled some water. Now I put all my effort into the grinding.

“Didi, look. Is this alright?” I asked as I held out the bowl of paste. She scooped some in with her fingers and rubbed it.

‘Ya, ya! This is good. Go finish your homework, and you can help me make the cones,” She nodded and went back to help in the kitchen.

“I don’t know why we have homework before festivals. Don’t they realize that there is so much to do?” I grumbled as I stared at the numbers on the page. That’s when Bhaia walked in. “But there’s no way you can apply the mehendi now. If you want a deep red color, the paste has to sit for a few hours. Come on, we’ll work together.” He sat with his books next to me, and I grudgingly finished the sums. “Do you have enough money saved up to give me tomorrow?” I asked him. “Hoy! Raksha bandhan is all about the money for you, isn’t it?” He teased. “But we’re doing all this for you, na? ” I didn’t back down. “Why are you two glaring at each other like two enemy commanders?” Didi walked in and dumped the dry clothes on the charpai. “Chalo, fold these and put them away. Then we can make the mehendi cones,” she ordered and left the room. “Bhaia, you should help!” I protested. “No! Didi told you to fold because YOU are going to make the cones. Not me!” I was still scowling when I went to get  Didi in the kitchen.  

Didi had saved the empty milk sachets. She brought those out with some tape and scissors. I watched her cut the plastic bags and roll them into a cone. She turned up the cone to check the size of the hole and pulled the flap some more. Then I cut out a piece of cello tape and put it across to hold the cone tight. I put more tape until Didi said to stop.

Ma came into the room. “Did you know, when we were kids, we used to dip a thin stick into the paste and draw designs?” she said. “It took the longest time to cover the whole hand, and the lines were not always so smooth!”

After dinner, the three of us hurried to Bhua’s house. My friends will be there. But then so will Didi’s and Ma’s friends! The night before Raksha bandhan was always so thrilling because it was a chance for us girls to stay up late into the night. No one will rush me to bed!

There was already a crowd in my Bhua’s house. Groups of women, young and old, were sitting in circles, one drawing the design on the other’s hand. One girl lay on the floor, chin in her hands, and another sat with a book, all waiting for their turn.

The room buzzed with noise as people sang, laughed, and shouted. I looked around, found my friend Sonu and went straight to her. “Aah, Anju, she’s been waiting for you,” Chachi welcomed me with a smile.

“What is she doing?” I pointed. One of the Didis dipped a cloth in oil and dabbed it on the mehendi design. “Oh, she’s making sure it’ll turn dark. She wants to know if she’ll get a husband who’ll love her a lot,” the others teased her. “You are too young for that, Chotu,” Chachi’s eyes twinkled.

‘Ha! I’m not interested!” I made a face.

“Well, tell you what! If the design on the back of your hand gets dark, it means your brother loves you a lot! Isn’t that what you want for Rakshabandhan?”

Hmmm! After this afternoon, I wasn’t so sure. I did love my bhaia a lot. Did he love me? He did save sweets for me and help me with my homework. But I don’t know….

Soon, someone brought out cups of chai. Can you believe it? Chai at night? Sonu and I slurped it all up and waited for our turn.

“Wake up, sleepy head,” My body rolled as Didi shook me. I sat up, rubbing my eyes. My hand felt rough. I stared at it. Oh! My mehendi! Bits and pieces were missing. I looked up at my sister.
“Don’t you remember? We were at Bhua’s house until midnight. You didn’t want to leave until we were all done.”

I nodded as it came back to me.

“Go shower. Everyone will be here soon to tie rakhi.” Didi helped me get up and cleaned the dried mehendi bits off the floor.

I grabbed my clothes and ran to the bathroom.

When I came out, the room had been cleaned and swept. But when I heard a “Ha bhaia” in Bhua’s voice, I knew I had to get dressed quickly. I wore the new clothes and slid my hands into the bangle. And stopped! My hands! The mehendi on the back of my hand was so light! What had they said last night? If your brother truly loves you, the design on the back of your hand will be dark red! But mine was orange!

My eyes welled up, and I sat down.

“Anju! Anju! Are you ready?” Didi called out. I opened the door.

“Arre? What is the matter?” she hugged me tight.

“Didi, look!” I flashed the back of my hands at her.

“Yes…” she looked carefully at my designs. “Are you hurt?” she turned my hands over.

“No, look! The design…it is orange! It is not red! They said if bhaia really loves me, it will turn red. I even wash his clothes for him,” I wailed.

‘Arre,” Didi wrapped her arms around me again. Then she wiped my tears and said, “Come. It is time for the tikka.” Both of us went in search of the others.

Bhua began the ceremony by putting a tikka on Papa and tied the rakhi. She fed him a jalebi.

When it was my turn, I sat in front of my brother.

“Hey, why are your eyes red?” he whispered.

I shook my head and put a tikka on his forehead. I tied the rakhi I’d made and fed him the jalebi. As always, bhaia broke his jalebi into two and handed it to me. I took it but did not smile.

Then Bhaia gave me Rs. 11. I took it and hid it safely in my purse.

The events of that Raksha Bandhan morning were a haze. After lunch, guests dropped in, admiring our mehendi, the dresses, and sweets. They asked us what we would do with the money bhaia gave me. I pretended to think about it and walked away.

When everyone left, we had to finish our chores. Didi was in the kitchen, and I cleaned the rooms. Then I went to the back to wash the clothes and stopped. There was Bhaia, spreading my school uniform on the clothesline and straightening the wrinkles. I watched him go around, clipping the clothes so the breeze didn’t pull them off the line.

Something clicked in my head. “Bhaia,” I yelled and ran to him. He squinted his eyes in the bright afternoon light. I hugged him tight.

“Happy Raksha Bandhan, Bhaia!” I wished him.

“I thought you’d be tired after a late night and all the work this morning,” his fingers played drums on my head.

It was a great Raksha Bandhan, I tell you!

Click here for more on Raksha Bandhan and mehndi:


Raksha Bandhan – Building a Family

Festive Season – The Orange Mehndi

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