The Henna Wars

The Henna Wars

Adiba Jaigirdar

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to queer brown girls,

this is for you

content warning

This book contains instances of racism, homophobia, bullying, and a character being outed.

“I donate my truth to you like I’m rich The truth is love ain’t got no off switch”

–Janelle Monáe, “Pynk”



Not because of Sunny Apu and her groom, or the buzz of the wedding in the air. And not because everything about a Bengali wedding is so palpably heterosexual that it’s almost nauseating.

I decide to come out because of the way Ammu and Abbu look at Sunny Apu, with a mixture of pride and love and longing. It isn’t directed at Sunny Apu at all, really; it’s directed at the future. At our futures, mine and Priti’s. I can almost see Ammu and Abbu stitching it together in their heads: Castles in the air, made of deep red wedding saree dreams and lined with thick gold wedding jewelry aspirations.

I’ve never thought of my parents as traditionalists before this. I’d seen them as pioneers, people who made things happen even when those things might seem impossible. They’d broken rigid tradition, and have what Bengalis call a “love marriage.” Though they’ve never told us the story, I always imagine a movie-moment meeting, exactly like in a Bollywood movie. Their eyes meet across a crowded room, maybe at a wedding of distant relatives. Ammu’s in a saree, Abbu in a sherwani. Suddenly, a song starts in the background. Something romantic, but upbeat.

My parents’ “love marriage” is one of the reasons they work so well here, despite the lack of family and support. Without anything, really. They uprooted their lives one day to come to Ireland. To bring us here. To give us a better life, they said, even when in some ways they are stuck to the past. To Bangladesh. To everything Bengali custom tells them.

Unfortunately, one of those things is this: a wedding consisting of a bride and a groom.

But my Ammu and Abbu did make it past the customs that told them love before marriage was unacceptable, and that love after marriage was to be hidden in a locked bedroom like a shameful secret. So maybe—just maybe—they can accept this other form of love that blooms in my chest sometimes when I see Deepika Padukone in a Bollywood movie, and not when I see her male love interest.

So that is how I spend Sunny Apu’s engagement, trying to construct the perfect coming out moment, and wondering if that even exists. I try to think back to every movie, TV show, and book that I’ve ever seen or read with gay protagonists. Even gay side characters. Each coming out was tragically painful. And they were all white!

“What are you doing?” Priti asks when she spots me typing on my phone in the midst of the engagement ceremony. Everyone’s eyes are turned to the bride-and groom-to-be so I thought this was the moment I could Google “gay happy endings” without someone peering over my shoulder.

I quickly slip the phone into my bag and shoot her a wide-eyed, innocent smile.

“Nothing. Nothing at all.”

She narrows her eyes like she doesn’t believe me, but says no more. She turns back to the bride-and groom-to-be.

I know Priti will try to talk me out of it if I tell her what I’m thinking of doing. But I also know I can’t be talked out of it now.

I can’t keep living a lie. I have to tell them at one point or another.

And tomorrow is going to be that point.

It’s weird, but after I’ve made my decision I feel like I’m on borrowed time. Like this is my family’s last day together and something is about to break open between us. When we’re driving home from the engagement party, it’s past midnight. The streetlights cast a strange glow on the road ahead, marred by the bright, full moon in front of us. It’s a clear night, for once. Priti is dozing in the backseat beside me. Ammu and Abbu are speaking in a low hum, so I can barely understand what they’re saying.

I wish I could bottle this uneventful moment—a flash of time when we’re all at peace, together and apart at once—and keep it with me forever.

I wonder if this is what things will be like tomorrow too, after I’ve told them.

But then the moment’s over and we’re home and stumbling out of the car. Our churis jingle against each other, sounding too loud and bright in the dead-of-night quiet on the streets.

Inside, I strip my face of all the heavy makeup Priti carefully dabbed onto it just hours before. I slip out of my itchy, uncomfortable salwar kameez and bury myself in my blankets, where I pull up Google again and translate the word lesbian into Bengali.

The next morning, Priti flits off to her best friend Ali’s house with a smile on her lips. She’s promised to tell Ali every detail she can about the engagement party, and the upcoming wedding. With pictures.

There are still a few hours until Abbu has to leave for the restaurant, so it’s perfect, really. I take my time making my morning tea, stirring especially slowly and going over the words I practiced last night. They seem lackluster and silly now.

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