The Henna Wars(4)

Priti shifts around on the bed for a frustratingly long time before finally settling in and holding her palm out. I take hold of her bony wrist and rest her entire hand on the old, ratty cloth I laid out on the bed.

“No shaking,” I warn her, taking hold of the tube of henna. With my eyes flickering between my laptop screen and my sister’s outstretched hand, I finally begin my work. I draw half of a flower on one side of Priti’s hand, and if I have to say so myself, it looks pretty good. The half-circle petals are slightly uneven in shape and size, but from a distance they more or less look the same.

“Can you remind me again how Sunny Apu is related to us?” Priti asks. It isn’t that we don’t like Sunny Apu—we definitely do. She’s kind of like a fun, cool cousin who is also a family friend. But ever since her wedding was announced, it’s like she might as well be our sister from the way Khala and Ammu are acting.

I frown. Trying to apply henna to my sister’s hand while explaining complicated family dynamics to her isn’t exactly ideal. But if I don’t keep talking, Priti will get so bored that she’ll definitely start shifting around again. She’s the kind of person who can rarely sit still.

“She’s Ammu’s aunt’s husband’s cousin’s daughter,” I say, drawing a curved line from one of the flower petals all the way up to the tip of Priti’s ring finger.

“Why are Bengali relationships so complicated?”

“Something I ask myself every single day,” I mumble. It comes off a little more bitter than I want it to. I’ve laced it with all of the resentment I’m feeling for Ammu and Abbu. After all, it’s not just Bengali relationships that are complicated, is it? It’s this weird, suffocating culture that tells us exactly who or what we should be. That leaves no room to be anything else.

“Apujan.” Before I know it, Priti is prying the tube of henna out of my fingers. There is a glob of henna on her hand where it’s definitely not meant to be, but I can barely see it through the sudden glaze of tears in front of my eyes.

“Sorry.” I sniff, rubbing my eyes and willing the tears to disappear into nothingness.

“I get it,” Priti offers kindly.

She doesn’t get it at all, and I don’t have the heart to tell her that. I lean over to the box of tissues sitting on the bedside table and pluck one out. I wipe at her hands softly, dabbing so that only the glob of henna and any smudged parts are wiped away while the rest of the design remains untarnished.

“We don’t have to keep—”

“I want to.” I pick up the henna tube again. We both settle into the bed. There is something calming about the henna, something familiar and real and solid. It makes me forget about everything else, at least for a few minutes.

Though Priti’s hand still trembles as I work away, I manage to finish her palm without any more incidents. I come away with a small smile on my face as Priti examines her hennaed hand, holding it up in front of her with some admiration.

“You know what?” she says. “You’ve definitely gotten better at this.”

“I know.” My smile widens. Priti nudges me with her non-hennaed hand.

“Don’t get too cocky now.”

“Okay, well. The other hand.” I hold out my hand with the henna tube, waiting for her to stretch her other palm out to me.

She groans. “Can we take a break? I need to stretch my legs.” She’s taking a million photos of her outstretched hand, no doubt to put up on her Instagram. That gives me a slight jolt of happiness—that my handiwork has been deemed Instagrammable by my little sister, aka my second worst critic—but it doesn’t distract me from my work.

“Priti, the wedding is in a few days. If I don’t get it done now, the color won’t set properly. You know that.”

“Fine, fine, fine,” she huffs. “But don’t get mad if I can’t sit still.”

I will get mad. She knows that and so do I. But we begin on her right hand anyway.

The wedding hall is gorgeous. It’s the first wedding I’ve been to outside of Bangladesh, and I didn’t know what to expect. Summer weddings in Bangladesh are one of two things—beautiful, expensive and luxurious to the point where you don’t even realize you’re in a country where it’s 104 degrees out, or so hot that the thought of dressing up in your nice clothes and putting on a full face of makeup makes you want to commit some serious atrocities.

And they’re abundant. During one summer visit to Nanu’s house, we had to go to fifteen different weddings. Half the time we didn’t even know the names of the people getting married, much less how they were related to us.

Stepping into this wedding hall feels a little like stepping into those Bangladeshi summers. There are big, circular tables filling the entire hall, each with a small vase of red and white flowers laced together. Fairy lights twinkle everywhere, winking on and off every few seconds.

“Hani Khala and Raza Khalu went all out,” Priti whispers as we step inside the hall. I have to agree. It makes sense; there’s no way they would have their sole daughter’s wedding on a budget.

I only have a moment to wonder where everybody is before Priti and I are ushered into a back room by a woman in a black and white salwar kameez who looks like she means business.

“Sunny Apu!” Priti cries as we step inside. Because there she is, made up all beautiful like a bride in a traditional red lahenga with a pattern of gold gilded on the edges. I feel a prick of something bubbling up inside of me, some kind of anxiety that I hadn’t expected, and I bite my lip to keep it at bay.

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