Monday, December 01, 2008

Chennai Day Fifteen

This is the view from lunch on Sunday. (An actual salad of grilled peppers, eggplant, and tiny asparagus with shavings of actual Parmesean cheese, fabulous iced tea with lime and sugar syrup, and a curry of prawn and mango for me, the best calimari ever and a lamb curry for my husband). We left Chennai at 10 in the morning and drove out to see DakshinaChitra, a non-profit project for the preservation and promotion of the cultures of regions in the south of India. It's about one hour from Chennai, and after circumnavigating various escape routes which were backed up with traffic, and still many flooded streets, we made it out of the city. DakshinaChitra is reminiscent of Williamsburg, though on a much smaller, less Disney-fied level. The center, set in a quiet landscape of water, trees, and some grass, is the site of many indigenous houses from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. The focus is on Tamil Nadu and Kerala - states in southern India - and crafts that are specific to the regions and times. This is the courtyard of the Merchant's House, I believe. I didn't take many pictures; I was too busy enjoying the quiet and the greenery and the calmness of the architecture. We walked through a potter's house, a Syrian Christian house, Hindu houses from two different regions, a shrine, and a farmer's house. The woodwork was beautiful, and almost every house had a wonderful central space or courtyard which was very serene. Most houses were shared spaces for several generations, and many had raised terraces within that would be occupied either by women or by the men, but not both genders together. Only one house had individual rooms for the family groups within the whole, where one generation could have some privacy within the multi-generation home. Roofs were made of curved red pottery tiles, in most cases, and doorways were low. At 5 foot 2 or so, I fit perfectly, kind of like visiting a Frank Lloyd Wright house, where the ceilings and furniture are often scaled down to accommodate the owners (as at Falling Water in Pennsylvania). On the other hand, every doorway had a small rectangular pillow tacked onto the lintel above the door; I 'd like to know how many visitors banged their heads before this device was instituted.
Here's what I came home with:

I ran into a good saleswoman... and suddenly, I was sitting with my left hand on her lap, as she applied a henna tattoo. These are traditional for brides and members of the wedding party, and was one of the crafts being demonstrated at Dakshina Chitra. (You could also make paper puppets or watch a demo of glass blowing or do Parrot Readings - which I'm sorry that we skipped - I will never know if the parrot chooses the card or actually reads it - or have tender coconut juice - a woman takes a giant machete, lops off the top of a green coconut, sticks a straw into it, and you drink the juice up - and this I did do - the juice is supposed to be really good for you.)

The henna is squeezed out of a triangular-shaped tube, similar to the icing used in cake decorating, and is about the same consistency. (She used a brand called Raja's Gold - you can see a tube of it on the right in the picture below.) It has a good aroma - a bit medicinal and a bit clean. The surprising part, even before you see the finished result, is that the ink is applied quite thickly, it is a dark brown color, and the longer she works, the more I thought - eek, this is a really big tattoo. (At least I didn't mistakenly go for her first offer of 100 rupees for the entire arm.) She was very adept at her skill and did the entire work freehand, while smiling and occasionally patting me on the knee, as I began to have buyer's remorse.
Here's a picture of the beginning of the tattoo. At this point, I thought - this is fun and something different, and I've always wanted to try a henna tattoo. And I had downgraded to the 50 rupee version, so I was expecting something small and not too surprising.
But this is one of those experiences that is hard to bail from midstream. And once she finished, I was to wait one hour before washing off the ink; during this time, the henna sinks into your skin, turns a dark turmeric color, and begins to tingle and eventually dry and begin to crack off. During this time, which my husband timed, I debated being a complete coward and going to the restroom to wash it off ASAP. Repeatedly. About halfway through the drying period, I thought of what my best friend at home would say if she could hear me whining. (My two biggest concerns: that I would offend Indians by engaging in a ritual not of my culture and that my workplace would not appreciate a tattoo across my palm and halfway up my forearm.) Then, I could hear her saying: "Janet, w--- the f--- does it matter what people think? Do you like it?" And I thought, yep, she's right, even if I was channeling her from several continents away.
Now, the truly shocking picture, it turns out, I do not have. Once I washed the ink off, scrubbing away at in a bathroom that had no soap or towels, I was shocked at how much of my skin is decorated. Also, that my palm and fingers, which are almost entirely covered with swirls and figures and may be a peacock-tail motif that grows from the peacock at the top of the arm, are very dark henna, while my arm is a much lighter shade. I needed to get used to it, and so, did not have a picture taken of the after shot. The truth is that I'm glad that I did it, glad that it is not permanent, and not one person at work noticed or commented, though I'm still surprised every time that I happen to look toward my hand. One thing is true: you will never forget your left from your right with a henna tattoo. Otherwise, so easy to do; it is very hard to be constantly aware of which hand you are using to hand over money or a piece of paper or a package. (And that whole left-hand, unclean thing: very confusing. The vegetable man would not take money from me when I handed it toward him with my left hand, and waited until I put it down on the counter to pick up; but at the concert Saturday, the woman in front of me was handing pastries out to her family with her left hand.) More observation is called for, but until the tattoo fades - in about a week to two weeks - I will have a strong visual to remind me of my left from my right.

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