I remember my first experience of henna as a child. I remember looking down at my hands and feeling pretty damn special with my strange patterned hands. That is, however, until I tried to eat some biscuits the next morning (chocolate Bourbons, no less) and discovered that they (my hands, not the Bourbons) absolutely stank. It was a slightly disturbing realisation, since I couldn't get away from my hands - and, as an Indian, I eat everything with my hands (even, from time-to-time, things that really do require cutlery - I know, shame on me).
Anyway, despite the distinct smell of henna, my appreciation of it continued to grow, and up until recently I was a pretty big fan of the stuff. Henna is a really important part of Indian weddings, and the bride is usually covered in the stuff (her hands and feet are anyway). It was always my favourite part of weddings, and at my sister's wedding I think I actually had more on than she did!
Last year, my henna-appreciation took a turn for the worse. I went to Morocco for a week and was enticed by the henna ladies in the big touristy square in Marrakech. Without realising what I was getting myself in to, I got my right hand and arm (almost all the way up until my elbow) covered in black henna. At the time, I didn't realise that there is no such thing as black henna (normal brown-red henna is natural, and black henna is just a harsh mix of toxins and poison). I was chuffed with my unusual body-art and couldn't wait to come back to England and show it off. On my return, however, I was met with nothing but terrified looks and words of concern from those who weren't as naive as me and knew what the coming days would bring.
12 days later my arm erupted in to an angry red reaction. I felt like a mutant (and seriously, my arm did look totally disgusting and scary). It turns out that the key ingredient of black henna is a chemical called PPD, and this is what is used to dye hair, leather, etc. Under no circumstances should it be applied directly to the skin and left there for a few hours. It took a series of scary steroid creams and even scarier steroid tablets to calm the reaction down, and - a year on - I am left with a pretty permanent scar. I was, in some ways, quite lucky, as it can lead to liver failure. But I didn't feel it at the time.
In addition to the physical scars, I also have some psychological ones. I am now a complete henna-phobe, and am dreading the day before the wedding when I have to let someone cover me in the stuff. Of course, I know that it will be natural henna and so, of course, there is no reason why I will react to it. But that's the point about phobias, right? They're irrational.
In six months time, I will be sitting with my henna lady letting her paint those pretty patterns on my hands and feet. I truly hope that I don't lash out at her in fear (because then we'll probably have to pay her double).
PS. If you were wondering about those Bourbons, worry not, I still managed to eat them. With a spoon. I know, this whole cutlery business is confusing. What can I say? I'm Indian.