How Henna Improved my Handwriting

"That powerful instrument, the pen, must be made familiar to unpracticed fingers"

Saturday night a dear friend, whose parents were born in New Delhi, threw an Indian dinner party. She had a platter of bangles and bindis for the girls, Bollywood magazines and music, samosas and paneer and murgh tikka masala and oh I could go on. But besides the friends, the very best part was when Rafia the henna specialist set up her table in the corner.

One by one, we sat across from Rafia, hands extended, and she decorated us in the ancient form of mehndi. Using only a thin plastic cone not unlike a pastry bag, she trailed the henna paste into flowery, intricate designs from our forearms to our fingertips. So natural, so intrinsic were her movements, it was like watching a spider spiraling around its web or a silkworm spinning its cocoon in figure eights.

As the design emerged on my own hand, in bold arcs and heavy lines, I considered the nearly-defunct art of penmanship—the kind that our grandparents learned; the kind with ornamental curves and loops and the precise sloping of the letters, 51 degrees from the horizontal.

“You make it look effortless,” I said to Rafia.

“It’s effortless now,” she said. “But I have been practicing for many, many years.”

In a passage from a nineteenth-century text entitled The Principles Of Writing Reduced To An Exact Science, the author, S.A. Potter, writes:

[It is useless] for the head to be encumbered with Arithmetical Problems, Metaphysics, Natural Science and Political Economy, while the arm and fingers are perfectly untrained to write a correct hand and transmit facts and figures to paper, or draw from the great reservoir of the mind through the medium of penmanship.

The author suggested that educators require students to practice writing at least forty-five minutes a day. Can you imagine?

Well, maybe. Yes. Why not?

A study published in the journal Advances in Haptics suggests that the old-fashioned act of holding a pencil and shaping letters sends feedback signals to the brain to create a “motor memory” that allows for greater recall and improved cognition. That’s great for my Kindergartner and for adults learning another language, but writing by hand is evidently also good for me. Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, demonstrated in a study that kids wrote more words faster and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand than by typing on a keyboard.

“You learn to hold your hand just so,” Rafia said. “Then the designs emerge, from someplace else, probably.”

Whence the designs come—or the words and sentences and stories—I can’t say. But if I may more easily encounter them by using a pen instead of a keyboard, I will try.

And the first thing I will do, before I resume my novella or finish the article on deadline? I’ll hand write my gracious hostess a thank you note for an inspired evening—in a sloped and slanted script that I hope reflects the mehndi art upon my hand.

The next day.