Indian weddings are notoriously long and opulent. Though less lavish in the South, the festivities place a heavy financial burden on the bride’s family, who is expected to pay all expenses, if not a dowry on top. That doesn’t affect the generosity of invitations. Which is how I came to live in the home of a soon-to-be wife, whose name I was yet to find out. An outsider inside the big day accounts.
Day 2: Tying the Knot
3AM A bride rises before the sun.
5AM The two-bedroom, 80 square-meter Bangalore apartment she shares with her mother, younger sister and brother begins to buzz with unhurriedly hectic activity. None of the 20 adults and two kids trips— though some are frequently trapped — as they perform puja, help each other into tight blouses and fastidious folds of hand-stitched silk sarees. Four middle-aged men cover sleep-derived faces in make-up that is one or two skin-tones too light. Jingly bangles, heavy earrings, flower garlands in impossibly thick, long hair. A bright bindi on the third eye rounds off the look like a cherry.
Time to call the Ubers.
8.30AM By the time we arrive at the temple rented for the occasion, the rituals are already in full swing. Though at first they involve only groom and poojari [pandit, priest], our delay deeply upsets the bride’s mother (a fact to which I remain oblivious until after the wedding is wrapped up). She worries about making a bad impression on her daughter’s new family. But — as with all other emotions — the austere single mother won’t let on.
The other guests, meanwhile, are still drifting in, and pay only partial, diffused attention to the bare-chested groom seated in the mantapa [altar]. I don’t envy his duty of deciphering and following the ongoing instructions of the priest, whose vocal chords are fully charged with the vibrations of wedding vow mantras.
9AM Hidden in plain sight, the bride stifles tears as she is veiled by an ‘auntie’, a form of address reserved to married women. Being a widow, it would be inausppicious for the bride’s mother to lead her down the aisle. Though the ‘aisle’ in this case is more of an obstacle course among distracted children, displaced plastic chairs, drop-in devotees, a stone Nandi, the temple, and, the final destination: a sheet, the falling of which will finally allow the couple to meet.
9.20AM Long after they are revealed to one another, bride and groom remain separated by an intricate series of rituals, which they follow somewhat dazed, confused, overwhelmed. Patient and composed. Some might say resigned.
Fire, incense, ghee. Ropes, rice, flowers. Fresh fruits, dry fruits, coconuts. A Kalsha (a bronze jug containing water, coins, haldi, curcuma, dry rice) for purification and prosperity. Phone, professional, and video cameras. Musicians playing from an distant corner, like a loud but unobtrusive radio.
9.30AM A knot is tied, a golden necklace gifted. Consider the rings exchanged. Still no time to eat, breathe, or behold each other: the newly-weds are re-positioned for hours of blessings by, and pictures with, the attendees. We line up to pour milk over the coin-dotted coconut they hold in dripping hands (touching, finally!), wishing their union financial, fertile, spiritual well-being.
10AM Smiling strangers gently shove my Argentinian friend and me towards the make-shift tent, where a simple but delicious South Indian breakfast (idly, sambar, chutney, and a syrup-soaked gulab jamun) is being served on lush banana leaves. There is no particular pecking order, except that the newly-weds and their close relatives are expected to eat last. The couple skips breakfast entirely.
Hours later, the asphalt scorches our bare feet as we return for a copious and colourful lunch, eaten with hands, and accompanied by cheerful chattering about the differences in north- and south-Indian wedding customs and cuisines. The North Indians at the table feign disbelef over the absence of booze, dance, and meat.
S.Indian lunch, minus the rice (many Indians ate the other way around, only/mostly rice)
2PM The stuffed crowd thins out, the newly-weds make a quick stop at the notary office on their way to the groom’s parental home. Traditionally, the bride would be expected to move in with them, and assimilate to her marital duties under the auspices of her mother-in-law. In this case, given that her husband works in a different state, she’ll have to relocate to Chennai, and find a new job in the city they both love to hate. The decision over whether she will adopt his surname appears less urgent; my question is met with a shrug: “We’ll see.”
The unmarried guests return home to clean the apartment, rest, and get ready for a night out that will involve very little booze, very much chicken (in contrast to North Indian customs, any contact with non-veg is considered inauspicious ahead of and during a South Indian wedding), five hours of driving, two hookahs, and one smog-stained sun rise over India’s ‘garden city’, witnessed from the peak of Nandi Hills. The sight is shared with a crowd that would qualify as massive in less densely-populated parts of the world.
We reach home around noon of the following day, and, sitting cross-legged on the floor, peel peas for breakfast Upma. My exhaustion is deflected by the relief of having avoided — to the best of my knowledge — any ritualistic blunders. Like clipping my nails at night, receiving food with my left hand, or pointing my feet in any wrong direction. Luckily for my conscience, divorce still isn’t really a viable option in India.
left to right: my Argentinian friend, the bride’s sister, and I
Questionable quips aside, the fact that two clueless foreigners, who can’t even dress themselves, were able to blend so seamlessly into the codified chaos that is an Indian wedding, proves, if any proof were needed, an old Indian proverb: “One and one sometimes make eleven.” Er, wrong one. “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.” My bad.
Perhaps because it’s precisely not about finding the right words, or even speaking the same language. What struck me most about my first Indian wedding experience, was that for all the complex rituals, the exorbitant expenses, the perennial preparations — the marriage was so down-to-earth.
Curiously unceremonious. No tears, no speeches, little laughter even. Give a hand, eat with your right hand, have your heart in the right place. Try not be too late. And even if you are..
“Whether you like it or not, I am your guest.”
goes an Urdu proverb. In my reading, that is meant to apply to life as much as to weddings. Many Indians are in the habit of believing there are, have always been, and will always be, many more of each. I’d like to think they are right.