Friday, April 10, 2015
How I Crashed an Indian Wedding
This is the story of how I crashed an Indian wedding.
I was walking down a street in Udaipur with only a vague plan of taking the cable car ride up the mountain when a young man suddenly approached me and invited me to have chai. My initial reaction was to decline; he was about my age, eager, and I could already guess what he was interested in. And yet when he asked again, something in me caved. Why not? I thought. I had been on my own for several days, was bored, and something about this unexpected offer for chai seemed like an avenue for adventure that I was so badly craving.
And so I found myself in a tiny textile shop with this boy and the owner of the shop drinking piping hot chai, fresh from the chaiwallah just across the street. When they offered me a joint I shrugged internally and accepted. I was just smoking a joint in a scarf shop in India. It was so random and ridiculous, but I liked the sound of it in my head. Surely this was what travelling was all about: having insane and unexpected experiences. The sensible part of my brain told me I was being irresponsible, but I shrugged it off. I didn’t feel threatened or unsafe, but half the thrill of the moment, if I’m being honest, was the fact that it was edged with the possibility of danger, and that I was risking it.
This was all going on in the back of my mind, when about halfway through the conversation I just happened to mention that I’d always wanted to go to an Indian wedding.
“You should stay until tomorrow! The wedding’s tomorrow.”
I stared at them. Were they serious? They said it so casually, so off-the-cuff. Like: “Oh, there’s a wedding happening, we can get you in, no big deal.” I was convinced they were kidding me. I wanted to go to a wedding and there just happened to be one at the very moment I was in town? It sounded crazy, but I badly wanted it to be true.
Apparently the sister of the boy’s friend was getting married, almost literally a “friend of a friend” kind of situation. And we could just show up. No invite necessary.
Well then, I thought, let’s do this. I was already smoking ganja in a textile shop; crashing some stranger’s wedding seemed like it was just the next logical step in this weird adventure. I started to feel as if my life was turning into a movie script. These things didn’t happen normally, or did they?
And so I just went with it. I was excited and anxious, but mostly just excited. The boy, whose name I’ll say was M, took me on a brief tour of the city marketplace on his bike. He clearly had a crush on me, but it had the effect of only making me more alert rather than uncomfortable. And if I’m being truthful, I allowed it because I knew it was this boy’s crush on me that was getting me to an Indian wedding.
That night we drove up to a large, four-story concrete structure that was blasting Hindi pop music. As we walked up to the entrance, the bass of the music vibrated up our feet. At the far end of the room was a small stage, filled with people dancing vigorously, two brightly painted dancers in their midst, their features heavily exaggerated by stage make-up.
It was the Sangeet, the bridal party that happens the night before the wedding. To my uninformed eyes, I gathered that it was a giant dance party eat-fest for the bride’s family while the bride gets covered in mehndi (henna tattoos). I didn’t really have any idea of what was happening at the time, but there was music and dancing and, presumably, lots of Indian food. I was sold and could not believe this was happening.
As I stepped inside, a girl immediately walked up to me with a huge smile on her face, took my hands and said, “Welcome!” almost as if she’d been expecting me, introduced herself and asked my name. I was startled but answered her, then found myself being dragged through the crowd.
I followed mutely, like an obedient sheep. I couldn’t get over her reaction – she’d seemed so glad to see me, had been so oddly welcoming, as if she’d known I was coming, or had at least done this before. I felt like she’d taken on the role of my unofficial tour guide; she seemed strangely invested in showing me a good time.
And then, all of sudden, we were at the stage and I was being pushed onto it by the girl.
“Dance!” she yelled.
“I don’t know how!” I yelled back.
What was happening? There was a crowd of dancing Indians all around me and I could feel the sound waves being pumped out of the speakers at my back. The stage pulsed in time the beat of some Hindi techno pop song (a category of music I had never thought I would ever encounter in life).
I stood in the middle of the stage looking back at the girl for help. Maybe she would see the look of “please don’t make me do this, I’m white and have no rhythm” and rescue me.
“It’s okay, just have fun!” she said. She was smiling.
Was this the price of admission? Did I literally have to dance for my supper, or in this case, my wedding invite? In spite of the fact that this entire event had absolutely nothing to do with me, and I knew absolutely no one and no one knew me, I suddenly felt very much like I was being put on display. Well, I thought, feeling both resigned and strangely exhilarated, here goes nothing.
And then I started flailing with what I hoped was some degree of coordination. Nobody, and I mean nobody, was doing the same dance, but everyone was dancing like there was no tomorrow. The young men around me (there were almost no women on the stage) were sweating, jumping, gyrating, and laughing with joy. I couldn’t not dance in that environment; it was like entering a happy dance-drunk club.
There were a few young girls on the stage, and I began to copy their movies out of desperation. It was certainly better than flailing about randomly as I had been, and these girls clearly knew what they were doing. It was if they’d grown up knowing how to move, and they seemed please by my copycatting, and began to move slower, showing me the basic moves, laughing as I began to pick them up.
When I started dancing, the other dancers seemed to be glancing at me, smiling, a few laughing. They were clearly getting a kick out of my presence. I already knew about, and had had some personal experience of the Indian fascination with foreigners. I’d had a few requests for photos in my travels, harmless interactions that were oddly flattering and yet troubling. I knew, without a doubt, that my white skin and my foreign accent had bought my invitation to this wedding. I could waltz into this private party with no questions asked and it was the most bizarre kind of white privilege I had ever experienced, perhaps because it was so inescapably obvious that it was my whiteness that had landed me here.
In the moment, though, these thoughts barely registered. In the moment, I was high on adrenaline, dancing like a fool and loving every second of it, unquestioningly embracing the benefits of being a privileged white girl in the middle of India.
After I’d put in my fair share of hip shaking, I escaped the stage, only to bombarded with the question: “Are you hungry?” This was coming from M’s best friend, the bride’s brother, and he seemed deeply invested in getting me to eat food.
The answer to his question was no, but that seemed irrelevant, and soon enough I was being led by hand to the buffet table where sweets were placed in my hand and I was then looked at expectantly. “Thanks,” I said, swallowing the dessert with what I hoped was an honest-looking smile. It was halwa, I remember, a very broad category of Indian desserts, usually made with ghee, sugar, and semolina.
I thought the force-feeding was over, but two more times I was led back to the buffet and handed sweets (“Just a little bit!”). Thankfully I managed to avoid being overfed by some miracle, because I just knew if they’d given me a plate I would have had no choice but to eat and probably keep eating until I couldn’t walk. Indian hospitality is often startling and even overwhelming; people welcome you into their homes and their lives without question and then treat you to every generosity, whether you want it or not. Sometimes it’s liked being choked with kindness, but it’s a kindness that you can’t help but be awed by.
I don’t remember the exact procedure of events after the feeding began, except that I managed to get back on stage in an effort to perfect my new moves, and also chatted with the lovely girl who’d welcomed me so warmly when I’d first entered. She seemed curious about me in a way different from the other guests; the others seemed to just regard me as interesting by virtue of my foreignness, but this girl seemed actually interested in who I was and what I knew. She was actually curious, wanted to know about my education, what I thought of India, what my life was like. She was an English major, like myself, and we were both delighted by the unexpected similarity.
She was a teacher, teaching children English, pursuing a Master’s Degree in English literature, and wasn’t interested in getting married but wanted to work for the government. I was more than a little gobsmacked. This young woman was one or two years my junior, had a full-time job, was studying, and had real ambitions. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she said, “I wish I could talk to more people like you.”
I felt an awkward mix of guilt and sympathy. The bride, one of her best friends, was younger than her (I think she was twenty-one) and already getting married. I wondered what it would feel like, to feel out of place amongst some of your closest friends and family, to have dreams that didn’t coincide with your parents’. I also wondered if I was just jumping to conclusions, if this girl had the support of everyone around her, if her parents had helped to foster her dreams of education, if I was only imagining the obstacles she might be facing because of my ignorant western ideas about India.
But however odd I felt about the attention, it was a relief just to hang out with other girls my age. She introduced me to her friends, and I sat with them in a circle as she covered the bride’s hands in mehndi and the other girls pelted me with questions. One was too shy to speak to me directly, either because her English wasn’t fluent or she was just shy, I couldn’t quite figure out.
When the music stopped, I made the incorrect assumption that the party was over. People seemed to be dispersing, but then I realized they were only doing so in order to collect mats, which they then dragged into the middle of the room. Grandmothers and children alike began to bed down for the night in the midst of stacked chairs.
Each floor of the building depicted the same scene: families pulling out pallets to sleep on the floor.
I went up to the roof to escape the stifling hot air of the building and find some quiet. It was cool out, and young boys scampered about in bare feet, miraculously avoiding the shards of broken beer bottles that littered the rooftop.
I had thought to go back to my hotel but was offered a mattress on the roof. Saying no seemed like a silly thing to do, especially after the events of the day. The night air felt calming and strangely refreshing, and I liked the idea of sleeping under the stars (even if I could barely see them).
I curled up on the pallet wrapped in my scarf, the hardness of the cement radiating through the thin mat and into my bones.
Eventually the blessed coolness of the night air turned into a cursed chill that my scarf and sleeveless maxi dress did little to keep out. I fell into a fitful sleep, and awoke at dawn, chilled and aching.
Around seven I got to my feet and walked downstairs. The sun was up and, with it, the entire party. All around people were busy packing up mats and sipping chai. As I left, intent on getting back to my hotel and my mattress (which, while firm, was a far cry above my rooftop bunk) I received at least ten offers of chai. In my still foggy state I declined and hopped in a rickshaw back to my hotel, where I logged onto Skype to speak with my friends back home for the first time since I’d left Canada. They were as incredulous as I was about the night’s festivities.
After laughing about the ridiculousness of my situation, I said goodbye. Closing my laptop, I sat on my bed, abuzz again with adrenaline. It seemed improbable that just yesterday I’d been invited to a wedding, that anything I’d experienced had been real.
But soon enough exhaustion took over me, and I fell into unconsciousness.
I spent the day after the Sangeet mostly in bed, and when I finally managed to crawl out of it, shower, and dress myself (sadly, I had no sari or anything fancier than my cheap jersey dress to wear) it was past four pm. I re-emerged onto the streets of Udaipur feeling slightly hung-over, despite having imbibed nothing the night before, and walked to my new friend’s shop. He was happy to see me, and relieved I hadn’t succumbed to food poisoning.
We sat down over a cup of chai and chatted for a bit, as the wedding wasn’t scheduled to begin until later that evening. Eventually I made my way back to the building of the previous night’s festivities, where the actual wedding ceremony would take place this time. When I arrived, the guests were only just starting to trickle in, but for the most part the place was empty.
In the street, however, the men were busy constructing massive arches. There was one at each end of the street, big structures of metal rods covered in colourful cloth. Once erected, the men had to climb the metal skeletons of the arch to attach the covering.
While all this was happening, I waited on the roof and watched the sun set over the city. As the light faded, clouds of bats rose all around and swept through the sky. There were a few young boys on the roof as well, and one of them, a very young, small boy, stood by himself at the edge, excitedly waiting for the trains to pass by, as you could see the station easily from our vantage point.
I went over to watch with him and realized he was deaf. He was very shy but as the trains approached he brightened like a light bulb, his eyes huge in his small face as he gestured enthusiastically at the train tracks. His smile was infectious, and when the horn of the approaching train blew, he jumped with excitement. I had to smile, and waved with him as the train passed; there was still enough light in the sky to make out the passengers, some hanging out the doorways, lounging the space between cars. I tried to show the boy how to blow kisses at the train, which he seemed to find funny, but he clearly had no intention of blowing kisses at anyone.
With darkness, the wedding seemed to come alive. The street filled with guests, turning it into a churning sea of colour. The women sparkled in their glorious saris, bedecked as they were with bangles, earrings, and necklaces. The men, by contrast, were much more plainly dressed. Most simply wore cotton dress shirts and jeans, with the exception of those in the bridal party who wore suits and turbans. I thought it a little unfair that the men could get off so easy while the women were clearly putting in a lot of effort (but then, in what culture don’t we?). And I couldn’t help but feel out of place with my cheap maxi dress, short hair, and white skin.
When Indian music blasted into the air at a distance, I knew the next stage of the wedding was about to begin. Along with the sudden explosion of music and noise-crackers (which boys set off in the street next to you) came a hoard of people. The street was packed, everyone crushing around the first arch near the building’s entrance. I pushed my way through the crowd to the front.
What approached us can only be described as a psychedelic boom box wagon. It appeared to have megaphones attached to either side, was so colourful it probably would have blinded us if it hadn’t been dark, and was being moved along by men in marching band costumes.
The sound was deafening, but that didn’t prevent me from understanding the excited gestures of the guests around me, who were all intent on getting me to take pictures of the event, and of course of getting a picture with me as well. The excitement was catching, and the air seemed to hum with anticipation.
A professional photographer was nearby, his flash lighting up the night, but the guests seemed much more interested in the photos I was taking. They almost seemed to be pointing things out to me, as if to say, “Don’t miss this!”
But then, behind the rainbow coloured boom box, came the groom, mounted on a white horse that was wearing such a collection of beads and gold thread that it sparkled even in the dim light. The groom himself was decked out like no other man at the party. His red turban was crowned with a feather and he wore a garland of marigolds about his neck. He also had a sword (which I hoped was dull, as his expression was so serious as to make him appear rather dour, which was also somewhat comical beneath his bright, jeweled turban). His horse was led by a stringy youth, and they moved slowly towards the entrance, surrounded by the excited crowd that clearly didn’t have any qualms about crowding a horse.
Amidst this, some men excitedly gestured towards me, pointing to the groom, and suddenly I found myself standing awkwardly next to the groom and his horse while guests snapped photos. Even the hired photographer began to take photos of us. I felt quite bad for unintentionally stopping the procession so that they could have pictures of the groom and the one white guest; I hadn’t realized quite how much I stood out or how interested people were in me. I was both startled and flattered, but then I felt weird and guilty for feeling flattered.
By the time the groom made it to the entrance of the building, I’d already had a dozen photos taken of me and had taken as many photos of random guests who had seen me and my camera and gotten very excited. This included two men dancing behind the boom box who were some of the most enthusiastic dancers I’d ever seen.
The groom and his horse were halted at the entrance, and the future father-in-law approached him. The groom bent his head and allowed his soon-to-be in-law to wrap sounding around his turban, which I couldn’t see.
Throughout all this, the groom’s face remained impassive. He was the most brightly dressed man in the entire party, was the focal point of all the noise and excitement around him, and his face showed the emotion of a stone. A part of me wondered snarkily, “Maybe it’s just his resting-bitch-face,” but then I felt bad for it. I wondered if he was just trying to keep a grip on his emotions, if it was just his way of dealing with the craziness of the situation, if he was just stealing himself for the long night ahead. I honestly had no idea, but throughout the entire night I didn’t see him once crack a smile.
After the brief ceremonial exchange with his to-be father-in-law, he dismounted and proceeded through the doorway into the hall, and his colourful horse was led away before being mounted by its handler, who immediately encouraged it into a canter. They passed the slowly ambling boom box, the sound of it fading only slightly as it rolled away, followed by a few dancing men.
I took the opportunity in the brief lull to run and get water lest I faint (the night was pleasant, but in a sea of bodies it felt like I was in a sweat tent). When I returned, the bride and groom were both seated upon the dais at the far end of the room, bejeweled and stone faced. Camera flashes lit the room, and it appeared that every single guest was going to have their photo taken with the new couple.
The girl I had met the night before and who had taken me under her wing was happy to see me when I found her, and once again she and her friends adopted me for the night. I felt a bit silly amongst them, with my bristly hair and plain dress. They jingled and rustled as they moved, covered in jewelry and wearing beautiful silk saris. I knew I looked like a bit of an ugly duckling among them, but they were kind and exceedingly curious about me. I think my foreignness caused everyone to overlook my rather understated attire, for which I was grateful.
I learned from them that it was an arranged marriage. They were friends of the bride, a very pretty, extremely slender girl I’d met briefly at the Sangeet.
“Isn’t my friend beautiful?” one of the girls asked me. “She looks like a princess.”
I agreed; she did look very beautiful. But she seemed small beneath her red wedding sari, which made her look even younger. Both she and the groom wore such serious expressions as to appear almost emotionless. It was jarring to see them so reserved amidst all the celebration and colour, and they themselves the centre of it. The bride’s father was drunk on joy and beer, dancing and smiling, for the whole night.
The couple remained seated on the dais for a good few hours, whilst everyone feasted. The buffet was incredible, and I ate without fear or hesitation. It was all vegetarian and delicious. There was rice, fried roti, dal, spiced potatoes, burfi (a sweet made of cashews and sugar), and I honestly don’t remember what else. The table stretched the length of the room of the second floor, and at the back of the room young men stood frying vegetables on a massive wok-like pan. I somehow managed to escape being overfed by accepting multiple refills of mango juice instead of letting anyone get ahold of my plate (although this later got to me when I had to navigate the unlit, cement bathrooms with my phone flashlight).
Everyone ate on the floor at their leisure, and the eating went on all night. When the bride and groom were finally freed from the dais, they sat with their families at the long table set up in the middle of the buffet room, the place of honour. When they finished dining, the marriage ceremony began.
Up until that moment, I’d been steadily accosted (very politely) for pictures, and been stalked by two young girls who were determined to turn me into their personal photographer. I’d been asked if I was married several times as well as how old I was, and the response (single, twenty-five) seemed to draw reactions of poorly disguised condescension. One man responded with amused horror when I claimed I didn’t want to get married, perhaps ever. (“But why?”) The same man shortly afterwards asked me if I would join him at his house to “just practice English” for thirty minutes (an oddly precise detail he added that I couldn’t figure out), which I declined by laughing hysterically.
So by the time the marriage ceremony started it was almost midnight and I was nearly passing out with exhaustion, despite having done nothing but take photos, be photographed, and drink mango juice all night.
The bride and groom and the wedding party had relocated to the ground floor, where the wedding arch had been set up. My spotty knowledge of Hindu weddings told me they would have to walk together in a circle seven times, the bride following her new husband. I wanted to witness it, but had a bus to catch at 8am the next morning, and apparently the ceremony was going to take several hours. I took one look at the time on my phone and back at the ceremony, which had barely started, and knew I wasn’t going to be able to make it through the night if I stayed.
And so, after many goodbyes to the girls who’d so kindly looked after me and had asked me questions like, “How do you bake a chocolate cake?” I took my leave.
My last glimpse of the wedding hall showed the scattered remains of the party: drinking cups, chairs, and shoes. The atmosphere had changed; it was more somber now, the young couple in the corner preparing for a new chapter in their lives. The bride, whose name I never knew, and who had seemed so quiet and shy when I’d met her, looked so young. Here I was, backpacking around India without any responsibilities, without any idea what the next week, month, or year of my life would look like, and here she was, getting married, settling down, as they say. The space between our lives seemed so vast and unsettling, even though we were only a few years apart in age.
I hoped that she would be happy, and left.