Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Bride Wore Turmeric

This past Monday, I arrived home and was met immediately with an enthusiastic Ava, who interrupted her Skype conversation to show me the coveted envelope that had been delivered to our door earlier that evening. In all its sparkling glory, addressed to “The American Family,” was an invitation to our first Indian wedding. One of our downstairs neighbors, Martin, had delivered the invitation, but we didn’t know the bride, or her name, and we had never really had a conversation with Martin, except for run-ins on the stairs or in our alley. We actually didn’t know Martin’s name until we arrived at the wedding. That kind of confusion was an ongoing theme throughout our enjoyment of the wedding, which was spread out across Sunday and Monday of that weekend. We really didn’t have any more information than that, and the invitation was written in Marathi (the language of Maharashtra, the state I’m in), not Hindi, so we couldn’t even read it. But none of the unknown mattered – in just a few days, we got ourselves all dressed up and walked to Maruai Mandir where the wedding was to take place.

We knew the bride lived in our neighborhood, and our alley was decorated with lights, as was the temple down the street. When we walked outside, we were greeted with people singing and dancing in the street, and they gave us sugarcane.

We didn’t know that the bride actually lived in the building next door, which I found out when I ran into her in the street the next day. Our neighbor Sachin was also invited, but he wasn’t planning on going because he knew that they really wanted us more, because having white people at a wedding is something special, apparently. So, a few minutes later we showed up to a stranger’s wedding and were treated like celebrities, so I guess he was right. We were shown to some plastic chairs, had tilak applied to our foreheads, and were given a plate with some special snacks.

I know the sweets have some special meaning, but I’m not entirely sure about the potato chips. That leaf tasted nasty.

The bride and groom are members of the Koli fishermen community. They’re native to the Maharashtra-Goan coastal area and catch the delicious fish we eat frequently in Mumbai. A lot of them are Christian, but this couple was Hindu. We spent a lot of the night trying to figure out how everyone was related, and how Martin knew these people. I’m honestly still not entirely sure. We recognized a few other people from our building, who are the bride’s uncles. We were sitting next to Martin’s wife, who runs a nursery school from their flat. She was very nice. It wasn’t as fancy as I would have expected, since I’ve heard a lot about the pomp and circumstance of Indian weddings. The men were just wearing everyday clothes, and the women had saris on, but they weren’t decked out in glitz and gold. I felt appropriately dressed in my silk kurta, which lacked glitz and gold, too.

We didn’t see the bride for a long time. We were told she was inside preparing for the ceremony, which we knew nothing about because we didn’t even know what event we were attending (Indian weddings are spread over a few days, and the engagement generally takes place shortly before the wedding, so they might not even have technically been engaged until this week). We spotted her coming out the temple, dressed in a simple white sari, which was covered in turmeric. She looked like she was 18, but we learned yesterday that she is in fact 23. I didn’t see the groom, and I’m not entirely sure he was there. The bride, Krutika, greeted each of the guests by touching their feet, but we didn’t let her touch ours.

Then everyone who was there from the groom’s side left. People were expecting us to leave, but clearly we were best friends with the bride, so we felt special that we got to stay. They started playing some music and the dancing commenced, but only women were allowed to dance. Ava and I were forced up to the dancing area, and there were maybe 10 of us bouncing around in a circle, so I’m pretty sure all eyes were on us. It felt really weird to be the centre of attention at somebody else’s wedding. The bride wasn’t dancing at first. I thought maybe she wasn’t allowed to, but her relatives pulled her into the circle at one point. Poor David, who came with us, even though he wasn’t technically invited, wasn’t allowed to dance, so he took pictures of us.

And sat there with Martin. Then, after I was sweating through my not-so-breathable silk, it was finally time to eat. We got into a buffet line and were given a big silver plate, onto which was placed 3 different types of fish, dried baby prawns, rice, a Koli type of roti which is made with rice, and two sweets.

The Koli, being the fishermen they are, have a way with preparing fish, and the food was absolutely delicious. Our new friends, including the bride’s mother and father, kept coming over to us to ask if we wanted more, and we managed to convince them we had enough food. We really couldn’t leave anything on our plates, because that would have been considered rude, so I’m glad they believed us. Then they didn’t let us wash our own plates, and I just let myself accept that this was what they wanted and that they were really happy to have us, rather than feel disconcertingly privileged. After dinner, we sat back in our seats and talked to Martin. Well, it was more like Martin repeating over and over again that the wedding tomorrow was across from Danda Market, at the next bus stop. Over and over again. He doesn’t really speak that much English, and he speaks Konkani, so my Hindi didn’t really help at all. While we were sitting, they started preparing the bride for her impending nuptials. As Martin put it, this was her bachelor party.

They covered her in turmeric and coconut oil while somebody sang prayers.

This is our neighbor, Martin, and the bride.

We went up to get a closer look and were of course incorporated into the close circle of relatives so we could get a proper view. Her cousins and aunts wanted us to spend the day with them for other ceremonies, and we were very sad that we had to work. At one point they started doing what is called a haldi ceremony, and the bride sits on the lap of one of her relatives while they put turmeric on her face and feed her a small food item (I don’t know what). The turmeric is supposed to be great for the complexion, according to a website I just looked at. Anyway, the ceremony turned from culturally intriguing to heart-wrenching. In patriarchal India, during wedding ceremonies the family is literally giving away the bride. She leaves her family to join that of her groom, and while in this case the geographical distance isn’t great, her interaction with her nuclear family will be more limited and her loyalties differently bound. While sitting on the lap of one of her uncles, she began to sob, as did he.

A lot of people had trouble maintaining their composure, and I felt as though I was intruding upon an incredibly intimate family moment. My outside view, however, was shattered when I was instructed to go sit in the chair. I looked at the woman who requested me like she was crazy, as I legitimately had no idea what to do. She sternly told me to sit, and so I scrambled up to the chair and found myself with a bride sitting on my lap. I put my hand in the haldi and put some on her cheeks and felt so simultaneously out of place and deeply entrenched in tradition that I might have blacked out.
This is me with a bride on my lap.

Soon afterwards, we left the party and walked back to our house.


We tried to wrap Ava's sari. It was an admirable first attempt, but Martin's wife had to do it correctly.

That’s right, Indian weddings go on forever. Before we went to this wedding, we had expectations of the fire ceremony, a grandiose party, with the saris you see in movies and dancing until three in the morning. Unfortunately we were mistaken and this reception was basically a meet and greet with gifts. The actual marriage ceremony, in which the bride and groom circle a fire seven times to signify their attachment for seven lives, had taken place earlier that evening. Oddly, it rained earlier that day, very out of the monsoon season. We were concerned that it would be seen as an inauspicious event, but everyone seemed really happy. We were going to go to the site as part of the bridal procession, but the rain kind of ruined that. We were waiting for directions from Martin when we were suddenly escorted into a wedding vehicle and driven to the nearby temple. We walked in and saw some fanciness, but a lot of people were dressed pretty casually. We were shown to a line to get some food, but unlike the night before, it was typical Indian veg. I wasn’t blown away, but hey, it’s a free meal. We spent a decent amount of time people watching. The mothers-in-law and some other family members wore traditional South Indian clothing with circles of flowers around their buns.

And the gold jewelry was pretty ridiculous. Then we got into the gift line. This was a double wedding, so Krutika and her groom, Kunal, shared a stage with Latika and Varun. We saw the bride and groom come to the stage, and I was happy that they looked happy.
The bride and groom:

Working at a domestic violence centre makes me very skeptical of arranged marriages and Indian marriage in general, which might not be fair, but it’s hard not to. However, they actually looked happy and came out holding hands, which is impressive, considering the fact that they probably met earlier this week. They were pretty cute for the entire reception, so maybe I should just keep going to weddings to eroding my disdainful view of South Asian matrimony. The couples stand on stage, and all the guests go up family by family to present them with money.
This is the accountant. Not really, but she brought that suitcase for all the cash.

Bling and baby.

Me, with the money envelope. From "The American Family"

The guest line. We got there early, luckily. When we were leaving it was several hundred people deep.

We were nervous we would somehow mess this up, and also because we knew everyone was watching us. We got up there to greet the groom, whom we had never met, and the bride who was suddenly a dear friend. We were congratulating them, and she wanted to make sure we had eaten enough food. Unbelieveable. Then we got our picture taken with them and went to our seats. We were waiting for more to happen, for music to start, but then we found out that this was the night’s event. We were slightly disappointed, but also exhausted and still had a lot of fun watching the 1,000 people who had come.

Coincidentally, Martin just came to my door to ask if we enjoyed yesterday. I told him that we had a great time and appreciated being invited, and his response was, “Well we’re neighbors. We have to respect the foreigners. When you go back to America and everyone asks you how Bombay was, you’ll tell them that. We went to Israel last year, the Holy Land, and we did that with the soldiers. You have to respect them.”

I might have just been compared to an Israeli soldier. I’m not entirely sure. I’m also surprised they went to Israel, since they’re Catholics. I would have guessed Rome.

So this is the Indian wedding experience. To a certain extent, I'm quite critical of the shaadi, or wedding. Families often subject themselves to poverty in order to put on lavish weddings, and the whole thing is really a display of wealth that is often artificial. I could speak more to arranged marriages, but in a lot of areas, the practice is changing. One of my coworkers is to be married in January, and we've been talking about it a bit in the past few weeks. She's very excited about it and had a lot of say in even meeting someone who might have been interested in her. She had every right to object to the engagement, but she really likes him and is excited to start a life with him. If they were all like that, I would have a significant amount of respect for the tradition. I also don't know how much a love marriage is an indicator of marital bliss, since the divorce rate in the US is hovering at 50%. All I can say is that as much as we were treated differently at the wedding, and the basis of our being there was because of our privilege as outsiders and what we might add to that sense of wealth, it is impossible to deny the generosity and hospitality of our neighbors, and I'm excited to continue living here with that added dimension to our relationship.

In other news from the past week or so, my laptop has recently been infested with ants. I'm not entirely sure where they came from, and thankfully I seem to have chased them out, but every time I opened my laptop, some tiny red ants came crawling out of the keys. I thought it was a fluke, but Sunday morning there were at least 15 of them, so I decided to take action. I wanted one of those air spray cans, but I didn't have one, so I thought I might be able to chase them out with annoying music. Who knows, perhaps I have to thank Billy Gilman and his rendition of "Itty Bitty Pretty One" for my insect-free Mac.

With that, I bid you adieu, or namaste.


  1. This was an amazing cultural lesson. And to think you were so intimately welcomed as a part of that wedding...it must have been an incredible experience. Your pictures are fantastic and really help us to visualize all of this as you relay stories. Thank you for yet another amazing post. Miss you and love you tons. XOXOXOXO, Er

  2. Namaste Samosa,
    1000 people lining up to give gifts. No caterer, no band, no florist, plastic lawn chairs. Girls pay attention!!!
    Sami, we love you and miss you
    I emailed some ants from home, I'm glad they arrived. Each was carrying a small Thanksgiving Treat.
    With much Love

  3. HAHA dad just made me laugh. SAMI - I was so absorbed in this, so intriguing, I loved every minute of this post! I'm glad others are enjoying you so much, makes missing you easier :). Love you!!!!


  4. yayy :) loved your post tom tom!

    also...Ants don't like peppermint..so if it's possible to get that in India just rub/sprinkle (?) a little on your laptop