As travelers, we often feel we’ve hit the jackpot when we get to experience life abroad as a local would. We search high and low for the insider’s truth of a foreign city, eschewing the tourist traps and praying we’ll stumble upon that hole-in-the-wall dive with the best food in town.
One evening in Rishikesh, the ultimate authentic experience was handed to us on a silver platter. We were invited to an Indian wedding! As we were walking home along the Ganges, we made fast friends with a guy from Jaipur named Sohail, who happened to be 1. very nice, 2. our age, and 3. the brother of a bride-to-be. He very kindly extended us an invitation to his sister’s wedding (there’s that Indian hospitality). Coincidently, we were already planning to be in Jaipur the week of the ceremony.
“Sohail says the wedding lasts for 6 days, though,” I discuss with Kim. Originally we’d allotted 3-4 days to Jaipur.
“But I think we should stay. What do you think?”
“Definitely,” Kim agrees. “Talk about getting to experience real India.”
So, in pursuit of authenticity, we adjust our travel plans.
An easy train trip lands us in Jaipur, where we are quickly whisked away into Sohail’s world and introduced to his family. Across the board the members of Sohail’s family receive me and Kim with enthusiasm. Our experience in India is teaching us to expect warm welcomes, but a family that is so genuinely excited to host two foreigners the week of a wedding is another level.
I should clarify: when I say Sohail’s family, I mean his entire family. His siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, great aunts, great uncles, and so on. They all live together in a big colorful house that functions more like an apartment building, each nuclear family occupying one room.
It’s a Tuesday, and the ceremony is on Sunday.
“Today and tomorrow we are mostly working. I take invitations to friends’ houses, and this and that,” Sohail explains to us. “Thursday will be a small party – maybe 150 people. We will dance and have music, and the women will put yellow on their faces. You know, turmeric? Friday is henna night. Saturday, the women will go to the groom’s house with sweets, and then we will make a big party – so much party, late in the night. Sunday will be the marriage and my sister will go with her husband.”
A whistle-stop description of an Indian wedding.
“If there will be 150 guests at the small party…” I ask Sohail, “how many people will be at the wedding?”
“Maybe… 1500? 2000?” he replies, nonchalantly.
Sohail’s grandfather works in gems, one of Jaipur’s biggest industries. It seems like his family is a prominent one, but he says they are average. Judging by the number of expected guests at their functions, I find that hard to believe.
“No, no, this is very Indian – to have this many people at a wedding,” he insists.
Who knows. I don’t have a standard of comparison.
As two young female American tourists in India, we’re growing accustomed to being persons of fascination, so I’m not surprised when our presence illicits an initial shock factor for the family. Plus, Tuesday and Wednesday don’t involve many wedding-related activities, so we are very much center stage our first two days in their company.
But Thursday rolls around and we still seem to be a novelty. The older cousins dote on our every need while the younger cousins demand our constant attention. Wherever we go, all eyes are on us. It’s our third day around the house, but the shine isn’t wearing off of our American veneer.
“Wow… I’ve never had such an entourage,” Kim remarks.
Personally, I don’t interpret this as an extension of the standard Indian hospitality. To me it seems to be the manifestation of a desire for cultural exchange. Sohail’s family earnestly wants to show us how they live, and accordingly, they’re invested in our understanding.
Thursday is the night of the “small party” – the first official function – and the house is buzzing. The celebration is a fancy one, and neither Kim nor I are appropriately dressed. The older female cousins offer to lend us gowns, and luckily there are a couple that fit us. The girls have a blast getting us all dolled up.
“You look Indian!!!” exclaims Insha, age 11, beaming at our transformed appearances as we head downstairs.
But to our surprise, the Indian outfits actually make us feel more American. Instead of helping us transition into their world, the dresses work as an obstacle to our accessing it. The atmosphere of the party is lively, but we’re so acutely aware of the foreignness of our attire that we can’t interact confidently or move comfortably.
Thursday’s party carries on late into the night, although we don’t stay for the whole affair. Unfortunately we miss the part where women apply turmeric to their faces, and we only see some of the dancing. We’re a little embarrassed to leave the party before the 5 year olds do… but the attention really is overwhelming. Pictures are being snapped of us left and right, and every few minutes someone asks us if we’re having a good time, if we’re hungry or thirsty, et cetera. All very considerate, of course — but we’re starting to sweat under our spotlight.
“I don’t mean this to sound haughty,” I say to Kim on our way home, “but I’m worried we’re upstaging the bride.”
“I know — I was wondering the same thing. But I think it’s okay,” she replies. “I think Indian brides are supposed to be very demure, anyway.”
That does seem to be true. Sohail’s sister isn’t allowed to speak to anyone or leave her house for the entire 6 days leading up to her marriage. Henna is applied to her hands and feet, but that’s the extent of her involvement in the celebration.
According to Sohail, Thursday’s party goes until 4 30 or 5 AM. (No alcohol, by the way.) Everyone sleeps for a few hours, then gets in gear for Friday’s function. Talk about rallying.
But Friday in general is much more low-key. The night revolves around henna and dancing. Cousins zip around with tubes of henna and paint each other’s hands and arms, while the older family members alternate taking the floor to perform routines to traditional songs. We’re able to wear our own clothes, so we feel much more comfortable. We even dance for a little while! And we of course say yes to the beautiful hennas. This time we have the energy to stay until things wind down, which is about 2 AM.
As I fall asleep on Friday, I can’t help but contemplate the feasibility of our initial quest to uncover something distinctly Indian. It’s very gracious of his family to teach us their traditions, but every time they pause to explain, it interrupts the natural flow of what they were doing. Plus, we haven’t been given much of an opportunity to observe because we’ve been constantly called upon to participate and perform. (Sometimes literally perform — I had a major Maria von Trapp moment when Sohail brought me his guitar and asked me to play while all the children sat around me. I even sang Edelweiss.) Suffice it to say, we’ve immersed ourselves in this environment to get an authentic experience, but our very presence is eclipsing the authenticity we seek.
“It’s the observer effect,” Kim notes. “The very act of observing changes that which is being observed.”