The last two days of the wedding were as unfamiliar as the first few were accessible. We were certainly served the touch of the exotic we’d hungered for.
NB: if you want some context, here’s part one.
On Saturday night, we meet Sohail’s family at the groom’s house, where we find everyone sitting on the roof surrounding the groom. As they were at Thursday’s “small party,” the women are dressed in their finest — gowns of every color, jewels draped elegantly, elaborate makeup. They look marvelous.
By the way, the groom is wearing a tshirt and jeans. In fact, all of the men are wearing extremely casual clothes, in stark contrast to the beautifully dressed women.
The groom sits cross-legged, adorned with various wreaths and with the bright light of a video camera shining on him. A large tray of what appears to be sand is laid in front of him.
“No, that is sweets,” Sohail explains to me. “Dessert.”
According to tradition, the cousins and aunts of the bride take turns kneeling in front of the groom next to this tray. Sprinkled throughout the tray are various coins and bills. Each woman has a chance to feed the groom the dessert using the money.
One of the cousins singles Kim out and beckons her over. The family wants her to take a turn feeding the groom.
“Go on, Kim!” Sohail encourages.
“But… I don’t know what to do!” Kim pauses. At this point we’ve seen a few other women do it, but otherwise the ritual is entirely new to us.
After a moment’s hesitation, Kim kneels down in front of the groom. She takes a coin and scoops up some sweet, when —
“No! No! No!” several women shout in unison. “Right hand!!! Right hand!!”
Initially Kim has the coin in her left hand, which, judging by everyone’s reaction, is inappropriate. She changed hands and raises the coin to the groom’s mouth; he bites down on it, and she gets up to leave.
“No! No!” the choir sings again. “Fight for it!!”
Kim looks up at her eager onlookers with a confused smile. She loads up another coin with the sweet and feeds it to the groom. He again catches the coin between his teeth without a problem, and Kim gets up. She joins me and Sohail on the sidelines.
“You’re not supposed to let him take the money,” Sohail clues us in. “You feed him the sweet, but try and keep the coin.”
“Ohhhhhhh…..” we chorus. Our aha moment.
It seems the ritual is sort of like a game: the woman (an aunt, cousin, or sister of the bride) loads up a coin with some of the dessert and feeds it to the groom. As he eats the sweet, he tries to catch the money with his teeth, while she tries to snatch it away before he can.
With the advantage of having watched Kim go before me, I’m more confident when I kneel in front of the man of the hour. But whereas Kim didn’t hold on tight enough to the money, I apparently struggle too much to keep it. I get into a little tug-of-war with the groom and won’t relinquish the coin even after he catches it in his teeth.
“Okay, okay, okay!” I hear from behind me. “That’s enough!! Get up! Okay!”
I guess you have to be just the right amount of feisty.
But other than these few minutes of stardom, our foreignness is only briefly on parade. From here on out, the proceedings continue with us comfortably on the periphery. This is the first time all week that we’re able to fade even a little bit into the background, simply because we are just too unfamiliar with the rituals.
Once all the women have a chance to feed the groom, the ceremony wraps up with the conferral of the ring and the presentation of what I can only assume is the bride’s dowry. (“Dowry,” understandably, is an English word with which Sohail is unfamiliar, but the bride’s grandmother strolled up to the groom and handed him a sumptuous wad of cash… so, I’m calling it a dowry.)
When the ceremony ends, everyone but the groom heads back to the bride’s house to dance. Tonight’s dancing is more organized than on previous nights. Some routines even require specific costumes.
I quietly duck into a staircase and watch the goings on from a more removed vantage point. No one approaches me, or drags me onto the dance floor. I finally feel like I’m able to observe everyone in their natural habitat for awhile.
This is what I was craving — the chance to more or less be a fly on the wall and watch Sohail’s family just being themselves, unfiltered. Maybe, with a little calculated effort to blend into the scenery, the “authentic experience” is possible, after all.
At last, it’s Sunday — the day of the wedding!
About 8 PM we arrive at Sohail’s house, where we are promptly instructed to put on two dresses that Riza, the bride, has set aside for us.
“Oh, thank god…” Kim says upon seeing our dresses. “It’s black!!”
These dresses fit us much more comfortably than Thursday’s did, and we’re actually quite excited to be wearing them. Having dressed, we walk down the street to Sohail’s grandfather’s house (read: mansion), where the marriage ceremony is being held. Riza has not yet arrived but it seems that most guests are in attendance. We’re escorted into the living room, which is filled with hundreds of again fabulously dressed women. A few of them we recognize as Sohail’s family; the others, I’m sure, are all wondering what the hell Kim and I are doing there.
“Are we waiting for Riza to come?” I ask Farrugia, one of the older cousins.
“No, no,” she points outside. “We are waiting for the men to eat.”
I look out into the courtyard. Hundreds of (again, casually) dressed men are seated cross-legged along four rows of tables, eating.
“After the men finish, the women eat,” Farrugia continues. She has been very patient all week with our ignorance of her customs.
It takes about two hours for the men to finish, at which point the women eat. It’s a little tricky to eat rice and lamb with no utensils and using only our right hands — and without spilling it on Riza’s nice dresses — but magically, we manage. After our meal, we follow Farrugia upstairs.
“Now what?” I ask Farrugia, who at this point expects this question from me like clockwork, I’m sure.
“Now, the groom will come,” she says, pointing out the window. “See the fireworks?”
Kim and I float to the windowsill in our billowy gowns, feeling like two princesses gazing out of the windows of a castle.
“The fireworks are the groom,” Farrugia tells us. “He is coming on a horse. When he comes, he will ask for Riza’s hand. She will accept him and tell him to come inside. Then, the family of the groom will dress Riza in jewels and makeup and a red dress, and when she is ready she will go downstairs and meet her husband. Everyone will cry, and then she will leave with him.”
I forgot to mention that this is an arranged marriage. Riza had the choice between “marrying for love” and an arranged marriage, and she chose the latter. She has never met her husband-to-be, and only began exchanging letters with him 5 days ago.
Kim, Farrugia, and I watch out the window as the groom approaches on horseback. There must be close to 1,000 people below us, cheering and drumming and sending up fireworks to signal his arrival.
I can’t help but smile. For the second time this weekend, I find myself in an ideal position — hovering above all the commotion, observing the events without interrupting their intertia, absorbing the cultural information like a sponge.
Suddenly I realize the groom has been out of sight for some time. I wonder where he’s gone and what we’re waiting for.
“He’s in the mosque signing some papers,” Farrugia tells us. “He will come back soon.”
“Sorry…” I say, caught off guard, and unsure whether or not to ask my next question.
“…why is he in the mosque?”
Farrugia shrugs her shoulders and smiles kindly.
“Muslim tradition,” she answers.
Kim and I look at each other, utterly stunned. We’ve been celebrating with this family for FIVE DAYS, and are just now realizing that they are Muslim.
I turn away and stare out the window to hide my embarrassment. How did such an important detail elude me until now?! It’s not that I assumed that they were Hindu; it’s that religion hadn’t once crossed my mind all week. Did it really not occur to me that these traditions were of some religious nature, and not just simply “Indian?”
The rest of the night takes on a different tone after the revelation of this information. I can’t get out of my head. I’m running through the events of the past week, discovering in retrospect all of the moments that I should’ve made the connection between the marriage ritual and religion. I feel a little like I just attended a Christian wedding and didn’t even notice I was in a church.
Luckily the affair is winding down. Riza’s face is still veiled as she meets her groom. She says specific words that acknowledge her acceptance of him as her husband, and they share various foods together. Then the plethora of wedding gifts is loaded into various cars, and Riza’s family hugs her goodbye with tears flowing down their cheeks. She climbs into a car with her new husband, and they drive off.
And it’s over. No dancing, no cheering. The evening ends on a solemn note.
We bid a short but sweet farewell to Sohail’s gracious, vibrant family, thanks to whom we’ve spent a truly extraordinary week. And just like that, our special portal to “real India” closes.
As I fall asleep on Sunday night, I feel both fulfilled and foolish. On one hand, I feel I managed to capture many moments that I consider authentic — moments where I was unobtrusive, almost invisible… moments when I was certain that the novelty of my presence hadn’t disturbed the essential nature of things.
But on the other hand, my interpretation of those moments was fundamentally ill-informed. I was witnessing traditions that I wasn’t understanding in their proper context. I’d conflated religion and culture into some indeterminate category I was calling “Indian,” not realizing that it’s impossible to isolate a wedding in any country from whatever religion (or lack thereof) it entails. Here I am, hunting down my authentic experience, when I don’t even have the right idea of what’s authentically Indian.
So, I’ll leave it at this: perhaps a truly authentic experience is tricky to pin down. But, if you know what you’re seeking — if you’re not just chasing the nebulous concept of authenticity — it might be a bit less tricky.