Tuesday, March 07, 2006

My Big Fat Hindu Wedding




It is not everyday that you get to be guests of honour at a large Hindu wedding, but such was the case on only my second night in India - simply gob-smacking.

To understand how such a thing came about one has to understand Thilo, the German mate of many travelling years who I am spending the next 5 weeks with. He was simply walking about a market in an outer part of Delhi when a gathering caught his eyes. He entered and found what became apparent to be a pre-wedding gathering and there you go flash-bam-wallop we have pretty invitations to a wedding 50 kms out of Delhi.

The next day was hectic trying to find appropriate things to wear and a gift to an occasion we were pretty much clueless about. Shirt, tie, and a picture frame sufficed and Thilo, Martina (a German lass who is nicely letting us stay in her apartment that she has while she volunteers with autistic children.... Thilo met her on the plane) strolled up to some buses by some Hindu cows and were ushered in to a minibus and off. A strange feeling as we began slow conversation with the closely connected family we were squished in with - brothers included. Despite some double edged conversations about the benefits of arranged marriage and the lack of respect for one's partner in my culture, the 3 hour journey out of town was fun. Being slipped beers, stopping off for tea in one of their tiny villages, taught how to count in Hindi and given some idea of what to expect from the proceedings - nothing could have prepared us.

So the only foreigners for miles and miles were ushered out of a minibus to the sight of scores of people milling in excitement in the night lit up by huge neon-strips, like those on a school-room ceiling but carried around by small boys, and intermittent fireworks spurting of the ground. We are talking about years and years worth of wages.

Drums played. We met with the male arrangers of the marriage, were offered every comfort and were increasingly surrounded by a multitude of people all wanting to shake your hand, try and communicate in Hindi or so often just stare. On only your second day in a country this is a lot to handle but I am happy to say the reaction it brought forward in me was held-together confusion, interest and delight. Martina did particularly well as she had never been to Asia before and had all the extra attention that goes with being a pretty blond girl in these parts - a lot of people would have internally combusted.

Luckily there were a few people who spoke English and held polite conversation - I think knowledge and love of cricket will definitely get me far here. Then we saw the bridegroom. He was sitting on the floor surrounded on all sides by the very extended and large family (that are I believe more than common-place here) dressed somewhat like an Indian prince of old.

He was then led out and the procession began. The women wait at the wedding location while the men proceed to the ceremony ahead and alongside the husband-to-be in a flashy thrown cart pulled by white-horses. The reality is that 'proceed' does nothing close to justice - carnival is far closer. What ensued was perhaps the craziest party atmosphere and certainly the most surprising I have ever encountered. It took a full two hours to move a distance that should not take a quarter of that time while men danced, jigged, vibrated, shook-themselves in every and each which way to local music blasted at amazing decibels out of speakers on wheels, surrounded by a drum band and lined by the same strobe-light boys. Simply wow. I could not believe the unadulterated release and joy amongst the men dancing and celebrating together. We were led in pride of place just in front of the horses and were looked after by some of the most important men. This is traditionally a men-only affair and that they were prepared to change there tradition to allow Martina to come with us was touching and thoughtful. Not many women will have had this privilege.

This is coming close to the main point I wish to communicate about the evening. The simply unbelievable generosity to some random foreigners who they have never met and have no great importance in the world. I simply could not believe it when after being given everything I could possibly fill myself with at the reception (amazing food by the way but two days in bed later may be connected) a man arranging the marriage explained that as a guest I was his "superior" and that is exactly how they treated me. Such incredible hospitality - we can learn a lot as a culture that is of no doubt to me. Perhaps the most humbling experience of my life.

Back to the parade - it deserves more description then I can possibly give it. To watch men of all ages strutting their stuff in the most unique and arguably outrageous ways was one thing to observe, another to participate in. So what do you do when people constantly invite you and even pull you in - you give it a damn good go. At first, to dance in front of a crowd of people in very strange unknown surroundings, in unknown ways and knowing perfectly well that the majority of eyes are watching you is a tad intimidating. Initial attempts were therefore short-lived and not full-hearted, but as the procession went on the improvement in our participation touched the level where one man commented that I had had too much wine - I had none, but OK maybe a couple of beers.

All along everyone was so kind, friendly and jolly. What became obvious is that by greeting or speaking to anyone we were honouring them. This is unusual and not easy to get used to. Further, it is quite a problem when they come to offer you food and simple capacity means that you can not honour everyone. Therefore it is even more strange when lowly me has to choose who should be honoured and who not.... too much for the only slowly developing cultural grey-matter.

We were even led onto the grooms chariot where the family took photos of us with them. Many many people we had never met and would never meet again wished for photos of us and with us. Suddenly I realised more than ever why I never wish to be a celebrity and I was content that I did not barge in to conversation with Ian Botham at the airport.

The sight of a middle aged man gyrating at the hips into another man while holding a few rupee note above his head sticks in the memory-banks. What made this event such a sensory-overload (a phrase I foresee I will use often in India) was that there were so many of these kind of sights, many of which we were active particpants within. Another memory flashes into recollection of a man throwing many notes into the air and drummer-boys and unconnected bystanders all running further into the middle of the main road (the procession was on a major-highway) dodging trucks for a few rupees. Again, a lot for the head to take.

After this incredible 2 hours we made it to the main reception and the women who had been waiting. A large communal garden donned out in sash and light with a large stage at the front with two thrones and lashings of exciting food on each side. After much more surroundings, polite-conversation and greetings, and another conversation with the head male on the groom's side thanking me or coming and giving far more respect then I may ever deserve, things started to roll. There was colour everywhere - in the stunning dresses of the ladies, on the children, in the food and on the thrones. The groom at last took a seat (you can have too many people surrounding you) and the wife-to-be whom he had never laid an eye upon, let alone anything else, was led out in the most gorgeous clothing, with henna decorated hands and lashed by golden jewellery. I have to say she looked very nervous indeed, juxtaposed to the groom all confident smile. Quite a moment.

Completely different to our own traditions, the event fairly rapidly wound down at least in terms of the involvement of the grooms family. There was much picture taking and smiling on stage while others joined them and some gave presents. After a necessary delay - it felt very strange to have a glimmer of lime-light let alone steel the spotlight as at times it quite embarrassingly felt - we entered onto the stage and had our photos with the couple. Many more photos, hugs, and surroundings occurred before we were rushed off into the night to all that Delhi is. The children were simply wonderful and delightful. All smiles only wanting some attention and a photo.

As we rushed off into the night squeezed into the back of a mini-bus and rather shell-shocked, one could only but imagine what was running through the minds of the couple who were to be imminently married by a Brahman beside a ring of fire. They had never even met, yet in the morning he would lead here away from her family to a place she had not been. Quite shocking in many respects to the western mind, but the funny thing is that from this night I got the impression that they were likely to have a far longer and more fulfilling union then many equivalents at home. A union of family and respect for life....one hopes.

All in all it was a lot of gob-smacking fun!!!
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