My Big Fat Arranged-Marriage Wedding: Part I
Rekha had never met him before. His name was Nandu, and he was Brahmin – the highest priestly-scholarly caste – like her. He came from a good home near the city of Bikaner in northern Rajasthan, just three hours from her parents’ home.
But that did little to console Rekha.
About 90% of Indian marriages are arranged; ‘love marriages’ do happen, but only in larger, cosmopolitan cities where young men and women meet at colleges and universities. They are almost unheard of in villages, where some 70% of the country’s population live.
The arrangement of marriages – as the Times of India‘s Sunday ‘Matrimonial’ pages reveal – is serious business here. Advertisements for ‘wanted’ brides and grooms are sorted by caste (Brahmins to ‘Scheduled Caste’ Jatavs), by state (Bengali, Himachali, Punjabi), and by profession (Doctors, Engineers, Software Professionals). Some come under Cosmopolitan – a forward-thinking bunch who declare bravely “caste no bar” and “no dowry necessary” – and others – perhaps more candidly, certainly less desirably – under HIV Positive. Some request “early alliance”, most ask for a “decent marriage”, and all welcome applications only “with photograph and horoscope”.
Advertisements range from the relatively wordy –
Very fair, handsome, Well-built, Well placed, Clean habits Divorcee, Chennai based, Two sons 15/12 seeks Pretty Brahmin Homley, Clean Habits, Unmarried or Issueless Divorcee/Widow.
– to the cryptically abbreviated –
WELL edu, slim, b’ful hmly girl 4 h’some Pbi Sr Br. Veg Boy 29 / 5″7 MBA Sr Mgr MNC Chandigarh fmly
– but all are hopeful.
Rekha and Nandu’s wedding seemed more about their families and the contract between them, their friends and their neighbours than about the young couple themselves. Indeed, they had met only once before.
Over the weeks that led up to the ten-day event, Rekha (naturally stick-insect-like) seemed to grow thinner and smaller, to fade into the background. It was her younger sister, Usha, who proudly presented our invitations, told us what to wear, and squealed girlishly each time conversation turned – as it so often did – to the wedding.
On the evening of the first day, Helen and I were invited to join thirty or so women at Rekha’s house to sing traditional wedding songs. While we sat chatting and singing in her Brahmin-blue courtyard, Rekha remained in a small side-room, sewing a sari blouse on her old Singer. Between verses and songs, I could hear the machine chugging on determinedly.
Apart from Rekha’s unsettling absence, however, I enjoyed these evenings. It was rare for me to be with women in a women-only environment. Though I spent everyday in Setrawa teaching exclusively girls, and most days eating meals with female neighbours, I was rarely out of the company of men: the chai-wallah, vegetable sellers, fabric shop owners and other characters who dominated the life of the village market place were all male; even in our hostesses’ homes, I had the feeling that their behaviour was tempered by their husbands’ lurking, background presence. Outside the village, as tourists, Helen and I only ever met men – only, that is, except in the jolly, irreverent atmosphere of the Ladies Only train carriage.
The women at Rekha’s house, like those on the train, were vocal, hands-on, curious and uninhibited. Their concerns were entirely superficial: my hair was stroked, the merits of my eyes, ears, nose and lips discussed, my clothes and jewellery evaluated. Though I’m certain I fell short on most counts, I was unfailingly redeemed by my white skin, which they would compare to theirs, arm to arm. When I attempted to explain that, actually, most goris (white girls) would like to have sun-browned skin, they would laugh and exchange knowing looks. Pagal. Mad English girl.
The singing, examination, and merriment continued for five days. In this time, I got to know most of the women’s faces, some of their names, and to identify the leaders of the various factions that emerged. Groups of young and old (or, more accurately, married and unmarried) women and girls took turns to sing in a competition based mainly on longevity and volume of the songs. Though I could understand little of their content, Usha’s explanations revealed that the songs ranged from those blessing the alliance and praising a multiplicity of Hindu gods, to those – as on the evening Rekha’s future father-in-law came to visit her father – merrily insulting the bride’s new family, which is apparently traditional.
On Monday of the main week, at exactly 5.17pm, the first proper ceremony of the wedding began. (This time had been decided by astrologers to be most auspicious, given the alignment of the planets and both the bride and groom’s astrological make-ups.) The women (and some boys too young to be considered prohibitively male) sat in the courtyard on rugs arranged around a low stool. Rekha emerged out of the side-room in which she had for the past days sought refuge and sat on the stool, her sari veil pulled down over her face. Four women held the corners of a gold-trimmed piece of material high over her head, while others brought out a large thali arranged with small pots of mixtures and pastes. Each of Rekha’s aunts scooped some yellow haldi (turmeric) paste onto their fingers, crossed their arms and wiped it on Rekha’s bare feet, her knees, shoulders, and sometimes her cheeks, then circled their hands over her head. They dabbed their fingers in a pot of vermillion paste, streaked a bindi on her forehead, and stuck some grains of rice to the fresh colour. Some of them also fed bits of doughy cake into her mouth. This ritual was repeated by each of her female relations, and finally by Helen and me.
Rekha’s grandmother made us cups of sweet chai then tied charm bracelets round our wrists. Her own mother, Rekha’s great-grandmother, dressed in her traditional, plain white widows’ garb, sat on a stool to view the scene, a faraway look in her eyes.
Mother and Daughter
That evening, we were all invited for supper at Rekha’s uncle’s house: we walked there through the village to the beat of a drum played by Dalit Laxmi’s dark-skinned brother, singing wedding songs. At supper, we sat cross-legged on the ground in a circle, right knee and hand facing inwards towards the large Rajasthani thali we shared. The thali consisted of curried vegetables, daal, rice, chapati and pani puri, various pickles and an array of sugary sweets.
We sat in the same formation to share thalis with the same women for both lunch and supper everyday that week. The evening entertainment progressed, however, from unaccompanied female singing to Marwari drum dancing, for which Rekha’s male relations and neighbours joined us. Spectators would gather round the dancers, and take turns to circle five- or ten-rupee notes over their heads before tucking them into the frame of the drum, as a tip for the drummers.
On the penultimate day, a large stage was erected across the sandy path outside Rekha’s house (barring the entry of the unfortunate neighbours on the wrong side to the rest of the village). Coloured lights were strung between the houses. Unfortunately, frequent power cuts disrupted both this luminance and the program of dance performances that evening.
The performances, such as they were, ranged from young cousins’ choreographed Bollywood set pieces to older aunts’ Marwari-style wrist-turning and stamping. The latter were vigorous, elegant and, unexpectedly, humbling. Their dancing was beautiful and alive in a way that that of UK nightclubs just isn’t.
Once the crowd of neighbours had dissolved and it was just family left, Rekha climbed down from the side of the stage (where she had been sitting to view the action), to dance with Usha, Helen and me. Small children and heavy uncles danced wildly together, hands in the air, conscious that tomorrow the groom’s family would descend on the village, and the contract-making would begin…