After my vaudeville debut, vigilant Anita came downstairs and told me it was time for bed; we had had a long day and should get some rest. I couldn’t argue with her there, so I agreed to head to sleep.
However, I quickly realized that the promise of my own room was completely false. My and Anita’s cots were in the kitchen/living room/bedroom, which was still full of women, children, and crying babies. Kids who couldn’t contain their curiosity kept sneaking past me, loudly whispering “Goodnight!” and/or tickling my feet. Anita slept through the cacophony, until a relative would sit down on her cot, wake her up, and start chatting. Sleep was not an option. So ended Day 2.
On Day 3, the intensity amped up. Since I was sleeping in the kitchen, my morning wake up call came at 6am when the chai pots started clanking next to my head. The entire house became a hive of activity. Friends and relatives arrived continuously for the wedding festivities, and every room and hallway buzzed with guests.
As the sole foreigner at the celebration, I was more a wedding gift than a guest. Countless people arriving at the event paraded past me to have a look at the exotic newcomer. The constant and insistent Indian hospitality had me exhausted by 9am.
Sensing my waning veneer of enthusiasm, Anita dragged me to another section of the house and into Nilam’s room. To be honest, I’m unclear how Nilam was related to the wedding family, but she, her husband, and adorable daughter Anjali lived in an inviting room where I ended up spending 75% of the rest of the day. This room served as a home base, fortifiable against the guests who constantly peered through the window blinds to see me.
Now over the past weeks preceding the wedding, Anita had been complaining about pain she was having in her teeth. So for some reason during this festive occasion, Anita decided to go to the dentist for the first time in her life. Curious about the world outside Nilam’s room, not wanting to be left behind to the mercy of innumerable curious guests, and as the wife of a dentist, I convinced Anita to take me along. Walking out of Anita’s mother’s house for the first time, I realized that we were in one of those frenetic Indian towns where cows graze on garbage, camels tow carts piled improbably high with cargo, and the densely populated land turns agrarian within mere steps. So down the street we went to a bright, freshly painted store not much bigger than a college dorm room. I only realized that this was a dentist’s “office” when I notice the man sitting at a desk was carving dentures.
Anita anxiously sat down in the white plastic chair reserved for patients, while Anita’s relative encouraged her. Within seven minutes, Anita’s dentist had poked at her molar, injected anesthetic into her gums, and yanked out her tooth with a pair of pliers. Having never visited a dentist before, Anita had had no idea what was coming, and she tensely squirmed and groaned during the entire procedure. I watched with my mouth hanging open. This was a far cry from the three-hour, bureaucratic, sterile appointments at Tufts.
After Anita’s dental trauma and my four hours’ sleep the previous night, we both needed a nap. Some guy (no idea who) drove Anita and me by scooter (yes, three adults, one scooter) to another local relative’s house, where after the requisite socializing and chai drinking we got the first peace and quiet I had enjoyed for thirty-six hours.
When we got back to Anita’s mother’s house, I was escorted directly back to Nilam’s room. From 4pm until 10pm, I was not allowed to leave my cage. From 4pm to around 6:30pm, kids and adults came through the room in an endless parade of staring and giggling and pointing. At 6:30pm, we started getting dressed for the festivities. I had to put deodorant on with a crowd of fifteen women and children staring at me from a literally two-foot range. This was a low point
Finally, Nilam ushered almost everyone out of the room and bolted the door. Anita, Nilam, and Suresh’s wife dressed me in my first sari, put kohl around my eyes, and a bindi on my forehead. All the while a troupe of invaders attempted to break down the door and look in the windows for a peek. At this gathering, there was no hope for privacy.
Now that I was in the sari, I figured that the wedding festivities, my primary reason for attending this farcical comedy, had to start soon. However, before I was allowed to leave Nilam’s room, Anita’s son Suni stumbled drunkenly into Nilam’s room, began yelling at Anita about something, made Anita cry, and was rebuked by his grandmother before he left. The drama, exhaustion, waiting, and tears seriously put me on edge.
Finally, after hours of me asking what was happening outside the confines of Nilam’s room, I was allowed to find out for myself. At 10:30pm, we all went to see the bride. In a small storeroom off the house’s foyer, a crowd of women had gathered to watch the final ornamentation of the young wife-to-be. She looked like a sparkling doll, completely weighed down by her sari, jewelry, and makeup.
(I had planned to take one thousand pictures at the wedding. However, every time I took out my camera I was literally SWARMED by people wanting to have their picture taken. Here is one of the few shots I was able to take of the bride, when I was specifically told to do so.)
After admiring the bride, we all went upstairs and sat around a grate in the floor. Looking through this grate, we were able to see the concrete foyer, where the wedding ceremony would be held. At about 11pm, the groom finally arrived, and the ceremony began, as we watched from above.
The groom arrived, escorted by a brigade of his friends, photographers and videographers, whose bright lights illuminated the scene like a stage set. People pushed and shoved to try to get into the small foyer where the fathers of the bride and groom sat with a Brahmin around a fire. The bride’s face was covered, and the groom wore a sparkling gold jacket. Despite the great commotion outside the foyer, the fathers ceremonially haggled to finalize the dowry agreement. The bride and groom then walked together around the sacrificial fire, a ritual whose symbolic cyclicality reminded me of the exchange of rings in the West. (Wedding rings are not a traditional symbol of matrimony here.) The bride was finally revealed to the groom, and they were officially married. Fifteen minutes after the ceremony began, it was over. “Now what?” I asked.
I had traveled for ten hours, slept for about four, been ogled and teased, in order to see a wedding that lasted for fifteen minutes. (While various intimate rituals and traditions had gone on behind the scenes, the majority of the guests only observe the final ceremony.)
Apparently, women were not allowed to enjoy the pre- and post-marriage celebration because drinking “whixey” is highly inappropriate. The men drank, danced, and caroused, and this behavior in turn made their mothers and wives cry. One of the three young women with a baby, sitting in the same room where I had met her the night before, had tears running down her otherwise stony face because her husband had been drinking. We sat in the same room, but our lives were worlds apart.
The family ate dinner at midnight and then we headed back to Nilam’s room for some sleep. But at 1am, Anita said, “Come on! The bride is leaving!”
“Where is she going?” I asked naively.
“To live with her in-laws,” Anita said matter-of-factly.
We watched as all the women at the wedding half-led, half-carried the weeping bride to a carful of men, waiting to take her to her new life. As they walked, the women chanted a mournful song. While American weddings may be a symbolic end of childhood, this Indian wedding was no metaphor. Throughout her life, the bride had lived under her parents’ roof, but her new life as a married woman was beginning; her responsibility would be to care for her husband and his family. The wedding ended, and the event was nothing like the happy epic Indian celebration I had anticipated. Instead, I had looked through an unsettling window into the world of women in India.
Our train back to Delhi was leaving at 7am, and we went back to Nilam’s room to get some sleep. However, at 3am, I was still awake for several reasons: one, because I was sharing Nilam’s bed with Anita and Anjali; two, because Nilam, Anita’s mother, and two other women were busily getting ready for bed on the floor; and three, because everyone kept waking each other up to talk.
Suresh’s wife woke me up at 6:30am for the train. At 6:40am, waiting to leave, I asked, “are we going to the train station now?”
“Yes.” Suresh’s children were all still sleeping.
At 6:45, “are we leaving soon?”
“Very soon.” Suresh’s son was still sleeping, and his two daughters had disappeared.
At 6:55am, “shouldn’t we leave for our train now?”
“Oh we won’t make it. We’ll get the 9am train.” This was a challenging statement to accept after I’d been woken up after three and a half hours of sleep to catch a 7am train.
At 8:45am, I said “are we leaving for the train now?”
“Oh there is no nine o’clock train. We are taking the 11am train.”
I reached my breaking point. I just rolled over on the cot, where Anita and her mother were also sitting, and gave up.
Finally, at 10:40am, we roused ourselves, said our goodbyes, and headed to the train station, where it was discovered that the train was, naturally, sold out.
We got in another rickshaw and went to the local bus station. Trains in India can be chaotic, but buses are just plain insane. We boarded the bus where I sat squished between Anita and Suresh (neither of whom are particularly svelte) on a seat made for two people. Add a severely potholed road, a 90 degree interior temperature, and so many people that the aisle was entirely filled with standing passengers for the three hour duration of the ride, and that was the travel experience. Despite the discomfort, we laughed throughout the trip, as women jostled babies into strangers laps, passengers dozed, and the bus jolted along.
We arrived back in Gurgaon, and I began strategize my exit. However, when I suggested that I head directly to the Metro from the bus station, Anita’s family was horrified. “But it’s Sumit’s birthday! You have to stay for the celebration!” Good lord, after the crazy trip they were guilt-tripping me.
After haggling in true Indian fashion over my departure time, we came to an agreement that I would leave in three hours after having dinner. But we got back to the house and discovered that for some unknown reason someone had taken the keys to the padlocks on the bedroom/living room and kitchen doors. After some yelling between Suresh and his wife, the apparent course of action was to knock the padlocks off the doors with a large rock. Because of the appointed 5:30pm deadline, there was great urgency to feed me. This added to my guilt. I basically felt like I was stuck waiting to deplane from a 10-seater prop-plane on the JFK runway, while a group of screaming flight attendants tried to open the hatch door.
Finally, the doors were opened, the dinner was cooked, and I scarfed down my meal. I thanked everyone profusely and prepared to leave. However, Anita and Suresh’s twelve-year-old daughter appeared to be getting ready to go somewhere as well. Suresh had insisted that they escort me back to Delhi, despite that Anita has never taken the Metro in her life. “That is absolutely unnecessary!” I anxiously pleaded, but Suresh wouldn’t budge. The combination of “guest is god” and my single femaleness ensured that I was not going anywhere alone.
Finally, I relented, and Anita, Suresh’s daughter, and I got in a bicycle rickshaw and headed to the Metro. Unsurprisingly, the journey took twice as long as expected, and two hours later, we finally got back to Lajpat Nagar. I put Anita and her niece in a rickshaw to Anita’s apartment in central Delhi. Then standing on a busy street in downtown Delhi, I experienced my first moments of anonymity and aloneness in 72 hours.
In the interest of keeping this post to a semi-reasonable length, I’ve left out some details of this wild experience, but words can’t really do justice to this cultural immersion. I had gone to see a wedding but experienced an Indian family’s purpose. The aggressive hospitality and warmth of everyone I encountered brought comfort and provoked frustration, provided joy and caused complete exhaustion. While I can’t say I would want to repeat this experience, I learned more about what it is to be a part of an Indian family than I ever could have from my remote perch in Delhi. The absolutely insane decision to accept Anita’s wedding invitation may have been the best and definitely the most memorable decision I will make during this adventure.