Attending an Indian wedding was one of my top goals for this year of cultural immersion, and only two months into the experience, I achieved this goal. As it turns out, a traditional Hindu wedding in relatively rural India does not resemble Bollywood wedding scenes…at all.
A few weeks ago, Anita asked us residents of “The Laj” if we would like to go with her and her family to her cousin’s wedding. Given my wedding goal, I instantly said yes without doing my due diligence. None of my roommates were available (or willing) to go with me, so I was flying solo.
While I had agreed to go to the wedding, no questions asked, Sana did obtain some information for me from Anita. We would spend a night in Gurgaon, a city on the outskirts of Delhi, at Anita’s house and the home of her brother and his family. The next day we would go to the wedding and then return to Delhi the following day. Most importantly, I would sleep in my own room. Piece of cake.
The first step in the wedding adventure was being outfitted in a sari. I forked over some rupees to Anita and left the sari selection to her. (I was not allowed to partake in the shopping since the sari salesman would have charged me double what Anita paid. The joy of being a Westerner in India.) Anita decided on a robin’s egg blue sari with gold sequins. However, saris are not 100% pret-a-porter. In addition to several yards of sari fabric, the outfit requires matching churri (bangles), a petticoat, and a tailored cropped blouse. So Anita bundled me onto the local bus and we headed to Chirag Delhi market, where Anita bought me 24 glittery blue bangles and a drawstring-waist petticoat, and the local tailor measured me for my blouse while his various assistants giggled at me. The concept of a white girl wearing a sari was hugely amusing to everyone. At the time, I still found their amusement amusing.
The next day, Anita, her two little grandkids, and I left Lajpat Nagar and headed for her house Gurgaon. After one auto-rickshaw, a bus, a cycle rickshaw, a fair amount of traffic, and two hours, we arrived in Anita’s neighborhood. As I stared wide-eyed at the pigs, cows, and horses rooting around in the street, the local residents stared equally wide-eyed at me. (Staring is far more socially acceptable here in India than it is in the States.) We entered Anita’s home, which has a foyer flanked by four small rooms and a kitchen. As far as I could tell, six adults and four children live in the house. Anita’s brother Suresh and his wife welcomed me warmly, since in India, atithi devo bhava or “the guest is like a god.
While I sat in on their bed/couch in their bedroom/living room, drinking cup after cup of chai, an endless parade of neighbors arrived to welcome me to Gurgaon. My Hindi comprehension unfortunately does not extend much past Namaste and pleasantries, so after greeting these neighbors they promptly turned to Anita and her family for an inquiry discussion that I became quite familiar with by the end of the wedding adventure.
Neighbor: “So who is she? How do you know her?”
Anita: “I work for her. She’s from America.”
Neighbor: “So she doesn’t speak Hindi?”
Anita: “No, she’s learning Hindi. Devi, say something in Hindi.”
Devi (my Hindi name…sort of): “Aap kaise hain?”
Neighbor: “Good, thank you. How much Hindi does she know?”
Anita: “Not much. She thought that palak (eyelid) was the same as paalak (spinach).”
Cue group laughter. Cue Devin forcing a smile.
(This conversation occurred between Anita and at least seventy-five people [on trains, on busses, with other wedding guests…] before the end of the experience.)
One of the neighbors who stopped by was the man across the street who Anita and her brother insisted was “cracked”, which I am still not sure if they meant seriously or not. There is evidence in favor of him having indeed lost a few marbles though. In the ensuing hours, the neighbor came back several times, carrying his adorable two-year-old granddaughter Simi. Precious little Simi, wearing pigtails and kohl around her eyes, took one look at me and started screaming in terror. Inexplicably, her grandfather insisted on shoving her into my lap – repeatedly. Every time she screamed louder and clung for dear life to her grandfather’s neck. Simi was one of three sweet little toddlers who over the course of the weekend I would petrify. This began to wear my composure thin.
After eating a delicious home cooked meal of chicken, rice, and roti and finishing before anyone else was allowed to eat (remember — atithi devo bhava), we moved on to the next activity of the evening. Suresh, his six-year-old son Sumit, and I clambered onto Suresh’s scooter and sped over bumpy half-dirt, half-paved roads to a Walmart-esque supermarket (the most “super” market I’ve seen yet in India) in search of a wedding suit for Sumit. Though we did not find anything to Sumit’s liking, our outing gave me a glimpse of the dust, bustle, noise, and people that crowded the streets of Gurgaon. And it gave the people of Gurgaon another opportunity to stare at me.
When we got back to Anita’s, the mehndi or henna artist, aka a fourteen-year-old kid with a tube of henna, had arrived. At Indian celebrations, women have their hands intricately decorated with henna designs, and I was excited to partake in the tradition. With Anita, her brother, his wife and son watching, the mehndi wallah decorated my hands and fingers with a swirling floral design within ten minutes. I did my best not to fidget to avoid smudging the drying henna, as Anita and her sister-in-law had their henna done. Suresh and Sumit commented on the designs and joined in this female primping session with a level of comfort and enthusiasm that most men in America would unlikely be able to match.
As the henna dried, we lay down on the cots, which are set up in the living room each evening for bed. Contrary to Anita’s claim that I would have my own room, I realized that Anita, her sister-in-law, Sumit, and I were all going to be sleeping in the living room/bedroom together…with the light on….and the TV blaring in the next room….for hours. When Suresh barged into the living room/bedroom at 1 AM and started a lively conversation with his wife and then at 6 AM another lively conversation broke out between Anita and her sister-in-law, I realized that personal space does not exist in this India and that this was going to be a long wedding adventure. As it turned out, Day 1 was the tamest day by far.