Watching each one of my Indian coworkers get engaged was an entertaining process. There was considerable pressure from parents, often exerted from their homes in India or at the very least other parts of the US. We Caucasian colleagues took the opportunity to gently tease the guys who were taking particularly long to find the right woman, simply because we knew they were under pressure that we weren't. Well, everything is relative. My mother had attempted a few short discussions suggesting ways for me to find a nice Jewish girl quickly, but I established early on that I was doing my part and didn't need taunting from my family.
As my Indian coworkers were married off one at a time we'd see their nerves, then excitement, and, always after a lengthy absence from work, the poat-marital changes. My favorite aftereffect was Satish, who I was told had mere minutes to chat with his future wife before he agreed to marry her. One day in the hall at work, I asked him how married life was treating him.
"Oooh, Adam, it is difficult," he replied in his lilting, falsetto accent. "I do not have control of my life any longer! Because I work and she does not, when I come home and want to relax, she makes me go out and do things! I can not spend time with my friends, I can not even chat on IM with them, or I get yelled at!"
Word around work was that Satish had indeed married a woman who decisively wore the pants between the two. And it's not like Satish really knew what he was getting into, at least if the dating process, as explained to me by another colleague, Manoj, was similar for Satish.
Manoj was the last holdout for a generation of Expedia coworkers. All the others in his age range had been betrothed and he was the last hold out. Not that he hadn't come close once before. Manoj's father, like most nowadays, had been working for years to find Manoj a mate. Manoj seemed a bit self-conscious when he explained the process to me, knowing it was so different from what the rest of the West did.
"So you're telling me that you parents find you girls to date? That all you still have the choice of whether you are interested or not? I tell you, Manoj," I countered, "it's not so bad. Your parents are doing all the legwork! If I had a steady stream of girls to choose from, life would be much easier! Deciding whether you like them is one thing, but finding ones to decide about is a difficult process!"
In this effort, Manoj's father had created files full of folders, each pertaining to a family with an unmarried daughter. Data was pored over nightly: family's caste, incomes, hometown, occupations, daughter's education, daughter's occupation, photos, and various astrological data. In fact, it was the astrology that nailed Manoj the first time. Manoj had met a girl at his brother's wedding and they quickly fell in love. Both families were supportive until the woman's mom went to see a Kuri Josyam. a fortune teller who determined that if they were to marry, something disastrous would happen to Manoj's brother. Not wanting to take that burden on his shoulders, they reluctantly broke off the engagement and resumed the search.
Countless potential mates were connected to Manoj, and a few were contenders, but Amalthiya really caught Manoj's heart. She'd been discovered by the same meticulous process, and after a few emails they met. Their meeting was only a couple hours and at the end they both felt they had met the person they were ready to marry.
"Now wait a minute, Manoj, you were able to decide who you are going to spend the rest of your life with after a few emails and an hour? That is where I couldn't hang! How do you do that?"
"I dunno, man, I guess you just go on, what do you call them, vibes?" he said, using something between a w and a v to start his last word.
Well, Manoj and Amalthiya had both agreed to marry each other, and got the blessings of all family members, constellations, and gods who had any say in the matter. By a stroke of good fortune, the wedding coincided with my trip to that part of the world.
"Well, then I want you to come to the wedding!"
"Sure thing! Send me an invite and I am there!"
There are numerous differences between the weddings I've experienced and an Indian wedding. First off: no superfluous frilly invitations. Word gets out to relatives and villagers and everyone comes. Me too.
"Don't worry, I will get you the information on the location, and I will make sure you have a taxi and a hotel so there will be no way you will miss it," Manoj told me. "I will even make sure you have a steel plate to eat from, because we will be using banana leaves."
"Manoj, let me be clear: I just want to be a fly on the wall for this event. No special treatment. If you guys are eating from banana leaves, then that is exactly what I want. I even intend to buy local clothing to wear, so I won't stand out."
"Okay, buddy! I hear you. Please let me buy you a kurta to wear. You will get a terrible price if you buy it yourself!"
The wedding was in Chennai, formerly known as Madras, and as I traveled through the cities preceding Chennai, I watched news coverage of a large cyclone approaching the coast of Chennai at a very slow speed. According to the news reports, the slow-moving storm was certain flood the entire region before it moved on, and I watched my emails from Manoj for any indication that I should bail, but none came.
I had visions of a true monsoon wedding. I was all set to get drenched by hot rains in an open air patio with hundreds of villagers. I was ready to raise my hands in the air and dance like a software architect to that dunka-chunka-chunka-chunka beat. It was on!
The night before I flew to Chennai, I grabbed a hotel in Kochin. I arrived in the early evening and when faced with the decision to pay for a room with or without AC, I felt that since I was on the coast and the temperature seemed a bit cooler that the previous cities, I might be just fine with a fan room.
The $3 saved was a big mistake. The evening temperature never really got much lower than it started, and the air in the room didn't circulate at all. Not to be deterred, I slept only in my silk sleep-sheet, and left the window open and the fan on.
It was a rather hot and restless night and it wasn't until I woke that I realized that overnight I had been devoured within inches of my life. I slept with an arm over my eyes to shield the morning light, and every exposed inch of my face not covered by that arm, the arm, and my upper torso were covered in literally hundreds of red mosquito bites. I had to pray to Ganesha that this wasn't malaria country.
As the cyclone and I both neared Chennai, the cyclone lost power and broke up at the shore. While it didn't flood the city, it did drench it. The positive side: the temperature fell to a tolerable level. The negative side: the humidity and the slime. I thought that a good rain would wash away some of the ick that seemed to coat every surface of the city, but it didn't. It just made it wet. Now, mud was indistinguishable from the ever-present human, dog, and cow poop, and my wet, sticky, red and itchy skin made a perfect glue for anything airborne that I happened to pass near. Ugh.
The first night of the wedding was the reception. The wedding hall was a scruffy, whitewashed three-story building with a few arches bearing congratulatory messages to couples being wed there that weekend. When I arrived, I moved through the crowd to see they were all facing a brightly list stage upon which Manoj and Amalthiya stood. Manoj was dressed in a blue and white tassled robe; the fashion of a northern Indian prince, which was the trendy thing for Indian weddings in the winter 2006 season, I was later told by one of his uncles.
Amalthiya too looked stunning, in a matching blue and white dress and scarf. Her hands, arms, and feet were decorated in intricate henna designs, and both Manoj and Amalthiya were adorned with beautiful flower necklaces.
As I moved within Manoj's line of sight, he flashed me a smile, but it was apparent that he wasn't going anywhere. Indeed, for the remainder of the evening, they stood under those searing stage lamps as every neighbor, villager, relative and friend they had ever known and never heard of joined them on stage and was photographed. A team of videographers also captured the slow-moving action, replaying segments of the stoic couple on television monitors adjacent to the stage. No music, no dancing, but this was just the reception.
Some things are universal, and while I had no idea what most people were talking about, I could see via body language the typical "oh I haven't seen you since Vijay's wedding, look how you've grown!" exclamations, generally replied to with "oh yeah, you're whatserhername... yeah! Um, excuse me I need to grab a lassi!"
The fooding took place in a room adjacent to the stage. There was a veritable food circus with little stands doling out ladlesful of southern Indian vegetarian cuisine. Paper plates were supplied, of course without utensils, and surprisingly without seating. So I had to master the process of holding my plate with the left hand and taking care of everything else with the right. I succeeded well enough, to the encouraging smiles thrown my way by the other guests.
The procession went on late into the night, and when most of southern India and the one American had had their opportunity to be photographed, I took a cab back to my hotel. Before I left, Manoj's brother, Vijay, handed me an orange and gold kurta to wear the next day and told me to rest up; that the morning would start before sunrise and would last well into the night.
The next day began with a symbolic journey originating in the wedding hall and heading out into the street. Manoj's uncle stuck to my side and explained what I was watching.
"Right now, Manoj is telling his elders that he doesn't want to get married, that he has decided to be an acetic and roam India and pray for the rest of his life." Of course, Manoj didn't really prefer a life without material wealth to that of a software tester, but this was tradition!
Manoj was wrapped in a toga-like outfit, adorned with new flowers, and took off by foot and a wooden cane for the great beyond. The entire family followed close behind, begging him to stay. They wanted to convince him that life in his village was pleasant: one person attended to him by sheltering him under an umbrella, and other family members carried food. When the group reached the street, Manoj stopped. Ostensibly, his mother had told him that there was a lovely girl for him to marry, and they were introduced. His family eventually caught up and he and the bride played hard-to-get for each other before finally acquiescing and allowing each to toss a flower garland around the other's neck.
Amalthiya was presented to Manoj, and some coy flirting took place. Each took a garland of flowers provided by guests and took turns attempting to toss it over the other's head and around their neck. Each played hard to get, even going to lengths of being tossed into the air by family members, but in the end they each secured a garland around the other, at which point they agreed that, yeah, maybe they were cool with each other.
The couple was then seated at an outdoor swing, and a lengthy procession of guests offered them food and accoutrements for a lengthy journey through life together. Prayers were chanted, and incense was burned. Eventually, the couple agreed to come indoors and get married.
The day moved at a leisurely pace, clearly scripted but not scheduled. There was no bossy woman in black with a headset microphone coordinating this wedding. Like the couple being wed, I was introduced to all of the family members, and retained as many new names as they did. But unlike the couple, I actually had the time to interact with the guests. In particular, an uncle on each side of the wedding took me under their wings and continued to explain the traditions behind the events of the day.
The first half of the day consisted of tons of chanting mantras, smoky fire, and flowers, with the groom looking very primal wrapped in a loincloth and decorated with ash on his face and body. They sat upon the stage, which was now decorated with images of Ganesha and Vishnu, pillars and flowers. A band seated on a small platform at the back of the room struck up a tune. They consisted of a tavil drum, a couple reedy horns and a set of bells. Their apparent intent was for devotional music rather than dancing, as they rambled on in the background and it appeared that everyone ignored them altogether. As I was to eventually learn, the wild weddings full of dance are a northern tradition, not a southern tradition. So while the wedding wasn't what Hollywood had led me to expect, it was fascinating nonetheless.
Then came the most important part: the knot-tying ceremony. In America, "tying the knot" is probably the most often-used term for getting wed, right above "getting hitched" and who would have guessed it originated in India?
After another costume change, Amalthiya emerged in a wine red sari, which I was told can cost thousands of dollars and often contain gold thread. She was visibly nervous as she was taken to the edge of the stage. The guests crowded around in a tight knit clump and I was told to go on up and take photos.
"Oh, no, that's OK, I can see well enough from back here." I told an insistent uncle.
"No, here you are family! You go up to the front and take photos!"
So I did, and watched as Manoj lowered a golden thread around Amalthiya's neck. Mantras were chanted and as the knot which holds the same symbol of commitment as a Western wedding ring was tied, the room erupted into a swell of cheers as flowers were thrown at the couple. Amalthiya and her parents cried, and the couple did not kiss, and probably wouldn't for a few months until they had really gotten to know each other.
And here was I, accustomed to being somewhat surprised if a successful first or second date isn't followed by a kiss, let alone more, when really I've just known my date for a short time. Compare that with a couple who had just gotten married after knowing each other such a short time and holding off on all of the intimacies until they actually knew each other. Equally strange in this world of animals. Equally unique human behaviors.
"Now we eat!" exclaimed an uncle. It could've been in a New York Jew accent just as easily as a Brahmin Indian's.
Here I was put to my banana leaf test, but I was prepared. I had done this before. We were seated at long tables covered in paper tablecloths. Damp banana leaves were set in front of each of us and an endless roving crew of men in loincloths ladled and ladled kosambari (cucumber salad), gram curry, raita (yogurt salad), sambhar, rasam, dhals, pickled lime, rice and yoghurt, seeing fit to fill the leaf more every time a bite was taken.
The newly-married couple joined in the feast, and at one point I caught them snickering at me.
"What is it?" I asked.
"You're eating with your fingers!"
"Well, that's what I'm supposed to do, no? It's not that hard!"
"You're just so... dainty about it!"
I looked around. I had indeed noticed that others really worked their hands into it, while I only used my fingertips. The locals would grab a handful of wet, yogurt-covered rice and massage it absentmindedly while they talked. Indians believe that all senses should enjoy a meal: the smell, the appearance, the taste, the sound, and of course the feeling.
"My book says that it is inauspicious to get it on my palms," I explained.
"Hah, no, it is no problem in this part of India!"
Regardless, I was happy with myself. I was doing just fine and hadn't even spilled any on my nice new kurta.
Finally, in the afternoon, the couple played some rather childish games. As an uncle explained to me, weddings traditionally were arranged between preteens who were generally not even ready to cope with the opposite sex. These games were devised to both entertain the elders who had little else to be entertained with in the days before internet and television, and to 'break the ice' for the new couple.
Manoj and Amalthiya smeared kumkum, the powder used to mark one's forehead to indicate caste on each other. They played tug-of-war over a coconut to determine who would be the overbearing one in the relationship, a game Satish had clearly lost. And the newlyweds smashed a lot of chapati (fried bread) over each other's heads for reasons that no one seemed to remember.
As the foreign guest, I was dragged along through even some of the intimate family procedures, but was relieved to not be present for the ceremony that took place at Amalthiya's house where her family moved her out and handed her stuff over to Manoj's family. The family insisted that they take me to my hotel in the same bus that they had chartered, so I was present for the final goodbye, where Amalthiya's family said farewell and she departed a member of the Surehkumar clan. As the bus rolled though Chennai in the darkness way past midnight, I thought that I could hear Amalthiya sniffling softly behind me. In the morning, I would hire a cab and explore a new part of the world. That night, Manoj and Amalthiya would begin to explore the person to whom they had just committed their entire life.