Monday Night Fever - Stowing Away at an Indian Wedding
Shivaji and Nikhil were getting married - and we were invited! It didn't matter that our relationship with the families could best be described as tenants-of-the-woman-whose-husband-was-good-friends-with-the-father-of-the-bride. Indian weddings commonly have upwards of 500 or 1000 guests, and we reasoned that stowaways like us are a big reason why.
This was a North Indian Hindu wedding – of the type seen in the movie Monsoon Wedding. In the South, weddings are quiet affairs, disposed of within a matter of minutes on warm afternoons. Not so in the North, where a whole range of ceremonies are carried out over several days and nights. We arrived at 8.30pm last Monday night, an hour-and-a-half late but apparently too early because not much was happening. No more than thirty people were there, standing in corners chatting and drinking the occasional bowl of soup or cup of coffee. It seemed hard to believe that Shivaji and Nikhil’s ‘big day’ was just ahead.
Then we received word that the groom’s procession was about to move off. We moved back outside and saw that a hundred or more people had gathered about 200 metres up the road, sandwiched into a space bordered by rope and tall men carrying bright, colourful lights. In the centre was a white horse in full wedding dress – it was waiting for its rider, but the groom was a bit nervous about saddling up. The groom’s family had gathered nearby, with the women dressed in saris of vibrant greens, oranges and blues. E instructed me to start taking photos, but it wasn’t an easy thing. I stepped backwards to avoid the chord of a video camera, only to find my ear inside a blaring trumpet. A rag-tag bunch of musicians were carrying around different brass instruments, belting out popular Bollywood tunes. And at my elbow was one of several drummers who were doing their best to smother the brass with a frenzied staccato drum beat. It was a messy cacophony of sounds, like something out of an Emir Kusturica film. And for a sizeable group of young men comprising the groom’s friends, it was inspiring their arms, hips and crotches to jerk and jolt in multiple and unpredictable directions.
The groom was finally persuaded to get on the horse, and the procession got moving. It was slow going, with frequent stops to allow for the increasingly adventurous gyrations of the groom’s friends. Traffic roared pas us just metres away, the odd car honking its horn to be part of the celebration. And then all of a sudden I was being dragged into the maelstrom, plonked in the center of the procession as people looked on – and wondering, I imagined, if this white boy could dance.
I learned later that the groom’s friends were drunk, that they had been sneaking nips from flasks concealed in jacket pockets. But at the time all I could think was that I had to match them. So I threw the arms up, kicked the feet out, and gyrated like I’ve never gyrated before. It is, admittedly, the dancing style I have long favoured, for it requires absolutely no skill or coordination. I soon felt like one of the boys, and we danced on as the music grew louder and the horse nudged us forward with its nose. Occasionally members of the procession came over and, holding wads of 10 rupee notes above their heads, dramatically threw them one-by-one into the crowd. Kids darted in from the road to grab the notes, but mostly the drummers benefited, reaching down with left hands to retrieve the money and somehow never missing a beat.
It took two hours for the procession to make its way down to the wedding venue. It stopped just inside the gate, waiting for the bride’s party to emerge and officially invite them in. The invitation was given, but the groom’s contingent took little interest in it, and danced on. And a man with a rifle joined the procession, firing into the air at random intervals to the noticeable consternation of the horse. As it didn’t’ look like the bride’s invitation was going to be accepted any time soon, we snuck away from the procession in search of some food.
It is customary at North Indian weddings for the guests to eat before the ceremony, and as it was nearly 11pm we were in full support of this custom. As is standard, the food was vegetarian and no alcohol was served. We wandered around the buffet, piling our plates high with daal, paneer tomato, kababs, stuffed tomato, dosa and roti. To wash it down there was hot badam, milk flavoured with saffron and almonds. We ate our meals standing with the other guests, devouring the delicious food and wondering whether the groom would ever arrive.
Just as we were finishing our meal, the groom made his entrance. By now most people had gathered in rows of seats facing a stage, and it was on this stage where the groom sat down and waited for the bride to arrive. After a few minutes she appeared, making her way to the stage with her entourage close behind. The wedding sari is notoriously heavy, and she moved slowly, weighed down by the intricate gold and silver embroidery. When she reached the stage, friends lifted both her and the groom on their shoulders and they embraced warmly. This, we had been told, was a ‘love-marriage’. Standing close by I could see the excitement on their faces, somehow shining through their obvious exhaustion after several days of non-stop celebrations.
By now a DJ had taken over from the brass and drums, and the groom’s friends moved over to the corner dance floor to keep strutting their stuff. The man with the rifle continued to fire rounds enthusiastically in the outdoor area. And, just as it looked like something official might be about to go ahead on stage, our landlord told us that it was time to go home. We were puzzled – we were going to leave before the actual wedding? ‘Oh, that’s only for the immediate family,’ she replied. ‘And it’s really really boring.’
So, just after midnight, we returned home. But the bride and groom were just getting started. The exchanging of vows wouldn’t start until 2am, and that in itself would go for two or three hours. And in the morning they would travel to Allahabad where, for the benefit of guests who could not make it to Lucknow, they would do it all again. And then, it would all be over bar the reception – which would be held on a separate night. Lying in bed that night, I wondered whether the bride’s father’s friend’s wife’s tenants would find themselves on the invitation list.