Seinfeld had nothing on this
By Phillip Lopate
March 10, 2017
I have been in India for the last 10 days. One of my former students, Sukriti, was getting married to her childhood sweetheart, Siddant, and she invited me and my wife, Cheryl, to the ceremony. I should say “ceremonies,” plural, because the event lasted three days and nights.
Sukriti, in her mid-20s, is vivacious, quick to see the humor in everything and beloved by all. Also gorgeous, but she downplays that aspect by zany self-mockery and infectious interest in others, seemingly unwilling to play the role of a placid admired beauty. At the first night’s party, at a beach restaurant in Mumbai, she greeted us in a stunning red designer dress—the first of her many sensational dresses, both Western and traditional Indian—looking for all the world like Ava Gardner. Joining cousins, relatives, and locals were a dozen or so of her foreign friends from graduate school. She had gone to the London School of Economics to study finance, only to realize that her real passion was creative writing, at which point she switched to the Columbia University MFA program, where I taught her. The groom had gone to Yale and stuck with finance. Cheryl and I, groggy from the 17-hour flight, managed to stay awake during the eating, drinking, henna-painting, and anecdotal toasting, along with impromptu Bollywood-style dances by Sukriti and the guests. I managed to decline an attempt at Indian dancing, but was treated deferentially, introduced all around as the bride-to-be’s favorite professor.
The next day Sukriti’s guests were transported to her house, while Siddant’s congregated at the hotel: the haldi, a set of bachelor/bachelorette brunches, at which each would be adorned with oils to make them glow. Sukriti accepted good-naturedly the sometimes mischievous pawing of her face and arms with a mustard-colored mixture of turmeric and other herbs. She then sprinkled a loose charm bracelet over the single women in attendance, the idea being that if any of the charms should land, a marriage would inevitably follow. Some of the women were hopeful, while others looked ambivalent at best, squirming to avoid the rain of golden charms. I was struck by how many of the rituals throughout the three days were carried out with propriety but also a certain playful irreverence. The highly Westernized, secular Sukriti I knew had never seemed particularly religious, but she was willing to play the part expected of her as a good Hindu daughter.
That night, we assembled in formal dress at the Sahara Star hotel atrium for the sagal, a big bash attended by hundreds. The atrium had been decorated spectacularly overnight for the occasion. When I asked how it came about, Sukriti’s engaging mother informed me that actually it was supposed to be in the ballroom, on the other side of the hotel, but they were informed four days before the event that it had to be moved because of a law that liquor could not be served within 100 yards of the highway. (Apparently that law had been passed after a drunken truck driver had plowed into several innocents.) So the bridal party had improvised lights, banners, and a stage. What made the party truly memorable were the elaborate formal dresses, laden with gold, worn by most of the Indian women. When I complimented Sukriti’s mother on these traditional dresses, she sighed and said they were a burden to deal with, because they weighed so much. But as the saying goes, beauty knows no pain, and I have never seen such a sea of beauties gathered in one place; it was almost unfair to have to fall in “love at last sight,” as Walter Benjamin put it, so often.
This particular event was sponsored by Sukriti’s parents, both educators, both middle class, and I could not help worrying for them about the cost involved. I was told that Indian families start saving for their daughter’s wedding from her birth, and even so, they may be left deeply in debt or bankrupted. Why are weddings so important in India? I have no clear answer. Going through bazaars and marketplaces, one sees stall after stall selling wedding dresses or traditional accoutrements. I thought about how often many Americans get it over with quickly by a trip to city hall.
During the sagal ceremony, the bride- and groom-to-be sat stiffly, receiving jewels and silver objects, which I can only assume were part of their dowry. For the first time, I thought I detected a certain annoyance in Sukriti’s demeanor, which perhaps came from being reduced to a passive role, with no opportunity for her expressiveness to spring to life. Perhaps I was also projecting my own impatience onto her. Colorful as the wedding ceremonies were, they were also protracted to the point of tedium; I found myself longing to sneak out and explore Mumbai, which looked fascinating from the brief glimpses I could catch of it as we were transported from one end of town to the next. But as it was an honor and a privilege to be in the wedding company, attendance was required.
Cheryl and I did manage to skip the after-party, which we were told featured much wild dancing and ended around four A.M. We were perhaps the only ones not hungover when the group assembled for the baarat, the formal lunch during which the groom’s relatives and companions were to be put into the mood, followed by a procession from the lunch setting to the Marriott, where the wedding ceremony would take place. In the old days, the groom would make the journey on a horse, but times change, and so a vintage maroon Packard convertible took the horse’s place. Before the procession could set off, however, came considerable head-wrapping, as orange turbans were wound around the groom’s party. A group of drummers and chanters had been hired to entice the congregants into stomping, yelling, and dancing in a circle. The older male relatives tried to whip everyone up into a frenzy: I could not make out whether it was a genuine frenzy or a pretend, parodic one, though it probably made no difference. Finally, the crowd surged forward and we all started walking to the Marriott, a block or two away, ahead of the maroon Packard.
After an hour or so of milling around the Marriott ballroom, we went outside for an enormous buffet meal, which I thought was the wedding feast but which turned out to be only tea snacks. To my surprise, the wedding ceremony itself, the pheras, had begun unceremoniously as most of the guests were still standing around with plates in their hands, chattering to each other. We made our way over to seats near the raised canopied area, where Sukriti and Siddant sat impassively as the Brahmin priest chanted holy verses for more than an hour. This was no “do you take this woman,” but a much more extended oral ritual, during which both bride’s and groom’s attention seemed to wander. Again, I wondered what Sukriti was thinking—and what she was getting herself into. After their honeymoon, she and Siddant were due to relocate to Denver, where he had taken a job in finance. Sukriti caught my eye a few times and grinned.
As for Cheryl and me, since it made no sense to fly all that way for three days and then fly back, we had planned, with Sukriti’s help, a week of travel and tourism around India, which I will tell you about next week.
Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.