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LAce Posted Monday, February 23rd, 2004
Practicing Asia: Eat, Drink, and Be Married
Lela Schneidman

The screech of three-wheeled taxis and trumpets fill the diesel-fumed air of a narrow Bombay side street. Onlookers in tattered saris pause from their Saturday laundry duty to observe the fine, sparkling show of the wedding party, and to gawk open-mouthed at the two flushed white faces bobbing through the crowd. Avoiding the bellowing honks of angry drivers and obligatory piles of garbage, sleeping dogs, beggars and cow dung, we prance gracefully to the pulsing beat of Gujarati style brass.

The detailed henna tattoos on the women’s hands, mendhi, add a stylish effect to our frenetic arm-raising and clapping, hand waving and finger shaking. We’re whirling our scarves around, moving in a circle around a man in a white feathered turban and pointy shoes, who would be…the lucky groom.

Approaching the wedding hall, we ascend red-carpeted steps, everyone elbowing each other to get a good look at the sweat on the husband-to-be’s brow. Draped with a decorated cloth, that has the words “I shall always honor my family” and a bejeweled painting of the Hindu elephant-headed god, Ganesh, the groom stands facing his new mother-in-law. She’s wearing a thick diamond necklace, evidence of the family’s diamond merchant business, and attempts to grab the young man’s nose. He holds a cloth over his face, determined to prevent this assault. If she manages to pinch the schnozz, it means she’s smarter than him. But, the young buck prevails, and avoids her invasive grasp, proving once again that men are always smarter.

The mother-in-law steps aside to make way for her daughter, the woman chosen to be the wife to this man. When I say chosen, I mean, the parents of both bride and groom completely arranged this marriage, a perfect union of correct caste, ethnicity and religion. It will be good for the family, the parents agree. Both bride and groom are looking so lovely, not to mention nervous, and a bit queasy.

I’m feeling a bit sickened myself, even though everyone around me is stunning in diamonds and finely embroidered silk scarves with glittering forehead bindis. As the only non-Indian woman in the room of 400 family members, with an American boyfriend at her side, I’m getting some looks, and I can’t tell if it’s because I’m not wearing any gold jewelry, or if it has something to do with the sins I’ve likely committed.

The word boyfriend is obsolete in Indian society. Though many women do surreptitiously date men before marriage, they must never openly discuss this with their families. Even having male friends can be forbidden by the orthodox Hindu, Jain, and Muslim families in India. Taboo meetings are carried out via text messages, white lies, and darkly lit movie theaters. A girl must wait until marriage, which in 90% of Indian families will be arranged for her by the age of twenty, to have any type of relationship with a man. As you might guess, men can do whatever they want, with whomever they want, before or after marriage, even if their family knows about it.

I’m lying on the floor one night, which is the bed that I share with Rita, age 20 and her mother, age 40. Rita is carrying on an affair with a Jewish Indian man, and they are in a fight. He hasn’t been calling enough, she hasn’t been able to meet him recently. She talks to me before we fall asleep.

“Lela, I have to get out of this country before next year or they’ll marry me off to some Gujarati guy. Sharam and I are in love, we want to be together. But if my parents ever find out, they’ll really kill me.”

Her plan is to study in America, even though I plead with her to choose a more peaceful, less alienating country. She asks me if I will sponsor her, or better yet, buy her airline ticket so she can make “a lot of money” in my country. Once she’s financially independent, there is nothing her parents can do to stop her from marrying the man she loves. Yet she would likely be disowned for the flagrant disrespect of family religious and cultural traditions.

Rita’s brother, Nagaraj, is 16. He also has a girlfriend, but it wouldn’t be such a tragedy if his parents were to find out. Nor does Sharam’s family care that he is dating a young woman. Rita knows this is unfair, she is seething with rage. She is asking me questions about sex and love in my life, and if my parents control whom I date.

No, is the answer, of course. I try to imagine how it would feel to meet me, a twenty-three year old American woman who is traveling the world with her boyfriend, not her first boyfriend, and not obligated to get married right away or cook for my family three times a day. It would feel like envy, jealousy, knowledge of a deep social injustice, curiosity for a life filled with illicit behavior that is relatively acceptable in American society. I would commit suicide before I’d marry someone I didn’t love, someone my parents had picked for me. This seems to be how Rita is feeling. Yet when I see her mother, married twenty years to a man of her caste, I sense that they have grown to care for each other. Even though they sleep separately, never show affection in public (or anywhere ), and yell at each other constantly, they seem to appreciate each other. They love their children. They fulfill their duties to each other as man and wife. And most importantly, their families are satisfied with the match.

At the marriage that I attend, the bride and groom are little more than strangers, though their parents are closely acquainted. Man and wife are tied together by a yellow rope, and their garments are also bound at the hem as they walk in four circles around a small fire for the marriage puja (prayer).

The guests are restless, not paying attention. In fact, nobody seems to really notice that a wedding is taking place. We’re drinking green soda with tapioca bubbles and taking photos of each other. People in the back of the hall are sleeping, babies are crying, and the wedding stage is completely crowded by photographers and video cameras. Many strangers are approaching us, interrogating us with friendly smiles and awkwardly phrased questions. The likely “What brought you here?” question is a hard one to answer, and when we say that we aren’t married, the looks of confusion are too much to bear. So quickly we add for good measure, “But we’re engaged, don’t worry!” The group laughs and sighs with relief. Though still an anomaly, we’re a bit more acceptable with a wedding plan in our near future.

As the wedding commenced, so it ends: with no formal announcement or guest acknowledgement. The stage is slowly set for the gift-giving ceremony. Each person’s gift is identically wrapped, a small envelope containing an undisclosed amount of money, to be given to the bride’s mother-in-law after snapping a photo with the exhausted looking newlyweds.

Throngs of family members pass across the stage for their moment in the spotlight and then file downstairs to gorge themselves on a buffet dinner. We wait patiently on the sidelines for our host mothers and aunties to tell us what to do next (everything must be done exactly when, where and how our hosts see fit, which includes eating enormous amounts of home-cooked food, wearing make-up and Indian clothing, and accepting unwanted gifts).

As we’re standing and watching the last of the fanfare, suddenly the attention shifts to us, The Foreigners. All eight aunties and their husbands and many children are eagerly motioning us toward the stage, grabbing our wrists and sitting us down in the bride and groom’s chair. They grace us with the flower and gauze necklaces that the couple before us had worn during their ceremony. The cameras are flashing. Shouts of “You’re married! You’re married!” fills the air-conditioned hall.

Our new Indian family arranged our marriage for us, replete with many congratulations, handshakes, photos, blessings and laughter. Though our wedding was a joke, and our parents missed out on the event, we were feeling fortunate to actually know and love each other, maybe the first of our kind to sit in those silken chairs.

Comments [post a comment]

Posted by jocelyn johnson on Tuesday, February 24th, 2004 at 12:13 PM
I loved reading this: Not just because I recently attended a traditional wedding in India myself (of two very much in love, and not very traditional American/Indian friends); not just because I was married two Junes ago and still remember the complications of the American wedding (the disjointed families, the blending of traditions, or lack thereof); not just because throngs of gay and lesbian couples are cueing up for marriage liscenses in San Francisco,even as president Bush postures against it. I loved it mostly because it was lovely to read.

Posted by Nicholas Beem [ nickbeem@yahoo.com ] on Wednesday, February 25th, 2004 at 6:19 AM
Despite our Indian marriage, Lela obstinately refuses to wear a fuzzy red bindi and smear red powder on the part in her hair. Shiva help me!



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