I saw Monsoon Wedding, the new musical, with a group of Indian women friends recently. We laughed at familiar idiomatic expressions, translated, at times awkwardly, from Hindi into English. We got nostalgic listening to old melodies. I even got teary-eyed when a second generation Indian-American young man crooned “Neither here nor there,” a song about his longing for his native culture.
He reminded me of my sons. But afterward, I felt a little uneasy.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about Indian weddings. Back home in Nagpur, weddings were anything but romantic. I attended dozens every summer, but as I sat in the canvas canopy, being assaulted by loudspeakers blaring sad Marathi songs, like Jaa Muli Jaa Dilya Ghari Tu Sukhi Raha—Go daughter go, live happily in the home you’ve been given into, while the children shrieked and the bride and the groom stood like sacrificial animals on the bohala—the wedding altar—separated by the antarpat, the holy cloth, and two priests sang the mangalashtakas—the religious mantras, I could only think, “This is not for me.” Then the cloth would be removed and the bride and the groom would make eye contact, as if for the first time. For all practical purposes, it was their first time, I suppose. Their prior meetings, conducted only in the presence of chaperones, hardly counted. There was no dating, no premarital romance or sex, and no cohabitation.
In the 110 degree heat of summer, the canopy would feel like an oven, but my aunts would slave doggedly over open wood fires lit under tin sheds, rolling chapathis and stirring laddoo mix while men leaned against white bolsters, talking of politics. My father, the eldest brother and the patriarch, was often obligated to serve an important role in such gatherings. He would manage to leave the canopy as soon as possible nevertheless, and lecture me afterwards about the needless fanfare and expense of Indian weddings. Arguing against the evil practice of dowry, he would ask, “Why don’t they just have a registered marriage and save their money for something more useful?”
He was right of course. Those were the decades when India was a desperately poor country, when we had food rationing, when it was difficult for middle class families to eat nutritious food or have a decent place to live.
As I grew up, I began to emulate my father’s love of solitude and tranquility, his appreciation for contemplation and introspection, and most of all, his ability to view his world with an outsider’s eye.
When I came to California in the late seventies, Berkeley was still in throes of the hippy revolution. My American friends’ weddings were DIY affairs for which brides sewed their own dresses and couples exchanged vows in someone’s backyard. I loved those simple romantic ceremonies, partly because they comported with my father’s principles but also because they captured for me the essence of what a union of kindred spirits ought to entail.
A Maharashtrian wedding was different from a Malayali one, but today all the regional diversity of wedding rituals is lost.
In the nineties, however, everything changed. If American weddings began to resemble Hollywood extravaganzas, Indian weddings became insanely ostentatious.
Nowadays, they mandate designer saris worth thousands of dollars, blouses covering less skin than bras, and diamond-encrusted gold jewelry. Unlike American weddings, in which guests are expected to foot their own hotel bills and are only fed one or two fixed-menu official meals, in India, the bride’s father is required to offer his guests room and board for days on end, not to mention receptions involving at least three types of cuisine. If there are not stations for chaat as well as Italian and Chinese food, I suppose Indian guests would simply feel robbed of their birthright.
Of course such lavish weddings would not be possible without India’s servant class, which remains exploited, with no official benefits like social security, healthcare, or vacations. In directing Monsoon Wedding, Mira Nair poignantly captures the plight of the servant girl, who moans about having to wash clothes she’ll never wear or food she will ever eat. Still, to most Indians, servants today remain an invisible class, ready for exploitation.
The other problem is that thanks to television, Indian weddings, particularly in America, have acquired a homogenized character. Turbaned bridegrooms ride horses today, brides wear lehengas, and guests dance to the beat of the bhangra. Once upon a time, a Maharashtrian wedding was entirely different from a Malayali one, but today all the regional diversity of wedding ritual or cuisine is lost.
At this point, I can envision the objections of my readers, a wedding is a big occasion in one’s life, one can do whatever one wants with one’s money, India is not poor any more, etc. The most troubling excuse I have come across is that a wedding is an opportunity for a businessman to liaise with his clients.
News reports indicate however that an Indian wedding is not just an innocent personal experience. Abuse and exploitation through demand for dowry are on the rise, even leading to brides’ deaths. No wonder I cringe every time I see the conspicuous consumption at Indian weddings.
I am not saying that you should live like Mahatma Gandhi. But in an era when Donald Trump is proving how avarice for gold plated toilets and crystal chandeliers is not an innocent indulgence but a path to unscrupulous power-mongering, fascism, and oppression, every citizen has a responsibility to set a good example.
And I miss my father and his values more than ever.