I went to an Indian Wedding reception yesterday. I had totally forgotten that we were supposed to be going and so I of course had failed to bring an extra outfit with me. Indians are very particular in that point. For every occasion they wear a fresh, clean outfit. Every morning on my way to work I see the men in their freshly starched dhotis, a stark contrast to the dirty streets and houses. Or peering inside of peoples humble homes on the side of the road (something I am sure I probably should not be doing) I see woman emerge from what seems at times to be nothing more than an assemblage of tin and bricks, yet she is immaculately clean and well dressed, every fold of her sari where it should be, her hair in a perfect plait….
So I had to wear my day-old salwar kameez, which was fine because being a 5 foot 11 white giant in India seems to distract from the cleanliness of my clothes. We lumbered onto the bus heading south, finally arriving at what seems like a hall covered in Christmas lights. We were greeted by a very cute welcoming committee of chilren dressed in their finest who sprinkled us with rose water and handed us what seems to be hardened sugar. We are stylishly early (In India you can never be stylishly late, you are then just on time), the reception was meant to begin at 6.00 and it is only 6.15 which we have anywhere between 45 minutes to 1.5 hours to wait. Listening to the band warm up, scratching absent-mindedly my mosquito bites and drinking fresh grape juice I am lulled into a stupor, feeling oddly content and doing..well..nothing.
I notice that reception has finally begun because the cameraman and the photographer suddenly run to the back of the hall and start filming and clicking like mad. The couple, of course, look amazing if a bit less enthusiastic then I expected. Finally seated on two thrones in centre stage the presenter man (I couldn’t figure out if he was a parish priest, father or some kind of respected elder) begins with a long draw out speech and more songs in Tamil. It is a curious thing, the mix between Tamil and English that is so prevalent here. People will often be speaking Tamil and then say a complete sentence just in English. Often I am coming to realize, English is used to emphasize a point or if the speaker wishes to convey a technical formality. In this case I am wrenched from my dreamlike-state by the familiar use of English, just barely identifiable through the thick Tamilian accent.
“John” -his breath crackles over the microphone as he makes a dramatic pause- “is a God-fearing man”. To emphasize his point he turns and gestures towards the groom. However John,the God-fearing man is busy writing a text message on his phone and is quite oblivious, it seems, to the dramatic tension in the air.
Unperturbed by all this the man continues listing John’s qualities. I am distracted by the scores of children running afoot, onto the stage, in front of the stage, behind my chair… The presenter is periodically interrupted by people coming on stage to tell him something, occasionally using the microphone themselves to address the crowd. After a few prayers and songs (the couple is Christian) they finally have the cake cutting ceremony. A 3 tiered wedding cake with white and pink frosting and even the plastic groom and bride figurine on top is set on the stage. The cake, with much ardor and amidst a burst of confetti and that white foam-paper like stuff you get in spraying cans, is cut. Slightly awkwardly the groom and bride feed each other a bite. It is such a weird custom that I can’t help chuckling to myself.I wonder why, of all things, this tradition was adopted? Goes to show how globalized we have become without knowing it. Wedding cakes, so the story goes, date back to the Roman Empire where the man would break a loaf of barley bread over the head of his new bride to endow her with fertility, show his dominance over her and as a sign of her impeding loss of virginity.
The first part ends with all the guests filing onto the stage to give wedding presents to the couple and take pictures with them. As we stand around the couple, the glare of the camera blinding me, the absurdity of the situation I am in hits me. I think of my readings of Albert Camus “Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful”. I find myself grinning at the camera only to remember in the last second as I glance at my colleagues that Indians don’t smile in pictures. That is one shot I will have to get a hold of: 20 or so beautifully dressed Indians, staring unsmiling at the camera with me in the back, a foot taller than most of them, my hair disheveled and my salwar kameez wrinkled, grinning like an idiot.
Back to Camus- I pondered about why I found this situation particularly absurd where really, it was in many ways less absurd than a wedding reception would be in Canada or Germany. It is not absurd but realistic that children, being children, will run around the place and get in the way. The fact that no one makes an issue of someone else coming onstage and speaking, either to the crowd or the presenter is truthful.Perhaps the only thing that was really comical was the groom using his cellphone–however the issue of technology and its status in India deserves its own blog post.In reality, receptions in the West are more of a play than an accurate show of reality. In fact on further thought the amount of acting we do is what is really absurd,not to mention our various traditions and costumes. The focus of the wedding should be the real and truthful union of two people. What does that say about our culture that the first common experience of husband and wife is in an atmosphere of forced superficial and material perfection?
However as my father might say, this is nothing but Anthropology 101. What we are used to comprises our own reality, everything outside that is perceived to be dangerous,weird or absurd. Anyway, enough of my tangents for now. Stay tuned for more!