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Starting the sari

“Did I do it right?”

I stood, looking at Nisha, like a child who wants to be told they’ve done their homework properly. She just laughed at me a bit and started untying my sari. “You did okay. I can’t even tie a sari on my own,” she said kindly. She called over to a few of the other women in the house. We’d gone to Nisha’s house before her son’s wedding for lunch and to say hello. A bevy of guests were streaming in and out in full wedding gear, stopping momentarily to look at the two gora who were sitting in the living room. Every one would get an introduction from Nisha: “This is cousin’s wife’s brother,” “This is niece who is coming from Hyderabad,”  “This is brother-in-law but really to me he is like actual brother.” It didn’t matter that none of these people spoke English or knew what she was saying. They would all smile and shake our hands as Nisha reminded us how excited she was to have us there. “Everyone saying to me that you would not come. No one is believing that I work for white people.” We were happy to be the living proof.

The women quickly got to work on fixing my sari. They unwrapped me down to my sari blouse and petticoat and then started twirling me back around, tucking it in tightly as they went.

Finalizing the sari

They debated for a bit over which style I should have – should my pallu (the long embellished end of the sari) wrap around my back, in the most common way? Or should I have something fancier? Should I wear it the Gujrati way, where my pallu is in the front? They tucked and pinned me in various formations until they settled on bringing the pallu to the front due to the beading of my sari. So I waited as they pleated my skirt in a very exact manner, tucked it in then pleated the pallu and pinned it to the front. It was so complicated that I was afraid to move. It wasn’t irrational – the whole thing was held together with a few tucks and drapes along with 4 strategically placed safety pins. But I certainly had to admit that it looked much better than when I had done it.

Nisha was not impressed with the simple earrings I had chosen – I thought that the sari was embellishment enough – so she gave me bangles to wear. “You looking like real Indian girl now,” she said as we walked out of her house in a long line of wedding-goers. I certainly didn’t feel like an Indian girl as I walked though her village to the car – every single person was openly staring at me and I could understand why. We were a full hour outside of Mumbai’s city limits (two hours from our house) in a small town next to the salt flats. And here was this white girl in a sari and white man in a suit walking along the road chatting with their Indian friend as though nothing was amiss. I don’t think its a stretch to assume that our presence was unusual.

Me and all of Nisha's "train friends"

We drove to the venue – we hit a huge amount of traffic, which was worrisome since we’d already left the house much later than expected. By the time we reached the venue it was 8:30pm. The invitation had said the whole thing would be from 7pm to 9pm. But of course, in Indian time this meant something entirely different – the hall was just filling up as we walked in. No one with any social graces would have actually shown up at 7pm. It made me glad we’d gone to Nisha’s first- we probably would have shown up right “on time” and found ourselves sitting there for quite some time.

The venue was an interesting place for a wedding – a whole row of empty lots amid a huge apartment complex had been converted into spaces for receptions and then were cordoned off with curtains to look like walls. You walked in through a door with a chandelier above but we quickly realized we were still outside. In a place where the months of rain are pre-determined there’s no need to protect with any kind of cover. The rocky ground was covered with carpeting and in front of us were chairs and a stage with two red thrones on top. As it was a Muslim wedding, most of the women sat on one side and the men sat on the other – although it was insisted upon that Daniel and I sit together. I looked around at the array of colors – every woman had brought out her best sari for the occasion and the beads shone across the room. Only a few women in hijabs wore black, but each wore enough gold to balance it out.

The wedding party

Soon after we arrived the bride and groom entered – they’d already done a private ceremony that morning so they were already married. Irfan, Nisha’s son looked excited and bewildered. The bride looked happy but overwhelmed and frightened. She was probably also about to pass out from a heat stroke – she was wearing an elaborate sari that must have been weighed down by the incredibly intricate and vast amount of beading that covered it. She wore multiple necklaces and earrings and a hoop in her nose that rivaled the size of her head. I could barely move in my sari – I couldn’t imagine how she felt in hers. Not to mention that she and her new husband had only met once before they were married. I couldn’t help but think of the refrain from Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye and Golde sing about first meeting each other on their wedding day – maybe we’re not so culturally different, even if in our culture the traditional arranged marriages have given way to Western ideals.

With everyone watching, the bride and groom went up on the stage and photographers and videographers started taking photos and placing them in various positions. The guests eventually started moving over to eat dinner – the bride and groom were still forced to stay up on the stage at their thrones as various well-wishers could come to greet them. As we sat to eat, multiple guests came over to take their picture with us, giggling as they touched the ends of my sari and looked us up and down. One of Nissa’s nephews, who spoke English, started telling people that Daniel was a famous cricketer for his own amusement. Another female relative took over watching us (on Nisha’s direction) and made sure to stuff us with as much food as possible.

Meeting guests while the garlanded bride watches

When we finally went to say hello, the bride was being outfitted with an entire dress of garlands. Our new caretaker explained to me that when she had been married a few months ago, the garlands were so heavy she could barely stand. As we wished Irfan and his new bride well the photographers snapped away. Nisha looked on proudly. As we left we both gave her a big hug and thanked her for inviting us. “No, no thank you for coming!” she said earnestly, “I am so happy you is here. You is my honored guest.”

“No, no,” Daniel said, “It’s really our honor to be invited.” And it truly was. I couldn’t say I was sad to take off my beautiful but incredibly heavy and cumbersome sari at the end of the night, but I was so glad we had been invited and welcomed in.

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