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A culture blog by Lauren Girardin, a San Francisco-based city girl who eats out and kicks about.

February 01, 2004

India ~ Day 4

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In which coconuts and umbrellas play a vital role

Sarah in a wedding sari. Photo by Sheri Holtzman. Click to enlarge.

Sarah in a wedding sari
6 meters silk (minimum)
1 choli
1 petticoat or underskirt
1 pin
12 bangles, or to taste
1 bindi
  1. Arrive late to wedding hall because you and boyfriend overslept. Despite time-induced-panic, follow orders to eat a leisurely thali.
  2. Change from comfortable jeans and shirt to uncomfortable petticoat and choli. Unbag and unbag and unbox and unfold the many meters of sari silk, realize you have no idea what to do after this so hand silk to Raja’s aunt.
  3. Refrain from wincing as, while tut-tutting at how hip-hugger low and loose I’ve tied it, aunt ungently reties petticoat high and tight.
  4. Submit as aunt tucks, folds, pleats, swaddles and wraps until a sari is fashioned from a simple length of fabric. Hand pin to aunt, who uses it to secure a pleated drape of silk to shoulder of the choli.
  5. Pile on bangles. Place bindi between eyebrows.
  6. Thank aunt profusely for making you look presentable, even if you find the sari fussy, awkward and binding.
Optional: When aunt doesn’t like your un-hairstyle (to be fair, it’s madly frizzing away in the hazy morning heat), sit patiently as she pulls the top half back and pins it up with short garlands of flowers.

Click to enlarge.
Brahmin & assistant
Brahmin and assistant. Photo by Lauren Girardin.
 Raja under umbrella
Raja under umbrella. Photo by Sheri Holtzman.
Feet on swing
Feet on swing. Photo by Lauren Girardin.
Big eyes
Big eyes. Photo by Lauren Girardin.
Henna'd hands and rice
Henna'd hands and rice. Photo by Lauren Girardin.
Everyone gathers in the main room while Raja and Sarah join a round-bellied, bare-chested and bald-headed Brahmin priest on a small center stage. The American, non-Hindu guests attempt to make sense of the ceremony’s components using a handy-dandy explanatory pamphlet. Despite the elucidation, many of us watch with deep bafflement as Raja leaves and reenters the hall under an umbrella; Sarah tries to encircle Raja’s neck with a heavy garland of flowers, which he pretends to refuse; the couple stands on a wide low swing while the family serenades them, feeds them banana, and throws food and water about; Raja’s father washes his feet; Raja ties Sarah’s hands to a hairy coconut; Sarah reappears in an extra-long sari that we have all blessed; Sarah sits on some man’s lap; a band plays bombastically while, on stage, Raja and female family members tie knots into a bridal necklace; a stone is stood upon; toe rings and Western wedding rings are exchanged; Raja and Sara walk around in a circle; food is burned onstage; yellow rice is tossed; and two women circumambulate the couple with a plate filled with red water then toss the water out the front door onto the street.

I ask, “Are they married yet?” whenever one segment of the ceremony concludes. Raja’s cousin explains that the closest moment to ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife’ is perhaps the garland game, perhaps the knot tying, but not especially either. The three-hour production is a mélange of symbolism, honor, family acceptance, love, faith and commitment.

After a final showstopper thali lunch, the wedding is officially over and I rush back into my own, more comfortable clothes. Sheri, up since 4 a.m. from over-active morning-person-itis, escapes to the hotel to rest while Todd and I do a little shopping and wandering. Eventually, we give into our weariness and hail an auto-rickshaw – possibly the easiest task in the subcontinent as they tend to follow white people at an immodest distance. Though most of our auto-rickshaw drivers have been wily, rude or inattentive, R. Nagarajan is full of a spunky dignity. He goes on a charming tirade against the driver that would overcharge, or worse, shanghai passengers on side-trips to shops just for the commission. He’s adamant that we report misbehaving drivers to the government for the benefit of all India. At the end of our ride, we thank him for being a fantastically entertaining driver and four-star human. We take his picture, which we promise to send once we return to the U.S. because, as he explains, “It will make my wife and children so proud.”
R. Nagarajan. Photo by Lauren Girardin. Click to enlarge.

R. Nagarajan.

In the hotel, the door to our room is ajar and our stuff is gone. My NY’er-paranoid tendencies hit hard and I’m convinced someone has robbed of every last thing, even our toothbrushes. Todd, in his calm, more rational way, steers us off to the front desk. En route, we find Sheri who breathlessly and lividly explains that the manager had her pack and move all of our things to a new room because of an electrical problem, and wouldn’t let her wait for Todd and I to get back. But, our new room is nicer, even if the hotel staff are a bunch of ninnies.

After a stint of watching Indian MTV, we return to the schwank Hotel Residency for a dinner with Raja’s young cousins and the rest of the Americans. Over beers for everyone else, and a soda for Sarah (ahem), the newlyweds share the story of their anxiously uncertain wedding. About a year ago, they announced their intent to marry to their families. Raja’s parents, though well aware and tolerant of their son’s live-in relationship, would not okay the marriage. Someone had to marry an Indian woman. Without mincing words, Raja explained that he and Sarah were going to marry in a year, blessing or not, but offered to cooperate with whatever wedding Raja’s parents wanted. He gave them a year to decide. And so a year went by.

Sho’nuff, Raja’s parents had been hard at work to arrange a marriage to a girl in India for his older brother and only sibling, Anand. Fortunately for Raja and Sarah, Anand had been unlucky in love. Ultimately, Anand married in Chennai the weekend before Raja; Raja’s mother was happy because she was able to plan Raja’s wedding, Raja’s father was happy his sons are marrying in India, and Raja and Sarah got their way.

Sheri, Todd and I leave the bar only once the last ounce of tipsy celebration is spent. Back at our hotel we find out that our laundry, dropped off two days before, is still MIA. Since we’re leaving town the next night, we call down to the front desk staff for the whereabouts of our clothes. Two men come to our room and explain that the hotel mistakenly delivered our laundry next door - a room now locked from the inside. Next thing we know, the men lug their life-and-limb onto our window ledge, quietly disappear into an adjacent window, and in a quick moment, knock on our door with the waylaid laundered bundle in hand.

Good night Sheri. Good night Todd. Good night sound sleeper next door!