The View From My Apartment 16
A typical Indian wedding has three events. The night where henna is put on the bride and groom, the wedding ceremony itself and then the reception. In most cases, the wedding ceremony is very late at night, early in the morning, and the reception is the following day.
The first night, the women and the men are separated, the men talk men stuff and the women sing, dance and get henna done. Who would you rather hang out with? Well, as the groom, I could do whatever I wanted. I went with the women folk. (Though to be fair, the men DID have better drinks offered, so I would go up there for a nip.)
Our wedding was smaller than most, in part because we had already been married, and because we were doing it at an odd time of year. (When the priest came to discuss the ceremony itself, he looked up our charts, and suggested that we actually get married on a different more auspicious day. We threw fate to the wind and pressed on…)
We did the henna night down in the basement of the apartment complex, decorated for the night, with a DJ, waiters, plenty of pillows to sit on. The men had to remain upstairs in the apartment until meal time.
In a weird sort of way, it’s like a bachelorette party—without the obligatory sex toys. We danced to Bollywood songs, and laughed. Deepti and I danced to my favorite number from Bunty aur Babli, a song called, Kajra Re as performed by my favorite star Amitabh Bachchan, more on him later. For those who want to see the fabulousness that is Amitabh–he’s the older bloke with the red scarf– go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XdM-WA1FmM and check out Kajra Re.
I thought I had caused quite a sensation, my Bollywood moves, I thought were quite fly. But then…Arjun arrived.
You remember him? The eight month old who couldn’t stop staring at this white man? Nidthi brought him down, and suddenly, something primal seemed to have over taken the girls. The moved as a pack towards the little boy. A sound rose from within their ranks, it began as a rumble, turned to a roar, then transformed into shrieks. The girls reached and pulled the baby away from his mother. He was passed around, thrown into the air, and fought over by the girls.
I didn’t think he would make it. At least intact. But he’s a survivor that Arjun. He survived the tough love from all the women.
The next day…the wedding.
Now, remember when I wrote that the priest felt that the day of the wedding wasn’t the best day? If you don’t remember, take this moment to go back up, read it again. I’ll wait.
Alright. So, the priest, in order to make it a more auspicious day, had to perform a little ceremony before the actual ceremony—which would take place outside in the courtyard.
It should have been so simple. However, the priest’s scooter couldn’t start. That’s right, our Hindu priest uses a scooter. Awesome. But, for whatever reason, he was late. Like by an hour.
In the West, we freak out about such things. We are very needy about things starting on time. I am horribly guilty. I want movies to start early I get so bored and anxious waiting.
But not so in India. Now, one could argue that it is all tied to the world view and mythology of Hindu culture. Possibly. But I think a more likely explanation: being late happens. A lot. You have to get used to it or die.
Eventually, he showed up. And began his ceremony. There were offerings, chanting…more offerings, participation by everyone. It was nice. It took some time to get started, as all the men in the room had something to say. Remember this: In India, everyone has an opinion and will share it with you. (Of course, that just might apply everywhere.)
We had some pictures done. A very strange experience of a man telling us how to pose in unnatural ways. But it was a hoop we had to jump through in order to get to…
The wedding itself…
It was outdoors in a large tent put up the day before. Carpeting had been put down, pillows around a fire pit and two large thrones. Guess who the thrones were for? That’s right, hail to the king, baby.
Oh, and did I mention there was food? Yes. Off to the side, there was a buffet with chai. Welcome to anyone to go and nibble during the ceremony. This is one thing I really wish Western ceremonies would embrace. I have sat through to many wedding ceremonies where a warm samosa would have made the event that much more exciting.
Deepti and I sat around the fire, the priest on the other side. And the ceremony began. There were more offerings, prayers by the priests, my in laws made offerings, my parents made offerings, Deepti and I made offerings. And then the priest asked Deepti and I a series of questions. Now, this was done in Hindi, and I only had a good friend of Deepti’s, Rahul, to rely on. I could have promised anything. I just nodded, you know? I think I’m ok, but you just never know.
We then circled the fire several times and then…we were married. That was it. Simple. I don’t know if anyone attending was paying attention by that point, they were eating and chatting during the whole thing. Something else I think the West should adopt. I would like attending weddings much more if I could chat to the person next to me.
Oh. Yeah. I almost went on to the reception, and I’m sure my wife would appreciate it if I did. Because the next little bit, well, it doesn’t reflect well on her family.
Remember when her mother tried to poison me with cashews? Well, one of her uncles tried to poison me with dairy. I had, up to this point avoided the dairy. It didn’t smell right to me. It was perfectly safe…well…but it hadn’t been as pasteurized as it is in the US. So, I didn’t drink the milk or eat the yogurt.
During the eating portion of the wedding ceremony, one of her uncles fed us, each a spoon of yogurt.
I was fine. Until after the ceremony. That’s when the cramping started. Followed by the diarrhea. (This part, I’m sure, my mother would wish I didn’t make public. Good thing for you that I’m writing this, eh?) Now…it was a vivid green. The sort of green I didn’t think the human body could produce. But (tee hee) there it was, green. And whole lot of fluid. More fluid than I had taken in. It just kept pouring out. At a certain point I was more amazed than I was worried. In the end (giggle) there wasn’t anything left. I took some medicine and hit the bed. By morning I was fine. Not eager to eat, but fine.
Let me tell you: it takes more than yogurt to kill this man from the mid-west.
The reception was going to be at a hall not far from the center of Delhi. It was beautifully decorated. The main responsibility of Deepti and I was to smile and say hello. This was going to be a bigger event, three hundred people, than the wedding ceremony itself. Everyone my in laws had ever met was invited—ok, perhaps that an exaggeration…or not.
We begin making our rounds, seeing some relatives again…who all seemed to know that I had been ill, as they asked how I was feeling. Should I have been suspicious? We also met friends, co-workers, everyone. The reception is also where people give the gifts, basically tokens of congratulations, or what have you, and they also give money to the parents who hosted the wedding.
I met a lot of people that night. I wish I could bore you with everyone that I met. But…I can’t remember. And it’s not because of time, but by the end of that night, I just couldn’t fit anymore names into my tiny little brain.
The night ended with Deepti and I FINALLY getting to eat the food that was set out.
As we were getting ready to go, that’s when the demands for the tips began. It began for me when I was exiting the bathroom, a man said to me, “tip?” That surprised me. Because I didn’t know what he had done while I was in the bathroom for him to get a tip. I mean, it’s not like he did anything for me IN the bathroom. I looked at him strangely, but kept on walking.
Soon, it became clear, everyone was in search of their tip for the event. All the servers, etc. And they ask for it. And if they don’t like how much they get, they will tell you. Just be prepared. And that guy came after me in the bathroom for two reasons. 1. Because he thought he would get a lot out of me, being American and not familiar with the rupee so I would over tip and 2. Because he would then go to my father in law and ask for another tip.
He was sneaky. But he didn’t plan on my ignorance…
After the wedding, my parents, along with her sister in law and a cousin, took Deepti and I on a trip to the Taj Mahal in Agra.
The whole trip is a part of a package—a bus, accommodation, tickets into Taj Mahal as well as the Fort in Agra, and a tour guide. We get to Agra, a moderately sized city, where the major bucks come from tourism, the Taj IS a wonder of the world after all, in the late afternoon.
In order to preserve the Taj, the city had much of the industry shut down, so pollutants wouldn’t damage the marble. This also means that you can’t drive up to it. You can only get your car so close, and from that point on, you take an electric bus, and then you walk the rest of the way.
We went early in the morning, just after breakfast. It was chilly. But bright out. Once we had our tickets, and once we had been searched (please, no explosives at the Taj Mahal) we enter into a courtyard. Our tour guide says some stuff. I don’t remember. I kept thinking, weird, I’m about to see the Taj Mahal. I hope he didn’t say anything I should remember, something that I might later want to put into a blog. But, really, that’s what wikipeida is for.
We go through this court yard, into a gate, and framed perfectly, is the Taj. It’s gleaming white marble, it’s symmetrical shape, with the four towers leaning out just a little, in case of Earthquake, the towers won’t hit the shrine.
It’s just beautiful. And serene. And a tomb. I’m afraid that my words won’t quite describe it, and there are plenty of pictures, so I won’t bother. But the experience of actually being there, where craftsmen spent decades carving the marble and all the inlay work…because a man wanted to honor the memory of his wife. Sure, he was a king, and she was queen, and he could afford to build it, but in the end, it was because he loved her so much he wanted something that mirrored her beauty.
It’s strange…what I remember most…I didn’t have any questions, I just didn’t. All I could do was simply marvel. At the level of craft, at the size, and…hell…it was the fucking Taj Mahal. Its name is its meaning. It’s a glorious tribute.
You know what it is? It’s something that no husband ever will be able to surpass. This one guy, he screwed over husbands forever.
It is a national symbol. It is a thing of pride And the level of care to maintain the area is high…once you get through the park and ponds, before you are able to walk onto the tomb, you have to put on little paper booties, like doctors wear. And, I read recently, they may pack Taj in mud in order to remove some of the particulates that have already begun to change the color of the marble.
But it’s interesting…and we do here in the US as well…while it is an object of national pride, there is also an industry to be made from it. Once you leave the Taj, you are confronted by people eager to sell you things, either books about the place or, strangely, mini marble chess sets. And these people will not take no for an answer. In fact, no merely means you are negotiating.
These people make their living from tourists, so it makes sense for them to be there as you come out, but there was for me, such a disconnect from my experience inside with the experience outside. I wanted to continue…contemplating, I guess. I had seen something of extraordinary beauty, and right after that, I had to push my way through peddlers trying to get me to purchase sandals.
Like I said, we do it here in the US, what major historical place doesn’t have a gift shop? Gettysburg? (They have a bookstore in their visitor’s center. I just looked it up.
But still…there’s something a little wrong with reducing something so large into a trinket or a t-shirt. It is about a memory. Sometimes. Other times it’s about having a badge saying: I went here. There’s just a part of me that hates reducing a thing and then duplicating it. All in all, I much prefer the real thing to a t-shirt.
That is not to say, I am not a complete hypocrite. We did eventually find a small marble drawing of the Taj Mahal. We had hoped to find a miniature, but they all looked…well…manufactured in bulk. And crappy.
Sometime in your life: Go see a Wonder of the World. The pyramids, Taj Mahal, something. Do it. It’s so much better than a photo.
Time for a little history lesson. Delhi is a very old city, and had been for many centuries a seat of power. For a time Calcutta, or Kolkota as it is now called, was the capital of India. After the Rebellion of 1857, the British, those rascally Imperialists, moved the capital back to Delhi, deciding a city in the center of the country, might be easier to govern from.
At the turn of the 20th Century, the British decided to do some redecoration. Specifically, central Delhi. The British built government buildings, which are still used today, as well as Connaught Place, a giant traffic circle/park with a series of shops surrounding it. This area, with its government buildings, parks, etc., is New Delhi. Made by the British.
We had one more trip to do together before my wife went to Australia and I came back to the United States. We were heading off to Bombay, or Mumbai, for those keeping count. Deepti works for a company that does corporate training. The company is looking to expand into Asia, and they wanted Deepti to audition actors for future work.
And being the acting capital of India, a trip to Bombay was in order! Deepti has old friends there, and family…the Mighty Arjun and family just moved to Bombay. The company was paying for the hotel room and her ticket, so, I got to be a groupie and tag along.
Another trip to the Delhi International Airport…
This time, however, we go to the domestic flights. A security guard, with a semi-automatic rifle over his shoulder, checks to see if we have tickets to get into the airport. We do, and we go in. The luggage is passed through an x-ray machine, and then we head off to check in.
Deepti does all the talking. The woman behind the counter checks her ID, but not mine, and takes out luggage to be loaded onto the plane. I thought it was curious that my ID was looked at, but, then, I thought, it will be checked when we board the plane.
Not so. We board, getting in line to walk up the stairs into the plane. I’m tempting to ask the stewardess if they want to see my ID. Perhaps they just forgot to ask. Maybe it was their first day on the job. I’ll be helpful. But, no one else’s ID was being checked. So…I roll with it—’cause I fly like that.
The plane ride—which was a part of a brand new fleet owned by Kingfisher, an Indian beer company—was a little under two hours. We were served food, there was TV. A domestic flight with food and TV? I felt like I had seen the future.
I was excited to go to Bombay. I got to see another part of India, it was by the ocean, and it is Bollywood. And who wouldn’t want to go to Bollywood?
I have grown to like Bollywood movies. At first, they were weird—mostly they were weird to me because I couldn’t get over the fact that no matter the genre someone was going to sing and dance. It could be a drama, an action film, a film about disease, there will be a moment when people will sing and dance.
What got me through: oh, yeah, we do that in American musicals. Every Bollywood film is an American Musical. Just in Hindi.
And by far my favorite Bollywood movie stay is Amitabh Bachchan. He’s been around for some time. He is huge. He is the biggest star in the Bollywood film industry. He is…Brando, Harrison Ford, and John Wayne all wrapped up in one tall guy. Who know wears a toupee…so through in some William Shatner. There isn’t a genre he can’t do…light comedy, heavy drama, action. He’s a supernova of talent. Oh, and add in some Elvis, the dude can dance.
Once, when he was badly injured on set, people from all over India came to Bombay to pray for him. Pray for him.
When he makes a movie, thousands and thousands show up on the set to catch a glimpse of him.
He is an industry unto himself.
He also hosted the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Anyway. I wanted to get a poster. I had seen some in Delhi, but, frankly, they sucked. Sure, they would cost me only a quarter, but if I was going to spend my hard earned rupees, I wanted to spend it on a great poster of Amitabh. Deepti was sure that I could get it in Bombay.
From the airport, I take my first auto-rickshaw. It’s basically a tricycle with a tiny motor. And they are all over India. They are cheap rides, a little smelly, and maybe not all that safe. I recommend that if you do go to India, get an Indian friend to negotiate for you while you hide behind a tree. It will be a much cheaper ride.
We get to the hotel, suffer through some problems, and then meet up with some old friends of Deepti’s. They were actors that Deepti had trained with in Delhi. They were a lot of fun, interested in what we were up to. And it didn’t hurt that we ate and drank right on the ocean.
We make plans to meet up with more acting friends the next night. It’s been a long day, and Deepti had to work the next morning.
That following evening, we get our plate nice and full: spend some time with Deepti’s friends, and then, as they have newly moved to Bombay, see Nidthi, Anirbahn and the MIGHTY ARJUN! Will this kid ever just leave me alone?
So, the friends collect at the hotel, and then they decide the best course of action, as there is a happy hour, is to go and drink at the…TGI Friday’s. In the mall. Yes. That’s right. A TGI Friday’s in the mall. Back in an auto-rickshaw, and off to the mall…
It was like I had never left America. The stores, the glass, the lighting, it was like your average mall in your average American town. And as far as the Fridays. It was lifted straight out of my home town. From the American movie posters, street signs, to the menu. It was a copy. Of TGI Fridays. In Bombay. Of all places.
I do have to point out two differences. 1. There were Indians and 2. the burgers were made from lamb instead of beef.
And I think we drank light beer. My brain swirled. Perhaps globalization IS a bad thing…If it means exported entire restaurant decorations to another country…it’s just evil. Plain evil.
Deepti, recently, suggested they took us there for my sake. No. It was the happy hour.
We drink, we chat, and then we split. Time for dinner. We grab another auto-rickshaw, they are just SO cute, and head off to the restaurant. The place is a sea food joint that Anirbahn had wanted to take us, and…sigh…it was close to the home of one Amitabh Bachchan. I felt like a tourist in Hollywood. My heart began to beat just a little faster, my mouth became dry as we approached.
And I didn’t see much. There was a guard posted outside. And a wall. And I assume somewhere behind that wall was the man. Perhaps he was kicking his feet up, toupee off, drink in hand playing Xbox. I doubt it. But it is possible.
With a heavy heart, we get to the restaurant and meet with Nidthi, Anirbahn, and a sleepy Arjun. As we eat, a very delicious meal, Arjun is passed around, eventually ending up in my arms. He didn’t seem to mind. Finally. He got over his fear of white people.
We finish dinner, they go off, we go off back to the hotel.
The next morning, after packing, we go in search of my poster. I can’t leave without a poster. That would be criminal. And I do wish there was a great story to tell about getting the poster. But really people, I went to a store and bought a poster. That’s it. It was cheap. It was excellent. No story here. No great little revelation of culture or the world. I bought a poster. How often do great revelations and stories happen to YOU when you go and buy, oh, I don’t know, a pair of shoes? Sometimes things just happen. In this case, I got a groovy poster of an actor. Which now hangs proudly in my office. Staring at me. Constantly. Why doesn’t he just leave me alone?
Back to the airport. Where at no point Deepti or I have our ID’s checked. Not once. We could have been anyone. It was kind of awesome.
The final few days in India, Astronomy, and British Airways back to America!