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Monsoons and Arranged Marriages
April 24, 2017
It has officially be more than a week since I have been home—which reminds me, it’s time to take my Malaria pill. Good times.
Since my last post I have seen the Ghandi Museum (highlights include the actual blood stained clothes Ghandi wore on the day he was killed, and the original letter he wrote to Hitler beginning, “Dear Friend”). I have also taught my first class; two hours on English pronunciation and poetry, and fun fact, Tamil kids (at least this particular group) are the most attentive, patient, enthusiastic students you could ask for. Despite a huge language barrier (their English is minimal, my Tamil is nonexistent) they participated constantly, working with me to try to understand. Truly incredible, I’m anxious to see how the class with college students next week compares!
Yesterday morning I spent some time with a group of ages 5-15 learning a traditional dance. By the time the parents arrived to pick the kids up, I was formally invited to attend an “Engagement Ceremony” for one of the parent’s cousins. Come 5:15pm I packed up my camera and was out by the street, waiting for their taxi to take me to see this wedding-eve ceremony, with no idea what to expect. As I stood there, the wind picked up, the clouds seem to get darker, and then sand began flying in the air. I covered my face with my scarf but the sound became wild, sand was flying more aggressively than ever, and the rain came in like little bullets, roaring in trees and hurling trash from the sides of the street. In half a second I was drenched, but it was the first time I felt cool while outdoors, and from across the street a family waved, laughing and taking pictures just like I was. I wondered how this would hinder the evening, but moments later the taxi (crammed with about ten people) pulled up, and took me off, into the torrent without batting an eye. The family inside was dressed in gorgeous saris, bright jewelry and dark eye makeup, smiling broadly at me and apparently unimpressed by the tempest banging on the windows. Outside the car, people on motorcycles, bicycles, on foot, and hanging off the backs of carts were soaked, trying to cover their eyes, but nevertheless participating in the swell of traffic which was moving, as usual, about six lanes to a sidewalk, at 40 miles per hour on relatively residential roads. In some areas there was at least half a foot of water in the streets. I could not believe there was no better method for dealing with this much rain, and I had to wonder if our driver, banging on the wheel and swerving, would understand me if I tried to explain “hydroplaning.”
After a few U-turns to adjust to accidents and traffic jams, we arrived at a tall building whose front was wide open for guests to enter. Shoes dripping, we pushed into the deep hall, which was filled with white plastic chairs. I was ushered up several flights of stairs into a hot little room to change into a borrowed sari and straighten my hair a little. When we returned downstairs, music was blaring from a group of people sitting on a blanket at the front of the hall: two big drums, whacked on by what looked like wooden rings on the musician’s finger tips, and two long trumpets that looked more like flutes and sounded like high-pitched elephants. It was deafening, and ceaseless, continuing without much change for the next five hours.
There was much milling around for the first hour, during which I socialized with a group of young boys who all cried “Camera! Photo!” and played with the buttons on my camera to try and make the flash pop up. Then the bride-to-be entered from outside. She was decked with jewels from all sides, her hair a long diamond braid, and she was kept inside an impenetrable wall of family, friends, well-wishers, and photographers as she walked through the chairs to the red-carpeted stage and into a back room. We did not see her for a couple hours. After a while, the groom-to-be came in with a similar entourage, and was left sitting on the white, shell-themed couch that sat in the middle of the raised stage. The whole picture was quite bizarre. There was no intention, apparently, of making a nice spectacle for the crowd; all of the action (and for many many hours nothing happened at all) was conducted in the middle of the consortium of family, friends, and photographers. And all to the same painfully loud wailing coming from the musician’s blanket.
Honored to be present, and yet completely bemused by these proceedings, I was even more confused when the guests wanted to place me in the thick of the action. Before I knew it, I was on stage in the middle of the ceremony, camera in hand, watching the series of activities: parents painting bindis on everyone’s foreheads, friends taking fruits from plastic bags and placing them onto platters, the bride and groom passing garlands of flowers between each other’s necks, and not one motion of compassion or fondness, let alone intimacy, between the engaged parties. I documented every hour with focus and confusion. I didn’t understand. An intricate ceremony almost no one could see, in a formal venue filled with plastic chairs, for two people whose connection took the ultimate backseat to a very long, somewhat chaotic event in their honor.
As with the numerous families who shoved some member of the group in front of my camera just to watch me take a picture—and not care about getting the photograph—I consented to participate and suspend my confuddlement. Clearly the night was special, clearly they wanted me to enjoy it, clearly it meant the world to these families and that was quite beautiful. So I stood for half a dozen photographs with the bride and groom—aware that I was only connected to them through their cousin’s daughter, whom I had met that morning, and I blushed guiltily when they explained their joy to have me there. Shyly, I wished them a very happy future, and I meant it.
Driving home through the buckets of rain that hadn’t stopped a single guest from showing up in wet saris and big smiles, I had to admit it. I hoped that my wedding would be filled with fewer fluorescent lights, but as much community love as this one.