(Beware: Long and self-indulgent)
Aloha brothers and sisters and all you hot women out there! I welcome you from the lush green shores, clear blue waters and highly anti-incumbent political scenario of my wonderful home state of Kerala. It drizzles for a few hours everyday but not enough to cool the nights. I still wake up in the morning leaving a ‘portly man’-shaped sweat stain on my bed. The silence on the blog is because of a cousin’s wedding which has kept all of us here up all day and night for the last one week.
Few people know of mallu weddings. At least not remotely as well as they know of Tam Brahm, Punju, Bong or any one of the other more glamorous wedding processes from around the country. Tam Brahms have their breaking pappadums on the head, the highly comical Kashi Yatra and making the bride sit on her father’s lap thingies. (Or maybe maternal uncle’s lap.). Bongs carry the bride around the ceremonial fire. Punjus are the Texans of India. They do everything bigger, better and fluffier.
Mallu Christian weddings however are simple uncomplicated affairs. They last for half a day at most and the entire sequence of events is designed to culminate in a steaming rich and flavorful lunch served with great care and attention to detail. The meal is truly the cynosure of all eyes and opinions during the wedding.
A few months ago I had the great fortune of attending my first full blown North Indian Wedding. If I remember correctly the bride and groom were both from UP but I do not remember what communities. One may have been Bania. But it had all the elements of a big opulent ‘northie’ wedding. The baraat went from Delhi to Chandigarh, stopping every few kilometers so that the children could pee under trees while the band could play a few Bollywood essentials. Some of the boys smoked behind the buses.
The venue was covered with yards and yards of shiny cloth in reds and pinks with shiny golden tassels. I was dressed, for the occasion, in a smooth new upmarket branded suit. It was, however, woefully inadequate against reams of silk and gold threaded sherwanis and the like.
It was well into a chilly winter and there were little gas fired heaters placed all around the huge grass lawn. Around each heater were circles of plastic chairs where well-fed aunties in almost-bursting silk blouses (clichéd but true) and salwar suits sat and gossiped while their children ran around upsetting glasses of juice and flower pots. I walked around overawed by the whole spectacle for some time.
The couple was presented with gifts, mostly in thick little envelopes. One of the photographers, apparently a CNN-IBN employee specially drafted for the occasion, told me that the couple made enough with those envelopes to have a very decent honeymoon. Once in a while some of the relatives did things like lifting the groom so the bride could not garland him which I found a little bizarre at first. But then I have not yet seen Hum Aapke Hai Kaun which is supposed to be a must watch for northie wedding novices.
All the while the brother of the groom walked around with a thick wad of notes. Crisp pink thousand-rupee ones that he kept handing out every few minutes.
Waiters in rather smart jackets went around with platters of paneer, chicken and prawn. The booze was being served in trolleys. You asked the man for a drink, any drink, and he quickly made it for you and even wrapped a little paper napkin around each glass. After three hours of ‘screwdriver’ drinking I gave up. I was told he was still pushing around the trolley till 3 in the morning. The dinner had at least 30 dishes. Maybe there was more but there were too many tables all around to cover them all. The wedding finally got over at 4 in the morning in a little room which stood apart form the lawn. The pujari made cute jokes which most of the family laughed. But I was a little drunk and very sleepy and missed most of them.
On the other hand for the last one week I have been stationed almost permanently at the local parish hall here in Pavaratty. It is a whitewashed two-storey building a stone’s throw away from the parish church that was built only a few years ago. But every year the ceiling begins to sag a little and they add a few more pillars to support the weight. So much so that the main dining hall is now called the Madurai Meenakshi temple because of all the pillars that obscures your views and gets in the way of all the waiters. (Rumours abound that the then parish priest siphoned out cement from the construction to build a house for his brother. And apparently he used the ambulance from the parish hospital to carry out the deed. Such are the conspiracies my little village cherishes.) The engineer who worked on the hall also designed my uncle’s (the bride’s) house. They live in mortal fear.
My uncle, the father of the bride, and the brother of the author’s father, is not one for shows of opulence or wanton spending of riches. (Not that he has too much of both. He is a simple little man who has worked in the same bank since graduation and refused any higher promotions because he did not want to work in Calcutta or Delhi. Tanjavur was the farthest he would go.) Left to him he would just get the bride, groom and priest in a little room and be done with it. However he does believe in making sure the lunch is a blockbuster. “They will only remember the fish, chicken and pork,” he’d say, “not the bride or groom or priest or videographer.” When I was younger I used to vehemently disagree. But now I know he is right. A relative’s wedding a year or so ago is still remembered only for the fried rice which was too cold, the chilly chicken that had too much soy sauce and the ice cream that was melted in the cup.
So I was there when they counted out 95 skinned and quartered chickens, chopped up 55 kilos of the most wonderfully fresh and firm fish chunks and suddenly discovered they were short of 15 litres of curd for the consolation vegetarian dish. (Kaalan. Raw bananas cooked in a thick, tangy coconut based gravy served at room temperature.) All this of course is much more complicated than it sounds. Five cooks with ultra short tempers and always a little tipsy on Old Cask Rum are highly nerve-wracking to manage. I ran around in my Adidas tracks and oversize check ‘work shirt’ with my cellphone pasted to my ear. At 3 or 4 in the morning the cooks have a habit of asking for the most ridiculous things. Three kilos of old newspaper. Two packets of macaroni. (Only elbow please.) At one point we even had to grind our way through 5 kilos of masala. Half for the fish and half for the chicken, we had to do it with an old gulf return mixer-grinder that could do one tea cup worth at a time. It took two hours. But all this is to be expected.
What was not expected was that a couple of allegedly Muslim League supporters would hack to death the Corporation Chairman of Chavakkad (a staunch leftist) the night before the wedding. Within minutes there were cars burning and stones hurling and hartal declaring. Policemen everywhere to prevent retribution murders.
Saying there was complete panic would be a colossal understatement. The groom was still kilometers away in a little hamlet called Kottekad. It was a given that more than half of the 800 or so invitees would not be able turn up. There were rumours that there would be violent road blocking the next day and even the usual concession for wedding party convoys may not be extended by the severely upset commies. I was called for a top level huddle of male relative to decide on further action. The oldest, and alas the loudest, couple of uncles and grandfathers were allowed to speak as much as they wanted. Then, once they had left, we regrouped without them and planned. A few bottles of beer were popped open.
But the greatest worry was that the shops would be closed and the cooking would come to a complete and agonizing stop. In fact at that point in time the only part of the proceedings completely ready for action was the alcohol supplies. Three cases of KF and enough bottles of rum, brandy and whisky had been stashed away the night before. (And already partaken of but my uncle did not know this of course.)
But the famed mallu resilience (but not as much as the ‘resilience of the mumbaikar’) kicked in and all of us were up all night. The groom was shipped in overnight before dawn. Asianet News said that the hartal would kick in at 6 in the morning. I called the Manorama office to reconfirm. We secretly opened up a couple of the local provision stores and shipped out provisions from the back doors. The waiters and table setters indicated at midnight that they would not be able to come. Which meant we had to come up with a serving team of 25 as soon as possible. We did. Somehow. Distant relatives and any able bodied males were drafted in on sight.
It suddenly occurred to me that we had not checked if the priest was in station. A couple of frantic calls later we were told by a grumpy security guard that the priest would come in at 3 in the morning. Our priests are mostly nice and very eager to please the parishioners. Sort of like the ones you read about in Blyton or something. Though there are the occasional cement thieving ones.
At 11:15 the next morning, a few minutes behind schedule, the families made it to the church with a cloud of photogrgaphers and light-boys swarming around. Only half the invitees could make it in time for the Mass in church but, as expected, many more of them made it to the lunch after the service. I ran between the church and parish hall. There were photos to be taken at one end and banana leaves to be cut and cleaned at the other.
We served everything in large luxurious portions, partly because nothing spread faster than the gossip that the Vadukuts were stingy with their chicken or held back on the fish curry gravy, but mostly because we did not want to be loaded with tons and tons of leftovers.
By evening the official result was out. The lunch was a brilliant success. The chicken was cooked with great flavour, the fish was cooked to delicate, flaky perfection and the rice soaked up gravy just like it should. After sizeable dispatches of food to the local nursing college (a charitable institution for girls from poor families) and waiting for all the beggars to have their fill (and pack small packets in banana leaves for their later consumption) we carried the rest home in buckets. Not too much. Nothing we couldn’t eat through in a couple of days.
I sat in the evening and tried to sort out the few gifts and presents they received. Pressure cookers, casseroles, gold coins, some money and a few cheques. Nothing good enough for a honeymoon. Maybe enough for a trip to Thrissur, a new Mohan Lal movie and a dinner at Thrissur Towers, a swanky place where all the rich tourists stay.
So all in all I guess the wedding was a great success. There was no horse or brass band. No bespoke suits and gas heaters. No jacketed waiters and no trolleys of drinks by any means. Only a whole bunch of young men in stained white dhotis and crumpled shirts with aching backs smelling of fish. But the lunch was good and my cousin calls from Calicut every morning. She finds her in-laws wonderful but is still too bashful to talk about her husband.
I, on the other hand, need to go now because my uncle tells me some of the bills for the hall rental and the stage decoration still need to be settled. And my little nephew is watching Pokemon too loudly. That is not blogging-friendly at all you must agree.