This weekend I began to get a hint of why the Delhi natives in Mumbai crib so much. Delhi has big wide roads that seem to never get narrow. They just go on and on in long wide loops of pothole-free cement and tar. And there seem to be no slums anywhere. And I dont mean just in Lutyens Delhi. But anywhere. Where do all the poor live in Delhi?
And every once in a while you drive under one of those Delhi Metro bridges. The Delhi types are poud of their Metro. They speak of it like we Mumbai types speak of our 'resilience'. "It is always clean" they say, "always on time. Very good indeed. It not like your local trains".
Anyways. Why the sudden Delhi-centric banter? Isn't this an exclusively Mumbai blog? Of course not. No such thing. Tut tut. This blog is omnipresent. Universal. All inclusive. Family pack. One blog fits all. So since I spent most of my weekend at the 'Rajdhani' partaking of a simple, quiet and calm North Indian wedding I must share my wondrous experiences with all of you. This blog hides nothing.
Simple, quiet and calm? Hehehe. I jest.
Our brethren up north have an approach to weddings which is entirely alien to the average Mallu. Regular readers will be aware of the mechanics of a mallu wedding. The steps are, on average, as follows:
1. Wake up
5. Sleep / pass out
7. Go to airport
8. Land in Muscat
It is plainly evident that the average mallu is extremely focused when it comes to marriages. No hanging around wasting time for him. No singing and gifting and dancing for our dear Velayudhan or Tommy-mon. He is on leave you see and his arab boss will fire his ass if he comes even fifteen minutes late. "Do honeymoon of yours in Dubai shopping mall meester velayudhahn. Okay? You no like?... then you no job, no visa, no nothing! No tell me Ooty, Mysore OKAY!" is what his arab proprietor-cum-manager will say.
Things are a little different in the cooler climes of Delhi. This was my second non-mallu wedding though. The first was an all-UP affair, Khares and Maheshwaris, that was elaborate but restrained. Also it was in the midst of a Delhi winter and I barely managed to keep vital body functions going by imbibing several bloody marys while staying put next to one of those "fire in a barrel" type things. They leave them around at the venue so that the southies have somewhere to congregate and so that little aggro children can keep themselves occupied by throwing food, furniture and each other into the crackling flames.
This time one of the two concerned parties, the bride, was Punjabi. And we all know what happens when you mix the concept of 'wedding' with the philosophy of 'being punjabi'. It is akin to what happens when in engineerin college suddenly, out of the blue, with little warning, with nary a word of caution, a moderately hot woman signs up for mechanical engineering. All engineers surely remember the wholesale churn that follows.
Last weekend I was hopping around swanky hotels for both the Sangeet and subsequently the Shaadi. If there is anything the punjabis could give to the rest of the world as a cultural concept, and a concept that one everyone should embrace wholeheartedly, it is that of the 'Sangeet'. It deserves place right up there with the other great punjabi contributions: Paneer Tikka, Sweet Lassi in 4-litre steel glasses, Stuffed Naans, Sardar jokes, Baba Sehgal and Malaika Arora. What can one possibly say about a setup where one's family actively encourages you to get sloshed and dance till the wee hours of the morning? Not to mention the abundance of pretty young things.
See it works like this. The night before the Shaadi (wedding) a few key relatives and several bottles of assorted alcoholic beverages are assembled together in a single hotel room. The bride and groom are then brought into the room, a wanton distraction, and they then proceed to exchange rings (this was one was a Sagai cum Sangeet), smile, sweat profusely, receive gifts, smile, sweat, smile etc. A stream of relatives parade up and down the stage continuously making short snappy conversations and posing for photographs. Since there are hundreds of people who wish to talk to the couple but only limited imported liquor there is normally a rush to climb on stage and be done with things as soon as possible.
There are several challenges for the parties involved: the couple on stage and the casual observer, like your author, off it.
For the bride and groom it is agony to be wished, hugged and blessed and feet-touched by several hundred relatives who are all trying to say something polite and get their photo taken all the while keeping their eyes on the one solitary waiter who is going around with the white wine. (Terrible I tell you. Terrible. On the other hand there are whisky guys everywhere.)
But things are not too much better for the casual observer either. Everyone knows that weddings, apart from being a celebration of the union of two minds and an occassion for people to renew their social bonds, is also an opportunity to eat a lot of fish for free. But as with all good things there is a catch here too. The author observed that there was a subtle but comprehensible pattern to the order in which he was approached by smart looking waiters with platters laden with food. I was able to work out that for each time I was able to corner one of the fried fish waiters I had to wade through two paneer tikka fellows, one cashewnut wallah and 14 million cocktail samosa specialists. Those samosa fellows were everywhere. Standing between me and my crumb fried fish. Rascals.
I am sure those waiters have some sort of a caste system among themselves. The fish and prawns ones are right at the top and they walk around with their chins in the air. Below them, by a fair distance, are the chicken tikka and mutton kebab types. They are good solid middle-order fellows who are always dependable but have none of the airs of the fish and prawn braggards. Then there are the smooth lower middle class paneer types (Though I would suggest you don’t tell a true-blue Punjabi that paneer is anything less than absolute numero uno.) A little proletariat but still a cut above the bottom. If paneer waiters were a suburb of Mumbai they would be Wadala or maybe Khar. But not as hep as Bandra or as 'ahem ahem' as, say, Koliwada. And then right at the bottom you have the cocktail samosa and assorted rolls and deep fried vegetable bearers. It is a sad life they live. The author did not see a single guest as much as cast a kind glance upon the cocktail samosas. I could spy many a cocktail samosa waiter throwing venomous glances at the fish and prawn man flitting by. ("One day you bastard" he seem to say, "I too will carry the calamari." They have simple ambitions those waiters.)
Anyways. Back to the ceremony at hand. Back to the crux of the matter. The pith of the story. The booze.
As young malayali kids who go on to do graduations in engineering some of us have always wondered what life would be like after death. (Note: That is an extremely weird sentence.) If indeed we were to reach heaven what wondrous joys would we partake of? Surely we would want unlimited food, 24-hour mohanlal movies and waiters running around with free booze? And that too booze of all types: beer, rum, whisky, wine, toddy, palm liquor, fermented battery water... any one of the many beverages we have affectionately grown up with. Well a punjabi Sangeet is almost that. Yes my dear friends. Waiters just walk around with glasses of booze. I swear. I saw it with my own two eyes. Hic!
Me and Pastrami, an old dear friend, swooped down on the 'white wine' fellow. Thankfully we were both MBAs, great at math and linear programming and did some quick calculations. Soon we were able to conclude with 98.76% confidence that the 'white wine' fellow walked by a certain freestanding flower pot in the ballroom every ten to twelve minutes. And, lo behold, conveniently intersecting the same spot every fifteen minutes was a shammi kebab fellow . The next hour and a half was supreme bliss. Till they made us dance.
After the food and wine something very essential to the complete punjabi wedding is song and dance. And boy did this one have some. Now if you are one of those people who saw Hum Saath Saath Hai (English Translation: 'We are all seventy-seven') and thought the marriage ceremonies were too fake to be true, you are totally misunderstimating the truth. I actually saw a few dance items that had been choreographed and rehearsed thoroughly by the members of the family. The performances on the dance-floor were energetic, tight and utterly applause worthy. Pastrami, who had had way too much drink by then, was taken aback. He leaned over and whispered in my ear: "These gurlsh are vehry vehry naishe no. Amashing how pfhht grsh jheyzu?"
I agreed completely.
So it was only a matter of time before we were being asked to join the crowd on the dance floor. Pastrami, even with the better part of two bottles of wine and something which he said was a stiff-ish cashewnut roll but could have been a small plastictooth pick holder inside him, was the first to step up to the slightly raised platform. And by 'step up' I mean trip over the edge and almost body slam someone called 'Badi Bua' into the ground. 'Badi Bua' was one of your quintessential punjabi aunties and Pastrami bounced off at a tangent. Buaji continued dancing to 'Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui' as if nothing had happened to her. I stepped in to help Pastrami at which point they began to play Bin Tere Sanam. I was powerless to stop my feet. I did a mean jig to that one. And to every song after that.
I woke up at the guest house fresh the next morning with a horrible 'white wine' hang over in my head and a cashewnut roll in my pocket. I was promptly told to freshen up quickly for the haldi ceremony. This is where the groom is stripped down and then coated from head to toe in a layer of haldi or turmeric paste. He is then deep fried in virgin groundnut oil. Ha ha. I jest! In our case the haldi paste was merely patted onto the groom's face and then he washes it off. Apparently the haldi paste has a cleansing effect on your body and soul. It drives away all dirt and impurity from your skin and constitution leaving behind hygiene, purity and yellow stains on your clothes that last for most of your post-married life.
I quickly took a car home to wash up and change for the wedding ceremony in the evening.
By evening we were all back at another hotel for the 'pheras' or wedding ceremony. As my dear friends sat besides the ceremonial fire moments away from forging an eternal bond of togetherness my heart filled with a certain emotional and melancholic feeling as Pastrami had just found out that there was no non-veg for dinner. But all was not lost. There was white wine and lots of it. Om Swaha!
Which reminds me of a joke. I am sure you are aware that pundits normally make several jokes in Sanskrit as the marriage goes on. Sometimes they translate the jokes into Hindi and speak it out for the benefit of all the people assembled. And my joke is this: how should one laugh at these wedding mantra type jokes? Swahahahahahaha...
Anyways. Compared to the Sangeet the wedding is a much more serious and sober affair. Except for the stealing of the shoes bit. Apparently custom has it that after the wedding the bride's family members steal the groom's shoes. The shoes are only returned on the payment of a token amount of money. And by token I mean something in the range of twenty-one thousand rupees. Yes enough money to buy a small 100cc bike, a decently big flat screen TV and 3 questions in parliament. I kid not dear friends. Apparently, one oldish uncle told me later, the idea is to prevent the groom from running away after the wedding. Apparently that sort of thing was prevalent in ancient days.
By this point you must be wondering two very important things: one, why did not grooms in ancient days run away bare foot, and two, why hadn't we started drinking yet? Valid questions both of them. Patience my friend, patience. The shoe issue had built up into a little play-acted controversy till a jolly aunty intervened and the groom got his shoes back at the nominal price of fifteen thousand rupees. I joked to one of the punjabi aunties there: "At my wedding I am just going to paint shoes onto my feet." She thought for a moment and said: "We will cut off your feet then." She did not look like she was joking at all. I promptly retired to the alcohol kiosk glumly.
The rest of the wedding was as you would have at any post-wedding reception of any religion, society and culture. There was a huge hall full of people wining and dining merilly while soft sensuous music played in the background including 'Jhalak Dhikla Aaja' seven memorable times. The lucky couple were perched on a stage where they kept smiling for the cameras and kept getting gifts in small thick envelopes. Wonder what they could be in them envelopes? Hmm...
The food was delicious, drink was good and the night was slowly sinking into unremarkability when Pastrami decided we had to do something to inject a little life into the night. Something easy to do yet involving. Quick yet satisfying.
Tequila shots. (What did you think?)
Three shots each later the night was getting much better. We ran back from the hotel bar just in time to see the 'Vidayi'. This is the ritual where the couple is sent off by the bride's family amidst a pall of gloom and tears. After all their daughter was leaving them forever. Their little girl was stepping out from the safe haven of her parents' wing into the mad and fearsome world of family and responsibility. She was now a woman. A married one. As they stepped into the car that lay outside bedecked in flowers several of the women broke out into sobs. They dabbed their eyes with the tips of their sarees. Pastrami, a person who is easily driven into emotion, looked grimly as the car started and sped away.
Of course as the groom lived in Calcutta and it would have been imprudent for them to ride in a Honda City covered in flowers all the way to Budhadeb-land they merely went out of the gate, drove around the hotel and then drove back in through a gate in the back. Which makes the entire melodrama in the previous paragraph look stupid. The couple soon settled into room 1428. (Factual correctness has always been this blog's motto.)
Anyone who has seen mallu movies across the ages will agree that the first night sequence, also known in mallu land as 'the best part of a family movie and the part just before the stove blows up', involves much heavy breathing, electric touches, bodies gently moving towards each other followed by a sweeping camera shot ending in a close-up of the jasmine flowers on the bed. Here much of that were applicable except that instead of jasmine flowers you had two dozen cousins and several other assorted relatives spread out on the bed. Apparently this is a tradition the bengali's call 'kaalratri' where the couple is prevented from sleeping all night by a continous stream of visitors and relatives. But that is only for the first night. The nights after that they only have one of the more senior women aunts or grandmothers who stay in each time.
No no no no. I jest again!
Due to an early flight early the next morning I had to leave my friends after a decent hour and quickly speed back home happy and satisfied. I had just seen a rather complete north indian wedding. It was indeed much more louder and much more fun than the typical mallu christian weddings I have been to. I loved the dancing, the eating, the good cheer and the white wine. The spirit is really quite infectious.
But our Chicken 65 is much better.