Two weddings, milk cake, mustard fields and pallo latke… Part 1

by sidin in


(Disclaimer: Long. As in very long. But not bad reading actually.)

I am sitting in a comfy Optra just outside one of the gates that open up into the sprawling Pragati Maidan grounds in Delhi. It is a little after seven in the evening. Or maybe eight. (My memory fails me but I have no regrets about that really.) The car has its heater cranked up almost to full and my dad is getting a little toasty in his leather jacket.

"Why are we waiting here?" he asks watching the bus full of people enter the gates while the Optra sits still, humming softly but not without a hint of impatience in the growl. "The bus has gone in already. Won't we be late? It will not look nice if we are late son..."

I reach around the back of his seat and pat him on one shiny, leather-clad shoulder. "This is supposed to be like this. The groom makes a dashing late entrance amidst much fanfare. It is the punju way dad."

"Oh! I see" says my dad his forehead furrowed, his eyebrows raised and his head thrown back a little. He does that when he hears about interesting new things. And this must be the millionth time he has done that that week.

It has been quite a remarkable journey for everyone involved. On both sides. For while there are several similarities in the Punju and Mallu designs for the world and its beings: abundant laughter, loud and heated deliberation, generous back-slapping and fun-poking, unrestrained joy and agony... and of course the utter inability to say to no to a good time, there are also differences so numerous that an open mind has no option but to furrow, raise and throw back all day for weeks.

Back to the Optra outside Pragati Maidan. Someone comes running to the car screaming. We can't hear him of course. But largish puffs of white vapour emanating from the man's mouth as he runs towards us indicates frantic communication. The driver thumbs down his power window.

Messenger gasps.

Wait for a minute. Bus is stuck inside. Some security problem. Also someone is sick on the bus. Dad is a little concerned that it might be one of the elderly relatives who have come all the way from my little village in Kerala. (The mallus among us will know the futility of a crisp white dhoti in a Delhi winter.) Ah but no, it is one of my brother's friends. The friend is however getting better. Wait for a few seconds more sir, he orders through clouds of white mouth-fog. My sister wraps her shawl even tightly around her.

It is a cold winter in Delhi this year. I don't feel anything though. Adrenalin and sensory overload are both remarkable insulators.

***
Two days before that cold wintry night in Delhi things were a mite different. I was in a spiffy suit and not a sherwani and we were not waiting patiently. Rather the groom's party was raring to go. My grandfather was going ballistic while all around everyone and an impossibly bright cameraman's light waited for some intimation of the wedding car having reached. I called up Fungus on my phone for the nth time.

"Somewhere in SantaCruz. I think."
"Dude the sugar-giving will be done in ten minutes and then we have to leave for the church. How long does it take to decorate the car..."
"I had to pick up the wedding cake too remember?"
"Err... I don't... but hurry. Grandpa is going hyper..."
"Is this the one who drove the policeman outside the airport crazy..."
"Yes yes yes... hurry..." Beep.

According to an age-old catholic mallu tradition the groom (and bride actually, but at her place) undergo a little ceremony just before they leave home for the church. They are seated in front of the assembled crowd of dozens of relatives and a hooded light that looks like it runs on controlled fusion, and are made to drink a stiff drink of fresh, drawn-at-dawn palm liquour with crisply fried mackerel on the side.

Sigh. No not really.

Though most of you would agree that the concept is most becoming of a nice mallu catholic boy. (Mone oru small adichu palli poovan nokkeda!) No actually what happens is a senior male relative steps forward with a plate of sugar and asks the assembled crowd if he may feed the groom some of the grainy white stuff. This must be done three times and each time, provided the crowd shouts "aye" in mallu, the groom picks up a pinch of sugar and places it on the tip of the tongue.

In my case the male relative in question, ignorant of the way of the native mallu, ceremoniously shoved three handfuls of sweet into my mouth. It was graceless. And it is on video.

Ugh.

Wait a minute there. Why did we do that? What is with all these pre-wedding shenanigans? Now I am not complaining, the missus went through a whole host of functions and ceremonies and things before marriage while I just had to ingest sugar, but I sit and wonder what could be the magical and romantic backgrounds to these rituals we often do without thinking.

As I sat there in my suit, slowly cooking 'skin inwards' under the halogen camera lamp, I wondered. Perhaps it was to send away the groom from the home with a final sweet memory and taste in the mouth. Perhaps it was a discreet way to make sure that no member of society had objection to the impending marriage. Perhaps the nay sayer would shout out "No!" when the sugar plate was raised. Kerala was never a rich or prosperous place. Perhaps sugar was the most valuable item in the kitchen and the family was sending their child away with a small gift of their most precious commodity.

As we walked out to the gates, in slow motion so the camera could get enough footage, I nudged a maternal uncle in the ribs gently with my Reid & Taylor elbow. "Why this sugar thing uncle?" I outlined my theories to him. No, he said, it is not one final delicious farewell. And no, it was not so that there was a final opportunity for opposing voices. And sugar was not the most precious thing at home.

"Then why pray tell why do I consume of this sickly sweet substance?" I said in chaste malayalam.

" I dunno. I guess its because lots of guys get piss drunk the night before and the sugar revives them a bit to stay awake during the wedding service. It happens you know."

I nodded solemnly, praising the wisdom of my forefathers.

***

I gingerly got out of my car taking care not to step on my shimmering stole. My turban was in my hand and as soon as I was out of the door I placed in on top of my head. Immediately I was engulfed in light that blinded me in one eye and salvos of yellow flowers that took out the other. When I regained my sight I was already at the brilliantly decorated stage, sitting in a high backed chair lined with red velvet looking out over a rather smashing venue. Lights on the trees, fresh flowers in brass pots and shivering mallus perched on cast iron coal braziers fighting hypothermia and ruing the onset of copious paneer later in the evening.

It was perfect.

***
Church weddings the way we nice conservative mallu families do it have a few things common with the way it is done in the decadent, oil-grabbing, nefarious, capitalist West. This came as a disappointment for some of my friend who expected me to prepare long, humorous vows and polish it off with a spectacular, bride bent-over, gob smacking kiss that would have set the church rafters on fire.

The above is, mildly put, frowned upon in Kerala. You are expected to mouth standard issue vows prepared by the wise men at the Vatican who are as romantic as old men in white cassocks who need to be celibate in Italy can be. And kissing in public is out of the question. Kerala has one of those typical Indian societies that refuse to publicly acknowledge the existence of heterosexual urges and educate their children that babies are indeed gifts from god or, alternately, from Roy uncle in Muscat. (A cousin continues to believe to this day that he was bought from Doha Duty Free. He has some self esteem issues.)

Anti-climactically, for some who were present, in fifteen minutes flat we exchanged (boring) vows and (awesome) rings and were man and wife in the blink of an eye. I reached towards my wife for a long and romantic kiss only to note an elderly uncle frowning. I don't mess with this particular uncle. One Christmas, back home, we had to kill one of our fattest roosters for the feast. After much running around and bumping head first into coconut palms we were about to give up when uncle came home.

They stood there. The both of them. Uncle at one end of the vegetable garden and at the other end, next to the bougainvillea, stood our rooster, Diju. Uncle frowned for two minutes and, I swear this happened, the rooster fell down dead. By the time grandma took it to the kitchen it was already begin to smoke a bit.

We don't take uncle's frowns lightly. I eased back and a few minutes later we paraded out of the Church one big happy and well photographed family.

***

I am going to tell you an anecdote I heard a few weeks ago. Now it is not the habit of this blog to make wild stories and high-brow claims. (Diju the rooster actually met his end that way. No seriously.) But apparently a friend's friend once went for a wedding in Delhi that, as is custom, had the pheras at some wee hour of the morning. The pundit began his vedic chanting and it was soon clear to the assembled crowd that the holy man was having trouble staying awake. Suddenly somebody in the crowd around the fire jumped up looking very alarmed.

"Pundit stop that chanting right now!" the intruder screamed in a guttural way that some would later recall indicated distant Jat roots. The pundit woke up and looked alarmed. "What is that you were chanting right now?" the intruder demanded of the holy man. A hush fell upon the crowd. (Well I am assuming it did. It must have right?) The pundit suddenly sat up with his eyes the size of saucers and his mouth fell open. He was dumbstruck. After a few moments of silence he admitted the shocking error he had committed. In his soporific state, at some point during the ritual, he had switched from the chants of the wedding rite to those of the funeral rites. So our Jat friend was, after all, not the "jump up in the middle of the shaadi to make a fool of himself and make viewing of the wedding tape a universally squirmy event for everyone concerned" type of guy. Which should teach you to jump to conclusions even on a blog...

Thankfully the Pandit at... er... my wedding (You don't get used to saying 'my wedding' for a long time.) was not that sort at all. He was wide awake and actually quite a sport. He had this naughty glint in his eyes when he explained the chants and mantras and had one of those unique laughs you never forget. It is as if his laugh originates, not from his voicebox, but from the bottom of his stomach (Kundalini spot?). It then rumbles up his torso, rushes in an orderly but sombre fashion up his throat and then erupts in a jovial thundering boom out of his mouth enlivening everyone around. Every time he laughed even the mallus present for a moment forgot the fact each passing moment one of their regular bodily functions was shutting down in the cold.

I studiously repeated the chants and mantras and went around the fire seven times in a slow and watchful fashion so as not to trip my burdened bride over the edges of her divine orange saree and over the little fire and all over the fruits and sweets and other pooja saamagri. I was desperately trying to make sure my ever loosening pyjamas did not give way thus leading to wedding stories of unmatched and enduring embarrassment.

"You must be Sidin bhaiya..." the kids would say, "the one with the snowflakes on blue background boxers..."
"I got them shipped from a GAP in London!" I would respond pointlessly.

When the pooja was finally over I was doubly pleased. For one I had been married completely, not once but twice. And two I had pronounced every sanskrit syllable with a rare eloquence that left the circling North Indian hordes, hungry for a gentle jab at a southie gaffe, content with watching the rapidly petrifying malayalis hardly protected by the shawls and jackets meant for a Kodai or Ooty but not for a Delhi. (Or Alwar as we will soon learn in part two of this longish tome.)

She was sent off in the typical punjabi way. Three handfulls of rice were thrown into the air over her head. It was a genuinely sombre moment. Thankfully not too many people cried. There was some sobbing and dabbing of eyes. I cried a little bit overcome by the emotion of the moment, I had just bought back my shoes for an amount I cannot reveal right now for fear of them Income Tax people. However before sniggering yourself I invite you to try negotiating with a bevy of Punjabi belles from the age of 7 to eighty four. (One bhabhi, a forceful negotiator, bargained well with an innocent twinkle in her eyes, fruity smile on her face and what looked like a rolling pin deftly wrapped in her dupatta. I was brave but did not want to stand in the way of tradition.)

***

But soon we were checked in into our luxurious hotel room. And then both of us sat together on the bed, looked into each other's eyes, and held our respective breaths. She, smouldering in her heavy saree and voluminous accoutrements, whispered "It is time." I nodded and, with a little hesitation due to total lack of first-hand experience, began to pull out what looked like three or four million hairpins from her severely plaited hair. After two hours of this I fell asleep like a log on the couch while hairpins, some the size of Viennese Gondola oars, clattered about my prone form.

Oh so lay me... oh!

It was only at some three in the morning that we finally woke up and...

WAIT A DOGGONE MINUTE! GOOD GOD! YOU READERS ARE INCORRIGIBLE! DOES A BLOGGER HAVE NO PRIVACY? IS HIS LIFE AN OPEN BOOK FOR RANDOM PERUSAL?

Tut tut. Ayyo ayyayyo. I am disappointed in you lot. So for details on how we ended up in the middle of Alwar in Rajasthan, saw the world's most bizarre example of traffic island statuary, how I won over several Punju hearts with my astonishing performance at the Sangeeth, and how we had the most becalming honeymoon ever, tune in later this week to this blog. Till then you must wait you naught naughty naughty reader.

P.S. The wife says hi!