And we’re off to Indian wedding #2! Unlike the first wedding that I described in one of my earlier blog posts, this wedding will be a much longer – five days, to be precise – and more traditional Telugu affair. And since we’re close family members of the groom, Sandesh, we’ll be participating in all of the wedding activities.
We depart from the Vijayawada airport, which I have to say, looks like less like an airport and more like a snack shack. But at least it’s clean. I still have nightmares from the Indian airports that I remember from the ‘90s.
We land in Tirupati, and I’m surprised to find that the airport here is significantly larger and more modern than the one in Vijayawada. As we’re cruising through the streets of Tirupati, I spot a Papa Johns chain restaurant. I know that Pizza Hut and Dominos have been in much of India for a decade, but it’s a surprise that Papa Johns had come to India. Ahh, the spread of global consumerism. It’s funny to think that India was at one time allied with Russia in the communist bloc during the Cold War. Capitalism is clearly here to stay.
We make it to the hotel and I’m quickly summoned to an impromptu dance practice session for the wedding. Remember: I’ve allowed my cousins to badger me into signing up to participate in the sangeeth, or the song and dance portion that will precede the actual wedding. There’s some competition between the bride and groom’s family over which side can perform better dances. Seeing as how the bride’s (Hima’s) side of the family is supposed to be made up of professional dancers and they’ve had time to extensively practice, whereas our family is…not made up of professional dancers, to say the least, and are relying on a last-minute practice session to memorize numerous dance routines, I think it’s fair to say who’s going to win this competition. Still, for the sake of Sandesh, we put on a good effort.
The stage where the dances are being performed is cast with a mix of purple and blue lights as the show gets underway. There’s an awkward, funny dance number with the older gentlemen on Hima’s side of the family, with the men decked out in suits and black shades. A group of Hima’s friends perform a lighthearted, girlish routine. Another performs a well-rehearsed solo dance routine of traditional Indian bharatnatyam. And then there are the older couples, who despite their missteps, set a cute stage for the evening. They might be my favorite part of the night. Finally, we get to OUR routines. We amble onto the stage and fumble into our positions on stage for the family group dance number “Om Shanti Om.” There are some technical difficulties as the DJ starts playing the wrong song. As much as we’re sucking this dance right now, it’s fun because everyone – from my younger cousins to my middle-aged uncle to myself – is on the dance floor. All generations are represented. Sandesh even breaks into center stage for the dance. We hop off and then just the girls and young ladies reconvene on the dance floor for our female-only numbers. Midway through I start doing the moves out of turn and forgetting what step follows the next one. I think we’re all in the same boat, but we somehow pull it together for a strong finish. We all whisper each other words of congratulations, while we’re all simultaneously thinking “Oh well…at least we tried, right?”
We wake up at 6 am sharp the following morning, get ready, and head off to the temple. Once again, we benefit from having the benefit of VIP connections, and we’re allowed to bypass the line for the general public. This time, unlike at the Atari border, I don’t feel so bad about accepting this VIP connection. I visited this same temple as a kid, and I remember the normal lines being enormous.
We enter the main temple complex, and find that the crowd isn’t nearly as bad as I remember it being when I was a kid. The last time I came here, the crowd was pushing you in from all sides, slowly suffocating you into a slow death. I was so eager to escape from that crowd that I actually missed the statue of the actual deity – the main event – that we were standing in line to look at. Not this time. My uncle kindly saw to that, making sure that my short self could see the deity beyond the crowd. Even after we passed the deity and were walking away, the guards had to continuously usher the worshippers along, as they kept stopping to turn around, crane their necks and get one last look at the deity. I almost have to admire that sort of religious devotion that you would do anything to glance upon a statue of a god that you worship. On the other hand, I know that that’s the sort of religious fervor can also lead to zealotry and hate. I suppose it’s a fine line.
I wish goodbye to the cool mountain breeze as we descend down the mountainside back to the main city of Tirupati. There, we change into our elegant wedding attire; I wear something called a half sari, which isn’t quite as bothersome or big as a full sari. I’m a bit flabbergasted, as the last time I wore this outfit, I had just graduated high school, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t even fit me then. I don’t know how I manage to squeeze into the blouse that’s two sizes two small, but I do, complaining all the while to my dear old mom. She ignores my complaints and we proceed on to the next function: the bridegroom reception, hosted by the groom’s side of the family. Due to our mountaintop temple excursion, we’ve missed many of the actual activities, but we arrive in time for lunch and for my mother to greet every single person on-site. I greet my cousins and plop myself down in one of the many red lawn chairs, and I make small chat with a few relatives and my brother. I go up to get ice cream at the end of the meal, and am utterly dismayed to find that they don’t have vanilla, or at least mango. Mango ice cream is the least offensive, and usually the most tasty, of traditional Indian ice cream flavors. Pistachio, pineapple or butterscotch? Gah, I gag. We chat with the groom, Sandesh, who
We return to the hotel for nice sojourn before we return for the main wedding reception in the evening. However, we’re made about a half hour late for the reception because it takes my mother 1.5 hours to tie my sari. No kidding. We even had to call for backup in the form of one of my aunts to help put the damn thing together. The sari that my grandmother purchased for me is a beautiful piece of work, and I have to admire it. I’d just like to admire it on anyone besides me. The reception takes place in the same wedding hall as the sangeeth, and it’s basically just an excuse to eat free food and take copious amounts of posed, professional pictures with the bride and groom and selfies with the other party-goers. So in that respect, Indian receptions aren’t all that different from American wedding receptions. However, in Indian weddings, guests line up on sides of the stage – where the bride and groom stand – to take photos with the bridal party. Both the bride and groom look gorgeous in their traditional Indian wedding attire. The bride’s hair is plaited in a long, traditional Indian braid down her back and adorned with flowers. I admire Hima’s sari, and can sympathize with the hassle it must have been for her to stand while aunties puttered over her, readjusting her sari numerous times until it fit perfectly.
And of course, throughout this process, there are the infinite number of aunties and uncles who ask me when I plan on getting married. I plaster a smile on my face, repeat the safe, well-memorized response “I’m focusing on my career right now” and wait to be excused so I can drown my sorrows in food and non-alcoholic beverages (no alcohol or meat is being served at the wedding activities in Tirupati, per the wishes of the bride’s side of the family). I’m summoned to take a group family photo with the happily married couple. My heels are killing me at this point, as does the annoying hem of my sari that drags on the floor, even with my heels. It’s a painstaking effort to either not trip over my sari the entire night or slip in my wobbly heels on the marble floor.
The reception ends, but the festivities aren’t over. The actual wedding is taking place at midnight. Yes, you read that correctly. Midnight. The astrology reading, horoscope, or whatever you call it, what they do before the bride and groom get engaged, not only determines whether they’ll be a suitable match but also the date and time they should get married. And so midnight it is. We head back to the hotel, and I change into a slightly less uncomfortable set of heels and another outfit. And then we’re back for the wedding. I wonder how the bride and groom must be holding up. They’ve been on their feet for hours, and now have to sit through hours of ritual upon ritual. I confess that at this point, I’m pretty sleepy and more than a bit disgruntled after the chaos of changing into and out of saris. I don’t pay as much attention to the nuances of the wedding as I should. The Hindu priest sits in the middle of the stage with the bride and trays of coconuts, yellow rice, flowers and other items for the religious ceremony. Volunteers pass out yellow rice to the audience attendees for us to bless the bride and groom later. The most significant part of the wedding ceremony that I remember is the parting of the veil – the moment when the bride and the groom glance eyes upon each other once the veil separating them is lowered.
We get up on the stage and are about to take another group photo with the married couple, but it seems we’ve arrived too early. There are some more rituals that the bride and groom must complete first. I can’t make out exactly what’s going on, but I hear chanting by the priests. Lots of chanting. I see a couple of raised eyebrows on the part of some of my family members. Apparently, this isn’t part of the usual Telugu wedding traditions that they know. It seems to have been requested on the part of the bride’s family, since adhering to many of the traditional Hindu rituals important for them. I’m none too pleased, but then again, it’s not my wedding. And I might appreciate watching these rituals better, since they’re an interesting aspect of Hindu culture. If only I weren’t so tired….
And that’s the last of the wedding activities…in Tirupati. Round 2: we move this shindig over to Hyderabad. There are another three functions, including a puja for the bride, a reception, and another puja for the newly married couple. Both of the pujas take place at the house of Sandesh’s family. The pujas are mostly without incident, and most of our time is spent chatting with other relatives and catching up. However, during one of the pujas, while my brother and I are sitting at a table in the backyward chatting, we hear a sickening crash somewhere behind us, and the party takes a slightly gruesome turn. I look down and see a crumpled body underneath a broken wall of cement. We quickly find out that a decorative cement wall that was bearing flowers had suddenly broken free of it support and collapsed on some of the partygoers. Everyone starts gathering in a crowd, then a few doctors, my brother included, come to assess the situation. The young man manages to come shakily to his foot. Someone brings a tray of ice to create a cold pack for a young woman, who was hit in the head with some stray pieces of the cement wall. We’re relieved to find out a few hours later that both of them are fine, but they were incredibly lucky. Heck, I was lucky that I was sitting a few feet away and not in that spot. Crossing streets. Monkeys. Stomach bugs. This was the list of things I had to be worried about in India. I suppose I’ll have to add falling walls to that list.
We also have a second wedding reception to go to, which is intended mainly for friends of the family who could not attend the reception in Tirupati. We drive nearly an hour through the streets of Hyderabad – yes, traffic really is that bad in this city – and we make it to the wedding hall. It’s a lovely grand, white complex, and the entrance to the hall is decked in a beautiful floral arrangement. The stage is also set in a backdrop of hundreds of pink, white and yellow flowers, and I have to blink before I realize that they’re all real. It’s a pretty setup, and a reception that many could only dream of. We take a seat and indulge in the savory appetizers, from mughlai chicken to chili paneer skewers. Alcohol is being served at this reception, so we grab a few drinks as well. The food is on point, and the drinks are nice, if a little watered down. There’s a buffet with platters upon platters of food. It’s all very good, but it’s so different from American weddings, where you usually have 150 guests at most, and each person is served an individual meal that they’ve selected in advance. Indian weddings prize quantity over quality – both in terms of number of guests and number of food options. I can’t help but think of all the food that gets wasted every day in Indian weddings. Not to mention the money. But then again, who am I to judge? Some people spend money on cars, on houses. In India, more often than not, that money gets spent on weddings. And then, with that, we’re finally, finally done with all the wedding activities. It’s been one hell of a wedding. We bid adieu to Sandesh and Hima, and head home.
Following the wedding activities, we have a fairly lazy day in Hyderabad, and then it’s off to the airport. My brother’s flight departs first, and we drop him off at the airport. It’s a bittersweet farewell, but I know we’ll see each other soon enough. Then it’s my turn. I fly out from Hyderabad to Abu Dhabi. When I land in Abu Dhabi, the clock on my phone still is set to India time, which is an hour ahead. Panicked that I’m about to miss my flight, I rush through the airport of Abu Dhabi like a madwoman, frantically descending escalators and rushing up stairs and through the new U.S customs and security checkpoint, which they installed as an experiment in Abu Dhabi to expedite customs processing for U.S-bound passengers. After being yelled at by an irritable woman at the security checkpoint and laughed at by agents at the gate, only to find that I’m a half hour early for boarding. Oops.
The flight from Abu Dhabi to LAX is nearly seventeen hours of intermittent, uncomfortable sleep with an awkward neck posture and avoiding looking at the rude passenger sitting next to me who doesn’t say a single word the entire flight. Having blown through all of my summer reading books, I have nothing to read, so I watch a few Hindi and American films. Man, Indian cinema sure is more risqué than when I was a kid! I feel that I’ve gained five pounds between the constant sitting and airplane meals. But the fun isn’t over. As we’re descending into LAX, not one, but TWO overhead compartments open up. I leap up to close the second one about a minute before we land, but I’m too short to close it shut while a piece of awkwardly lodged luggage is blocking the top. An elderly grandfather gets up to help me, and the stewardesses – not even bothering to help the situation – yell at us to sit down. The man extricates the suitcase from the overhead compartment and just sets it down in the middle of the aisle, overhead compartment still open. We can only hope that no more luggage falls out during the rocky descent. Somehow, we land with no more wayward falling suitcases or bruised heads. Then there’s the two hour wait in LAX, where I peruse the bookshelves of the airport shops, wishing I could buy every single one.
And then it’s only a short, uneventful ride home from LAX ‘till I’m strolling through the wide corridors of SFO Airport. As I’m waiting for the SuperShuttle to arrive and take me home, I make small chat with another passenger of the shared ride service. He’s an older man, African-American, whose home is the backcountry of Baton Rouge Louisiana, but he’s here on a short-term basis to work on the construction of the new Apple office building in the San Francisco Bay Area. He regales me with stories of the new Apple building, which is shaped like a donut and has everything an employee could ever want – restaurants, beauty parlors, you name it. You’d never have to go home – which is probably Apple’s aim. He tells me about the shock that he suffered after growing up and living in the countryside, and witnessing urban poverty and different cultural behavior in San Francisco compared to Baton Rouge. He attributes this difference in values and norms between urban and country living, and being raised right by his grandmother, who worked and lived on soil owned by white men and had the foresight to set aside all of her savings to purchase a large plot of land that her children and grandchildren could own and farm for generations to come. It’s a conversation that sticks with me for a few hours afterward, and makes me remember why I wanted to leap face-first into journalism. It’s to meet people – everyday people who you wouldn’t think have a compelling story to share, but they do. It’s to listen to and share stories like these.
As I’m riding in the SuperShuttle home, I take in the sun setting over the Coit Tower and the skyscrapers of San Francisco’s financial district. It’s a breathtaking sight.
It’s good to be home.
Postscript: I started out this India blog with the intention of blogging about my trip every day – or almost every day – as a way to get back into the habit of writing before I go back to school. I start graduate school in NYU’s Literary Reportage (Journalism) program in two weeks. I’m thrilled to embark on this new journey, and I hope to share it with you too.