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It's 4pm on a Saturday and I'm in the bathroom of a hotel lobby with my hands up in the air. There are two aunties bent over me, one with a safety pin in her mouth and the other with her hand tucking my bra strap back into my choli. "Suck your stomach in," she says, pulling the drawstrings of my red petticoat as tight as she can at my waist so that she can tuck in the pleats of my six-yard sari. She eyes me critically. "Don't you want to be next?"
Before the aunties, all family friends, ambushed me, I was on my way to event number four of a three-day Indian wedding. Now I'm running late—but so is everyone else—to the baraat, the groom's procession to the wedding ceremony. He'll be up on a horse in a cream and red kurta pajama threaded with gold, and his friends and family will be dancing around him in the parking lot of this suburban Marriott to the beat of the dhols and piped-in bhangra music, while the bride's side waits in the lobby to greet him with garlands, sweets, and prayer.
In an hour, back inside seated and waiting for the bride to arrive, I'll post a picture to Instagram of the groom dancing on a horse. Within the next twenty minutes, I'll get two text messages from non-Indian friends, and three more will bring it up at different times over the course of the next month. "That picture of your friend on the horse was so cool," they'll say. "I'm so jealous—I can't wait to go to your wedding."
I don't know which of these is worse: the aunties who hold me to the outdated cultural expectation that because I'm of age, have a good job, and can take care of myself, it's time for me to settle down, or the friends who talk so enthusiastically about my wedding as this fancy party they want to attend only because of how exotic it is. I'm not engaged, or even close to it, so why do people keep telling me they can't wait to watch me get married?
Don't make me tell you that I only want people who care about the marriage at my wedding.
I get it: Indian weddings are colorful and loud, what with the brightly-hued clothes and heavy jewelry, the choreographed dances, the events spanning multiple days, and the role fire plays in the ceremony—not to mention the ceremony itself, performed in an ancient language to make it even more foreign.
Maybe it's that word, performed, that lets my friends feel comfortable talking about Indian weddings as if they're Broadway plays. If you think of something as a show, it becomes an idea you can observe freely and comment on. But there's a history here; it's not just about the horse or the elephant-headed god, it's not just fun and colorful. This is still a culture rooted in tradition, and sometimes it feels like that falls by the wayside. Don't make me tell you that I only want people who care about the marriage at my wedding. There's a difference between interest and spectating; I don't want to feel like an animal in a zoo as I'm walking down the aisle.
And it's not just the intrigue that forces this comparison. The aunties are looking for a spectacle, too. They fuss over our saris and lend us their heavy gold jewelry and take videos of us dancing at sangeets to send to their friends with eligible sons. They want us to get married, because they want that show: They want to see a nice girl get married to a suitable boy. Marriage is a major, life-changing event that shouldn't be taken lightly, but sometimes it feels like the spectacle takes precedence.
Coming of age in America as the daughter of immigrants, especially in a culture that's so entrenched with tradition, is not easy. So many of us second-generation kids grow up with two separate lives that we fight to knit together. Indian food for dinner, but American lunches; English in school and Hindi at home. Our whole lives, we're exposed to this culture that calls out big diamond rings and white dresses and huge tiered cakes as wedding benchmarks, but our parents got married in red lenghas and turbans, and fed each other rose syrup-laden Indian sweets.
It was hard for me to juxtapose the two, and maybe that's why I was never the kind of girl who dreamt about her wedding as a child. I wanted to write novels for as long as I can remember, and I spent my days reading and fabricating stories about other people far more often than I thought about what was actually going to happen to me.
This kind of culture clash makes things tough for us, the first in our families to be born in the US.
But I have Hindu friends who grew up in the US with me and have always dreamed of walking down the aisle in a white dress. It's not easy to reconcile: To Hindus, white is the color of mourning—the absence of color, really. Most brides wear that vibrant red, which symbolizes life and passion. This kind of culture clash makes things tough for us, the first in our families to be born in the US, and it makes our weddings a particular breed, traditional at the core but gussied up with bridesmaids, seating arrangements, registries, engagement rings, tiered cakes, and so many other American influences.
What I always love the most about weddings is the vows. There are the traditional ones—Love is patient, love is kind; I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine—but the ones that get to me are written by the bride and the groom themselves. You can picture them sitting in coffee shops or at their desks at work or next to each other on a Sunday morning, writing out these public declarations of their love.
But vows as we know them in the Western vernacular—vows about love, spoken by the bride and groom—have no logical place in Hindu weddings, which are conducted largely in the Sanskrit, a now-dead language like Latin. Instead there are the seven pheras, seven circles around the small ceremonial fire, symbolizing sustenance, strength, prosperity, progeny, fidelity, happiness, and lifelong companionship.
There's a weight to this: The fire is considered sacred, and vows made in its presence unbreakable. I like that weight. I like the idea of entering a new stage of life the way that it's been done for centuries. But here in America we're used to putting our own spin on things, and I also love the idea of making the wedding my own. Many of my friends take for granted that they can add scripture or music or significant readings to a traditional wedding ceremony—but it's not something you see often in Indian weddings. And when it is done, there's still a dichotomy, a firm divide, a literal shift in language between the Hindu tradition and the modern American additions.
Last summer I was invited to nine weddings. One of them included a full Catholic mass, my first, in a beautiful Upper East Side cathedral. The priest took care to mention that non-Catholics could cross their arms to receive a blessing instead of the communion wafer, and could sit through the service instead of kneeling when called to. But it can be uncomfortable to be the odd one out, the only one who stays in her seat. I knelt when everyone else knelt the first time, but I was out of step, a half-beat behind everyone else. When I chose to stay seated the second, my foot got caught under the kneeling pew, and I was too embarrassed to say anything to the people next to me.
All weddings, to some extent, rely on tradition, but all traditions start to lose their power if they're taken out of context.
In his science fiction novel Time Enough for Love, Robert A. Heinlein says about assimilating, "Whenever the locals rub blue mud in their navels, I rub blue mud in mine just as solemnly." Catholics aren't blue, and Hindus aren't either—though there is the indigo-tinged god, Shiva, who swallowed poison to save the universe and had his throat change colors for his trouble. But I thought about Heinlein's quote after the Catholic wedding, when I tried, and failed, to fit in. At weddings, you're invited to share in a couple's love, and also their cultures, which implies a certain degree of assimilation. But are you really assimilating if you're rubbing blue mud into your skin without knowing why, or if you're kneeling and flipping through a prayer book just to match everyone around you? All weddings, to some extent, rely on tradition, but all traditions start to lose their power if they're taken out of context.
Take the word costume. Seemingly innocuous, it can be loaded and otherizing. A bride's white dress and floor-length veil aren't called costumes even though, really, they are. The six identical dresses she puts her bridesmaids in aren't either, though they're still special outfits for a special event. So why the red Indian bridal lengha, or the Vietnamese ao dai?
Think of that scene in The Office where Michael Scott and his realtor/girlfriend Carol show up in Halloween costumes (Carol's a cheerleader) to a Diwali party Kelly Kapoor invites them to. Forever bumbling, Michael believes from Kelly's flighty description of the event that everybody will be assuming a character for the night, not wearing traditional garb. He's wrong, of course, and the audience cringes, reminded that this is a fine line to toe. We want to participate in the customs of our friends and loved ones, but in order to do so without offending, there's an implicit level of understanding that needs to be had.
There's a Hindu myth about a beautiful princess named Sita, whose father, the great king Janaka, decides that it's time for her to marry. He thinks the world of Sita and wants to find a suitable match, someone capable and strong who will take care of her always. So he holds a competition and invites princes from all over the land to come to his kingdom to try to lift and string a bow.
Archery, in these ancient times, was a prized skill and many princes were experienced shooters. But this was a special bow, a divine gift from Lord Shiva, and while many princes lined up, days went by and still none could lift it. The king was getting restless, the crowds started to talk. And then Rama, beloved prince of Ayodhya, hoisted up the bow as if it were a child's toy, thus ensuring the end of his bachelorhood.
I'm paraphrasing, but the point is that while I loved and envied Sita's long hair, depicted in the Indian picture books I read as a kid as plaited in a thick braid down her back all the way to the ground, I never once pictured myself as a bride-to-be like her—I never saw myself waiting on the sidelines to see who would, quite literally, win my hand in marriage. I wanted to take a real role in my wedding; I wanted to meet someone and get to know him and fall in love. And I still do.
When I get back to New York from the wedding itself, the mehndi patterns on my palms are still a deep red. "I love your henna," cashiers and colleagues will tell me. "You were at a wedding, right? I've always wanted to go to an Indian one. Was there a horse?"
It always comes back to the horse. Originally the groom would arrive at the bride's home this way on the day of the wedding, surrounded by his family and the guests on his side of the marriage. Now, of course, the baraat is much shorter, but the premise is the same. The groom shows up amidst plenty of celebration and is greeted by the bride's parents in prayer, then welcomed into the wedding hall, where he'll be seated to wait for the bridal procession.
But let's backtrack. The day before the wedding is the mehndi ceremony, where the bride sits and gets the intricate henna patterns on her hands, arms, feet, and legs. Mehndi is celebratory in nature—it's purely cosmetic, with auspicious designs chosen to represent fertility, good luck, and protection. All the women present can get mehndi applied during this event, and there's also dancing, singing, and a prepared meal.
By evening, the mehndi is scraped off and it's time to head to the sangeet. A night of song and dance, the sangeet, meaning "music," is a celebratory precursor to the wedding. Guests perform choreographed dances and songs, dinner is served, speeches are made, and then there's dancing into the night. The sangeet is like a joint shower for the bride and the groom, a way for their friends and families to meet. The following day, before the baraat, is the haldi ceremony. Haldi, or turmeric, is known to have healing properties, and during this event a paste is made from the sunny yellow powdered root and applied to the skin of the bride and the groom.
When so much of the tradition is important and meaningful and worthwhile, how do you draw a line?
Weddings are often a breeding ground for more weddings, and these events are no exception. At the haldi, it's said that the unmarried guests who have the turmeric paste applied to them by the bride or groom will be blessed with finding a partner soon; at the baraat, whichever male attendee gets up on the horse after the groom has descended is supposed to be the next in line to get married—similar to the Western tradition of catching the bride's bouquet.
Of course well-meaning relatives want the next generation to be married off; it's a neat little checked box, a familiar marker of success. After all, Indian weddings—all weddings, you could argue—are showy, constructed social events meant to bring families together. But that puts an unnecessary pressure on us, the next generation. The idea of "being next," of having to get married at a certain age, to a certain kind of person, in a certain type of ceremony...it's a lot.
And of course it doesn't have to be that way. It's easy to talk about cultures melding and growing, about being the bold new guard of Indian-American children who are going out there and tearing down the expectations to pave the way for a new world. But when so much of the tradition is important and meaningful and worthwhile, how do you draw a line?
The wedding ring reminds me that it's possible to meld traditions, to take the meaningful parts of more than one culture and rope them together instead of forcing them to clash.
Consider the wedding ring. It's so prevalent in contemporary American culture that the first thing you see when someone announces an engagement is the picture of her diamond—but rings, historically, have no place in the scheme of Hindu weddings. In the Northern region of Punjab, where my dad's family is from, there's a ceremony called the roka which formally announces that the couple plans to get married. Technically, it means that they can "court openly," because they've been promised to each other, but in our era of love marriages, it's the equivalent of an engagement. Gold jewelry and watches are given as gifts to the families, but there's no ring.
And during the wedding itself, the groom, with the help of the bride's sisters, ties a mangalsutra around her neck, a necklace that signifies that she's a married woman and that she's supposed to wear for the rest of her husband's life. But there's still no ring, traditionally, so brides these days take matters into their own hands and work it into the ceremony. The priest chants the traditional slokas during the mangalya dharanam, the groom clasps the necklace, and then there's a pause. "The bride and the groom will now exchange rings," the priest says in English for the first time in the ceremony, and they do so, before the prayers continue in Sanskrit.
I may not have thought much about my wedding when I was young, but now that I'm "settled" and easing into my twenties, it's clear that those around me—my relatives, my friends—have it on their minds. The wedding ring reminds me that it's possible to meld traditions, to take the meaningful parts of more than one culture and rope them together instead of forcing them to clash. But to do it right, it's important to understand what they mean, why they're different—why, in Hinduism, the ceremony kicks off with the groom breaking a clay pot, while in Judaism it end with the couple breaking a glass—and why they've played a role in so many lives.