“To laugh is without language”
Now in Japan, India seems like a distant memory, a shimmering horizon in the rearview.
The India experience this time round was an authentic one – less touristing and more of the real Indian lifestyle, as I attended two Rajasthani weddings and a funeral with Abhi and his family.
Though the two experiences of a wedding vs a funeral were hugely different, the one common theme was that on both occasions, the men and women were to be split up for the duration, the women donning veils over their heads – and for some of the newer additions to the family, their faces. While the men would occasionally enter the area the women dwelled in, the women were strictly not to enter the men’s area, with the exception of me – the white Indian.
The first event was the funeral, in a regional area called Bhatera. Abhi’s father and forefathers had all been raised in Bhatera, effectively making it his families homeplace. All the brothers each had houses in the one vicinity – all within walking distance of each other, on the family land. Adjoining the houses was land for miles that appeared to me similar to arid desert. Abhi had been concerned about me joining the family in Bhatera due to the remoteness, despite my assurances that I’ve probably been to more extreme areas. He was concerned that the water would not be drinkable, and the food might make me sick. None of these concerns eventuated, but what was confronting was the fact that the people of Bhatera had not seen many foreigners before, and therefore I was quite the centre of attention.
We arrived late at the funeral, cutting through the neighbouring paddock to the backyard with Abhi’s mother and his wife Ela, and via the kitchen into the courtyard – all to avoid exposure to the men. As we stepped into a courtyard of colourfully dressed women sitting on the ground, I was prepared to sink into the background and give them the respect they deserved in their mourning. Unfortunately this was not to be the case – it was eerily clear that all eyes were fixed on my every move. I tried to squat down beside Ela amongst the other sitting women and immediately a twittering of laughter greeted my half mast rear. Ela told me no, and puzzled, I stood awkwardly amongst the cross-legged women until someone positioned a chair for me in the corner. Ela, who I suspect was already a novelty in Bhatera (she was a newlywed, therefore newly introduced to the family, ornately dressed and lived abroad – practically a celebrity for rural Bhatera) was immediately the source of as much attention as I was – though in my sudden paranoia I suspected many of the questions were about me. Based on the laughter and the stares I think at least 70% of the time this assumption would have been correct.
I was provided with a chair (God forbid I sit on the ground with everyone else, or should I say Lakshmi) and immediately brought chai. As 50 pairs of eyes watched me drink, I did my best to smile broadly at anyone who gave me eye contact. Mostly, my smiles were returned – with the exception of small children who immediately shied away, or even burst into tears and ran for their mothers. After much catching up (and I suspect gossip, although I can’t speak Hindi), it was lunch time. Suddenly I found myself on a stool, with another stool acting as a table, perched against the wall on an elevated step. Everyone else sat cross-legged on the ground either at my feet or in the courtyard – a step down. It felt like I was on stage. As I picked up my chapati to rip it, aware that a number of people were already interestedly watching me, a chorus of laughter began. I paused, puzzled, and Ela explained that they thought it was funny that I’d ripped my chapati with two hands (Indians strictly use only their right hand for eating, under the theory that the left is for use in the toilet). Someone came to give me a spoon and everyone laughed some more. Suddenly the way I ate drew an intimidating focus, and as someone who is already awkward most of the time, I became all too aware of my every move, making mistakes at an alarming rate, dropping food on myself, missing my mouth and generally failing at life – much to the delight of my audience. I resolved immediately to learn how to rip chapati with one hand before we came back to Bhatera for the wedding. Admittedly, I was laughing along with the women, but the attention and embarrassment was slightly humiliating and my laughter nearly became hysterical at one point – which in my world means uncontrollable tears. This, I knew would not be understood (unlike gossip, hysterical tears I feared were only universal in the world of myself and my sister – a family trait it would seem) and I stopped to take a deep breath and calm down. Later, Ela mentioned that at this point they thought the food had been too spicy for me, as my eyes had started to water, which had made them laugh even more.
Suddenly, after some time observing me, it was decided that something was missing, and Ela announced to me that they were asking why I wasn’t married yet. With 50 women fixed on me and awaiting an answer to a question I’ve spent many a private moment asking myself, I suddenly felt all the pressure of defining my relationship history in one sentence. Indian weddings typically range from a two day ceremony to a four day. In the two weddings I’ve been to, I’ve experienced both. And yet, in the time it took for me to accept a glass of water from Abhi’s male cousin (we’ll call him Bruno Mars, which I’ll explain later), somehow the ceremony had been trunkated to 30 seconds by the women around me, and unbeknownst to me the marriage was as good as consumated. My new husband was 22. And I was his (cough…somewhat older) entirely unsuspecting wife. Though at the time I was less than thrilled to find out what had happened in my Hindi oblivion, later when we came back to Bhatera and I saw his moves on the dance floor, I may not have been so reluctant…
Fortunately by day two I was old(ish) news, but still a slight novelty. I’d look up to see three phones trained on me at any given time, capturing the white girl on camera from a distance. But mostly, everyone was more accepting of my presence among them. By day two the funeral rituals had become quite serious. The priest had set up a shrine to the gods and I watched as every man sat one by one to pay respects at the makeshift shrine. They would then sprinkle some liquid onto the coals with a spoon, and pour water into their hand, allowing it to pass down their thumb into a bowl. As they stood up, they would fish some Rupiah from their pocket and hand it to the priest. Once all men had performed this, the women then took their turn. The whole process took some time – certainly enough time for the priest to sit appallingly counting his money in front of the mourners.
I sat in silence amongst the women gossiping. Partly out of respect, and partly because between me and the fifty women, conversation in my language would never have been possible. Instead, I concentrated on smiling to ensure an open, warm presence from the white girl. To keep myself entertained I came up with names for the women. For example, there was the one with the kind eyes, who later at the wedding became the one who loved whisky. There was also the girl with the giant eyes, who later became my friend Sheetal. And perhaps the most memorable was The Loud One, who later turned out to be Abhi’s Aunt. Her personality type was universal – a loud, hilarious person, who always had something funny to say, and whose jokes were laughed at by all.
The days were lengthy, with the women sitting cross-legged and gossiping between ceremonies (I’d decided by day two that Indian and Italian women share a long history of gossiping, cheek-pinching and over-feeding their loved ones). Overall it was a warm, and somewhat happy environment – not unlike the wake of a western funeral, minus the alcohol of course. And with some clear gender divides. At this point I perhaps spoke too soon as things got a little heartbreaking. The situation, as Ela explained to me later, was based on a ritual not unlike a western one. For example, Italian widows typically wear black for some time after the death of their husband. In Rajput tradition, the colour is blue, and luxuries such as the bangles traditionally worn by women are removed. This tradition seems to be a particularly conservative one, and may or may not be observed – dependent on the decision made by male members of the family of the deceased. In this case, it had been decided that this tradition would be observed, and to everyone’s horror, the widow’s brother entered the room she had been residing in – the place where she had spent days mourning and receiving the sympathies of guests. He was carrying a set of blue clothing and insisting she remove her bangles. She was wailing desperately, and the women, all seated in the courtyard were also wailing with her at the top of their lungs. The sound was almost animal, high pitched like a huge heard of cats. It was so loud that it surely had been heard by the rest of the village. There was something so haunting and soul-wrenching about it. Taking away the last happiness from a woman who has just lost half of her soul.
The next portion of the ceremony was the passing of the title of head of family to the eldest son of the deceased. This involves more shrines to the gods, and then lengths of cloth are wound around the head of the son, as a super-sized turban. When I say lengths – I mean lengths. Abhi’s cousin, the new head of family is a tall, super skinny man. Seated, cross-legged and straight-backed, he stared ahead silently as men of the family wound and wound and wound white cloth around and around his head. The turban continued to get larger and larger, until his head was reminiscent of the little mushroom man from Super Mario. At the end of the ceremony, he stood, the length of him exaggerating what was already a disproportionate figure. He had become a human lollipop. One of the large, vintage lollipops. Minus all the colours. Ela told me that this ceremony happens regardless of age – even a 5 year old may sit bewildered while a turban larger than his torso is wrapped endlessly around his head.
Once this was completed, formalities were over and the women once again were cheerful and gossipy. As I sat, the women around me stood up. Ela told me to stay seated and awkwardly I became the sole person sitting on the rug amongst a sea of standing, brightly dressed women behind me. I took out my phone, switched to selfie mode, and took a photo of myself and the colourful background behind me. Apparently selfies are also universal and I had managed to lay the final brick on the path between our two cultures. The gates were open and the women were approaching me to finally get the close up engagement they’d been holding out for – the selfie. By the time we left that day I had made more Rajasthani friends than I could count, and all were looking forward to my return to the wedding in two week’s time.
But first was the wedding in Udaipur. This, I was told, would be a good one, as the family lived on the lake and were very well off. Weddings in Rajasthan are a lengthy event, with the family of the groom and bride conducting their own separate events, involving prayer and celebration. Video cameras and a professional photographer shadow the groom and all the key events throughout the wedding. The next day, the groom and the men of his family make their way to the place of the bride, sometimes involving a parade and dancing (the groom is often perched on a horse or even an elephant). Sometimes the parade stops every ten metres to dance, making it a long track to the destination. On arrival at the place of the bride, the men are entertained by the men of the bride’s family, while the women of the bride’s family watch the formal marriage ceremony. The women of the groom’s side remain at the home of the groom, waiting. Once the ceremony is complete, the groom takes the bride home to his family, where a further celebration and reception takes place.
For this wedding, we were the women on the groom’s side, so our involvement was celebration and prayer before farewelling the groom to go off to the ceremony at the place of his new wife. The men, apparently paraded and danced their way to the place of the bride in about 15 minutes, and on realising they’d arrived far too early, dispersed to the nearest pub (as you do) until a more appropriate time. My bet is that that part won’t appear on the wedding video! In the meantime, the women were invited to see the plethora of outfits and jewellery purchased by the groom’s family as gifts to the bride, while the mother of the groom stands proudly greeting guests. This is followed by drinking and dancing. Finally, the next day a mock wedding is performed starring the groom’s sisters as bride and groom, while the family and friends mock and heckle them.
While the reception would take place the next day, in which the bride would be introduced to the groom’s family, Abhi’s family were expected at another family wedding back in Bhatera. So unfortunately we didn’t meet the bride. That said, according to Rajasthani tradition, the new bride will spend some time now wearing a veil over her face and bowing down to all the family members as she is slowly introduced around to all of the family and friends. While this sounds like a light task, the dresses are heavily beaded and inconvenient to wear. The constant process of getting up from sitting cross-legged on the floor to a standing position, and then down to bow to the ground again is tiring. The traditions make life for women very exhausting at times, not to mention the complication of trying to eat meals with a veil covering one’s face. This period can continue for years and adding to this the possibility of carrying and attending to an infant unfortunately doesn’t excuse one from performing these duties.
The second wedding in Bhatera was by far the most memorable event of the trip. My new Rajasthani friends were delighted to have me back again, and I was delighted to finally see a wedding from a bride’s perspective (I’d decided the 30 second Bruno Mars wedding didn’t count). When we arrived we sat with the bride, her sisters and other family members to have henna drawn all over our hands and arms. The bride was covered from toes to mid-shin, and from fingertips to elbow. At this point little Sheetal (the girl with the big eyes) became my new bestie and my only English speaking ally – limited though it was.
That night, henna’d and dressed head to toe in Rajasthani’s finest, I officially became the White Indian, and we went back to the bride’s house for the first night of celebrations. Namely dinner, drinks and dancing. Having practiced daily the act of ripping chapati with one hand, and scooping rice into my mouth with said hand (without looking like I belonged in a bib and high chair), I had forgotten to learn how to dance. So when The Loud One sat down next to me, nudging me constantly and no doubt telling me in Hindi that I simply must dance or she’ll just die, I was reluctant. Dancing in India is a little different at such events. Rather than the Western style of dancing with a partner, or of dancing with everyone on a crowded dance floor, in India it seems that one person performs to their favourite song, while everyone else watches in enjoyment. No doubt the enjoyment sourced by my dancing was going to be quite different to that caused by anyone else in the room, given the practised gracefulness of every woman who’d stepped onto that floor so far, vs my Aussie moves (learned from a young age at the Oasis nightclub in Swan Hill…. Fancy).
Throughout the wedding there is usually a band of singers, and rather than paying them, they are paid through a donation or a gift. This involves attendees from the wedding showing appreciation for a dance with a note of currency, circled three times around the head of the dancer, and then passed down to the band. In the case of the men, the amount of the currency and the gracefulness of the pass will differ depending on alcohol consumed. For example, many beers = a handful of notes flicked into the air to rain all over the dance floor, leaving the band to scrabble for their money, and boosting the ego of said man. Because gangsta.
The women, however perform this as daintily as the dancer themselves (except me of course. I trip over my skirt just getting up from my cross-legged position on the ground). But ideally, no one is daintier than the dancer themselves. Which is yet another reason it would be bad if I were to approach the dance floor. And yet, a number of people wanted me to – the loudest being The Loud One. It was at this moment that I had a wonderful idea, and had Ela teach me how to say “Only with you” in Hindi. This quickly quieted The Loud One, much to my smug satisfaction. But eventually she won. Or I did. Actually I’m not sure who did, because in the end I’d become so into the argument that I forgot that no matter who won, the result was always going to be me on the dance floor. Suddenly we were both on the dance floor. She had her back to our audience and was walking me through the moves like a crazed mother at a beauty pageant. My memory at this point decided to take an exit (along with any grace I once possessed), making it difficult to piece together the moments of the never-ending song that was my Indian dancing debut. The Loud One showed me a number of moves that all seemed to be a variation of the two handed ‘come here’ and the two handed ‘go away’, with an occasional spin in between. Then at some point there was the passing of the baton as Abhi’s mother joined me while The Loud One took a hasty exit. Later, Ela showed me the video which she had generously and against my wishes filmed of the dance, and to my surprise, countless people had approached to wave notes around my head. She told me that in fact, there was barely anyone left seated during what for a moment was a free for all. It was as if I had almost outshone the bride. In retrospect I guess the fact that the musicians are probably still dining on the proceeds is enough reason to drop my sense of shame for three minutes of humiliation…
Later, after many drinks, the men got bored and found their way to the music. At this point things got crazy as the same song was played on repeat (a patriotic folk song of Rajasthan that I’ve heard so many times now that I’ve had to download it) and barely a woman was left to sit and watch. The bride was having the night of her life.
Whenever I considered the bride, she appeared to be so happy. It crossed my mind frequently that she would be taken away in a matter of days to the home of the groom (a DRY state, to make things harder!) and a house of strangers, never to come back. How then, could she be so happily focused on each moment, so excited, knowing what was looming? I suspect she was actually genuinely excited about the wedding, after hearing from Ela that the couple had in fact become engaged four years ago, but the wedding hadn’t happened due to frequent deaths in both their families. When Abhi’s uncle had died just two weeks earlier, the family had put their foot down and decided that the wedding would finally proceed, regardless. During the four year wait however, the happy couple had not seen each other, only communicating by phone and text. In four years, they’d become closer and closer, and genuinely couldn’t wait any longer to spend their lives together. Can you imagine a four year long distance relationship? What a killer. And the thing about Indian arranged weddings, is arranged or not – the feelings are genuine. To the Western world, this may seem manufactured, but one must consider that more than just religion and caste go into the matching process in order to give it enough merit to truly work. The Western world may look at indicators like our horoscope to check which particular star sign may be better suited to ours. Or perhaps a set of questions on a dating website. In an Indian arranged marriage, the entire horoscope based on birth date, time, location and planetary placement is considered in order to understand a person’s personality in great detail and match two people together who will absolutely fall in love. You see? It’s written in the stars.
The next day when the groom arrived for the wedding ceremony, it was easy to see why the bride was so content with her lot. He was a good looking, strapping young man. Had he not been dressed like a rainbow peacock, appropriate to Oxford Street, and had I not already been committed to Bruno Mars, I would have married him myself!
The ceremony began outside, where the groom went through a ceremony of cleansing and blessings along with the priest and key family members. Then he was paraded the short distance into the inner courtyard, where the tent was set up for the wedding. Somehow, at this point I managed to have prime position. The groom, whose face had held the look of absolutely solemnity that was expected at an Indian wedding, now lit up upon seeing the bride for the first time in four years. She wore red, and her veil hid her features, but his face broke out into an uncontainable smile, as finally, he was about to get the girl. The bride continued to hang her head, veiled throughout the ceremony, while the groom performed like a monkey every instruction the priest gave. To the untrained eye, this appeared to be:
- Sit this coin on top of this coconut
- Now dip your finger in this red powder
- Now put a red dot on the coconut and on the coin
- Now flick some of this water on it with this leaf
- Now drape this piece of cord over it
- Take this plate of brown rice
- Sit this jug of water on the plate of rice
- Throw a leaf in there too will you
- Here’s another coconut I prepared earlier (seriously, the guy just keep pulling them out of his bag like he was Mary Poppins, as I watched on incredulous)
- Put four red dots around the perimeter of the jug
- Now dot this coconut too
Etcetera. You get the point right? Many red dots. And SO many coconuts.
The wedding ceremony finished at some stage of the evening, and it was somewhat of a quiet evening for the women after a late evening of partying the night before. Their task – preparing the bride for marriage was mostly over, and the bride and groom were now readily spending their first evening as a couple. The men, however were tasked with entertaining the men of the groom’s side, who (as mentioned earlier) were from a dry state. While it was another heavy night, it was also an early one as the groom’s side were smashed after only a few beers (likely vomiting behind the tent – reminiscent of my youth at the Swan Hill races).
The next morning had a mixed energy. On the one hand there was overwhelming joy for the happy couple. But there was also an underlying tension brewing that remained subdued while the ceremonies continued. The women gathered cross-legged in the front room. On entry, a group of women called for me to join them, so I sat down with them in the front row. Suddenly, the Loud One sat on me, pushing me abruptly and telling me to move over in Hindi. While I found it rude, I decided she must have thought it was funny and tried to make myself scarce at the back of the room instead before the ceremonies began. First, the bride and groom were presented to the women, who each took turns in feeding them one by one, putting a beverage to their lips, and finally – giving them money. This was all filmed by the camera crew, and while I truly wanted to give back to the family who had made me – a stranger – feel so warmly welcome the past few days, I knew that the presence of cameras would make me particularly awkward, likely spilling whatever the beverage was all over the happy couple. I waited until the cameras had left, and tried to inconspicuously give them some money. Inconspicuous is not a word synonymous with a white indian in a regional area of Rajasthan, and rather than run up and back undetected, the effect was of course the opposite as the women insisted that I participate properly and hand feed the bride and groom. I precariously placed an item of food in each of their mouths, bluntly refusing to pour drink into their mouths for fear of spilling it awkwardly all over their beautiful wedding costumes. Fortunately both bride and groom walked away – clothes in tact, no spillages.
This was followed by a gathering in the next room around the happy couple who were faced with a number of games in competition against each other. The belief is that whoever wins the games will have the power in the relationship. Sadly, I couldn’t work out what was going on, so can’t tell you who the winner was. But he’s so smitten, my money’s on her.
This was quickly over, and the room went from a great high to the deepest of lows as it was now time for the bride to leave. The groom, perched on his horse outside, waited patiently while each and every family and friend said goodbye to the bride. At this point, as an outsider I felt like I really should be making myself scarce. People were crying quietly and the men had gathered to watch. The bride was now howling loudly and it was difficult not to be affected by the misery sweeping the family. The bride, her mother, and her sisters were all crying loudly in despair, and just as things began to calm down, the father of the bride came to take her in his arms for an embrace. She let out the loudest howl and the process began all over again as her uncles came to say goodbye. It was truly heartbreaking. Eventually, she got into the car with sisters and mother in tow, and everyone waved her off for the long drive ahead. The afternoon was solemn, as everyone remained with the mother of the bride as an offer of comfort. Women sang quietly and I sat with her cousins, doing my best to comfort them in English. As we left, I hugged the bride’s mother – because this kind of misery was universal.
We headed home, intending to return later, and were surprised with a visit from the Loud One. She came to explain that she hadn’t, in fact meant to sit on me earlier, but had actually taken a bow to a relative in respect, and sat immediately down (on me) without seeing me. I guess in the same way that sometimes it’s hard to see darker people in the dark, perhaps she had missed me entirely in the light of day. Whichever way, she was horribly embarrassed. I forgave her immediately and the laughs that followed were hysterical. Apparently in a room full of women she was the only one to have ever done this, and I was actually the second person she’d sat on in recent years.
That night (unlike most weddings) the party was to continue. The men and women were not separated this time and the party truly peaked. As we entered, the Loud One called me to come over, and I made a point of pretending to sit on her. The crowd of women went crazy – clearly having been told the story. We enjoyed a few whiskies and then (surprise surprise) more dancing ensued. The dancing at this point was a little different, with a group of people on the dance floor – more what I’m accustomed to – and I truly had fun. Someone put a celebratory Indian hat on me, as I was no longer wearing the Indian dress and apparently the white indian was now not indian enough. One girl made a point of showing me all of the dance moves and I was barely allowed to rest all night…. that is, until Bruno Mars entered. THIS GUY…! Perhaps the best entertainer in all of India. He had everyone eating out of his hand as he performed and acted the lyrics to a song about a woman who was explaining to her mother exactly how she ended up in the awkward situation of sleeping in her brother-in-law’s bed last night (instead of her husbands). It was somewhere between the beginning and the end of this song that I decided that 22 year old Bruno Mars would have made a good husband, had I not rejected him.
According to the lyrics, wifey had had a long night in the kitchen, and when she finally finished the dishes, she’d stepped blindly into the wrong room. Bruno put on all the effeminate moves, batting his innocent eyelashes and acting the parts of both wife and her mother. As he did this, one of Abhi’s uncles (who had the evil grin and mannerisms of Dracula – including the sweeping of the cape over his shoulder) joined Bruno to play the person he was explaining to. Probably a ‘had to be there’ moment, but you can’t argue with an ensconced and hysterically laughing audience of 50 or so people. It will be on the list of funniest moments when I take my last breath. This was the final exclamation mark on what had been a most unforgettable few days that, had I had the option – I would not have chosen to spend anywhere else.
Coincidentally, the end of the wedding signified the end of Two Weddings and a Funeral, and therefore my stay in Rajasthan. I left with few purchases. Just a celebratory Indian hat, a number of Rajasthani friends awaiting my return one day, a greater understanding of the Indian culture, and a tonne of wonderful memories.
Jobless, homeless, but rich – no?