Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Jamai Writes

This is the much awaited final article in a three part serial - Fergus Murray writes about his wedding ceremony in Kolkata, India.

The Wedding Day

I tried to find out more about the ceremony in advance but nobody handy knew much about it; we were having a
Vedic wedding, said to be less patriarchal and over-the-top than the traditional brahmin-influenced ceremony. P's oldest jethima gave us a wedding scriptbook from a previous ceremony and almost all other possible preparations were in place at last. I got to spend most of the day relaxing, writing up my experiences and sorting through photos. Eventually we set out, dispersing between several cars which took close to an hour to crawl through the jam-packed traffic to the club. I managed to greet a few people on my way to the front row where I settled with my parents to wait for the bride to arrive. After an afternoon being made up and bejewelled by a beautician, P was having awful luck in the traffic and I started getting a little anxious sitting there with no news. When she finally emerged she looked, as I expected, absolutely stunning.

The ceremony began on a round podium criss-crossed with marigolds. I mounted from one side where I was met by the mother of the bride bearing the same ceremonial tray from my first day in Kolkata. She waved the arati in a motion of blessing and daubed my forehead with sindoor. P joined me on the podium and we both solemnly promised to adore each other. At that point the scriptbook included a glorious direction:

(The bride and bridegroom adore each other.)

To my mind, this beats even the immortal

(Exit stage left, pursued by a bear.)

We exchanged garlands - I placed mine over her, she placed hers over me, and we repeated the movements off and on. At the end I had no idea which of the matching garlands I ended up with. I figured this was symbolic of the give-and-take of marriage and the difficulty of separating and joining what was once two people.

The entire ceremony had an easy, meditative musicality to it. After the vows, a
purohit sang a mantra, accompanied by a three-piece band next to the dais - tabla, sitar and flute. We placed our hands together and repeated the mantra; I realised then that I should have been spending time brushing up on my Sanskrit pronunciation. Thankfully, I wasn't miked up and everything was explained in English. After this we moved to the dais where we were joined by both sets of parents. Hers gave her to me, and in turn mine gave me to her.

The next stage involved drinking holy - and dangerously contaminated – water from the Ganges; I was vehemently warned to not actually drink it and my mother-in-law was nervous when I pretended to swallow a little too convincingly. Then came the first conspicuously vegan-unfriendly part where I received three trays of curd (for mildness), honey (for sweetness) and ghee (for prosperity). I tasted each individually, then carefully mixed them together and offered some to the rest of the group by flicking it messily in four directions and thrice straight up in the air).

We started a fire by placing sticks of sandalwood into a brazier at centre-stage and punctuated the
purohit's mantra by adding more wood. The fire - 'voice of all the gods' – was a witness to the ceremony along with the assembled hundreds. Next we brought the fire to blaze by using special long-handled spoons to drip bowlfuls of ghee into the fire. Our parents join us for some of this part, throwing handfuls of dried flowers. Then P's brother joined us with a plate of tasty-looking puffed rice which also, disappointingly, went into the fire.
Next was the Tying of the Sacred Knot; I wasn't wearing a scarf so our oldest jetima took my brother's and draped it around the two of us. We remained physically attached for several hours in a symbolic attachment of life. My brother wasn't getting that scarf back; we were finally and officially married. To mark the fact, the priest cut a line of
sindoor on a specially-prepared mirror and I poured it along the parting in P's hair. There was a rather unsavoury origin to this marking: when a tribe was defeated in battle the conquerors marked their chosen women with blood to say 'this one is mine'. All that remained was the Seven Steps - seven lessons given by the groom to the bride as instructed by the purohit: nourishment, success, loyalty, 'the source of Bliss', the good of all creatures, prosperity and finally a guide on the path of illumination.

The Reception

On the day of our reception I woke up feeling rotten. My stomach was churning and I assumed the culprit was all the creamy food. It quickly became clear that I wasn't the only one suffering - my brother and father-in-law were both struck down by the same debilitating sickness. I was terrified that the thousand reception guests would be greeted by apologetic womenfolk. I dosed myself with electrolytes, anti-diarrhoea meds and antibiotics and finally set off shakily with P, leaving the rest of the ill family members at home.

We arrived at an enormous Tea Garden where we were led through the packed crowd to a brightly-lit stage crowned by two outsized thrones. The reception began with crowds trooping onto the stage in an orderly queue as we received a dizzying quantity of blessings and presents. Everyone knew I was sick so I was spared standing up for each party of people. My electrolyte-laden drinks and periodic visits from bouncy friends kept me from passing out or going insane. At the end of the evening we managed to sit and chat with friends while everyone enjoyed the excellent food. Unfortunately for me I was prescribed a simple diet of rice and potatoes with lime. Waiters made the rounds with mugs of hot coffee on little trays but alcohol was only available at a bar hidden inside the club. I went to my bed gratefully that night.

Much of the next day was spent working through the enormous metal trunk stuffed with wedding presents. It quickly became clear that we were going to have to leave most of our stuff behind and we comforted ourselves with yet another delicious feast, this time of southern Indian food; thankfully I'd recovered enough to eat my heart out. In the evening we attended a small party spread over two large roof terraces, one of which was carpeted with grass, the other with not one but two waterfalls, each around thirty feet high by forty feet long. It was an amazing place to spend our last night; we were leaving for Darjeeling the next day and our many guests would scatter themselves to the rest of the globe. Our goodbyes were said with reluctance and great affection.

To Darjeeling

We flew out at mid-day. It's always interesting to see a city and its surroundings from above and I was a little surprised by all the lakes, woods and green fields outside Kolkata. The city itself was fairly green but extremely dusty so I wasn't ready for such lush plant life. There were wonderfully clear views of the meandering rivers below, attested by the shape and vegetation of the landscape. Eventually the Himalayas leapt into view, announced in English by a member of the cabin crew. Shortly afterwards we began our descent towards Bagdogra, the closest airport to Darjeeling.

We wanted to ride the Toy Train all the way to Darjeeling but as it would take a good eight hours, runs very infrequently and tends to get delayed somewhere along the line, my new father-in-law insisted we drive. To this end we were picked up at the airport by a Nepali man with no English to speak of and not much Bengali so P spoke to him in broken Hindi. We were staying in the Barnesbeg tea garden, halfway down the mountain on the other side of Darjeeling, and we descended rapidly down winding, ever-more-potholed roads as the sun set, the Kanchenjanga massif catching its last pink rays.

The drive was much more pleasant than we had ever imagined. Even on the main road the air was breathable, a tremendous relief after the stuffy fumes of Kolkata. We passed colourful temples and villages as the distant mountains loomed slowly larger. An hour or so into the drive we passed into woodlands and I saw my first wild monkeys. All the way up the hill, helpful signs provided snappy slogans encouraging people to slow down, honk their horn at every turn and be responsible drivers. These were mostly in English, although sometimes their grammar was sacrificed for added pithiness. The bungalow we were staying in looked exactly like a fine old English country house apart from the pictures of Krishna and statues of Ganesh. I loved it.

We were welcomed in with a wood fire in the hearth, delicious tea from the plantation, alcoholic drinks and a very fine Indian meal; our hosts were originally from Coorg so I had the opportunity to try a wide range of foods I'd never heard of in Kolkata, as well as a powerful and aromatic coffee mixed with a little chicory. At night we went outside for some fresh air and I saw the clearest night sky I've ever seen in my life. There just aren't that many stars in Britain; I've spent a lot of time in the English countryside, far away from light pollution and city fumes, but this was something else. It was like the sky was celebrating our marriage. It made me come to a new appreciation of why the ancients named so many constellations.

See Fergus' full profile here.

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