They talk with great excitement on the subject of weddings. It is a huge event for every Indian family with months even years of planning sometimes going on for up to a week of celebrations. I find it all a bit alien, this wedding fever stuff. Something I left behind with a bad taste in my mouth after vowing never to do it again following my divorce.
However, Nitin my Indian friend has invited me to join him at a wedding in Calcutta and we are on our way to my first Indian wedding experience, and I find myself gracefully accepting and swimming along in the excitement.
The groom is somebody Nitin met, a recent guest from his Airbnb business.. He is so proud of our invite. I cause great laughter in response to my comment that I go to more funerals than weddings, my last being nearly 20 years ago. My Indian friends struggle to comprehend that we do not view weddings as the major event that they do but thrilled that he has asked me to tag along. Our lack of wedding fever is hard for them to comprehend in India, I am viewing this as a cultural experience, I have to say my excitement is not the same.
My first wedding at the age of 19 was held in a Cathedral, there were big hats and bridesmaids. It cost my parents over £3,000, a lot of money in 1976. It was my mothers idea. She was a dressmaker and relished in the thought of buying lace and velvet. My father tried to bribe me not to get married in style but run away and elope. He would give me the money. My Mother intervened and told him off. This was the event she had been planning in her mind since the day I was born. She made my Dad take out a loan and fabric and big hats were ordered. My Fiance’ and I were sent to meet the priest who was to give us advice on how to have a long and happy marriage. It was really a joke. The poor man could not relate to our lives and what relationships really meant. Sadly, my parents paid the last instalment of the money they borrowed on the same week my divorce came through three years later. I shake away the memory for more positive thoughts.
Our overnight train journey from Jaipur to Kolkata (Calcutta) was my first reason for accepting this invitation. I wanted the travel experience across India. It had been on my must do list. I am so glad I did it, not sure I can give a reason why. Sleeping on a hard mattress bunk with an itchy blanket, my face only inches from the badly painted roof of the train carriage. I was surprised I had actually fallen asleep. The gentle rocking and occasional jutting of the train sent me off. Nitin said I would be safer on the top bunk. I was nor sure from what I was being protected from. The carriage was packed with travellers, whole families travelling together with children and grandparents. The odd backpacker trying to remain inconspicuous to avoid getting in conversation with another non native. I hid away on the top bunk thinking the words, ‘You are on a train in India, giggle…hehe. Finally.
The train was three hours late and Nitin calls the groom. He is already married. That apparently doesnt matter to Nitin. He is more concerned about missing the meal. He mentions more than once about his interest about the menu they will be providing in Calcutta and how it will be different to Jaipur weddings. Aha so this is a cultural journey for him too. I do not feel so guilty.
We check into our Hotel, curtesy of the Bride and Groom whom I have yet to meet. The room is basic but we delight in the fresh air of the hotel garden where marigolds are planted in straight lines and stretch out over a neat square landscape. I am excited to be finally getting into a shower and discarding my dusty train journey clothes in exchange for my new Indian wedding outfit.
Nitin feels the same and within an hour we are totally transformed and jumping into a taxi. We learn from our driver (a friend of the grooms) the actual ceremony started yesterday. We have missed the important bit. Now we are on our way to a reception where we will mingle with other guests.
My first impression is that we have arrived at a nightclub venue, bright lights and music fill the scene as well-dressed ladies mostly in red and orange saris mingle at the entrance. My dress is not a sari but I am in a pale turquoise dress with gold embroidery. My blonde hair will make me stand out and I can feel eyes on me. As we walk into the reception I learn this is not a nightclub but a huge tent attached to the parents’ house. Inside swathes of gold and red material cover the sides of the tent, it must have taken days to do this.
We are met by Rit, the sister of the groom, resembling a beautiful fairy swathed in gold net and jangly gold bangles, her smile illuminates the room. I am told by Nitin that it is commonly known that Bangali girls have the most beautiful eyes, It is true, there are wide, brown smiling eyes all over the room. We are joined by Rit’s husband ……….. who invites us to come and meet the bride and groom.
They sit proudly on a small stage facing 4 photographers, We are invited to step up and have our photos taken. The bride Ria, greets me and holds my hand. I sense she is exhausted but pleased to welcome a complete stranger. Her new husband Writoban, shows his joy when he sees Nitin. The twinkling flash of lights and all the big smiles, I tell myself I am not here to see Santa. This is real and I am intrigued aware of respecting tradition and trying to control the questions I want to ask.
Writoban joins us after as we snack on some coffee and small snacks. Nitin worries this is dinner as he was looking forward to a big wedding meal. He compares some differences to weddings in Jaipur, I am a Tad disappointed at the lack of champagne, but an alcohol-free wedding does have it’s benefits. Seems a bit weird though without the alcohol and It had been a long day .
So, the first question I was aching to ask…… ‘where did you both meet?’
“Oh, I only met her a few days ago he said with a huge grin” and then proceeds to ask ME, the woman of two husbands, a divorce and a couple of long term breakups, for relationship advice. ‘Do you think it is possible to have a long and happy relationship and learn to love as time passes?’ So, what should I respectfully say here? I want to say Run!!!! Quick!!! but think better of it in favour of love and hope. I smile sincerely, ‘Of course I believe that.’ Actually, I hope they will both be happy, they are taking the biggest risk of their lives. Culture and tradition hold them to it. In the west we are lucky, if it all goes wrong we can jump ship. It is different here in India. This is a lifelong decision and it starts on this day.
Nitin smiles as we learn we are to be guided to another tent where we will sit down for a big meal of traditional wedding Bengali food. He is content and happy now. The groom’s brother walks with us and asks us to sit and wait in chairs by the entrance. There are other guests still eating and we are the second sitting. The Bride and groom do not join the guests eating. They will eat later after everyone is finished. The poor bride has been greeting guests all day, she must be tired of smiling by now. It is what she has to do, I am told. I am not sure if I could keep that up for so long.
The food was incredible, I wish I had taken notes. I remember though that the traditional smoked fish which came wrapped up in a gourd leaf and Sondesh a dessert made from condensed milk was to die for. The brother of the groom stood by our table and explained about every dish. I must remember it all and it would seem rude to start writing it all down. As we left we were given a Paan A beetle nut leaf wrapped around cherries, rose jam, coconut powder, cloves and cardamon. ‘put the whole thing in your mouth’ Nitin instructed, it will aid your digestion. I felt like I was going to explode however, all those flavours in your mouth at the same time. I knew this was worth coming.
Back at our hotel, fortunately, I was so tired, I had no problem drifting off. I have just experienced my first Bengali wedding in Kolkata, the place where my Great x3 Grandfather came from. I wonder if he was one of those twinkling stars looking down on to me tonight and feeling amused. I am 3% Indian and a little bit annoyed I did not inherit Bengali eyes, but then you cannot have everything.
Thanks to Ria and Writoban for inviting me to something beautiful based on love, hope and hospitality. Holding out your hands of friendship to a complete stranger and giving me the opportunity to share a part of your magical wedding.
I was not going to say this but Nitin retells this story to all his friends and it makes them laugh. Me, I am mortified so my apologies to the beautiful bride.
The next morning as we were packing our bags to go to the airport, a young woman stood in the doorway of my hotel room. I looked up and instinctively said ‘we are not ready to have our room cleaned.’ I then saw the groom from the night before, standing behind her. I did not recognise the beautiful bride without her make-up and attire. As Nitin stood behind me in fits of laughter, I wanted the ground to swallow me up. Marriage can turn you into a princess but you will only look like one for a couple of days. Personally I preferred her looking normal, We sat on my bed and she told me about her life. She was a professor, well educated and a woman of the world, yet still prepared to sign her life to a man she had only known for three days. ‘It will be fine’ she tells me. ‘I believe in love.’
Did I not do the same back in 1976, I wanted that glorious day and thought it was about love. At least I had a get out clause. One without stigma.
The divorce rate in India is very low because there is still a stigma attached to divorce. Many people still live in loveless marriages. My heart goes out to them. I do believe in Marriage but I also believe in divorce. Here our cultures differ and I believe my culture is right. Nobody should suffer. Loveless marriages do happen regardless of faith and religion telling you otherwise. But this is not the issue here. It is never about how long you live or have known someone or whether you have made a promise in the eyes of god. Some chemistry just disappears or was never there in the first place. EVERYBODY has one life and should be free to find the love they deserve. My second marriage gave me that.