We’re on the coach drive to the Oshwal Centre in Hertfordshire (where the wedding ceremony will take place) when another of the many Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham moments happens: a CD of the film’s soundtrack is miraculously produced, a bottle of whisky is passed around, and as “Shaava Shaava” resounds through the coach my cousin, the groom, does an impromptu little poker-faced Balle balle. With only the upper part of his body, of course (we’re not allowed to undo our seatbelts - the stern British driver has an eye on us).
Back in the innocent 1980s, when Neal stayed with us during his infrequent visits to India, one of his favourite pastimes was to mute the sound on “Chitrahaar” and imitate the dances (Jeetendra and Jaya Prada were especially mimickable). Twenty years on, watching him in the coach (and on many other occasions during these long, busy days), I realise the practice has served him well. He’s lived his whole life as a UK citizen, he can’t speak a sentence of Hindi, but he can shake his booty with the best of Bollywood’s item guys and gals. None of those awkward, jerky movements you associate with a foreigner doing an Indian dance: the rhythm is unbelievable. (His non-Indian friends - from South Africa, the US, Australia – are equally good, and equally enthusiastic.) And he’s determined to enjoy himself through this week’s madness. “See, I know I’m going to have to do a lot of stuff I don’t understand or relate to,” he told me when I reached London, “But it’s only for a few days. Might as well do what it takes to keep everyone happy – and have some fun myself in the process!”
An admirable, wholesome attitude, and one I could never have to a long wedding ceremony myself – which is one reason I planned my trip so I’d miss the sangeet, the most rambunctious of the many rituals on offer. (“Why can’t you come for the sangeet? The whole family will be there!” hollered my uncle on the phone, thereby neatly asking a question and answering it in the same breath.) But any delusions I had about being able to get away with attending only the two main functions (the wedding and the reception) were quickly scuppered.
The thing to understand when a large Punjabi NRI family has been given the opportunity to organise a lavish wedding is this: there can be no half-measures. In the days leading up to the Big Day, every evening will be given over to some ceremony or other. Even when a dinner for close friends and family is all that’s been planned, it must be turned into an Event and designated a Name. “Tonight will be Dandiya Night,” one of the elders will pronounce, and in keeping with this theme some of the more enthusiastic guests will arrive bearing little sticks, with which they will draw figure eights in the air for a few minutes before moving to the more important business of mixing their drinks. Another day will be Mehndi Day, when the women who know a little Punjabi will sing half-verses of ribald songs while the people who don’t will stand around nodding courteously, with no clue about what’s being said.
Not that Dandiya Night at my uncle’s place isn’t fun in its own grotesque way. Exactly one person there knows anything about how to perform a real dandiya: she pirouettes and swirls all by herself while the rest of the party ignores her, preferring an unintended imitation of Death and his followers dancing in the final frame of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. “This must be the Dandiya March,” a wag comments. (No, not me – I’m standing on the periphery, smiling and nodding courteously.)
Surviving a wedding house
My uncle’s house is a big one but it doesn’t seem that way when there are around 10 guests staying in it, in addition to the main family. With only two bathrooms on the first floor, early-morning strategising becomes important. I wake up at 6 each day (more trying than you’d think, since no one sleeps before 1 AM), cunningly lie in wait in the hallway shadows until I see three or four people heading downstairs for tea, and then make a bounding leap for the nearest washroom.
Dozens of visitors enter and leave daily. There are endless phone calls. People run up and down stairs carrying bags of laundry and shouting instructions to each other (unlike in India, there’s no domestic help; you have to do everything yourself). In the dining room below three aunts loll on sofas, watching Zee on cable TV, playing Greek chorus, commenting blithely on everything that’s happening around them. In his bedroom upstairs my bleary-eyed cousin sits at his computer, planning and re-planning and re-re-planning the seating arrangement for the reception (over 600 people, 60 round tables). You want to know about tradition and modernity coexisting? The bride and groom aren’t allowed to see each other for the week leading up to the wedding, and they follow this rule scrupulously…but they’re still chatting on MSN Messenger, mailing Excel files to each other, arguing online about table planning.
Surrounded as I am by hugs-shugs, tears-shears, happy-shappies etc I find much solace in the company of an embittered old uncle who speaks in aphorisms. “Love is the dawn of marriage, but marriage is the sunset of love,” he intones as people bustle past him carrying balloons and other items of joy and celebration. His own wife is sitting at the table. “Don’t get married,” he tells me (a welcome break from hearing “it’s your turn now” from all quarters). He also has strong views on the proliferation of the species. “If you do get married, don’t have children. When I look at these two here,” he says, waving his hands to indicate his wastrel sons, also sitting at the table, “I reckon I should have had myself neutered 40 years ago.” All this is a bit embarrassing at first, but he’s a nice man and I like going for walks with him the few times I can get out of the house.
The reception is the best part of the week, and not just because it marks the end of all things. The speeches are superb, especially the taking-the-piss one made by three of the groom’s best men, where they spend 20 minutes recalling every embarrassing moment in their friend’s life for the benefit of the large audience. (Placed beforehand in an envelope on every table are old photos from a costume party, Neal dressed in drag: “You aren’t losing a daughter,” one of the best men shouts out to the bride’s father, “you’re gaining one.”)
I’m on one of the 60 round tables, sitting next to Gareth Evans, a short-film director with whom my cousin has worked (and whose team won the Satyajit Ray award at the London Film Festival earlier this year). He was very touched by the ceremonies, especially the way the meaning and significance of each ritual was explained at the wedding. “Is this nearly as elaborate as the weddings in India?” he asks innocently. I want to tell him most homegrown ceremonies couldn’t hold a candle to this one, but that would entail saying ungracious things about NRIs going overboard with their celebrations – and over the course of the evening some of my own cynicism has dissipated. So I decide to be nice for once and say no, most weddings in India are a lot flashier.
My cousin definitely knows how elaborate his wedding was. He hasn’t had more than three hours’ sleep on any night for at least a week and now, at last, it’s all over bar the honeymoon. “I’m never getting married again,” he tells me as I leave, and in a flash the real rationale behind all these complicated nuptials hits me between the eyes. In times past I had jested with friends that Jayalalithaa’s foster son (and later Lakshmi Mittal’s daughter) would never be at liberty to get divorced, so expensive and elaborate were their weddings. But there’s more truth to that joke than I’d realised. This is the secret to a long and successful married life: wear the bride and groom out so much that they’ll never, ever consider untying the knot.
P.S. Not that anyone asked, but I slept in the attic; here’s a picture of my bags on the side, with much wedding paraphernalia on the right corner. And no, no bandhgalla pics yet.