Just this very day, I returned home from experiencing two weddings in as many weeks. One wedding was local and the part I experienced was not, in fact, the wedding. The other required international travel from the West Coast almost all the way across the entire North American continent to Niagara, Canada. As careful or long-time readers of this blog will know, material to read in flight is always a concern of mine. I like it to be engaging, but not too deep. This trip I decided (rather perversely, I admit, given all the nuptial bliss I've been privy to the last few weeks) to read the story of Heloise and Abelard. As shotgun weddings and marital woes go, their story takes first place outside the Greek tragedy category.
Briefly, Abelard, the brilliant philosopher of the twelfth century, taught his best, young student, Heloise, not only classic literature and the finer points of Latin and logic, but also the best sexual positions. After Heloise got pregnant and the couple was married in secret, the bride's angry uncle castrated Abelard. In response, the two lived celibate lives apart. Heloise became a nun, then an abbess just as Abelard became a monk then an abbot.
Fifteen years after these romantic traumas, Abelard wrote a "letter of consolation" to another monk. The idea of a letter of consolation is to tell a suffering person a tale of woe so vividly and sympathetically that the reader will feel better about their own situation in comparison. It did not take me many seconds of reflection to realize that "stories of consolation" tend to be my favorites. The music of Leonard Cohen, for instance, awakens these feelings in me (along the lines of "I'm so glad I'm not a man"). While these sort stories, songs, and artworks do not always make the top of the best-sellers list, there is a brisk market. I would put both Tarnation and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events in this category (the former arguably more sincere than the latter).
I, like many people, have my own tale of woe and could perhaps author a letter of consolation as a purgative like a cat coughs up a hairball. A rather humorous version could be the tale of my weddings experiences of the past couple of weeks.
The Indian event to which I was invited was not actually a wedding. It was a ceremony hosted by the groom and groom's family the day before the wedding. The Hindu priest blesses and interacts with the groom's parents and the groom out of earshot of the many, many people who attend. To prevent boredom, the family hands out food and drink to everyone (rose ice cream and water) and gifts to the VIPs and supplies an emcee or wedding singer.
The event, which starts at 9 a.m. for the family perhaps as the invitation stated, really starts closer to 10:30 a.m. for the audience. I arrived too early. It took me an hour to figure out the the men sit on one side of the auditorium and the women sit on the other (I sat for a while on the men's side). After I moved, I gazed around the large hall, entranced by the clothes. These were not the everyday saris I see Indian women wear on the street sometimes in my city. The women there that day were dressed in stunningly beautiful silk saris. Most were studded with sequins and crystals and they sparkled against the bright silks. Those saris not beaded with sequins were embroidered with gold and silver thread. The men in the groom's family wore very flattering ivory silk tunics and, even in the midst of all the pre-wedding confusion, managed to looked handsome if they were young or dignified if they were not so young.
I finally found the person responsible for inviting me and I went to him to let him know I had arrived (in my non-silk, Western attire). He sat me all by myself in the empty women's part of the VIP section. The VIP section seated about 200 to 300 people in white chairs. The other 1,000 people sat in red chairs.
Shortly before the family appeared on stage for the ceremony, the male VIPs entered en masse. Still I sat alone and self-conscious in my gender-specific VIP section. Right before the ceremony, the women of the groom's family came in and surrounded me on all sides. By chance, the groom's aunts sat next to me. My patron asked that they explain the ceremony (actually, even they didn't know the details, either). I had brought a money gift ($20 plus $1 to grow on as is the custom), but I had no idea what to do with it.
Still we waited. We were not meant to hear any of the proceedings on stage between the priest and the family. (I had met the priest during an earlier visit, so I recognized him and his role in the event.) To keep us occupied, the family had hired a truly bizarre wedding singer. He seemed before the wedding like a reasonably intelligent person, if maybe a but blonder than usual for Indians and certainly more unctious. His English was frustrating to endure. He slowed his words down to about one eight normal speed, so it pained us all to listen to him. When he spoke his Indian language, he sounded (to my untrained ear) to talk more normally. The aunts and I amused ourselves by mocking him. A lot. Even the bride and her three attandantes came on stage with a great deal of irritating serenading from the wedding singer. (I understood fromt the aunts that this is somewhat unusual.)
Midway through the ceremony, the wedding singer announced that the groom's family were honored by the presence of several community VIPs in attendance. He enumerated us in order of: one U.S. Senators, me, and a county supervisor. The senator came late, so there was no room for her and her husband to sit in the VIP section. The organizers found her and her husband a spot in the front row of the men's section. I pointed her out to the aunts, who attended her when it was their turn to pass out gifts.
And did we VIPs ever get gifts! We got three separate packs of food. I got a package with two anklets and a sari of my own, as did all the women in the VIP section.
After the ceremony, I waited in line with the aunts to give the groom my gift. Part of the procedure was to place a bit of ocher paste on the groom's forehead and add a grain of rice or two to the mix. I abode by this custom, much to the surprise and amusement of the groom's father.
Rather than waiting with the masses of guest who were eating in tents outside for lunch, I found my patron who escorted me to the front of line in the VIP room just off the great hall. (Also a trick I learned during a previous visit). In this hall, I met more dignitaries, more commissioners, county supervisors, candidates for state assembly and the like (non-Indian like myself) as well as many leaders in the Indian community (no women except us non-Indian dignitaries, of course).
Food at Indian weddings is extra rich. I enjoyed the lentils, for instance, which were made with triple the usual amount of oil. Once I ate, I found the my friend and host (the groom's father) to say "thank you" and "farewell." The groom's father explained that his own fabric factories in India had made the saris he provided his female guests. He introduced me to the manager of the factory, his friend who had flown to the U.S. just for the wedding. The groom's father called all his family and friends around to meet me, called the photographer over to have his picture taken with me, gave me his card, and asked his closest friends to also give me their cards.
I left just after I handed out my last card. I felt curried, so to speak, and more comfortable with the Hindu temple scene than I had when I first arrived. My main tale of woe, I suppose, is not having any sparkly sari to wear, no rich tone to my skin set off by bright silks, and of course, the moments of discomfort by myself sitting in a sea of VIP seats.
For my most recent wedding experience, beside having to travel for a day there and a day back, I saw it from the point of view of a wedding photographer, a sleep-deprived one at that. The hotel food and unfortunate location of my room kept me up all one night. (Notes to self: farm-raised quail should not taste gamy and has probably gone bad if it does and if you have a room near the pool, move.) I ate and drank too much.
However, I also received many gifts and party favors from this wedding, including extra batteries for my camera, a 1 GM 40x memory card I could keep, a picture frame, Jordan almonds and jaw breakers wrapped in tulle and placed in an acrylic swan. What is my most prized possession from my journey to Niagara? Beside the memories, the samplings of ice wine, the sight of Niagara falls lit up at night, and the one or two wedding photos I took in my official capacity that transcend the ordinary? -- probably the swan.