Thursday, July 08, 2010

East meets West

I am a Bengali and he is a Gujarati.
We decided to get married on the same day and to each other! It was a decision born as much out of impulse as it was well thought out. He proposed "suddenly" after knowing me for a decently "long time" and I gawked! He took that as an Yes and I blushingly let him. That was the beginning.

I didn't realize that National Integration, breadth wise, wasn't a matter of joke. The rosogollas and dhoklas aren't usually eaten in the same meal. "Mathho" (flavored sweet curd) wasn't the same as "Mishti doi" (sweet curd) . But we had to try.

The thing with parents is that, no matter how many times you let them know of your boyfriend they will choose not to acknowledge it until it really happens. In the heart of their hearts they wish to be in control of your marital destiny. Surprisingly both my parents and his had a love marriage. For my parents, the Bengali of the east had married the Bengali of the west, and I was born as the hybrid, or in bong words, "Bati". According to me, I took it to the next level. I was the Indian of the East getting married to the Indian of the West.

"It is this very Amricaan thinking that has ruined your brain, no?" my parents barked.
" Who asked you to go to Amricaa? I knew it. Horrid country, I say." my mother concluded and my father nodded in agreement. It is unusual for my parents to agree on the same topic most of the times but when it came to my marital destiny they teamed up. I realized since I had managed to unite my parents, all I had to do was to unite them "FOR" me.

The rosogolla battle wasn't an easy one. I cooked for them (something my dad hated to eat), I regaled them with amazing stories what an ideal hubby the guy from the west can be (much of it sadly was made up), I told them of the enormous respect both of us, especially he had for them and so on and so forth. The thing with parents is , no matter what, they aren't convinced their bumbling baby can be taken care of well enough by anyone other than themselves, or maybe another Bengali dude in my case. They eulogized the amazing Bong culture which oozes out of every Bengali. It didn't work.

Every Indian considers their culture superlative- how can there be any comparison? Every Bengali boasts of rich literature, creativity and "Robiguru(Rabindranath)" and so does every other state - except Robiguru, coz that's unique to us. But because of this ingrained superiority complex which almost every culture suffers from, which surfaces most vividly during a love marriage, there is an inhibition in accepting that the other one can be better in several aspects than their own. That there could be a world of good among non-Bengalis, believe it or not!
Despite the hiccups, I was winning. My sister pitched in as well.

Meanwhile my would-be hubby was managing a mini-thepla-war at his end. (thepla - a sort of gujarati parantha). I pitched in with my amazing social skills and tried bowling them over. My would-be sister-in-law was pretty perky too. She chipped in with her unbiased opinions (which were in my favor, after I had managed to convince her to be on my side).

Then the day arrived. "Sondesh"(famous bong sweet) exchanged hands with the "Puranpoli"(famous gujju sweet). Gujaratis and Bengalis both spoke broken Hindi and guffawed at the same random joke. (I am sure each understood it differently). It was a moment in history. I was the translator, who translated only the good from either side.

On the 18th of last month, my wedding day occurred. Big Day for both the parties. To arrange a traditional Bengali wedding in a foreign land like Mumbai is no mean deal. My parents decided to import stuff straight from Kolkata. My mom, dad and relatives were heavily involved in goods transport - from the wedding dresses for the bride and the groom, to the "boron kulo"(the decorated plate to welcome the groom) to even the wedding garlands were flown in. The garlands appeared magically on the early morning flight! No matter what, a true Bengali has to get the thing straight from Kolkata!

An eclectic bunch of people accumulated. My best friend was a Tamilian girl and his best buddy was a Kashmiri guy. The wedding was heavily attended by Marathis, Punjabis, Rajasthanis and organized by a handful of Bengalis while the groom's side were all Gujaratis. It was National Integration of some sorts.

The Spinster's Rice, the Yellowing of the body, the before-sunrise-meal, decorating the welcome plate, the ritual of calling the dead forefather's blessings - all occurred in sequence and as per Ranu-di's instructions. Ranu-di was called upon again, now from Mumbai. She was becoming quite the wedding consultant on her own.

On the D-Day, "Mumbaiya" photographers and videographers arrived. My parents let them know what an excellent job the Kolkata photo-walas did.
"Arrey don't worry Auntyji and Uncleji. We are guaranteeing it will look excellent. So good that you would want to get married again, just for the photos!"
It is amazing how Indians sell their trade with guarantees. If I am an ugly looking hag, no matter what, their camera will capture it. A camera doesn't lie but the camera-man sure did.

I went to a famous parlor in Mumbai for my makeup. They had been well instructed about how a Bengali bride oughtta look because they had no clue. As expected they made several modifications. I wore the Saree in Gujarati style and had bright stone stickers on my forehead instead of the "kum-kum and chandan"(red color and sandalwood design). Every Bengali item used to decorate the bride was scrutinized. (They had all been flown in from Kolkata). They decided to give me the National look and appeal. Thankfully when my mom beheld me she didn't go into fits. Except the Bengalis no one knew exactly how a Bengali bride ought to look.
For my wedding, my sister and my mother wore Gujarati style Sarees and mehendis (henna hand decorations). I was mighty pleased with my mom for her adaptivity.

The Groom arrived with his entourage. Since none of them had any past experience in Bengali weddings, everything was new and fun. The welcoming "ulu"(sound made by women to drive away evil spirits) almost drove half of them away! The groom had been prepared for this eerie sound before so he stood his ground.

As the "barati-s"(groom's side) were escorted to their seating area, I sat in my secluded room awaiting the "Ashirwaad"(blessings from the in-laws). I touched my in-laws feet with some extra gusto and some thankfulness for their cooperation. After it was done, my sister and my best friend escorted me out with a beetle leaf covering my eyes. I wasn't allowed to see the groom's face until the auspicious moment. It was called the "Shubho-drishti". After seven blinded circles around the groom I was pretty much reeling from the torque. The groom on the other hand was having a gala time. Dressed up as a Bengali Babu, he looked pretty unique. His relatives found the "topor"(groom's headgear) like the leaning tower of Pisa and wanted to play with it afterwards! Once I set eyes on him, I smiled and he laughed. I hadn't treated him with such scales of royalty before. Holding the fan of his "dhoti"(traditional equivalent of pants) and helping me with the other hand, the groom ascended the stairs of the "mandap"(place of wedding) with me.

The punditji this time was younger and resident of Mumbai. My sister had googled him up. He claimed to speak fluent Hindi which is what every Bengali claims and only another Bengali understands!
He started his elaborate proceedings. He had an assistant who seemed to be mesmerized by the non-Bengali "junta"(attending public) and consistently botched up the punditji's instructions. Meanwhile my starving father was trying to get the ceremonies done in the fast-forward mode. This time he was tactful.
"Punditji, you are really good at this and I know it has been years of experience for you. Why don't you selectively do the critical aspects in order to get them married quicker?" Dad ended with a coy smile.
Punditji considered.
"I can do it elaborately for 3 hours you know, I am pretty seasoned at it. But I will consider your special request", punditji smiled back.
My dad nodded understandingly and told a relative to leave a hefty "dakshina"(fees) for the punditji.
The ceremonies began. Our names was repeated a zillion times starting from our great-grandfather and ending with a "Swaha", which was a cue to pour more "ghee"(clarified butter) into the fire. Punditji kept forgetting my name, and repeatedly asked,
"So who are you again?!"
As for the groom, his name was distorted in the Bengali equivalent of itself and except for my elbow nudges he had no clue he was being called!
The remaining Gujaratis hovered around the mandap and mainly gossiped among themselves trying to decipher the Bengali proceedings and trying to find their equivalent in their own wedding ceremonies. Since it was new for almost all , none had a reason to complain. The only people squabbling were the pundit and his assistant.
The photographers had their own secret agenda. They chose angles and disrupted punditji's "mantra"(spells) flow several times. They moved the fire away from our faces onto the pundit's face to get a better lighting! As the pundit sweated, we smiled for the lenses.

Throughout the wedding, my dad was omnipresent. He was jumping up and down trying to say mantras, throw ceremonial rice at the fire, inviting people in, growling at disruptive children and actually calling for divine intervention in Hindi!His Hindi had got significantly better while he managed to pick up one Gujarati word, "Kem cho"(how are you). (That was because he thought it was a shorter way of saying "Kemon Achoo" (how are you)).
My mom on the other hand was an one-woman-army. She was the ONLY know-it-all in this proceedings and had to constantly remember the sequence of things needed for the ceremony (as per Ranu-di's outline). But in Bengali weddings, the daughter's mother doesn't get to see the wedding. So my mom sat quarantined in another room with intermittent company from my relatives and my sister.

After the pundit was done, the photographers took over. They managed to bring out the film-star in us. I posed in every shape and size and so did my newly-wedded hubby. The more they asked him the more he obliged, totally forgetting there was a wedding-reception which had been underway one and a half hours ago! I realized that I had to be the smarter one in my new family from now on. I took matters in my own henna-decorated hands. I shoved him aside and posed for my solo "chobbi-s"(pics)!

More posing, smiling, clicking, thanking, introducing followed in the next venue. My dad had organized the wedding and the reception in side by side locations on Marine Drive. We had to rush from one to the other and because they were so near, no one wanted to drive. My parents had anticipated that my hubby would find it difficult managing his "dhoti" and had a change of suit-and-boot ready. Their thoughtfulness didn't extend to me and like every other bride I tried maintaining my bride-like poise running between the "mandap" and the reception hall. Several couple and group photographs later, they allowed us to eat. Since I was the Bengali bride I had been starving, but the groom wasn't. He had been enjoying his regular meals plus delicious snacks! Pretty unfair I must say. Gujjus should incorporate wedding day starvation ritual.

The food was spread under the open terrace with the sea breeze blowing in from Marine Lines. (And it was neither Bengali nor Gujarati but somewhere in between). As we finished with food amid our friends, our parents chatted in Hindi as well. Broken or otherwise, they seemed to understand what it felt to have their children married. Each of them had dreams surrounding their amazing daughter and their brilliant son, but neither had married according to their wishes. No matter how infinitely better a Bengali dude for me or a Gujju bimbo for him would have been , none of us understood it.
As the breeze cooled the land, it relaxed the people as well. I glimpsed my mother-in-law trying to hug my mom, who isn't used to public display of affection while my dad was getting overwhelmed with several hugs from the male members of the Gujju barat. Gujjus are openly affectionate while Bengalis try it subtly. So when one meets the other, their hug is a catch-me-if-you-can game! Despite it being new, it was nice. A hug edge ways, a smile sideways - the Bengalees and the Gujaratis managed to find many things in common. As the stars shone down, the east and west met each other with open arms and amused faces - all on my wedding day!

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Two Weddings and ...

I contemplated about the title for a bit - you see this blog has predominantly been a funny one. Adding a funeral to the title sobers the reader up instantly, even those regular readers who are used to my style of comic writing. But I couldn't help myself, so here goes.

First the wedding happened. Then the funeral. Then the next wedding.

My sister decided to tie the knot. Life was fun for her, she had a job, friends, great looks (thanks to being my identical twin), and dotting parents but then people on the left and people on the right were getting married and suddenly disappearing in this zone of couple-hood where past friendships are neglected. Single-hood so far had been hip and happening and marrying seemed like a fitting way to end it. The search had begun sometime ago and the groom was chosen. The D-Day arrived and so did I.
To chronicle what goes on in a typical Bengali marriage is an onerous task. My mother, whom I believed to be the know-it-all had another know-it-all whom she frequently rung up, exchanged the usual Bengali greetings which began with "How are you doing..." and without waiting for an answer continues onto , "..and what to say my daughter decided to get married and all...and you know how difficult it is ....I have forgotten so many teeny tiny why don't you tell me...", and the conversation pauses only for breaths. My mom tried to override almost everything the older aunt of hers was trying to get in edge-ways. But Bengalis are tenacious people. They just don't give up. My mom and the older-aunt who by some default Bengali nomenclature is called ranu-di"( a didi suffix instead of aunty), kept going back and forth as to what an ideal Bengali would do. Apparently both have no idea who handed out these rules. "Pandits, uff!" said my mom when I bothered her with historical queries. After much huffing and puffing and imaginative brain-storming they came to a consensus for what-to-do for "kulo saajano( the plate decoration used to welcome the groom)", "aayi buro bhaat", "dudhi mongol", "gaye holud" and "bidaai".

The rules are massaged according to convenience and laid out. Ranu-di was infinitely happy at being sought out for advice by my mom who hadn't really been in touch with her for goodness-knows-how-long. My mom was happy at nailing it down as well. She went about shopping. Much of it has been done before I set foot on my Bongland i.e. Kolkata. In my family, my advice is usually the last sought and the least followed. There is a genuine distrust in my americanized thinking even if I am brimming with Bengali-ness.
Before the D-Day the Bengali bride is home-fed with delicacies - the ritual is called "Aayiburo bhaat". If literally translated it means Spinster's Rice. If figuratively translated it means the food prepared especially for the bride-to-be before she departs forever to be fed by her husband/ in-laws. Because of the "forever" attached to it, the dishes are grand and myriad. I was overwhelmed with number of items that mom managed to prepare. Needless to say I got a fair share of the amazing Bengali cuisine as well.
On the D-Day, the "Dadhi Mongol" occurs before sunrise. The bride is blessed by parents and elders and water from the Ganges is gathered by the parents. My sister was given "khoi and doi" as the first and last meal till she got officially married. For the first time I got to act like the 2-minutes-elder-sister that I am and bless her along with the older relatives.
The "Gaye Holud"( Yellowing the Body) follows later in the day. The groom's family appeared with gifts and "holud" or turmeric for the bride. Of course when they spotted me, no matter how many times they had been told of my existence, they still stopped and stared a few minutes. One of them told me of a game they were planning to play later on, "Spot the Difference!". It sounded like a fun activity for them and a scrutinizing event for me. Thankfully it never happened.
The Bengali bride is usually starving on the day of her wedding, until the 3-4 hour long ceremonies are over. My sister needless to say was a brave-heart. She managed to decline my offerings of jumbo-sized rosogolla thrice! On the fourth attempt, she gave in. She promised she would return the favor when my turn arrived.
There are many intricate things that a Bengali bride and a groom are made to wear and carry. My sister was clasping her "Gachh kouto" and wearing "Shakha Pola (white and red bangles)", "sholaar mukut(hyacinth crown)", the traditional Benarasi Saree, the netted "choli"(veil) on the head, the ornaments, the deep red "Altaa" on the feet, the "payel (anklets)", the toe-rings, the trendy "mehendi" on her hands and the attitude of a beautiful bride. She looked fabulous. For once we weren't identical. She was a princess to behold and I was a mere side-kick!

The groom wears the huge and towering "topor", made of shola/dried hyacinth leaves. He wears paper silk punjabi and designer dhoti to look regal and important and groom-like.

My sister had gone to a parlor close to our home for her bridal make-over and they managed to make her look fabulous after a freakishly long time. You see, weddings are fun events. Beauty parlor assistants tend to rejoice and join in without invites. They started engaging in gossips, and tales and each regaled the other and so forth until, someone remembered that there was a "muhurat (auspicious wedding time)" involved and they better hurry up. My mom almost went into fits when I insisted to have my Saree fitted in a different manner than what was done after two long hours of my being there! My mom went to the extent of leaving the parlor with just the bare necessities - her purse and the bride. I was left behind. Thanks to my boot-camp days, I managed to outrun them and squeeze into the car that was about to leave for the "mandap (place of wedding)". Phew!

The eighty-year old punditji (priest) was a bubbling cauldron of activity and sarcasm. My dad had been involved since morning with rituals to please his fore fathers and invite their blessings for the wedding. He was starving as well. When the wedding started around 7:30pm, right after the "Ashirwaad", he wanted to get things going at a faster pace. He tried getting the punditji on board with his plans.
"Err...are you sure this needs to be done this way? There could be a quicker version available, no?" My father asked the pundit innocently.
The cauldron boiled over. He snorted loudly and smirked hugely.
"I have been doing this for Eighty years! There are no updated versions available, Got it?!!!"
That silenced my dad for the rest of the wedding session. I was left wondering how punditji was presiding over weddings even when he was a year old! I guess some professions don't have the age limit criteria.
Amid smoke, fires,video-graphers, photo-graphers, two squabbling pundits, several opinionated relatives and guests, some gate-crashers, careless kids and their angry parents, and some bemused non-Bengalis, the ceremonies concluded. The photographers decided on their own that their job was of supreme importance and hence they kept instructing the couple more frequently than the pundit. Our angry-old-man pundit became pretty docile when he was promised hero-like photos of his own to keep. I remained mesmerized by the fact that my sister was able to pose for countless cameras, big or small, real or phoney. Every one wanted a picture. Weddings are the one occasion where you are held as royalty. I was made to get into some of the pictures which later appeared on Facebook of friends titled, "Groom + 1.5 Wives", "Spot the Difference", "Real or Mirror-aginary?".
The newly wed couple were escorted for food. I joined them. For everyone it was a buffet but for THE Couple it was sit-down-service-several-times-over.
For the night of wedding, "Bashor Ghor" is organized. The young members of the bride's and groom's family congregate for a night-out filled with fun, games, gossips, music and endless talk.
Bengalis are good at talking. They are the most versatile talkers I have met. Give them any topic, from pin to plane, they will have something to say about it. My sister's Basor Ghor was fun because the groom's side was filled with amazing singers. They sang beautifully, male and female and buoyed by their encouragement I oped my mouth to sing. When I finished my extra-long Rabindra-sangeet my sister was the only one not snoring.

The D-Day passed into "Bidaai (farewell)". Amidst tears and howls my sister departed with her hubby. The mandap stood forlorn and the relatives dispersed quickly afterwards.
Receptions followed after a day. None were as significant or as memorable as the wedding day to me. I returned to my California with indelible memories of a Bengali Wedding.
It was soon after that my grandmother fell down. She hurt herself and was rushed to the hospital. Her condition stabilized for a while when she returned home but that was just a pause in the endless struggle she was about to undergo. She left us after a month of tormented existence. I have always been close to my mom's mom, my grandmother. She was the amazing cook whom my mom never equaled, she was the story-teller and the savior when our mom was about to give us a sound beating and she was the one who gave very practical advice to make our lives better. She had struggled all her life and never cowered under pressure. When she visited the hospital - it was the first and the last time in her eighty year old existence. I was lucky to have her at my sister's wedding. My parents attended the solemn funeral held in Kolkata.

Last month, I went back home, this time for my wedding. This wedding was Bengali but wasn't in Bongland. It was organized in Mumbai. It was Bengali in essence and yet adapted differently. I was prepared for all the rituals this time, having seen one just a few months ago. Suffice it to say, it was a marriage of the East and West, like the "2 States" by Chetan Bhagat.

Like a movie that is still rolling, the end isn't there. It is the start of a new life for everyone - for those that married and for those that moved on from this life. And with everything new, is the feeling of freshness. Life forges intrepidly ahead.