India is an intricate place; every facet of life is embellished with meaning and myth. The pantheon of Hindu gods and the epic scale of the scriptures, makes my western Christian-educated mind reel. The tale of Mary, Joseph and their son Jesus (even if they did throw in a couple of donkeys and a bit of gore near the end) pales in significance to the awe inspiring antics of the likes of Kali. Therefore it comes as no surprise that Indian weddings are complicated, lengthy, and noisy affairs. November/December is peak wedding season, but only on auspicious dates and times based on the placement of the stars and the birth dates of the bride and groom. Star-crossed lovers never fare well.
On the road from Sanchore to Mount Abu we were flagged down by a man on a motorbike. This is a regular occurrence and is usually followed by a request for a selfie and a chat. This time however we were invited home for a cup of tea. ‘Sometimes it’s good to stop, come meet my family and then you can carry on. Don’t worry about time there’s a guesthouse just down the road’. He seemed an amicable chap and quite persistent so, in the spirit of saying Yes, we obliged and followed Kalu Dan Jee Charan home. On his small farm we were introduced to his extended family, chairs were brought and tea was prepared. I was immediately placed in the custody of Ridhu, his intelligent, beautiful 14 year old daughter. ‘Please stay tonight, you should stay tonight. We are going to a wedding, you should come’ she implored. The men sat out front having a similar discussion and it was agreed we would stay and attend the neighbour’s Baraat; the night before a wedding when the groom processes from his home to that of his bride.
As soon as we arrived at the wedding venue, a colourful tent decorated with pretty lights, I was ushered away to the womens’ area and Ioan was led to a tent where the men congregated. For the rest of the night we had very different experiences.
I joined the women sitting on the floor in the groom’s parental home. There must be 30 plus women, all of them dressed in colourful saris and the majority have their faces veiled. A space was made for me, and Ridhu with her brilliant English fielded and translated the queries of the women. We sat there, so close, all patiently waiting for our role. We were to follow the groom and drummers to a line where what looked like gifts of money were exchanged and placed underneath a coconut that a woman carried on her head. Each person had a turn to greet the groom and like all weddings the formalities had a tendency to drag.
A bit later it was excitedly decided that I should be transformed into a Rajasthani woman. ‘Are you sure? I don’t want to be any bother.’ I protested, fearing what lay in store. Under the moonlight I was led across the fields to a neighbouring farm house, where a beautiful outfit was thrust into my hands. In front of the women I changed, bangles were painfully forced onto my too big hands, and somehow my boobs were squashed into a too tight top. I started to sweat. Once the transformation was complete I was taken outside and presented to Ioan. He was beaming and seemed to be having a wonderful time.
Back at the wedding venue we were once again segregated. I sat in near silence eating with the women and children, whilst Ioan ate, danced and drank whisky.
At one point the women requested I dance but provided no instruction of how. So in my new attire I did my best to pull off a few Indian-eque moves. Shy, hot and feeling lost without Ioan I tried repeatedly to sit down but the women pushed and pulled me back into the centre where I was expected to perform. I was repeatedly struck by the rough physicality of these strong women. To top it all off the wedding photographers and camerman appeared to film this spectacle, a couple of men started to wave money around my head and all I wanted was the earth to swallow me up or at least for someone to give me a bloody drink!
As suddenly as my humiliation had started it finished as the Baraat moved to the next proceeding. The groom introduced himself to me, he looked dashing in his wedding attire and unlike his male guests appeared to be stone-cold sober. He mounted an immensely patient, elaborately decorated horse who was led by two caring men, whose job was to keep the horse calm as they followed the dj. Now we have come across these wedding ‘djs’ before, they are mounted on the back of pick ups with enormous speakers and play ear-splitting hits from Bollywood. Normally we keep a safe distance but tonight we are in the procession, following the poor horse. When the groom and his women followers met the men, the men started to dance.
I see Ioan for the first time in an hour or so, it is also the first time I’ve ever seen him dance – Ioan does not dance. He looks drunk and I am getting tired. I am feeling claustrophobic: the clothes, the proximity of so many people, the noise, the fact I cycled 50km earlier that day. And more than that I am finding it hard to stay in role, to be a demure, respectful Indian wife; my veil keeps slipping. I want to break away to go to Ioan to talk to him, to check he is okay, for him to see if I am okay. People sense this and they try to reassure me, to explain that everything is fine. But my independence, my free spirit it stronger than my will to please and I break protocol.
The foreigner, the woman, is on the verge of making a scene. Ioan is whisked away from his dancing partner back into the male tent and I am prevented from following. All I want to do is talk to my friend, to be an outsider again; Ridhu is trying to understand but she is 14 and out of her depth. I cannot explain why I feel like this, I am tired, I am anxious about being apart from Ioan after travelling as a unit for so long, more than that I think I fear the supposed anonymity of womanhood here. This is a traditional area; I stand beside a smart, serious girl whose future is likely to be predestined to early marriage and child bearing. A few times over the course of the evening I ask her what she would like to study when she finishes school, what job she would like. She does not answer. We are surrounded by women who do not show their face in public and by bright young unmarried girls whose future will no doubt be constrained by custom. And despite all my worldly wisdom, my anthropological understanding, I cannot stop my feminist ego fighting back.
At midnight we leave the party, well before everyone else. Ioan is as nonplussed as the rest of the wedding party, as to why I am so agitated. We are very kindly taken back to the farm and people in the car apologize; I apologize trying to explain. But how, so much is going through my head about why I feel so uncomfortable. I realize just how dependent on Ioan I have become during this journey, we are everything to each other – friend, lover, nurturer, protector, therapist and at times enemy. I see how the binary male-female bond dominates most relationships in the west, well mine anyway. How I, as a loner by choice who often finds male company easier than female, have isolated myself from the kind of multi-female support that women in rural India depend on.
I am still in my wedding finery and Rhania’s grandmother is happy to see me transformed – a reverse Cinderella who had left in plain Indian clothes and no bangles (‘does she not have any bangles?!’) We go to sleep on two cots and sleep soundly, hearing the others return at around 3am in the morning. They all sleep communally in the room next door, 3 generations together.
At dawn everyone is awake and ready to go to the main wedding event. We are rested and any awkwardness from the previous evening is quickly forgotten. These are good, hard working, intelligent people and we are very grateful to have spent the night with them. Ioan had thoroughly enjoyed himself and I had been given a glimpse into the life of rural Hindi women in India, a world that had remained hidden indoors and under the veil for much of our journey.
A few weeks later on a bus from Mount Abu to Udaipur a man leans over to Ioan and shows him a photo on his phone. ‘Is this you?’ he asks. ‘Er yes..’ Ioan replies, slightly taken aback. ‘I thought so, it was taken at my wedding’.