Barnaby, a blogger friend from New Zealand who was living in India until earlier this year, once wrote an article comparing being white in India to something akin to being a celebrity. At that time I had only been living in Bangalore about seven or eight months and I honestly couldn’t relate to anything he said. No one had ever come up to me and asked to take a photo with me or stop me on street to ask me about my life aside from Indian men trying to make a play. Of course there are always people staring but it is always with curiosity and a quick glance or two. No one checks me out like I’m Aishwarya Rai! But things are different away from the big cities and my friend was 100% right…once I stepped outside of the world’s 2nd Silicon Valley … well, Dorothy, we weren’t in Kansas anymore!
Here’s how it all began. A short time back my little brother Nick – who actually works in the 1st Silicon Valley for a tech company – came for a 10 day visit. I was so excited and I planned nights out at my favourite hotspots like Skyye and Love Shack and dinners at my favourite restaurants. We went to Mysore for some sightseeing and even visited the set of a Sandalwood film where one of my dear friends was filming. And by chance or destiny, I had received an invitation from one of my employee’s (let’s call him “T”) sister who was getting married while my bro was going to be India and I thought “what’s more perfect than a big Indian wedding” so I RSVP’d for us both! Well, I had no idea what was in store for Nick and I when I RSVP’d for that small village wedding in Tamil Nadu in the Krishnagire area, that I guarantee you! And we have memories from that road trip that will last a lifetime.
So here’s our tale …. it is VERY LONG so please go grab a beer or some wine or tea first!
Looking back now I don’t know why but I imagined that the wedding would be just like the weddings portrayed in Bollywood films. And in part it was. The invitation I received to the wedding was the largest and most elaborate wedding invitation I had ever seen. Unlike a simple sheet of paper with calligraphy that constitutes an invitation in the US or other western countries, Indian invitations are jazzy! This one had multiple pages with a cover significantly larger than an A5 and adorned with glitter and drawings and lists of all the family members names in it and more … all very colourful and pretty.
I had been advised that we would be the only non-Indians in attendance and the family was expecting between 2,000 – 3,000 attendees, which for me if something I have never witnessed and can’t even imagine. Western weddings have dozens or maybe a hundred or two hundred people at the really large ones and are very culturally diverse but I’ve certainly never heard of a wedding with thousands of guests and all from one nationality except two people! That was inconceivable for me, and a wedding that size would be reserved for only the wealthiest of families. It was going to be a once in a lifetime opportunity and Nick and I were both really excited.
I had two saris so I was set but I knew from my friends photos on Facebook that Nick needed to do some shopping. I asked a couple of my Bangalore mates what clothes he should buy and the type of footwear and we set off on a quest with my driver Shiva as back-up support for two simple outfits and those shoes with the curled up bit at the toe for Nick (the wedding was taking place in a village so my friends said we didn’t need to buy a full jacket ensemble). We went to a really swish shop here (can’t remember the name of it though, sadly) and were shown dozens upon dozens of kurtas and pyjama bottom sets – Nick picked one in cream for the wedding and black for the dinner party the night before the wedding. They weren’t too blingy and we found amazing shoes off Commercial Street to match!
For our road trip, we rented a big SUV and driver in order to have space for our mini bar (actually, my driver Shiva’s car is not ideally comfortable enough for long trips) and headed out on our wild village wedding adventure.
It turns out that T’s family are very prominent members of their community. The village where they live has maybe 5,000 inhabitants and from what I understand they have many businesses and are very active politically. The village has one cross-road where the main commercial streets merge and Nick and I were both absolutely blown as we came up to it. Here in India it is very popular to have massive billboards and signs erected to honour important people in the community – they include a big photo of the honouree (normally just his head) and then small cut out heads of the people who contributed to the price of the billboard or who are part of the committee honouring him. Well, this one junction where we had to turn to go the remaining two blocks to T’s family home was like Times Square in New York sans the neon but completely filled with dozens upon dozens of HUGE billboards honouring the current village President (their mayor). I’ve never seen anything like it before.
And then the real fun began!
We arrived mid-day in order to attend the dinner party later that night. Although Nick and I were going to be lodged as a guest of the family in a lovely hotel about 10 minutes away in the “big town” we first went to T’s family home in the village to greet everyone. Their lovely, new and very large home was quite the scene. It was absolutely bustling and not a haven of calm that I would have demanded for myself before my wedding…it was on fire! The entire home from top to bottom seemed full of family, friends and neighbours and most everyone was busy with something in preparation for the dinner or the wedding the next day. There was a large blanket on the floor with a dozen girls and ladies chatting and doing something with flowers. It was really lovely, everyone had smiles on their faces and seemed to have something to do aside from the elders who were sat on chairs or the sofa.
As soon as we took two steps in the door everyone stopped to take in the sight of us! It was wild but looking back it was nothing compared to what we had to look forward to later that night or at the wedding. There were maybe a couple dozen people there but still, it made an impression. It turns out that we were the first foreigners that some locals had EVER seen in person or for others the first in a very long time.
In true Indian style we were immediately asked to sit down and we were served water, orange soda and two varieties of sweets. Nick and I sipped our orange soda and dug into the orange deep-fried twisty dough things that are sort of like an Indian donut but not cakey. T’s family – who were all very kind – had made them fresh and they were great. In fact, I was told that the kitchen had been operating almost day and night to help make the sweets and food for the two days. T and his family hadn’t slept a proper night’s sleep in days, including his sister who was getting married the next day. She was so calm and looked so pretty and at peace amongst what to me seemed like stressful chaos. I was massively impressed.
After we checked in to the hotel, relaxed an hour and quickly showered, we headed back with Nick looking very elegant and handsome, completely decked-out in his black kurta outfit and Aladdin looking shoes. I had pinned my hair up with a flower but my saris were back at T’s family home because the ladies had agreed to drape them for me prior to each event because I’m completely useless in that department.
There weren’t as many people there this time when we arrived and the men all seemed to be in their casual clothes still but I assumed they would be changing before dinner. Nick was immediately asked to sit down and I had to giggle because the family immediately started force feeding him more of the orange deep fried twisty pastry things and brought out more orange soda. We had a couple of beers back at the hotel so I don’t think he was too keen to eat sweets but he did “the needful” and got it down. I know this is a lovely tradition of respect but we aren’t too big on snacking between meals so it really is a bit of a struggle to get unplanned food down at times and I was happy that I needed to go and get dressed … and giggled watching Nick trying to turn it down but accepting it so he didn’t offend anyone.
T’s mother and sister and all the other ladies looked SO beautiful, with very blingy jewellery, flowers or accessories in their hair and wearing stunning saris. They draped me in my sari in mere minutes and seemed amused to be dressing a white lady. I was so touched by the generous treatment we were receiving when T’s mother very sweetly gifted me an armful of bangles to go with my two saris.
Nick seemed happy to see me emerge from the room – so he could stop eating and because I’m not sure anyone in the house at that time spoke English aside from the girls who were with me – and we jumped back in our SUV and followed a caravan of vehicles to the hall where the dinner was taking place. I had been in a sari twice before but it was so much more fun and surreal to be in India with my little brother from California who was dressed in elegant Indian formal attire.
At the hall EVERYONE stopped to stare at us. Now in comparison to what we had waiting for us at the wedding, the dinner was small…yet with that said, by my guess there were 200 people present! We realised the moment we stepped out of the car that something was wrong and that I had done something really, really stupid. Well, freaking hysterical more than stupid but, yeah, really stupid! People weren’t just looking at us because we were the token foreigners at the wedding. Oh no! Remember when I mentioned that I asked my buddies what Nick should buy to wear to the wedding? Well, the two Bangalore mates I asked were an actor from a prominent family and a dear friend who is a wealthy entrepreneur. It never occurred to me to call T to ask him the traditional attire for his village. Well, it turns out that the women really put a lot of effort into looking gorgeous with ornate jewellery, flowers, and opulent saris. They all looked magnificent, even the young girls. But the men of the village don’t seem to care as much as the ladies and it turns out that they wear massively casual western clothes! Short sleeved buttoned down shirts with trousers or jeans (except the groom who was in a nice suit). Some guys wore sandals, a few had on the long dressier lungis … but I don’t think we saw another kurta/pyjama combo on any of them! But my brother is AWESOME and he just laughed at our (well, MY) mistake. Basically everything I had him leave at my flat in Bangalore was johnnie-spot-on perfect and everything we brought with us – sooooo NOT!
There were huge cooking pots on the ground (so tall they came up as high as my hip with aromatic food cooking in various areas around the hall. The venue was split between a lovely area outside where the musicians were and a small hall with various rooms inside…but only a few tables were set up in both locations. I thought that perhaps people would stand and waiters would hand-pass bite-sized food because I didn’t understand where everyone would sit to be honest. But as people started to find the spot they wanted, one by one everyone started to either sit on the floor inside, sit at one of the communal tables outside used to rotate seating (sit down, eat, finish, go … and then the next person), or in our case, be led to one of the two or three tables inside where we would be attended to and enjoy our meal there. It was really wild. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sure how I would get up again in a sari if I had to sit on the floor so I was really thankful. What surprised us most of all is that it was the groom serving us! He stood next to the table as we ate in case we needed something!
I couldn’t get my head around why he would be making sure we were fed and happy instead of sitting with his fiancée or attending to his parents or the village VIP. He and two ladies basically made sure we had everything we needed. They served our meal on a traditional banana leaf and we ate with our hand. It was really fun to be honest and hysterical to see Nick dressed up like a Maharaja but just going with the flow like he was in jeans and shirt. Although I did feel bad many times over the next 24 hours because it was damn hot in the village he was in a long-sleeved kurta the whole time, which he had bought instead of short-sleeved because it was more elegant! Ahhh, still makes me laugh!
….this ends Part 1 (you are wonderful to have read ‘til the end, thank you!). In Part 2, read about our quest for a cocktail, the excitement of being in a wedding with over 2,000 people and the single most memorable moment that we experienced in Nick’s 10 day visit to India.