raditionally, a wedding comes at the end of a story, a story with a happy ending, that is; in fact, the wedding is the happy ending. However it is not the end but the beginning: the beginning of a new life for the couple, the creation of a new family—in fact, the beginning of life itself. Which is why, perhaps, the whole world loves a wedding; why it looks upon it with the same fond indulgence with which it looks upon babies and lovers. This is a rather unusual wedding, a quiet and modest affair taking place not in a lavish wedding hall, but at home. The young banana plants on both sides of the rickety gate, (a gate that has been hastily and badly painted as dribbles of paint and large blobs show) as well as the festoon of mango leaves and marigolds strung above it, tell the world an auspicious event is taking place within. But it could as well be a baby’s naming ceremony, a sixtieth birthday celebration, or a satyanarayan puja; though, in fact, even these are celebrated with a greater flamboyance. Here, even though it is the morning of the wedding, there is none of the frenzy of activity a wedding seems to call for—no silk-clad women rustling up and down with plates heaped with flowers and puja articles. The house is quiet. A few guests arrive at lunch time, but they are immediately swallowed up by the house and all is silent and peaceful once again. The pace quickens by late afternoon. This is an evening wedding, a rare godhuli muhurta has been chosen. The bride’s grandmother was delighted by this. Such a beautiful time of the day, she said, such a beautiful word. Cow dust a beautiful word? 3
Well, not the word itself, she tried to explain, but what it evokes: the serenity of the evening, the time of the day when the cows come slowly back home, their bells ringing clear and sweet, the last rays of the setting sun tinting the dust turned up by the cows’ hooves into a golden and orange haze. But for the family, the timing had caused some anxious moments, because today, as the bride’s sister pointed out, it is not cows but cars that come home; evening means peak hour traffic. Would people be able to come on time? Ultimately, though, they are lucky and all those invited—and unlike most weddings the guests are few—do get there on time. It has been a beautiful day, the kind of day only this city can provide. It has drizzled a little during the night and the day is cool, lazily drifting clouds alternating with brief spells of bright sunshine. But suddenly, by late afternoon, it turns windy. The sides of the shamiana billow in and out rhythmically, as if a giant bellows is at work. Once, the top rises to an alarming height and becomes a giant bubble before gently and reluctantly subsiding. Faces look up fearfully—is it going to rain? If it does, it’s a disaster, because they have given no thought to the possibility of rain, made no alternative arrangements. Later they will wonder how they could have been so . . . so . . . So what? Foolhardy? Feckless? Optimistic? Whatever it is, luck is with them; it does not rain. As evening approaches, there is a sudden spurt of activity. People can be seen moving from the house to the shamiana at the back. Cars, two-wheelers and autorickshaws disgorge guests. There is a sudden buzz, not of excitement, but of consternation, when the bridegroom steps out of a car, followed by his mother, an uncle and an aunt. A delegation from the bride’s family has gone to their house to escort them. What happened to them? Where are they? There is a sudden babble of talk, a flurry of questions, a medley of overlapping voices. This is the one moment of excitement, the single moment of drama that every wedding must have. A few hurried phone calls are made before they 4
realize all is well. The delegation is on its way back with the bridegroom’s father, brother and sister. ‘He wouldn’t let us wait, he made us hurry,’ the bridegroom’s mother tells them with a smile, referring to her son. The smile spreads to other faces, jokes are made about the groom’s impatience, there is some laughter. The groom says nothing, he stands in silent composure until the women come to them with the aarti plates to give him and his mother a ceremonial welcome. There is some awkwardness when they get to the house; the hosts don’t know what to do with this advance party. Bridegrooms are, strangely, often figures of fun, but a small twitch of this man’s lips indicates that it is he who finds this, the unpreparedness of the bride’s family, slightly amusing. Finally, they are taken into the house. Chairs and sofas are hurriedly cleared of stuff piled on them so that the small group can sit down. Someone, in deference to the bridegroom’s arrival, switches on the fairy lights that are strung along the walls and hanging down the sides of the house. The building suddenly takes on a look of dignified beauty. With the lights outlining it, the shamiana, hidden until now by the house, becomes suddenly visible. In a short while the groom and his immediate family are taken to the wedding pandal. He is made to wait inside the flower decorated mandap, where the rituals will take place, with the priests, his mother and other women from his family clustering around him. He cuts a striking figure as he stands in his spotless white dhoti and kurta among the women in their colourful saris. There is a subdued whispering among the women as they wait for the bride to arrive. The bride enters, escorted, not as is traditionally done by her mother’s brother, but by her mother’s sister. There is a sudden hush. Even the chirping of birds, settling down noisily for the night in the trees above them, is stilled, as if the birds know that their territory has been invaded. The bride comes preceded by the fragrance of the pink-stemmed chameli bunched at the nape of her neck. To the bridegroom, this fragrance will forever be associated with desire and delight. Shadow Play
There is a dignity, a composure about the bride and the groom as they stand facing each other, waiting for the rituals to begin, a turmeric-daubed sheet held between them by the priests. This is a good moment to describe the two. They are both rather serious young people. But in the groom’s face, in his eyes, there is a hint of humour, as if he sees something which, if he wanted to, would make him smile. The bride on the other hand is more solemn, a grave-faced young woman. But when she laughs, lines ripple and scatter across her face, her eyes narrow, and her mouth opens wide in whole-hearted laughter. Her laughter is spontaneous, infectious. Brides are the cynosure of all eyes in a wedding, their looks, or the lack of them, are eagerly taken note of. This bride is good looking, though not startlingly so. She is not very tall, though her slim figure and erect posture make her seem so. She is wearing a traditional Kanjivaram silk, a red and gold sari echoing the colours of the chrysanthemum and the marigold, blooms of the season. Unlike most brides, it is clear that she has not gone to a beauty parlour. She is made-up, but the make-up has been so skillfully applied that it scarcely shows. Her hair is in one long plait, as usual—the only concession to the day being the flowers she is wearing in it. She looks, in fact, like herself, not like a glamorous stranger, which is what a beautician would have made of her. Even her jewellery is minimal, which is why the magnificent diamonds in her ears stand out, rays of white and blue light shooting out from the diamonds each time they catch the light. Unusually, there are three priests standing by the bride and groom, two on the bride’s side, one by the bridegroom. The oldest of the three, (perhaps it will obviate confusion if we call him Guruji, the way he is addressed by the bride’s family) starts chanting the mantras, beginning in the traditional way with Ganesha’s name. Svasti Shri Gananayakam Gajamukham Moreshwaram Siddhitam—the sonorous chant fills the pandal. The guests relax, enjoying the rhythmic rise and fall of the lines, the stately beauty of the Sanskrit words. The groom, who has 6
waited a long time for this day, this moment, smiles at some thought of his own, whereas the bride listens in composure to the priest’s chanting. In a while, Guruji stops and the bridegroom’s priest takes over. The two priests take turns, moving from one to the other with such precision, it is as if they have rehearsed this earlier. Suddenly there is a change. Guruji looks meaningfully at the third priest, a young man who now begins singing some verses. The young voice, rich and deep, is singing the mangalashtaka, verses composed in honour of the bride and groom and their families, the names of the couple skillfully woven into the verses. Most guests are unfamiliar with this custom, a tradition in the bride’s family, and since the verses are in Marathi, they don’t understand the words, either. But the young man’s voice catches their attention; it is a voice that has the clarity and the resonance of a temple bell. His beautiful rendering makes this an unforgettable moment for everyone present. For years they will remember the enchantment of the young man’s voice, the way his music dyed the simple and austere occasion with a deep and rich colour. When he comes to an end, Guruji looks at his watch, continues hurriedly with the mantras, says the final words, Shubha mangala savadhan, and, bringing down his hand like the starter at the beginning of a race, whisks away the cloth held between the couple. Whoever first thought of this ritual had a wonderful sense of drama. This young couple have known each other for years; nevertheless, when they look at one another now, it is as though they are seeing different persons. The garlands are handed to them by the priests and they garland each other. Immediately after which, the guests and the priests shower the couple with the akshada, the rice grains making a gentle patter and looking like tiny stars on the bride’s dark hair. There is a sudden release of tension, a collective exhaling of breath and the women wipe the tears that this ceremony invariably seems to bring on. A babble of sound fills the pandal as the guests settle down to talk among themselves and the rest of the rituals get under way. The smokers Shadow Play
go out for a smoke and women move around with plates of haldi, kumkum and flowers. In a few moments the major rituals will begin. But it’s not going to be a long drawn-out affair, the couple have decided that only the minimum essential rituals will be done. The groom’s father had been aghast at the decision. Actually, nothing in the wedding arrangements had fitted into his idea of his family’s grandeur and importance. But he had protested loudest at this shortening of the wedding rituals. ‘My father’s wedding was celebrated for five days, mine went on for three days. And now my son’s, my eldest son’s wedding is going to be a half-day affair? I won’t allow this.’ ‘It’s too late to change, Appa.’ ‘It can never be too late.’ He would talk, he said, to the bride’s father. ‘He’s not in charge. You know his wife is dead and so . . .’ ‘Who’s doing the kanyadaan?’ ‘His nephew.’ ‘Give me his number, I’ll talk to him.’ The nephew, however, is a busy cardiologist, and it’s almost impossible to get him. (Or perhaps the groom is careful not to ring him at the right time?) ‘Let me talk to her grandmother then.’ She’s very ill, his son tells him, with a slightly accusing air. Surely he knows that? Wasn’t that why they decided to have a simple wedding? The father gave up after this, wresting, however, two concessions from his son. There would be a satyanarayan puja in their house the day after the wedding followed by a lunch. And he, yes, he the groom’s father, would host a dinner that night for their family and friends. Except for these two things, all the decisions about their wedding have been taken by the couple themselves. They are not puppets or pawns to be moved about; these are young people who know their own minds. Time, therefore, to stop calling 8
them bride and groom, (though this is better than calling them ‘boy’ and ‘girl’) and to give them their names; after all, they have very important roles to play in this story. And so their names: she is Aru, short for Arundhati and he is Rohit. Aru will organize her own wedding: this had been a family joke, first made by her father and then brought out every time Aru, impatient with her family’s slapdash ways, took things into her own hands, each time she tried to impose order on their casual way of doing things. But now, there is a conspiracy to keep Aru firmly in her bride’s place, at least on the day of the wedding. A bride, she has been firmly told, is not supposed to do anything on her wedding day but be a bride. And so her aunts, her sisters, even her father, are watchful, making sure that Aru does not get up to do anything herself. Her younger sister Seema sits a little behind her throughout the rituals, attending to her every need. But they need not have worried; Aru, once the rituals begin, concentrates on what is happening, on what the priests are saying, on what they are telling the couple to do, scrupulously repeating what she is told to say, doing what is needed. In fact, the three priests and the couple form a tight closed group of their own, heads close together, concentrating on the rituals, oblivious to people outside the mandap. Once or twice there is some laughter, which comes from the mixture of languages they are using. The groom’s priest speaks to them in Kannada, Guruji, knowing that the couple knows no Marathi, speaks in Hindi, which his grandson, a stunningly handsome boy in spite of his shaven head, as Aru and Rohit now notice, translates into English—perhaps to show off. He was the one who sang so wonderfully earlier. ‘By the time this boy takes my place, I am sure the whole ceremony will be in English,’ his grandfather says. There is laughter at this, but the boy gives his grandfather a level, consciously adult look, as if sharing some secret with him. When the rituals are done and the priest gives them permission to get up, Aru is on her feet in a moment and is moving away when she is stopped with a jerk. She has forgotten that her sari Shadow Play
pallu has been tied to Rohit’s upper garment. ‘Wait,’ the priest stops her. ‘Don’t forget you and your husband are now tied together,’ he jokes. He calls for Seema, who unties the knot to the accompaniment of some mantras from the priest. Aru, after a few words to Rohit, goes swiftly out of the marriage pandal and into the house. The lights are on in all the rooms except the one Aru enters, in which only a small night light is burning. Her grandmother, Kalyani, is sleeping. Goda, Kalyani’s sister, sitting by her side, puts her finger to her lips. Aru stands irresolute in the doorway and then enters, trying to make no sound. When she nears the bed, Kalyani immediately opens her eyes. ‘Not sleeping, Amma?’ ‘No, I was waiting for you. I knew you would come. Is it over?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I was there until the garlanding.’ ‘I know. I saw you leave. You and Godaajji.’ ‘Let me see you. Switch on the light, Aru, and come and stand here. I want to see you as a bride. I never saw my Sumi’s wedding, she and Gopal had a registered wedding. And Premi’s . . .’ Goda and she look at each other, then Kalyani says, ‘Let it go . . . Where’s Rohit?’ she asks. ‘Go and call him.’ When he comes, Kalyani says, ‘Come, Rohit, stand by Aru. Let me fill my eyes with the sight of the two of you together.’ She struggles to get up and, with Goda’s help, sits at the edge of the bed. Surprisingly, she is dry-eyed; instead, it is Goda who wipes her tears. Aru and Rohit stand before her for a moment, then, with a look at each other, they bend down and touch her feet. She puts her two hands on their bowed heads and murmurs something, a blessing, they guess, and lies down again. ‘Go, now,’ she tells them. Charu, Aru’s sister, enters carrying a plastic bag in her hands. ‘Aru, you have to change into this.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘A sari. Rohit’s mother says you have to wear this and then go 10
round taking the blessings of all the elders—from both the families, mind you. It’ll take you at least an hour. I told you, you should have eloped.’ ‘Silly girl,’ Kalyani chides her. ‘Let me see the sari,’ Goda says. The two older women look at it, they touch the sari with gentle fingers and smile at each other. They are pleased, thinking not of the sari, but of Aru getting married, of Aru being a bride. Charu is getting impatient. ‘Come on, Aru,’ she says. ‘Seema is waiting to help you.’ ‘I’m coming.’ But Aru does not follow Charu. She goes back to Kalyani and sits by her looking at her in silence. Kalyani takes her hand and strokes it. Strangely, it is Aru who asks her grandmother, ‘Are you happy, Amma?’ ‘Yes, child. Very happy.’ ‘Go to sleep now. I’ll come and see you after dinner.’ ‘Don’t worry about me, Goda is with me.’ ‘And,’ Aru goes on, ‘if you’re sleeping, I won’t disturb you, but you will know I had come.’ ‘Yes, Aru. Now, will you go?’ ‘And I’ll come to you tomorrow morning as early as possible.’ ‘I said don’t worry about me. Goda is with me,’ Kalyani repeats, as if the name is a talisman. Goda is actually Kalyani’s cousin, but both women would reject the English word. In fact, Kalyani does not call her a sister; she is, Kalyani always says, more-than-a-sister-to-me. Aru suddenly thinks of something. ‘But Godaajji, when will you have your dinner?’ ‘Aru, Aru, don’t worry. It’s all arranged. Devi and Premi are taking turns. And the nurse will come at nine. Rohit—where’s Rohit? Will you take your wife away from here?’ Wife? Rohit and Aru look at each other, a little startled. Then Rohit smiles and says, ‘Come, Aru, you have to change. We can’t keep people waiting for too long. My appa must be already throwing a tantrum.’ Shadow Play
‘Yes, yes, you better go, Aru.’ ‘Are you okay?’ Rohit asks her when they are out of the room. She nods and goes into her room where her sisters are waiting. Charu is brisk and businesslike, clearly enjoying her role. ‘What were you doing, Aru? I told you to hurry up. Here, take off that sari. Do you want to have a wash before changing?’ She looks at her sister’s face, suddenly stops and asks, ‘Aru . . . what is it, Aru? What’s wrong? Aru, don’t, don’t do this, Aru, don’t, stop it . . .’ But Aru, who has controlled herself all this while, is sobbing, something she does so rarely that her sisters are frightened. Charu goes to her and holds her, she, too, is crying now. Gopal, who has come to check on Kalyani, hears his daughters’ voices and looks into the room. He sees the two sisters holding each other and sobbing, while Seema sits on the bed, her shoulders hunched, her face resolutely turned away from her sisters. Gopal closes the door and goes out. He knows why they are crying, he knows too that he has no right to intrude on their grief for their dying grandmother and for their dead mother, his wife. He quietly walks away.
Aru and Rohit get married and settle down into the life of a working couple in a big city. Aru, still coming to terms with her mother Sumi’s...