Ok, so the groom did not enter the hall on an elephant, and there were no tigers. That is just what I was fantasizing about before I attended my first Indian wedding. There was however a bride. I’m not sure she wanted to be there, but there she was.
I’ll begin at 4:00 in the morning. The wedding was to start at 6:00. We did not want to be late, and we certainly did not want to miss it. As Mary Ann put it clearly when I suggested a 5 a.m. start time “we have travelled thousands of miles, spent thousands of dollars, and avoided thousands of traffic accidents. If we are early so be it. Besides we might have trouble finding the place”. As usual, my wife was right.
We set out in the dark. The town where the groom lives was 35Km away from our hotel. But that was not where the wedding was going to be. It was being held in a village so small it had no road signs let alone did it show up on a map. So, off we were into terra incognito.
We drove down a narrow country road in the predawn subtropical morning. The road was lined with what a cowboy would call haystacks. But they were (I believe) stacks of rice stalks drying. Later in the day I confirmed this when I found that they tied them into neat bundles for use as roofing on their indigenous housing. It made for an interesting tunnel vision view of Southern India countryside.
Every few miles we would come across a lodge like building off the road all lit up with colored strings of lights. It was obvious that they were wedding halls. As we went thru little towns in the dark, the only places showing life were many, maybe dozens of such little wedding halls. Each one had big pictures of the bride and groom to announce the festivities. I turned to Mary Ann and said “well, if we do not find the wedding we came for, we certainly have our choice of weddings to crash!” You see, it is prime wedding season in the Hindu world right now, because the monsoons are over, and the rice harvest is in, and also for luck. Also, this year, 6 A.M. on a Monday morning according to the astrologers in India was the time for the best of luck for a wedding. If someone invited to a wedding at 6 A.M. on a Monday morning in L.A., well good luck on me showing up.
We got to the groom’s home town, Kattumaanaroil, (boy my spell checker almost went on strike with that one) and stopped at a couple of weddings set to take place, asking for instructions to our wedding. Finally one man told our driver how to get to the correct town. It was like I said, barely a town, more a village. When we got there we just sort of followed gaily clad people hoping they were going to the same wedding. Remember, it is like 5:30 in the morning, and here are dozens of men dressed nicely and of course women in those magnificent saris wandering down the street in the same general direction. It reminded me of my youth when I followed the Grateful Dead from town to town. I would get to a city and have no idea where the venue was, so I would just follow the people in tie-dyes.
I have to go back a week before I tell you the ending of our search. The day before the groom left, he asked me for a picture of the two of us. I thought I understood that they would use it to make a collage of the guests, cool.
So, following red, yellow, orange, green and blue saris we turned a corner, and I went into shock. There was a big billboard sized sign announcing our friend’s wedding and in the lower left corner, almost as big as the photo of the dear couple, were us! Huge! With the words “Special guests from the U.S.A.”
Now we were greeted like sahibs. People came running out of the hall to welcome us. Mary Ann and I got married at Dodger stadium, and we are both huge fans of Dodger HOFer Sandy Koufax. If I could have afforded it I would have paid him to attend our wedding. However, then the wedding would not have been about us. We did not want things to be like this, we were just people attending the wedding in our mind. In this village in rural-off-the-beaten-track India we were a special added attraction, we were Sandy Koufax.
We were probably the first white people in the village. The children looked at us like specimens from another planet, as did most of the adults.
After warm hugs, we were introduced to the groom’s family. All of them. One of his brothers is an EE who works in Singapore. All I could think of was how do you get out of HERE and go to Singapore or Dubai, and what must the culture shock be like in either case.
Everyone wanted their picture taken. Everyone brought us their children and held them up for the camera. All the 10ish boys jumped around in front of me trying to pose. I wanted to take photos of not only the cute little girls, but their big sisters. Most of them were somewhat camera shy. I photographed the band. The band consisted of two horns which I have never seen before, some bells and two drummers. Pictures were taken of the family, and us with the family. All total I took 450 pictures in an hour and a half. You need to follow this link.http://www.flickr.com/photos/the_other_side_of_the_coconut to see a portion of them
The ceremony was of course a traditional Hindu service. It included washing the parent’s feet, “christening” a “tree of life”, and a dozen other rituals I enjoyed, but did not grok. Neither did the groom I figured. He had perplexed look on his face from start to end. He was “blessed” first by the holy man running the show. Then the bride came out for her ordeal of blessings. She looked like she was in shock, denial, terrified, anything but the picture of the blushing blooming bride. None of my photos so far were destined for the cover of Bride Magazine.
Then they joined up and both of them sat in the thrones of honor and they did yet more ceremonies. One of the ceremonies included the parents. The whole time the bride was next to her father she was showing signs of a serious daddy complex.
Somewhere near the tail end of the ceremony a man came around with a tray of orange colored rice. Everyone took a little. I had mine in my hand and looked at Mary Ann. She said “eat it”. So I did. Everyone around me started laughing at my expense. The purpose the rice, as ANYONE would know, was to throw it at the newlyweds. So the man came back, still humored by me and gave me some more rice.
The next ceremony was three circuits by the newlyweds around the tree of life, with a pause for some words from the holy man at each completed circuit. These words, as were the rest of the ceremony, were in ancient Sanskrit language. Nobody speaks it anymore. It is like going to a wedding in a church in L.A. and having it done in Latin.
Then it was time to give presents. Besides a nice cash present we gave the groom back in Sharjah, we found a really pretty marble photo frame for the bride. We had it wrapped and we gave it to a family member while we were being mobbed upon our entrance. It sort of disappeared.
The gifts from the other guests were ether some Rupees, or in most cases, gold. Everyone passed by the bride an put a gold chain on her, or a gold ring on the groom, or both. We realized that was just another thing we were clueless about. The bride started smiling a bit more as her chest became laden with that certain metal that causes fevers in us all.
We were out of Rupees because the ATM machine was not working that morning, and our present had been taken into some holding room. But then the groom’s brother showed up with it and told us to get in line to present it. An 8 x10 marble frame is heavy enough to make her think she was receiving a gold bar. I hope she is not disappointed.
The ceremony was now over. Right on time, 6 to 7:30. The band stopped playing and everyone made a dash for the dining hall. At first, Mary Ann was not so sure she wanted to eat anything here. But everyone was insistent we eat. They took us outside to wash our hands and sat us down at a community table where the only place setting was a banana leaf. They put generous helpings of wonderful dishes in front of us. We had to eat with our hands of course, and mind you, as we were reminded, not the left hand. The food was really tasty. I know I’ll never eat anything we had ever again, but not because I don’t want to.
I noticed during the ceremony that the bride’s father had a righteous moustache. I goaded him into a little moustache twisting competition. He won, his is a better moustache. We bonded on that one and I think he will remember me for it.
I made the decision that I was tired of being Sandy Koufax, and decided we should head for the showers before we started being asked for autographs. We said or goodbyes. No one thought we should be leaving, but we wanted to give the day back to the couple, so off we went.
I hope you enjoyed crashing this wedding as much as I enjoyed telling you about it. Tell a friend. Stay tuned for the Taj Mahal, I hear it is a real shack!
OK so I stole the title of this post. It was an excellent movie and I will try to write something worthy of it.
At the moment Mary Ann and I are at 35,000 feet in an Air Arabia A320. We are the only white people. That includes the Pilots and the cabin crew.
The plane we were supposed to fly didn’t work. With 178 brown people, Mary Ann and I had to march across the airport from our gate to another. This was 45 minutes after our scheduled departure time. We loaded up on busses and they took us out to a plane out at the edge of civilization. We all boarded plane that had not been swamped out after it arrived from Jeddah earlier that day. It had not been refueled either. It takes a long time to fuel up an A320. There was no air conditioning. It was a cool night but 180 people in an aluminum tube can really build up the BTUs. It got hotter and hotter. People started to push that little button to call the stewardess all about the same time. Ding ding. Ding ding ding. Somehow she recognized that if we did not get the air cooled down, this situation could replace Thahir Sq. on AlJazeera. So, about the time I was about to strip down to my BVDs, the air came on. But we were still sitting there. I went up front to get a glass of water and I looked into the cockpit. I wish I had not. Two ground techs and the pilot were in an argument. They were each holding some sort of manual and pointing at stuff, busily turning pages. None of this bothered me, I was starting a journey to India!
We took off at 11:30 instead of 9:30 p,m. I felt sorry for the driver in Chennai who was supposed to meet us at 3:00 a.m. and would now have to wait until 5. However, we are big tippers.
Along the way a thought came back to me that I get every time I fly. I do not think there is a single airline left on the planet that allows smoking on-board. Yet Airbus and Boeing continue to build aircraft with a no smoking lamp over every row of seats.
These lamps glow all night annoying light sleepers. They also serve as a perverse reminder that I cannot have a cig, which I would love to do while I pondered why the pilot had to read the manual before the flight. The simple cost of including no smoking lamps in a new airplane should be something the cost accountants would red flag. Also, as new models of planes get launched, someone is paid to design a snazzy new version of a red X over a burning Marlboro. Then, there is the cost of maintaining them when invariably the little light bulb burns out. And what IF it burned out? I for one would take advantage of it and light up. This would of course cause a confrontation with the cabin crew.
“Sir, Sir, you cannot smoke!’
“But the captain turned off my no smoking sign, didn’t he?”
The ground crew guy back in Sharjah must have provided excellent tech support because we landed safe and sound in Chennai Intl. One neon sign said Chennai Intl, another said Madras Intl. It made me think that change just might come slowly to India. It has only been ten years since India rebranded many of it’s cities. Madras became Chennai, Bombay became Mumbai while Old and New Delhi just became Delhi. I am sure there countless other towns and villages that shrugged off the last vestige of colonization and changed a name like SmytheTown to Rakamannaroil. When you are in a struggle to supply meaningful employment to a billion people, employing a few thousand cartographers and highway sign painters to celebrate your nationalistic pride cannot hurt. Now if they would only learn to drive on the right side of the road.
The reason I decided to cop the title of this post that my favorite scene in that movie is when they board the train to go to the caves. They have enough luggage for a circus. Every time I leave the Sharjah airport I am amazed at the amount of luggage the Indians take with them. Here is a photo taken at the luggage carousel in Chennai.
That covers it for the journey. The next post will be my first impressions of India. I’ll give you a preview. A close friend of mine, whose talent with a quill I can only envy, who can humor me with colorful descriptions of a grey wall, went to India last year. When he got back I asked him “how was the trip?”
“The flight was fine. When you get off the plane, you are in India.”
That’s it. That is all a man who gets paid by the word to write for journals could come up with. I am beginning to think he nailed it.
But I won’t let you off so easy so stay tuned, tell a friend and make a comment.
Mary Ann and I were lamenting the fact that we had not gone anywhere in January. I actually like January in the Arabian Desert, it is very temperate. We have not had the air conditioner on for almost two months. Mary Ann thinks it is freezing. (Folks, it is between 65 and 80 f) She started looking for someplace warm to go in February. We were looking at Istanbul, Sri Lanka and the like. Then, like warm a wind off the desert, we got an invitation!
We have a houseboy. He comes in once a week and does floors and bathrooms, two tasks we do not want to do. He is a young man from India. He is pleasant and works his butt off. A week ago he told us he was getting married and would be leaving for home for about three months. We congratulated him and started thinking about wedding presents.
Then he rocks our world by handing us an invitation to his wedding! We thought about it for maybe 30 seconds before we said “OK, we’ll be there!” He seemed pleased that two old white folks would come all the way to his home town to see him get married. We were excited to be invited. Indian weddings are supposed to be wondrous events, vividly colorful while saturated in custom. A great photo op for my new camera!
Now the adventure began. I was looking at the invitation and I did not understand a word of it. (Yes, it is in English.) That is not entirely true. I understood that the wedding takes place at 6 a.m. on a Monday. That was curious, but just the start. I could not figure out where the venue was. I am not surprised that I did not recognize any city names. I started using my old pal Mr. Google. Then panic set in.
The town (at least what I thought was the town) did not exist. I went to Trip Advisor, and no one who uses TA has ever been wherever this is. My next resource was our next door neighbors. They happen to be from India, and the groomn, Kanbarasan if you need his name, also works for them. I walked next door with the invitation and my best “I’m so confused” face and asked for help. It turns out what I thought was the city was the name of the marriage hall. She pointed out to me the name of the city and the district and told me what state it was in. “Oh thank you thank you thank you.”
I ran back to my computer and used Wikipedia to find out about the city. The name of the city if you insist on knowing is Kattumannarkoil. Wikipedia told me that in the 2001 census it had a population of about 22k. So in 2011, what 40k? That makes it little more than a village in Indian standards. I went back to TA. Nope, no one has ever been there. I checked every hotel website I know of, nope, no hotels.
So I tried to find it on Google Maps. Nope. I started to think we were headed for Terra Incognito…”beyond here lie dragons”. But this is India, not 17th century Africa. I started searching on the state. The name of the state by the way is Tamil Nadu. It is in the south of India on the Eastern side. I found an international airport in a city called Chennai. When I studied things a bit more I found out that Chennai used to be called Madras. All I know about Madras is that Rodney Dangerfield wore madras shorts in Caddy Shack..
Our local airline, Air Arabia, just happens to fly directly from here to Chennai. If you look at a route map for Air Arabia, they have at least twenty destinations in India. The reason for that being all the labor force from India that works in the UAE. The RT airfare is less than US$300. We booked our flight. There is only one flight a day to Chennai and it arrives at 3 a.m. Oh well.
Now it was time to figure out where to go when we leave the airport in pre dawn hours. I found the district in Tamil Nadu where this village is supposed to be. It is called Cuddalure. Or Cudalor, or Kuddalore, depending on your source. There is no train from Chennai to Cuddalure, only busses. A six hour bus ride. And that does not get us to Kattumannnarkoil.
At this point in typing this story, and probably from your perspective of reading it, we are both tired of these multiple syllable unpronounceable names. OK, Cud and Katt from now on.
Realizing that we would be absolutely lost with a mere three days to find the wedding, I figured out a new approach. I found a bunch of nice hotels in Chennai and emailed them. I said that if they could find a way to get me to Katt, we would stay with them before the wedding and afterwards. When I say a bunch, I mean a bunch. To quote John Lennon “I’VE GOT BLISTUHS ON MY FINGUHS”. No one wrote back. Perhaps they had no damned idea where Katt was either.
Finally, a woman who runs a B&B wrote me back. Things were looking up. Her husband runs the AMEX travel agency in Chennai. He is hooking us up with a car and driver. No folks, I am not about to drive a car in India. I would rather sword fight a ninja.
In our communications he of course offered to provide tourist type activities for the rest of our trip. So, we are hiring him to find flights for us to Delhi, and get us to Agra. In Delhi we will do what can only be described as the Slum Dog Millionaire tour, a walk thru the ghettos with young guides who worked their way out of them. The next day we will take a tour of historical sites relevant to Gandhi. (I watched the movie last night and seems how I am now an expert, it better be a great tour.)
Then we are off to Agra. Agra is of course where the Taj Mahal is. The Taj is one of my bucket list items. We will see it at sunset and sunrise and I expect to really put my new Nikon through its paces.
So, don’t forget to read my next half dozen blogs, if for nothing more than the pictures. Tell a friend, thanks for reading, and please make a comment.