My big fat Indian wedding(s)

Between Thursday and Friday of this week, I attended a total of three Indian weddings. Yes, three. I had heard Indian weddings were lavish, loud, colorful and totally over the top. And these weddings were just that.

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Wedding #1

On Monday, Indians celebrated Makar Sankrati, a harvest festival marking the sun’s entry into the Capricorn zodiac constellation. People believe that after the festival, days will get longer, the weather will get warmer, and everyone will become luckier. Post-Makar Sankrati marks an auspicious phase in the Indian calendar. With that belief comes the start of wedding season in Udaipur.

During a 15-minute drive to the wedding with my host parents on Thursday night, we passed three huge wedding celebrations in the streets of Udaipur. In America, you may pass by a wedding and never know it; several cars parked outside of a house, church, or country club doesn’t necessarily scream wedding. In India, you know when a wedding is going on. There’s no concept of moderation with Indian weddings. People invite their family members, in-laws’ family members, friends, friend’s friends, coworkers, neighbors and what seems like everybody else in Udaipur and then those people each bring a few friends and you have an Indian wedding. It’s not uncommon for weddings to attract thousands of people.

On Thursday night, Ajay, Deepti and I went to the wedding of the daughter of one of their neighbors. We walked in and were immediately assaulted with bright lights, smells of Indian food, loud music and a bustle of sari-clad women and men in suits. It was total sensory overload.

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The bride and groom on stage

The wedding was held in a space that appeared to be designated for wedding use. There was a stage on the left side of the field where the bride and groom sat on massive thrones as people gathered waiting for their turn to go up and take a picture with the newlyweds. In the middle of the wedding space there was a fake pond with trees and fountains. Lining the edges of the field were tables and tables full of fresh food. Behind each table, workers sat preparing the food. Women rolled dough; men stood stirring a hot vat of simmering vegetables. People mingled. Kids ran around. Everyone had some sort of food in his or her hands. The whole experience reminded me of the Minnesota State Fair: crowds of people, the smell of deep-fat fryers, flashing lights, loud music. Amidst so many strangers, I felt an odd sense of community, just as I always do at the state fair. In an Indian wedding of all places, I found a little piece of home.

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Wedding #2 with Meenal

On Friday night, my coresearcher, Meenal, invited me to two more weddings. Of course I said yes. These weddings were more of the same. Plenty of food, chit-chatting and people watching. Unfortunately, my stomach paid the price on Saturday, so my host father has put me on a wedding diet; no more weddings until the 30th.

This week marked many firsts for me here. I had my first day of classes, went on my first (of hopefully many) morning jogs with my host father, went to an Indian market for the first time, went to my first Indian wedding, and visited a rural Indian village for the first time. This week, I finally began to experience the true India.

Besides the weddings, what sticks out most to me about this week were my two field visits to a rural village called Tula. A large component of my courses is field-based research. During my eight weeks in India, I’ll spend two of them living with a homestay family in a rural village conducting research on a topic of my choosing; I’m hoping to look at maternal healthcare practices. This Thursday and Friday, we broke into groups of three and went to nearby villages to practice research skills.

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View of Tula

Tula is a village of 300 families, 100 of which are from the Gameti tribe. The entire village is quite poor, and the tribal families fare the worst. A few of the wealthiest men will go into Mumbai to work at a hardware business, but the poorest don’t have any form of reliable work. Meenal and I talked to a family who owned one cow and one goat between all 11 of them; the family’s poverty had been intensified after the grandmother was hit by a cow and broke several bones in her arm resulting in a medical fee of 20,000 Rs (about $370). The family is still working to pay back their debt from the incident.

As we walked through the village we gathered quite a following. Kids followed behind us on the dusty roads and elderly women peeked out of their doors as we passed by. Several people we talked to had never been to Udaipur, and I seriously doubted that they’d ever seen someone with blonde hair.

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I’ve been to rural villages before, but never with the ability or assignment to ask people about their lives. In my prior experiences, I’d been just a tourist peeking in, trying to understand what villages and village people looked like. Now I have the opportunity to understand what their lives are like. The whole thing feels a bit selfish as I traipse through asking personal questions about health and wealth. And while I still feel very much like an outsider, hopefully I’ll be able to develop connections with people over the two weeks that I spend in the village. Maybe I can be of some help by offering a caring ear and listening to what matters to them.

Thursday afternoon I was in Tula; that night, I went to a lavish wedding. I woke up Friday morning and went back to the village. And on Friday night I attended two more equally extravagant weddings. From extreme poverty to extreme indulgence, I’ve been whipsawed between the polar ends of Indian society. And as hard as it is to go between the two, I feel like I’m finally experiencing the real India. India isn’t just the bustling streets of Delhi or the serene lakes of Udaipur. It’s not just beautiful women in saris or dirty kids begging for money. It’s all of it. It’s Tula; it’s weddings. And it’s everything in between. India is a confusing, crazy juxtaposition of many extremes. It’s loud. It’s smelly. It’s colorful and crowded. And it’s one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been.

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