Saturday, November 12, 2005

My Best Friend's Wedding

The wheels squealed lazily at being forced to move after a short but a well deserved halt as the train chugged painfully, fighting the inertial resistance, to take its first 'steps' out of the station I boarded it from. I pushed my handbag up on the top berth, settled quietly in my seat and surveyed my sleeper class co-passengers: A sexagenarian man gazing blankly through the window, a family with two kids; parents too busy teaching their kids how to enjoy and the kids too busy doing what they do best - flouting those norms, and a young lad; unabashedly staring at me as if I was the only existent key to solving the Bermuda Triangle mystery. It didn't take me very long to get talking to them. An enquiry about their destination was all it took to be a part of the group. A couple of hours later we had discussed most of our nation's problems, almost solved them along the way, shared our lunches and had become a family. It was so easy initiating a conversation with sleeper class passengers. Compare and contrast this with a reaction from a co-passenger in an AC compartment. A similar enquiry would fetch a suave verbal reply masking a curt non-verbal expression overtly portending of a cold shoulder of non-reciprocation for any further attempts at initiating a conversation. The puffed up egos actually keep the AC compartment, which is otherwise cold, quite cozy.

I was traveling by train after a long time. The recent nose-diving of flight fares made them affordable to us lesser mortals. That, coupled with the traveling allowance provided by my company, made traveling by train not just unenviable but also unglamourous. And yet, there was something about trains I missed while flying. Although flying has its own share of ecstasy in take-offs, landings and God's eye view of earth, a train journey is about a different romance altogether. The snail-pace of Indian trains affords us the luxury of sliding open the window and enjoying ourselves in the unadulterated countryside breeze in all its glory. Watching the scared cattle fleeing, the confused dogs barking, the kids cheering and the adult males leering has its own beauty when viewed from inside the fortified window of a train. Sooner or later, our quest for speed will introduce faster, new state-of-the-art trains. But then, we won't be able to stick our necks out of the door and experience the gush of wind slapping our faces. In our hurry to reach the destination, we miss out on enjoying ourselves through the journey. Ironically, while technology helps us connect faster to far off places, it disconnects us from our immediate neighbourhood.

The absence of time zones in India sets you up for some really pleasant surprises as you travel eastwards. A normal day in Bhuvaneshwar, located in eastern part of India, dawns at 5 am. I reached there slightly before dawn. To my relief, it had rained the previous night, forcing mother earth to show its more pleasant face in the midst of scorching Indian summer. A pick-up auto was arranged for me. It seemed to glide over the broad, clean roads of Bhuvaneshwar. Being engrossed in the surreal morning experience, I failed to notice when the smooth boulevards segued into potholed bylanes and brought me to my destination.

I stood in front of a big main gate guarding a small bungalow. The gate was high enough to keep peeping toms at bay. An average Indian would not be able to see through its top; its bottom, however, was considerate enough to give enough space to show ankles. I rang the bell and a known voice answered. It ordered me to hold on lest I wake others up; I forgot, out of excitement, it was still early morning. As the voice came closer to the gate, I started drawing her picture. My mind immediately left for dreamland; I thought I heard a barrage of instructions, I had so gotten used to, coming out of her mouth. She reached the gate and started opening a chained lock at the bottom. I saw only her palms and feet, for the miserly gate would let me see no more. Mehendi, a mark of celebrations in an Indian family, adorned her hands and feet. She opened the door and we were face to face after more than three years. That night was her wedding.

We began our professional careers together in Pune. Fresh out of college, we had a mix of childish enthusiasm for life and a queer anxiety about our first job. We clicked almost immediately and have been the best of friends since then. We've shared some of the best days of our professional lives.

Her house was full of guests but it didn’t look congested. As her only friend to attend her marriage from out-of-station, I was accorded celebrity treatment. We chatted for a couple of hours before we got up to move on with the chores. “Could you tell me how you feel?” I asked her, curious to know what a girl feels on the eve of her marriage. “Don’t ask that;” pat came the reply, “I won’t be able to control myself.” The only child of her parents, Amrita, my friend, would not have been able to control her emotions had she let them flow any closer to that thought. The pain of separation from their loving daughter, in spite of the pleasure of her getting married to a worthy individual, was giving her parents a torrid time. Amidst her parents’ frequent breakdowns, she was the only one who composed herself and kept the situation under control.

I went to the terrace of the bungalow where the ladies of the family were performing some rituals. They were chanting some mantras and intermittently making surprisingly loud noise just by oscillating their tongue left-to-right; an act supposed to ward-off evil. Amrita had called her gregarious friend, Debasis Patel, to keep me company. Thanks to his famous second name, he often had to follow his introductory statement with the explanation that he was not a Gujarati. Amit, Amrita’s cute little cousin, took a special liking for me. He would excitedly share with me all the good things he could lay his hands on. Unmindful of his broken Hindi, he would sing all the Hindi songs I taught him. These two companions made my sojourn worth its weight in gold.

Towards the evening, Debasis took me to the marriage venue. A hall was booked in one of the better hotels of Bhuvaneshwar. The route from home to hotel was marked with pot-holed roads devoid of street-lights. But the cool, unpolluted breeze made the journey exhilarating and refreshing. The sigh of untamed breeze of Bhuvaneshwar, a city with less concretized development than in other cities of India, could only have invigorated my spirits. We reached the marriage hall excited and ready to tidy up things, and ourselves. The bride arrived later, looking exquisite in the bridal wear and totally different from what she looked back home. Debasis and I took the job of welcoming the guests at the main entrance. Then we enjoyed the sumptuous dinner, peppered with ‘bird-watching’. The groom, his family and guests arrived much later. There was excitement all around as the groom’s procession arrived in the hotel. We were running around, hankering to catch a glimpse of the man-of-the-moment. Finally, I found him in a hall of the hotel. He was dressed in cream Sherwani with a traditional turban over his head. Amrita had told him about me. So we chatted for a while after I introduced myself. He came across as a simple, shy and a mature person; quite different from the bubbly Amrita but someone who I thought complemented her well.

The marriage rituals started around midnight. By that time, Debasis had left and Amit had slept in one of the small sofas, big enough for him. Alone and tired, I followed the rituals with intermittent naps. But I was lucky to be awake at the most important moments of the marriage. I saw the groom tying the mangalsutra around the neck of the bride. I saw them exchanging their ‘Varmalas’ (garlands) and taking the rounds around the holy fire. I got goose-bumps as I watched them doing that. A passing thought came across and got me introspecting at the sanctity of those moments. The Vedic mantras that were being chanted during those actions are known to be powerful enough to celestially bind the couple. The bride and the groom affect each other’s lives much more powerfully, astrologically -- and not just because they live together -- after the mantras bind them. It was an act of giving the other individual the control of your life; the key to your emotions. You then give that person the power to make you happy or sad, to make or break your life. Can such a moment of entrusting your life to someone be anything less than sacrosanct? The modern priests chant those mantras perfunctorily for it’s a daily business for them; the bride and groom can’t be more mechanical about following the instructions for it’s too tiring for them. The couple, however, should stop before these acts, take a moment and talk to themselves; think for a moment about the other life they’re making their own and the responsibilities that come with it. To enjoy the good times of married life, they should be good enough to face bad times.

Real life marriages, unlike those in movies, are directed by actors themselves. So, almost every task is a touch-and-go action. Murphy’s laws work at their best here. Things would go wrong or disappear when you least want them to. We had our share of such anxieties, before and after the marriage, the worst of which was after marriage when the rusty lock at the main door of her house just wouldn’t open, all in the wee hours of the morning when we returned from the marriage hall ready to flake out.

That morning was her Vidai. Knowing Amrita, who, while in Pune, used to cry at the slightest thoughts of missing her parents, I expected the Vidai to be an emotional catharsis. But the brave girl that she was, she defied all expectations and didn’t let a single drop of tear come out of her eyes. Quietly, she sat in the car and didn’t look at anyone for a long time. Our eyes met only once after that; I could see the pain of separation from family waiting to explode but marvelously controlled. The car left, unsettling the dust of the road and leaving everyone’s heart with an emotional void in its wake.

“Why is it that Indian girls leave their families after marriage? Why is it not the other way round?” I asked myself. The answer to this is not simple. An average male has much bigger ego than an average female. Due to this, a girl is much more capable of accepting the new family as her own than her male counterpart is. She can take in her stride the complexities of adapting to differences with less difficulty. Spiritually speaking, the ego is one of the root causes of distancing yourself from God. Being born a woman is hence a mark of spiritual upliftment. And only a spiritually higher being can make bigger sacrifices to keep another family happy. Unfortunately, the feminists, thanks to patriarchal zealots, take this as another form of female discrimination.

Thanks to Amrita, my trip to Bhuvaneshwar was an experience worth living. I came back with quite a few memories to cherish and thoughts that probably made me a bit wiser.