When I casually composed a bucket list for my travels through India, my favourite and most ambitious hope by far was to attend an Indian wedding. But I didn’t just want to poke my head round the door of a stranger’s matrimonials; in my heart of hearts, I lusted after a personal invitation, and all the joyous trappings that would accompany it. But I was pretty sure it would never happen – even though thousands of young Indians get married every day, there was little guarantee that I’d meet someone whose nuptial date fell within my four months in the country. And even less of a guarantee that they’d even want me to attend.
Which is why I still can’t believe that, four days before my Indian visa expired and three days before I flew to Thailand, I was eight hours into a local bus journey to the tiny hilltop village of Kamrau, where everybody knows each others name, to watch my friend Neelam get married. Attending my first Indian wedding also coincided with attending my first wedding in general – with the exception of my parents’ wedding, but I was three years old at the time so I can’t really remember the finer details. But I do know that their little South London ceremony didn’t involve henna. Or riding in a goods truck. Or dancing solo in front of an entire Indian village.
I left Dharamkot in the hazy dark of dead night. A quiet final dinner with a girl friend dutifully turned into a raucous night of Kingfisher Strong and multiple games of Consequences with an amazing group of guys we met at the restaurant – and I rolled up the hill at 2.30am, packed my bags in the rain and headed off to the bus station at 4am, sleep deprived. Which, in hindsight, was definitely an interesting way to prepare for the next four days of no rest.
My bus journey was blurred by rain and close bodies, jostling for space but keeping well away from the soaking window seats. My bag nestled happily under my feat, bringing my knees up close to my chest – a position which an enterprising young gent took to mean he could use them as a bum rest. Once I’d made peace with the whole ‘lack of personal space’ situation though, I dropped off quite happily – and the bus conductor’s elbow made for a good head rest.
Arriving in the small town of Paonta Sahib reunited me with an old friend, and the deposit of my damp bags and sweatier self into an airconditioned car, driven by one of Neelam’s relatives. We journeyed up, and up, and further up the mountain passes, through the fog and mist – which I was exceedingly grateful for, because the ridiculously steep drops to my right were something I didn’t really have to see. Instead we kept our heads up, and tried our utmost to stop our bums from bumping around too much on the rocks.
When we finally reached Neelam’s family house, I was shattered. But I really didn’t want to miss out on anything (“take in as much as possible!” kept ringing through my head) and so we ventured out onto the concrete to eat dinner. Which is when I realised that, despite always hearing about Indian weddings being ‘huge’, I hadn’t really taken in what that would mean. The evening before the wedding was due to take place, a gathering had established itself at the house.
“This is my family’s side,” Neelam told me proudly, waving a hand past the huge crowd before us. “Family members, villagers, and my friends. There’s about a hundred people here.”
She wasn’t wrong. And every one of the hundred was a tad confused as to why a random white girl was watching the proceedings. This was probably the pinnacle of being the stared-at subject throughout my time in India..
Luckily I’ve got past my focal-point phobia, and I faced it head on, with a great deal of attempted dancing (albeit with the little ones to guide me) and a resulting hand full of henna smudges that kept having to be retraced over by a long suffering girl in a beautiful white suit.
The dancers didn’t seem to want to stop, which meant at about 2am I had to call it quits, and snuggle into my silk liner on a spare bed. I left them jubilant and happy, twirling their hands and each other under a pink canopy beneath the stars.
Neelam clearly felt that watching the wedding proceedings wasn’t enough for me, because the next morning I was whisked off to the Tibetan settlement at the top of the mountain – riding there in a goods truck cabin because the bus “took too long”, apparently. I was too busy praying to every Hindu god I could think of to really absorb this reasoning. But we visited a Buddhist temple and dutifully spun the prayer wheels, before retiring to the Tibetan’s local rec room for a game of bingo with sticks and pink paper scraps, in honour of the Dalai Lama’s birthday.
When we returned to the house we were chastised for being late and missing various things – me in particular, by a nine year old girl with honey coloured eyes and an adult attitude. She called me her best friend for the day so I felt very bad for leaving her, and so followed her instructions carefully; to kneel in front of the bride, pick up a collection of fern branches from different coloured clay dishes, and dab red water on her head, shoulders, hands and feet, simultaneously posing for photos at every daub.
Despite my protestations that we should stay in case we missed anything else, the gang of Indian teens who’d adopted me into their fold insisted that I come with them to tour around the old wooden houses that made up a portion of Kamrau village. They were definitely something special, but the view from these houses was something else entirely. As I stood and looked out over the valley, a village woman asked me something in Hindi. A translation found its way into the proceedings.
“She wants to know, how do you find it here?”
My breath caught in my throat.
“Incredible,” I said. “Beautiful. She’s very lucky.”
And I meant it.
When we returned to the house for the second time that day, all bets were definitely off. There was a palpable tension in the air, with people milling interminably about, seemingly with no direction but all with the attitude of purpose. And there were so many women: villagers, matriarchs, the mother of the bride, and child after adorable child running after each other. Coming from a family of three with barely any extended family members to speak of, this group was just a little extreme. There was no space, anywhere: to change clothes, to shower, to have a minute’s peace. The lack of a lock on the bathroom door didn’t matter as there were always at least 6 people in the room just outside, to shout maniacally if anyone attempted to enter while you were in there.
An unforeseen problem had also arisen for me when people started preparing for the evening ahead, when the groom and his entire party would be arriving. The salwar kameez I had so proudly borne to Kamrau the whole way from Agra, for two months, was deemed slightly unsuitable. Neelam’s choice of a long yellow skirt and blue tee shirt didn’t seem to fit my imagined wedding guest outfit… Magically though, once I’d added the requisite scarf-over-boobs element, scraped back my hair with some pins and added the all-solving eyeliner to my face, the effect wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. Ok, so I wasn’t in a gorgeous sari or a refined salwar suit, but I fitted in.
Then all my attention was (finally) off myself, as I became chief bride-supporter during her bridal transformation, taking charge of keeping both doors to the bedroom locked as her hair and make up was hastily managed, and reassuring her that the giant gold nose ring, all the way from Rajasthan, was going to look just fine.
The word got out that the groom’s party were nearly at the house. Regretfully leaving Neelam, I raced out of the house with the other women and stood outside on the stone steps that led to Neelam’s house, en masse, like a posse. I know it was supposed to be a welcome party, but it felt a bit like something out of West Side Story. And then ‘the men’ rocked up, all however-many-hundreds of them ( I think in actuality it was about 70 people but they made a noise worthy of a thousand), complete with traditional village band, many green felt hats, and an abundance of joyful (and possibly a tad drunken) shouting, dancing and general merriment.
Back up the stairs we went, ushered quite forcefully by another girl who’d taken it upon herself to be my bodyguard. She ferried me back into the house again, where we were met with an almost unrecognisable figure in red, gold, and green, nose ring swinging, veil heavy, eyes lowered. We got into position behind her and, jostling a tad, walked slowly to the pink canopy outside.
The groom’s dancers had arrived and were still making merry. Apparently there isn’t the slightest bit of order, formality, or silence at one of these things! I caught a glimpse of the groom, strings of pearls hanging heavily across his face, obscuring all his features. And then, while I was still watching, the pearls were lifted to reveal a slightly nervous expression, but one that looked happy enough to be holding the garland of orange flowers that would soon be around Neelam’s neck. He was hoisted into the air by his fellow dancing men – Neelam followed suit, and suddenly the whole room erupted into frenzied cheering as they hugged in mid air.
“Congratulations! So… is that it? Are you guys married now?”
Back in the house, away from the dancing melee, Neelam looked at me with slight horror in her eyes.
“Are you joking? There’s another five hours of this, at least! It’s only just begun…”
More dancing. A great deal more dancing. I watched happily for a good few hours, as I sat nestled on the stone steps between a village woman’s thighs, and eventually made room for another woman to nestle between mine (it was that or have her sitting heavily on both of my feet).
But I knew a nightmare was about to happen when a middle aged man came over to grab me from the audience, stating that I simply had to dance with him and ‘enjoy myself’. Pardon? I’ve seemingly developed a mental block about dancing in public. Particularly when it’s among people who are much better dancers than me. And also when I’m apparently supposed to do it by myself.
“Put your arms above your head. This is our culture. Enjoy it!”
I looked out at the solid bank of female faces in front of me, and to the equally solid bank of cameras and camera phones pointing in my direction, held by the group of fascinated men to my right.
“I can’t, I’m sorry – I’m a terrible dancer!”
But I was forced. Not even politely. I desperately wanted the ground to open and swallow me up, but to no avail: there I was, twiddling my fingers half-heartedly in mid air and knowing that my moment in the limelight, solo dancing in front of an entire Indian village, was unlikely to ever come again. Still, it didn’t make a difference – I was, to put it bluntly, mortified.
When rescue finally came in the shape of a friend’s hand pulling me out of the throng, I raced inside to ‘be with Neelam’ and to nurse my ego. At the news that we had at least another few hours to go before the marriage ceremony proper would start, I checked the time. 2am. Again. And suddenly I felt exhausted. I accepted the offer of ‘a little nap, just to get your energy back’, curled up amongst five other eye-resters on a three man bed – and opened my own sleepy eyes at 7am.
I’d missed the whole damn thing.
As it turned out, so had many other wedding attendees. The ceremonies, which lasted the entire night, were watched by only a handful – the family members, the half asleep little ones, the elder villagers who hadn’t been dancing. And yours truly, thanks to a night of no sleep just before I left Dharamkot, was oblivious to it all.
Things moved very quickly in the morning. In no time at all, the bride and groom were gathered to sit in the centre of the room, amid a collection of empty suitcases and boxes of crockery, where they passed handfuls of grain to their immediate family, who walked solemn circles around them. Photos were taken, and suddenly everyone was crying, taking me very much by surprise. I’d almost forgotten what a monumental moment this was, as Neelam officially left her family. The sight of such blatant emotion set me off too, and I’m not ashamed to admit it!
We watched the procession move down the steep stone steps and into the street, where bride and groom were placed in a sleek car and whisked away. And, just like that, it was over. The house felt a good deal emptier. The elder women gathered in the main room, on the floor, bodies close to each other. It felt like a mourning circle.
It’s only been a few days since I was in Kamrau, so I’m still trying to digest it all. But I do know that the experience was something wonderful – magical – and I wish Neelam and Yogesh the best of luck and love in their new lives together, and give them so many thanks for allowing a random foreigner to be a part of their wedding.