Chapter 11:  A Wedding in the Family


Opana's elder sister's wedding was fixed for the month of Bhadon, the wettest month of the year. As this was the first wedding in the family, his father was prevailed upon by his relatives and elders to hold the ceremony in the ancestral village of Kandan Sian. Courts and schools were closed for the summer vacation, so they all moved into Kandan Sian well ahead of the date to begin the preparations. Lala Gokul Chand's large estate, which had many rooms and verandahs, was selected as the venue. With two to three weeks to go for the wedding, close and distant relatives started gathering from far and near. A professional halwai was brought in from Gujranwala to make the sweetmeat for the wedding feast and to cook the daily food for the-hordes of family guests already assembled, their numbers swelling each day. Gifts of milk started flowing in from the surrounding villages where clients of the bride's father lived. The weather, however, was so bad that much of the milk curdled on the way and had to be thrown into the flood waters flowing just outside the building. The rains and floods that came that year were the worst in the living memory of Kandan Sianis. Opana sitting by a window watched giant tortoises floating their way to the walls of the house to gobble up the food being thrown into the swirling waters. Some wise people at last realised that sending milk was no use and they condensed the milk into khoya which could be further used for making the sweetmeat.

The halwai wasbusy turning out a range of delicious sweets which were put away in a storeroom under the custody of Pritam. Younger boys of course quietly walked into the room and stuffed their pockets with pilfered sweets to be eaten at leisure. Apart from the presents in kind from tenants, there was the customary neundra ceremony — relatives and friends making gifts of money to the parents of the bride or bridegroom. A proper account was kept of all the amounts received, for some day the recipient would have to dish out what he had received plus a little extra when his turn came to reciprocate at future weddings. In those days money in cash was very scarce and these monetary gifts were a very welcome help to meet the immediate cash expenses. They were an investment in the future for those who made the gifts, and of immediate help to those receiving them. Opana's father had been investing wisely and well over the years in this manner, and had received a sizable amount in return by this time. This custom of the community coining together to fund rites and ceremonies in each family faded out as the years passed.

Like most marriages in India, this too was an arranged marriage. The boy and girl had never met each other. They belonged to different villages, which was the norm. However, the fathers or mothers might have met, and the families known about each other through the good offices of a common relation or friend. Socially, the circle ensured a fairly thorough knowledge of each other's backgrounds for the prospective couple. The two families had to be more or less equal in status and had to come from matching castes. All the norms being met, it was generally presumed that the marriage would be a success and the premise was mostly proved right over the ages.

There are other aspects of arranged marriages, which appear strange to people from the western culture. The harmony that was found generally in such marriages stemmed from the way of life shared in common by the two families. Sustained awareness and efforts were also put in to prepare a girl emotionally for marriage and this intensified as the wedding day drew near. A series of ceremonies preceded the wedding and all of them were significant. The message being signalled by each of these to the girl was that her parents had so far been looking after her on behalf of the would-be husband and that they brought her up, groomed her, educated her so as to make her fit for the man she was going to marry, that her own life, independent of her parents' family, was just going to begin, a life linked for good with that of her husband. Her parental home had only been sort of a transit camp - for a girl's real home was with her husband. Evening after evening, girls and women gathered to sing nuptial songs and dance to the lyrics in anticipation of the big day. || There were those ceremonies which were touchingly sad too, as when the girl formally severs connections with her childhood home. The songs mingled sadness with romance and the bride was led through the range of emotions to her full womanhood.

The wedding ceremony itself was a long and still is drawn affair, with chanting of mantras, exchanging vows of fidelity, walking as a couple round the sacred fire holding hands with the loose end of the bride's sari knotted to the groom's shawl. The father gives away his daughter and brothers give away their sister. The groom hands over the keys of his home to his bride. The rituals do not end with the wedding but continue when the bride enters her new home where die groom's family pour oil over the threshold to welcome her and all the women of the family gather to have a good look at her face. The bride and groom are then made to play a game of dice, and so on, till the welcome and integration of the girl into her new family is considered complete. After some days of ritual dallying and teasing and pampering, the bride soon takes up her share in the daily routine of the household and becomes a proper wife. There is no going back, no regrets, no heart-searching and not even a shadow of any alternative.

Preparations for the marriage of Opana's sister and the reception of the barat— the groom's party — went on apace. On the appointed day the barat arrived, practically wading through the flood water that submerged the roads. The barat was led by the grandfather of the bridegroom who had to fling his dhoti over his shoulder and carry his shoes in his hands. He was accompanied by relatives, sons and grandsons, including die bridegroom, all simple village folk steeped in tradition, happy to be attending a marriage which symbolised the perpetuation of the race, and all of them looking forward to the hospitality that awaited them. A barat, on its arrival, is led straight to the banquet arranged in their honour after which the wedding ceremony begins and goes on well past midnight. Plenty of jesting and leg-pulling goes on all around, even as the solemn ceremonies roll on slowly in stages. Everybody is out for the fun, except the bridegroom and the bride who look very serious. There are comic interludes provided by the practical jokes played on the baratis. Such pranks are part of the fun. Some practical jokes can lead to mishaps. J On a certain occasion, one of the many brothers of the bridegroom had decided to catch some sleep and went up to the terrace, wrapped himself up in a bedding roll. There was an unexpected shower at i midnight and all the bedrolls including the one which contained him had to be quickly thrown down from the roof to be removed indoors. 1 Fortunately he was not hurt, cushioned as he was by the mattress. j He emerged unscathed from the bedding when a search was mounted for him. Everybody including the sufferer joined in the laughter.

The ceremonies were over and at dawn the couple were securely linked in wedlock. The morning went in farewells, serving food to the baratis and in arranging, displaying and then packing away the dowry. In the afternoon the party left, carrying bride away in a doli. The scenes at parting are always tearful and with sad songs being sung to say farewell to a daughter. With final words of blessings from her parents the girl leaves her childhood home. She will return from time to time to visit her family and will be made much of when she does, but it will be as a guest and an outsider.

There are some strange stories connected with some weddings.

The barat of Opana's uncle, it was said, was accompanied by a hundred kanjars, the professional comedians and singers who come riding on camels. One of these kanjars, they said, was frozen to death while riding his camel and fell off. The barat took nine days to return to its own village and on one of the nights the party was given shelter and entertained by a famous dacoit of the area who happened to be a friend of the bride's father. He also gave a handsome dowry to the bride. In another case, the bridegroom's party consisted of three thousand five hundred people and the bride's family was ruined by the cost of entertaining the barat. The father of another prospective bride had watched this terrible chaos, so when his turn came, to be prepared for a similar horde he made extensive arrangements: whole rooms were stacked with sweetmeat, its doors and windows bolted and a hole was cut in the roof for access to the food. The barat, when it arrived, consisted of only fifty men. For weeks afterwards donkeys were carting these sweets to the city market and selling them.

Life then was very simple. For years after an event people exchanged anecdotes like these with great pleasure. Opana's father had hundreds of such anecdotes tucked away in his memory and repeated them on appropriate occasions. He would tell how a harassed father, receiving a very big barat, ordered bags of sugar to be emptied into the well to make the entire water into sherbet for the thirsty baratis. On another occasion the baratis danced all of two miles to approach the bride's home.

Opana had the occasion to attend a very amusing wedding. The two parties celebrating the marriage were making merry after imbibing large quantities of liquor. A band was playing. One of the parties insisted that the band stops playing while the other wanted it to continue. The party which wanted it to stop was on the rooftop while the other was in the courtyard and so was the band. Much shouting and abusive language were exchanged, but the band played on all the time as a man stood with a drawn sword near the bandmaster and threatened to behead him if the band stopped. The party upstairs were so enraged that they rushed towards the stairs to get down. The drunken leader missed the wooden ladder and just stepped off the roof into thin air and fell with a thump. One by one the others followed him, stepping off the roof at the same point and piling on top of each other. There were minor bruises and injuries but nobody was seriously hurt. The leader of this discomfited party now drew his sword and swore on the spot that he would kill the bridegroom. Forgetting the cause of the feud as also the band, he turned his ire on the bridegroom whom he held responsible for his humiliation. Had there been no bridegroom, he said, there would have been no barat, no band, no conflict. His logic was unexceptionable but logic or no logic, the bridegroom had to be saved and so the man had to be forced into a room and locked up for the rest of the night.

Superstition also played a great part on all these occcasions. Astrologers would sometimes predict that a man's first wife would die. A mock marriage would then be solemnised with a sparrow as the bride and with all the fanfare and ritual. After a lapse of suitable time, the real marriage to a real bride would be organised in the fervent hope that the evil had been warded off and the bride spared her fate. Some poor girls were treated badly throughout their lives if at the time of their wedding or immediately thereafter a mishap befell the family of the bridegroom, like a death or losses in business or even a fall in the milk yield of the buffaloes.