One balmy morning three years ago in Bangalore, the bride, a friend’s daughter, arrived in a palanquin. It was hoisted in front and back by a coterie of her uncles. A palki or palanquin, mentioned in Indian literature as early as the Hindu epic, Ramayana, is a covered sedan chair or litter carried on four poles. It derives from the Sanskrit word for a bed or couch, palanka.
The arrival of the bride onto an embellished marriage dais is a breathtaking moment across every culture. In the Indian tradition too, it’s a heart-stopping event: It’s the first time wedding guests take in the bride in all her resplendent bridal finery.
A photographer’s website describes how “Raja arrived at South Carolina’s Embassy Suites in a perfectly decorated white baraat horse” while his bride “Ambika entered the Indian wedding ceremony looking positively elegant on a gold palanquin.” Indian-American weddings have begun to outdo one another in the novelties and themes they spring upon guests. Families hire cars, horses, and elephants for a grand entrance by bride and groom before the festivities begin.
I’ve come of age to an extravagant Indian-American wedding era. The topic of wedding planning now invades my conversations with friends. Children who were in middle school when my children were entering elementary school have found their life partners. They’re getting hitched. And I’m getting saddled with invitations. What this means is that, every quarter I show up at a wedding. But I also deal with the fallout of not belonging. Sometimes, I’m not invited to other “private” parts of the wedding bash. In island parlance, it’s as if I’m sunning by the poolside at a three-star Marriott when all I want is to sun by the lagoon at the five-star resort on the tonier side of the island.
Being uninvited to events puts my stomach on a low-grade burn. Arrey, a friend said to me, if I have been uninvited, who has been invited? Who exactly is in? And who is out?
Indian-Americans are embarrassed by western notions of privacy and exclusivity. In the old village tradition of India, everyone was invited to every part of a wedding. For my parents’ wedding in 1944, buses carrying cousins, friends and their friends snaked through Kerala backwaters to reach my mother’s plantation home eighty miles away. My mother’s father, a landed philanthropist, fed one and all.
Guests sat on the floor in long rows in the great hall of a community room across the road, two-foot banana leaves splayed in front of them. They sprinkled water on the leaves and inhaled the scent of earth. Steaming rice and a dozen delicacies cascaded onto their leaves. They ate. They slurped. They belched. They got up. They did the same for three more days of festivities. Indian weddings stem from this ethos of village life and hospitality.
When weddings shifted into the cities, however, they evolved, but the core philosophy of hospitality, distilled from the past, remained. The father of the bride pledged his life savings for his daughter’s wedding. Fathers often went broke and strategies backfired. One of my miserly uncles was known to have sent out invitations to everyone in the hope that they would not attend.
The old big fat Indian wedding is now being challenged by those born on American soil. The parents want to invite all the people they know and do not know very well. The children want to invite only those who matter to them. Then there’s the one-upmanship over which family can throw a classier party. There is also another power struggle, unseen, between guests, of who is perceived to be “closer” to the families of the bride and groom.
Then there are those quantifiable elements.
Indian-Americans have embraced the ways of the east and the west: we want the decorated marriage dais and the grand centerpiece at every dinner table. The smallest services run up high costs in the United States. Flower arrangements cost unseemly amounts. Caterers charge exorbitant fees per plate. Venues stipulate which caterers they will allow into their facility. There are high minimum tabs for the use of the bar-whether or not enough alcoholic drinks are ordered. One parent wonders why she should foot the bill for a night of drunken revelry: “Why should I pay for that when I might as well hand all that money over to my child for a mortgage?”
The Indian-American wedding in America is now a “stretch” of the imagination, of relationships and the wallet. As one father of the bride said at the summer wedding of his daughter, when the wedding bells stop pealing, all he will hear is the incessant ring of wedding bills arriving on a palanquin.
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.