We all know (and I now know) that a marriage and its accompanying wedding ceremony provide occasion for endless discussion. The mixed marriage comes with its own set of imperatives, conditions, and debates, but I find the idea of the other one—the idea of the un-mixed, the indisputably “Indian”—even more provocative.
In the past few years, I have attended a score of “Indian” weddings. I put “Indian” in quotation marks because each wedding has involved individuals and families from different regions and communities, a mix of first- and second-generation immigrants to the United States, as well as Indians from other worldwide diasporas. Some have been interracial or interfaith marriages; some have been “love” marriages. Others have all the old-world charm of the perfectly arranged. How, then, to generalize?
There is, of course, a crucial distinction to be drawn between the Indian wedding and the Hindu wedding, but it is a distinction that is all too frequently elided. I have attended the Indian Muslim wedding and the Indian secular wedding, and each has just as much claim on the national and socio-cultural descriptor. But when the average individual talks about an Indian wedding, theirs or someone else’s, they are likely referring to some rendition of a Hindu wedding with a probable patina of Bollywood flair.
The stereotypical picture of an Indian wedding in diaspora is thus an unsurprising amalgam of partial truths. The baraat, complete with a groom arriving on horse. A retinue of sari-clad bridesmaids. Phere, or going around the sacred fire. Saptapadi, or seven vows taken together as seven steps. Mix it up with garlands, turbans, the dropping of a separating sheet, the tying of amangalsutra or taali (insert regional variation here). Steal the groom’s shoes, prep the buffet, and cue a scene from Monsoon Wedding. South Indians should add a disclaimer about how boring we are compared to our northern, merrymaking countrymen; then, have three pre-wedding parties anyway.
A note to future brides and grooms: You are going to be asked a lot of questions. Everyone has an opinion about weddings, and it will often feel that everyone has an opinion about yours. In fairness, many people are genuinely, innocently curious about your plans, but their questions may nevertheless resound as accusations. In the months leading up to my wedding, I was asked uncomfortably frequently whether or not I was going to wear “a dress.”
Despite my best efforts at diplomacy, I could not help but respond with an offended turn of nose. A dress? Of course not! The Americans who asked if I had “bought my dress” were operating from their experience and worldview (I supposed, begrudgingly), but what were the Indians going on about? As if a white husband necessarily implied a white dress.
The dress question was symptomatic of a larger issue, the more pressing question on people’s minds and tongues. Was I having an Indian wedding? Knowing (rather, suspecting) what the questioner probably meant by “Indian” (Hindu, Bollywood), my instinct was to respond in the negative, and thereby hopefully avoid the inevitable follow-up questions about mehndi-sangeet, officiating priests, and elephant escorts. “We are having a Hindu-Jewish-Christian-secular-academic-Berkeley wedding,” I would say. Adding, “we’ve already had an engagement ceremony in India.”
At the risk of being too obvious or defensive, “are you having an Indian wedding” is not a question that you’d be asked if you married another Indian. It is also not a question you’d be asked if you were getting married in India. A ceremony in India is ipso facto an Indian ceremony, and even Katy Perry and Russell Brand are credited with having had an Indian wedding.
But not the deviating Indian American.
Looking back, I should not have played into the demands of the curious question. Were we having an Indian wedding? I should have offered an unapologetic, unabashed, and unqualified “yes.” Or, in the spirit of improvisation, “yes, and…”
Yes, we had an Indian wedding, and it was an American wedding of two U.S. citizens. Yes, we had an Indian wedding, and both Indians and non-Indians participated. Yes, we had an Indian wedding, and we offered multi-faith readings and blessings. Yes, we had an Indian wedding and it was conducted in English, Malayalam, Sanskrit, and Hebrew. Yes, we had an Indian wedding, and it was devoid of all the apologies that officiating priests often make at Indian diasporic weddings. You know the apologies I’m talking about: apologies about deviations from tradition, apologies for English-language explanations of condensed age-old rituals. Yes, we had an Indian wedding, and we did not apologize for all the ways in which we also didn’t.
In fact, our wedding included elements of the Kerala Nair sambandam in addition to the ritual signing of the California-state civil marriage license. A short and simple ceremony was conducted by my dearest aunt; Hindu, Jewish, and Christian-derived blessings were offered by our family elders. The music was Indo-jazz, veena strings and flute sounds set to inspired percussion, classical instruments in modern times. My fiancé (now husband) and I shared seven steps and offered our vows to one another before the witnesses assembled. I wore a beautiful silk sari and he a snazzy Western suit.
Maybe that doesn’t sound like the Indian wedding you’ve heard of, but I am belatedly asserting the right to call it mine. We lit the lamp and, happily, we blessed the wine.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan can finally get back to working on her Ph.D. in Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.