What I love most about traveling are the dramatic shifts in perspective you acquire by meeting people who have grown up in a world very different from yours.
Most of the time we live in our own little bubbles – our friends are people like us, we gravitate to those who share the same fundamental beliefs about the world, and we plan our lives (almost subconsciously) to reinforce all our core opinions.
So, when you inadvertently encounter a dramatically diverse cultural lens on your most familiar social rituals, it’s refreshing and often very amusing.
I had just such an experience recently on an early morning flight from Delhi to Frankfurt. I was exhausted after an action-packed, three-week trip to India.
Turbo, My Swedish Seatmate, Works for Boeing
When I found my seat, I glanced and nodded at the person next to me – a white-haired, white man, with a broad grin.
It was a long flight. But, over a 6 am breakfast that sat like stone in my time-zoned out stomach, we broke the ice.
His name was Turbo. He worked for Boeing and was flying home to the US after a business visit to India.
“I’m Swedish and my actual Swedish name is way too unpronounceable, so everyone at Boeing just calls me Turbo,” he laughed.
Turbo said he was born in Sweden, raised in South Africa, and now lived in St. Louis, Mississippi, with his American wife and three children.
As we chatted about his Indian visit, he remarked the trip was unforgettable. He’d been to his very first Indian wedding – the nuptials of a business associate’s daughter.
“You know Indian weddings?” He nodded at me with a quizzically raised eyebrow.
“Yes,” I smiled, “of course I do.” I had one, after all.
In Scandinavian culture remarked Turbo, “we basically have these calm quiet affairs which we call our wedding parties. Our idea of socializing is to sit in a corner with a drink and talk to one person at a time.”
A Nuclear Explosion of Sound
Compared to that scenario, said Turbo, the Indian wedding felt like a nuclear explosion. “It’s like being hit in the auditory nerve by several bowling balls, all at once. It’s like the visual and auditory experience you might have in a riot, except this was friendly, organized, rioting.”
“Yes!” I nodded, trying hard not to laugh. “That’s what Indians call a fun time.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” said my Swedish seatmate. “I loved it in the beginning. I was out there dancing and kicking like the rest of them. I just copied everyone around me and kept flinging my arms up in the air and believe me, for a 6-foot 5-inch Swede with long arms and legs, it was quite a feat to manage to move on that packed floor without knocking someone unconscious.”
After a while, said Turbo, he just kept his long arms aloft. “I looked like I was being held at gunpoint, except I had a big, goofy grin on my face.”
Turbo Meets A Dholki Drummer At Dinner
Then Turbo heard a rhythmic thudding emanating from a guy beating a giant drum hung around his neck, as if the DJ blasting loud music and the shrieking wedding party weren’t full throated enough!
“Is this common at Indian weddings?” asked Turbo incredulously? “A guy with a giant drum who won’t stop beating it?”
“Yes” I chuckled. “It’s called a dholki. Very common in North India.”
Turbo breathed a sigh of relief when the drummer stopped for dinner. But then everyone quickly returned to the dance floor. “They must have inhaled their dinner – because he started up again!”
Turbo retired to an invisible corner, where he could tune out the drumbeat and concentrate on the extremely delicious food.
“If you know anything about Scandinavian cuisine, we have a total of five spices in our food, two of which are salt and pepper. This food was a riot inside my mouth, but a good one, a great one!”
But even after returning to his hotel room Turbo could not tune out the drumbeat. “After three hours of blasting noise my ears were still vibrating.” The drummer guy continued to play even as guests departed, with sweat pouring down his face. “I feel he probably beat the drum all the way home and is sitting in his apartment somewhere, still banging away!”
Turbo Wears A ‘Churreyda’
Though Turbo was grateful for his quiet hotel room, he dreaded an upcoming cultural battle – removing the complicated churidar that partnered his achkan.
“My host had insisted on getting me a typical, Indian wedding outfit. He was most gracious about it, and I was flattered, so I agreed to wear one.”
Removing a tuxedo is a breeze, said Turbo. “You open the buttons, unzip, and pull everything off .”
Now he faced the prospect of taking off the Indian outfit he had worn to the wedding all by himself. “So intimidating,” Turbo confided, but not perhaps as discomfiting as being fitted for one.
Turbo Meets The Darjee
Address in hand, Turbo had taken himself to a tailoring establishment that had served his host’s family for decades.
“The streets got narrower and narrower and finally we stopped.” Inside, in a four-by-four-foot space no bigger than a row and a half of airplane seats, Turbo got measured, “thankfully without knocking anything over.”
“Do you know this Indian wedding pant for men? I’ve forgotten its name. When you open it up the top stretches out to three times the size of a normal waist. I mean, I thought he was a pretty lousy tailor who couldn’t get a waist measurement straight.”
“It’s called a churidar,” I laughed. “And an achkan goes on top. Very common in Indian weddings.”
“A churreyda! I’m going to just call it pantaloons.” When Turbo shook them open he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“There’s a mistake,” he told the tailor. “I’ll never be able to fit into this, it’s the wrong size!”
“No sir, no sir, don’t worry.” The tailor ushered Turbo into the ‘dressing room’ for a try out.
It didn’t happen.
Inside a wooden partition box in a corner, Turbo tried to put on his new outfit.
“Here I am, a six-foot- Swede in an upright wooden coffin, contorting into every shape possible to fit my size twelve feet and three-foot legs into these long tapering tubes. Finally, I flung open the door and stalked out in my underwear.” He shook the pantaloons in the tailor’s face.
“This is impossible,” he shouted.
“No worry, no problem, Sir, I fix right now.” The tailor was short, skinny, and unflappable. With the patience of a mother dressing a child, he scrunched the churidar and slipped them over Turbo’s outstretched legs.
Then “with maddening maternal patience, ” he fastened Turbo into his achkan because the Swede’s sausage fingers (his words not mine) could not handle hooks.
Disrobing in the upright coffin proved challenging. “I was like a circus elephant in a cage trying to take my performing pants off!”
“I seriously considered hiring the tailor to help me dress up for the wedding and wait in the hotel to help me disrobe!”
Fortunately, back in his room after the wedding, Turbo was able to hop around and kick his pantaloons off!
Turbo And The Tuxedo
As we fastened our seat belts for landing, I asked Turbo the question lingering in my mind.
“Truthfully now, did you actually enjoy yourself? What was your final take on Indian weddings?”
“I loved it,” said my friend, “I had a fabulous time!”
When we said goodbye I wished him the best.
“May you attend many more Indian weddings….in a tuxedo.”
After all, when a churidar can trip you up, what better way to attend a Turbo-charged Indian wedding!
Edited by Meera Kymal, Contributing Editor, India Currents
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