Tag Archives: Indian weddings

RIP American Democracy!

Are Indian Weddings Too Ostentatious?

I saw Monsoon Wedding, the new musical, with a group of Indian women friends recently. We laughed at familiar idiomatic expressions, translated, at times awkwardly, from Hindi into English. We got nostalgic listening to old melodies. I even got teary-eyed when a second generation Indian-American young man crooned “Neither here nor there,” a song about his longing for his native culture.

He reminded me of my sons. But afterward, I felt a little uneasy.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Indian weddings. Back home in Nagpur, weddings were anything but romantic. I attended dozens every summer, but as I sat in the canvas canopy, being assaulted by loudspeakers blaring sad Marathi songs, like Jaa Muli Jaa Dilya Ghari Tu Sukhi Raha—Go daughter go, live happily in the home you’ve been given into, while the children shrieked and the bride and the groom stood like sacrificial animals on the bohala—the wedding altar—separated by the antarpat, the holy cloth, and two priests sang the mangalashtakas—the religious mantras, I could only think, “This is not for me.” Then the cloth would be removed and the bride and the groom would make eye contact, as if for the first time. For all practical purposes, it was their first time, I suppose. Their prior meetings, conducted only in the presence of chaperones, hardly counted. There was no dating, no premarital romance or sex, and no cohabitation.

In the 110 degree heat of summer, the canopy would feel like an oven, but my aunts would slave doggedly over open wood fires lit under tin sheds, rolling chapathis and stirring laddoo mix while men leaned against white bolsters, talking of politics. My father, the eldest brother and the patriarch, was often obligated to serve an important role in such gatherings. He would manage to leave the canopy as soon as possible nevertheless, and lecture me afterwards about the needless fanfare and expense of Indian weddings. Arguing against the evil practice of dowry, he would ask, “Why don’t they just have a registered marriage and save their money for something more useful?”

He was right of course. Those were the decades when India was a desperately poor country, when we had food rationing, when it was difficult for middle class families to eat nutritious food or have a decent place to live.

As I grew up, I began to emulate my father’s love of solitude and tranquility, his appreciation for contemplation and introspection, and most of all, his ability to view his world with an outsider’s eye.

When I came to California in the late seventies, Berkeley was still in throes of the hippy revolution. My American friends’ weddings were DIY affairs for which brides sewed their own dresses and couples exchanged vows in someone’s backyard. I loved those simple romantic ceremonies, partly because they comported with my father’s principles but also because they captured for me the essence of what a union of kindred spirits ought to entail.

A Maharashtrian wedding was different from a Malayali one, but today all the regional diversity of wedding rituals is lost.

In the nineties, however, everything changed. If American weddings began to resemble Hollywood extravaganzas, Indian weddings became insanely ostentatious.

Nowadays, they mandate designer saris worth thousands of dollars, blouses covering less skin than bras, and diamond-encrusted gold jewelry. Unlike American weddings, in which guests are expected to foot their own hotel bills and are only fed one or two fixed-menu official meals, in India, the bride’s father is required to offer his guests room and board for days on end, not to mention receptions involving at least three types of cuisine. If there are not stations for chaat as well as Italian and Chinese food, I suppose Indian guests would simply feel robbed of their birthright.

Of course such lavish weddings would not be possible without India’s servant class, which remains exploited, with no official benefits like social security, healthcare, or vacations. In directing Monsoon Wedding, Mira Nair poignantly captures the plight of the servant girl, who moans about having to wash clothes she’ll never wear or food she will ever eat. Still, to most Indians, servants today remain an invisible class, ready for exploitation.

The other problem is that thanks to television, Indian weddings, particularly in America, have acquired a homogenized character. Turbaned bridegrooms ride horses today, brides wear lehengas, and guests dance to the beat of the bhangra. Once upon a time, a Maharashtrian wedding was entirely different from a Malayali one, but today all the regional diversity of wedding ritual or cuisine is lost.

At this point, I can envision the objections of my readers, a wedding is a big occasion in one’s life, one can do whatever one wants with one’s money, India is not poor any more, etc. The most troubling excuse I have come across is that a wedding is an opportunity for a businessman to liaise with his clients.

News reports indicate however that an Indian wedding is not just an innocent personal experience. Abuse and exploitation through demand for dowry are on the rise, even leading to brides’ deaths. No wonder I cringe every time I see the conspicuous consumption at Indian weddings.

I am not saying that you should live like Mahatma Gandhi. But in an era when Donald Trump is proving how avarice for gold plated toilets and crystal chandeliers is not an innocent indulgence but a path to unscrupulous power-mongering, fascism, and oppression, every citizen has a responsibility to set a good example.
And I miss my father and his values more than ever.

Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.

Reel Life and Real Life Weddings!

Reel Life and Real Life Weddings!

As a child in 1970s Delhi, shaadi season was my favorite season. Homes were bedecked with strings of lights, band-baja-baraat (wedding party) music emanated from uniformed band-wallas, and there was raucous dancing in front of the white mare, often to the tune of “Aaj mere yaar ki shaadi hai” (my bro is getting married). Sugar high, twinkling lights, shehnai music.

The modest, stay-within-your-means wedding was like nothing my young self had experienced on-screen. Bollywood offered two choices when it came to weddings. One was a genial Alok Nath saying “Yeh shaadi dhoom dham se hogi.” (Big fat Indian, mostly Hindu, wedding or BFIW). The second was a scowling Amrish Puri saying “Yeh shaadi naheen hogi.” (No wedding, no way). The latter was usually because of a mismatch between religion, caste, class, or janmakundalis (horoscopes.)
Reel weddings versus real weddings? Time for a closer look.

Bigger and Fatter in America?
Had the BFIW reached American shores? And did it need to go on a diet? I decided to embark on an informal survey. The response of my friend Sujatha Suresh,who runs an event planning company called Running Dreamz Productions in California, made my eyes widen and my brows almost touched my hairline.

“Flowers are now flown from India to achieve the authenticity of a South Indian ceremony. Decorations from Rajasthan and Gujarat make the mehendi ceremonies feel like the sets of a Mani Ratnam movie. The jago and dholki at the Punjabi weddings are accompanied by live music by performers well versed in the traditional songs. An upcoming Tamil Brahmin family is interested in flying one of the top Carnatic music performers out for the reception performance.”

Sujatha Suresh is seeing these trends first-hand: “I am incredulous about the Bollywoodization—or should we say Karan Joharization—of the Big Fat Indian Wedding. Boring Indian weddings are now a thing of the past. The mehendi and sangeet cocktails are ubiquitous across India and have become an essential part of the festivities. Choreographed dances by the bridal party as well as middle aged friends of the parents are now de rigeur.”

Another wedding planner who coordinates Indian weddings in the Hawaiian islands confirmed these trends. “The excitement around island destination weddings is higher than I’ve ever seen it,” reports Mira Savara of Mira Savara Events, “The weddings tend to be 50-200 guests, which is quite large by Western standards, but small compared to the weddings we see in India. This allows the families to focus on a “wow” experience for their intimate guest list, and yes, we are seeing some real “Bollywoodization” of traditional Western weddings as well—pops of color, decorations that showcase an Indian flair, and choreographed dance numbers!

Destination weddings? Flowers from India? Choreographed dances? Are weddings now all about Bollywood production values and set design?

A friend shared her ambivalence about the professionalization of modern weddings: “My aunts used to sit over a cup of chai wrapping gifts for the wedding. Now, when I walk into a wedding, there is no place for trays wrapped in simple cellophane, bearing gifts for the bride or the groom. The trays have been color coordinated and stacked. The flowers are perfectly matched, the outfits of the bride and the groom and their families have been planned keeping the backdrop for the wedding photos in mind.”

I needed to turn to some people who had done some thinking about the Big Fat Indian Wedding.

Elite Status Weddings
Delhi-based sociologist Parul Bhandari has researched elite weddings in India extensively. In the status-crazed circles that Bhandari describes, “the elite Indian wedding is not simply an ostentatious celebration involving an unabashed display of money and taste. It is about competition, conservatism, and assertion of power. It is nothing less than the coronation ceremony of an elite status.”

Bhandari continues: “In this professionalised approach to wedding planning, elites have begun the trend of celebrating some of the most traditionally muted rituals with much glam and glitz, which would otherwise be celebrated with austerity especially in a middle class setting. For example, at the elite weddings I attended, for the small ceremonies of haldi (smearing the bride and groom’s body with turmeric powder) and gharcholi (bathing the bride and groom with holy water), a troupe of singers was invited and silver coins were given to the attendees.”

In the upper echelons of Indian society, “the practice of giving a dowry is also modified… [and] assumes a muted presence, shrouded in the ostentatious display of wealth and generosity of gift-giving. At one elite wedding I studied, the groom was given an Audemars Piguet watch costing approximately £10,000, a BMW 7 Series car, and £50,000 in cash. There is an insistence, especially by the father of the bride, to treat this not as dowry, but only as a gift, as the bride-to-be too, it is argued, is gifted expensive jewellery and clothes by her in-laws.” Her research echoes that of sociologist Patricia Uberoi, who writes that weddings are “the most visible site of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous waste,” in South Asia.

Wedding costs are growing at 30 percent annually in this $25 billion industry. Indians routinely spend one fifth of the wealth accumulated in a lifetime on a wedding ceremony, sometimes pledging their land as collateral.

Why this fascination with a big, over-the-top Bollywood style wedding? Has real life started imitating reel life or is it the other way around?

Bollywood Weddings
Screen weddings offer Bollywood a vehicle to show off designer costumes and jewelry, folk songs—a fun tamasha! No wonder Bollywood is obsessed with weddings, and weddings, by all accounts, are obsessed with Bollywood.

To remind myself about just what on-screen Bollywood weddings were like, I began rewatching, in earnest, several movies I could think of that included, among others, the mother of all wedding films: Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (HAHK). Plot lines of all variants abound. Each Bollywood film seemed to be having a conversation with modernity versus tradition. Patricia Uberoi calls the Alok Nath-style cultural propagation of “sanskaar” and images of large, happy joint families—as in HAHK as contributing to a conservative “ethnicisation,” of Indian family values against the modern culture of the West.

In HAHK, the subject of dowry comes up, with the clownishly vampy Bindu gnashing her teeth at Arti Shahani’s lack of dowry. To his credit, the patriarch Alok Nath sticks up for this dowry-less girl. Folk traditions are evident during the film. A great deal of fun is had over hiding the groom’s shoes.

Modernity and tradition face off again in the Kal Ho Na Ho wedding. Since the film is based in New York, some liberties can be taken. Saif Ali Khan genuflects, Western style, to ask Preeti Zinta’s hand in marriage. Yet there is Punjabi folk music at the wedding “Pyaari Banno” full of nostalgia, Indian style.

In Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, the destination wedding to a Rajasthani palace hotel, and much dancing and partying is in evidence. In the song “Dilli Wali Girlfriend,” Deepika Padukone makes a reference to a bride’s weight in gold. Gold, that precious yellow metal around which so much revolves. There is a shadow behind all that shiny gold jewelry.

In Monsoon Wedding, the simple and touching romance and wedding of the working class Vijay Raaz who falls in love with the maid, Tilotama Shome outshines the wealthier versions. This is the film that stole my heart with its subtle depiction of family dynamics during a middle-class Delhi wedding.

Naseeruddin Shah’s embarrassment when he needs to borrow money for the wedding highlights the financial burden on the bride’s father.

Bollywood itself serves as a cultural forum for competing values. Not surprisingly, Bollywood depictions of weddings include the uncritical as well as the socially aware. Everyone loves a good party, and if you’ve got the money, surely you are entitled to flaunt it? Yet societally, a culture of extravagant weddings too frequently translates to debt and financial difficulty as an aftermath. Sadly, this burden has traditionally been disproportionately borne by the bride’s family. In India, dowry-related crimes are rising in a culture of rampant greed. Something about this stinks, and the fragrance of even the most beautiful wedding flowers can’t disguise this whiff.

Bidai: The Sendoff
Dhoom dham is all good and fine. But at some point, the Bollywood movie comes to an end, and we return to reality. After the bidai (farewell) and the tears, after the honeymooners have left in their flower-strewn car, and the pandit has departed, and the wedding planners and caterers have been paid, I wonder who is left holding the bill for the Big Fat Indian Wedding!

Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D. is a frequent contributor to India Currents.

Plot lines of all variants abound, and my mind boggled with the sheer variety of themes that emerged.
Spoiler alert!

. Girl has prior boyfriend but gets married to the chosen bridegroom (Tanu weds Manu, Monsoon Wedding)
. Girl does not want to get married to the chosen bridegroom and skips matrimony altogether (Bazaar, Veer Zara). Boy does not want to get married to chosen bride (Hasee toh Phasee, Roja)
. Boy and girl want to get married, but what to do (Kal Ho Na Ho, Mughal-e-Azam). Girl gets jilted, embarks on solo honeymoon (Queen)
. Girl gets jilted, embarks on speech about virtues of Haryanvi women (Tanu weds Manu Again). Boy and girl get married once again (Tanu weds Manu Again)
. Singles mingle at a friend’s/sister’s wedding and end up together (Tanu weds Manu, Yeh Jawanee Hai Deewanee, Hum Aapke Hai Kaun)
. Boy meets many eligible Patel girls (Meet the Patels)
. Boy and girl are from different communities (Two States)
. Boy and girl are from different social classes (Mughal-e-Azam)

Duck and Cover

Are Indian Weddings Too Ostentatious?

I saw Monsoon Wedding, the new musical, with a group of Indian women friends recently. We laughed at familiar idiomatic expressions, translated, at times awkwardly, from Hindi into English. We got nostalgic listening to old melodies. I even got teary-eyed when a second generation Indian-American young man crooned “Neither here nor there,” a song about his longing for his native culture.

He reminded me of my sons. But afterward, I felt a little uneasy.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Indian weddings. Back home in Nagpur, weddings were anything but romantic. I attended dozens every summer, but as I sat in the canvas canopy, being assaulted by loudspeakers blaring sad Marathi songs, like Jaa Muli Jaa Dilya Ghari Tu Sukhi Raha—Go daughter go, live happily in the home you’ve been given into, while the children shrieked and the bride and the groom stood like sacrificial animals on the bohala—the wedding altar—separated by the antarpat, the holy cloth, and two priests sang the mangalashtakas—the religious mantras, I could only think, “This is not for me.” Then the cloth would be removed and the bride and the groom would make eye contact, as if for the first time. For all practical purposes, it was their first time, I suppose. Their prior meetings, conducted only in the presence of chaperones, hardly counted. There was no dating, no premarital romance or sex, and no cohabitation.

In the 110 degree heat of summer, the canopy would feel like an oven, but my aunts would slave doggedly over open wood fires lit under tin sheds, rolling chapathis and stirring laddoo mix while men leaned against white bolsters, talking of politics. My father, the eldest brother and the patriarch, was often obligated to serve an important role in such gatherings. He would manage to leave the canopy as soon as possible nevertheless, and lecture me afterwards about the needless fanfare and expense of Indian weddings. Arguing against the evil practice of dowry, he would ask, “Why don’t they just have a registered marriage and save their money for something more useful?”

He was right of course. Those were the decades when India was a desperately poor country, when we had food rationing, when it was difficult for middle class families to eat nutritious food or have a decent place to live.

As I grew up, I began to emulate my father’s love of solitude and tranquility, his appreciation for contemplation and introspection, and most of all, his ability to view his world with an outsider’s eye.

When I came to California in the late seventies, Berkeley was still in throes of the hippy revolution. My American friends’ weddings were DIY affairs for which brides sewed their own dresses and couples exchanged vows in someone’s backyard. I loved those simple romantic ceremonies, partly because they comported with my father’s principles but also because they captured for me the essence of what a union of kindred spirits ought to entail.

A Maharashtrian wedding was different from a Malayali one, but today all the regional diversity of wedding rituals is lost.

In the nineties, however, everything changed. If American weddings began to resemble Hollywood extravaganzas, Indian weddings became insanely ostentatious.

Nowadays, they mandate designer saris worth thousands of dollars, blouses covering less skin than bras, and diamond-encrusted gold jewelry. Unlike American weddings, in which guests are expected to foot their own hotel bills and are only fed one or two fixed-menu official meals, in India, the bride’s father is required to offer his guests room and board for days on end, not to mention receptions involving at least three types of cuisine. If there are not stations for chaat as well as Italian and Chinese food, I suppose Indian guests would simply feel robbed of their birthright.

Of course such lavish weddings would not be possible without India’s servant class, which remains exploited, with no official benefits like social security, healthcare, or vacations. In directing Monsoon Wedding, Mira Nair poignantly captures the plight of the servant girl, who moans about having to wash clothes she’ll never wear or food she will ever eat. Still, to most Indians, servants today remain an invisible class, ready for exploitation.

The other problem is that thanks to television, Indian weddings, particularly in America, have acquired a homogenized character. Turbaned bridegrooms ride horses today, brides wear lehengas, and guests dance to the beat of the bhangra. Once upon a time, a Maharashtrian wedding was entirely different from a Malayali one, but today all the regional diversity of wedding ritual or cuisine is lost.

At this point, I can envision the objections of my readers, a wedding is a big occasion in one’s life, one can do whatever one wants with one’s money, India is not poor any more, etc. The most troubling excuse I have come across is that a wedding is an opportunity for a businessman to liaise with his clients.
News reports indicate however that an Indian wedding is not just an innocent personal experience. Abuse and exploitation through demand for dowry are on the rise, even leading to brides’ deaths. No wonder I cringe every time I see the conspicuous consumption at Indian weddings.

I am not saying that you should live like Mahatma Gandhi. But in an era when Donald Trump is proving how avarice for gold plated toilets and crystal chandeliers is not an innocent indulgence but a path to unscrupulous power-mongering, fascism, and oppression, every citizen has a responsibility to set a good example.

And I miss my father and his values more than ever.

Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.

 

Indian Weddings of Neha Mathew and Shalin Shah

The Big Fat Indian Wedding – East Meets West: Traditions, Tamasha and Tales to Last a Lifetime

Wedding of Neha Mathew and Shalin Shah
Wedding of Neha Mathew and Shalin Shah

At its core, a wedding is about nothing more than two people deciding that they want to spend the rest of their lives together—that they want to wake up and make breakfast, pick out furniture and take a walk after dinner until death do them apart. There’s a predictable path most Indian-American couples take. They meet, whether by chance introduction or online. They spend time with each other, trying to imagine a life together. A surprise proposal is planned—a wedding tradition not associated with Indian weddings but eagerly adopted by couples who are finding each other outside the arrangements of their parents. And after some time, whether it be months or years, they marry. 

Niki Desai and Tushar Kumar
Niki Desai and Tushar Kumar

And the wedding day that celebrates this union is celebrated with great fanfare. Part of the immigrant experience is the inevitable combination of traditions; a reality that can give families anxiety as they watch their children choose what they will keep and discard. Wedding traditions are no different—the hyphenated identity is on full display during the celebrations. The bride walks down the aisle with bridesmaids—she walks up to the mandap—and if it is a Hindu ceremony, there is a fire around which the bride and groom sit while the priest begins the rituals. And, then, in a nod to Western culture, they exchange vows in English, and end up exchanging rings too sometimes. Right there in the space of two to three hours you have two wedding traditions rolled into one.

There are portions our great grandparents would have recognized, and parts they may not. Take apart the grand, long ceremonies we know so well and we find at the core, every wedding tradition has a few vows exchanged in solemnity between the couple with families in attendance. Many choose to keep the old traditions with just a few tweaks, while others create their own rituals, only including the few traditions they find personally meaningful. 

In this story, we include the stories of four modern South Asian couples that represent the intersections between groups, be they religious, sexuality, regional, or ethnic. As we continue to live, work and marry away from the places our parents come from, these marriages are proof of our infinite possibilities—concepts of tradition and modernity are nothing more than labels we choose to stamp on ourselves.

 


Shilpi Verma Weds Maneesh Singh
Without knowing, Shilpi and Maneesh had been circling each other peripherally for years before their first meeting at a bar in New York, a city where neither of them lived and which they happened to be visiting.

Shilpi Verma and Maneesh Singh
Shilpi Verma and Maneesh Singh

“Within ten minutes of our conversation we realized that our younger brothers were actually best friends,” Shilpi said. “We met without knowing that connection, but that made our meeting surreal.” Beyond the happy coincidence, each of them knew early on in that first conversation that the other was someone special. They quickly took a selfie to send to their brothers and made plans to meet again. For the next few months, separated by a continent, the couple resorted to technology to keep in touch. “Even before I moved to San Francisco, things felt effortless,” Maneesh said. “We had to put a lot of time into the logistics of visiting each other but making it work didn’t feel like too much of an effort.”

Unlike the ease of their relationship, Maneesh’s proposal was complicated, full of everything he knew was important to his future fiancee. Her brother helped Maneesh draft an invitation to a fake medical event held at a space Maneesh rented out. A few colleagues from work came to make the event more believable before Maneesh took Shilpi to the rooftop to look at one of her favorite views, the Bay Bridge, as all of her friends reconstructed the space below into a private romantic spot for his proposal.

With the “Oh, yes of course!” taken care of in style, the wedding planning brought new challenges in the form of their contrasting cultures: Maneesh is Sikh while Shilpi is Hindu, which meant they needed to have two wedding ceremonies at the venue. The one tradition they insisted on making their own was the vows before each circle around the fire in the Hindu ceremony. Rather than reciting the traditional Sanskrit lines they decided to say their own vows in English, about how the other had made them better along with promises for the future.

Shilpi Verma and Maneesh Singh
Shilpi Verma and Maneesh Singh

As she recalled her vows, Shilpi said, “One thing I emphasized is that he’ll be a stable force in my life and my parents’ lives, and that his kindness makes me want to be a better person.” “I talked about how we pushed each other forward and some of the things I looked forward to in our marriage,” Maneesh said, “The little things I’ve come to enjoy—making chai on Sunday mornings and making kichadi together”

Common threads between the two weddings like the tradition of giving the bride away in both and the pheras or circles around the Sikh sacred book the Guru Granth Sahib and the fire in Hinduism gave a sense of unity to the event as a whole. “Eventually when we did them back-to-back; it felt like incorporating not only two families but two cultures together,” Maneesh said.

Philip Frost And Arun Rangaswami
Phil and Arun managed to find each other on Chemistry.com almost at the last moment—Phil had just signed up for the dating website while Arun was just about to leave.
“I had a lot of not really inspiring experiences and was probably a little more jaded than he was when we met,” Arun said. “But Phil had sent me a message and I thought he was very handsome and responded.” Still, it took Arun some persuasion—the prospect of a potential long distance relationship (Phil lived in Arizona) and previous experiences gave him pause leaving him skeptical, but that initial attraction led to phone calls between the two. “The magical thing is that after we first exchanged contacts, we then spoke every night for over a month without meeting each other,” Phil said. “There were definite common interests—you know when you’re talking to someone and it’s just easy conversation.” They quickly knew that their relationship was meant to last and decided to spend their first holiday together, when Phil came to San Francisco after Christmas.

Philip James Frost and Arun Rangaswami
Philip James Frost and Arun Rangaswami

“It was so easy, because I got to see many wonderful things about Phil—he’s very good with people and honest—things you can’t see over the telephone, you just have to be with the person to see it,” says Arun.

Three years later Phil proposed to Arun during their trip to Sicily with friends and Arun’s mother to commemorate Arun’s 50th birthday. The recent election of Donald Trump and its ramifications on the Supreme Court has caused enough doubt that Phil and Arun have sped up their timeframe for the wedding—they’re planning a small wedding in October, followed by a larger event in a year or two. While they haven’t decided all the details of the later celebration, currently they plan on including aspects of both Hindu and Christian ceremonies.

“If anything I’d like for some nod to circling the fire,” Arun said. “I think my mother would like to see that aspect of the ceremony, and of course the symbolism of being bound together for seven lifetimes is very appealing.” Phil similarly highlights the portions of the Christian wedding ceremony that focus on the commitment of the couple as opposed to the more religious aspects. “It’s more about the shell of the ceremony,” he said, “which I believe in because of the strength of that commitment and the exchange of rings symbolizing that.”

Neha Mathew Weds Shalin Shah
Neha and Shalin see themselves as having an unconventional relationship, never having an official date when they began dating. “I wish I remember when that day was,” Neha said. “We both have thought about this many times, and we never celebrated anniversaries or anything. It’s just this vague timeframe—we started hanging out with each other and that was it.”

 

Shalin Shah and Neha Mathew
Shalin Shah and Neha Mathew

As part of Project RISHI while at UC Berkeley, Neha and Shalin knew of each other, but didn’t become close friends until they went on a 3-week trip on behalf of the organization. Afterwards, they spent a lot of time together and were friends for about two years before transitioning into a romantic relationship. Five years after meeting Neha, Shalin proposed in London, a city Neha loved but had never visited. He planned the trip in secret, surprising Neha at the airport with two roundtrip tickets to her dream location without mentioning the ring in his bag.

Making sure that their wedding was meaningful both to them as a couple as well as their community was important, so Neha and Shalin chose to eschew some of the typical wedding traditions of their respective family backgrounds. Shalin’s family are Gujarati Jains from Chennai but he is agnostic, while Neha comes from a Malayalee Protestant Christian/Telugu Hindu family from Hyderabad and was raised within the church.

Both families were fully supportive, and so the couple was free to create the type of wedding they would find most meaningful. At the start Barnali Ghosh and Anirvan Chatterjee, friends of Neha and Shalin, who officiated the legal ceremony asked each attendee to close their eyes and to think about the ceremony’s meaning for the couple and also about some of their favorite memories involving the couple. Then, they began to speak about the backgrounds of first Neha and then Shalin. They continued by speaking about the parents, describing their backgrounds and reading a note of gratitude from the bride and the groom before highlighting the other friends and family who had traveled from all over the world to see the couple married while acknowledging the absence of those who couldn’t. They asked the attendees to participate in community vows, and to promise to stand with them in times of difficulty—to help as they built their own loving community.

“Something we were particular about was to make sure that everybody who was coming for the wedding was a part of it and actually knew what was happening,” Shalin said. After Shalin and Neha signed the documents and Ghosh and Chatterjee declared them legally married under California law, Rev. George Oomen, Neha’s pastor from the Los Angeles’ St. Peter’s Church of South India blessed the couple and led them in an exchange of three symbols of commitment they kept from traditional ceremonies. They exchanged rings, a minnu and a manthrakodi. The minnu, a pendant with a cross made of seven small globules of gold is tied by the groom around the bride’s neck. The manthrakodi is a special wedding sari gifted to the bride by the groom’s family, which the groom puts over the bride’s head before tying the minnu. Seven strands from the manthrakodi are taken to hang the minnu, which represents a long and happy married life.

“I felt a lot of emotion,” Neha said about the ceremonies. “Between the two of us there were moments when we were crying, moments when we were laughing hysterically, and you could see that in everyone there.”

“I think the biggest difference in at least the way we approached it is that you don’t live your life based solely on identity,” Shalin added. “You don’t live your life based on whether you’re Jain or Christian. How you live your life is based on your value system and that’s not always based on those identities.”

Anu Oza Weds Maneesh Sharma

Anu Oza and Maneesh Verma
Anu Oza and Maneesh Sharma

Anu had to warn Maneesh that the frequency of their first few dates was too good to last. He’d caught her, a teacher, at the end of July and early August—right before the start of the new school year.

“I remember saying—this is summer me, I’m not going to be like this all the time,” she says laughing. “I wasn’t going to be able to go out for dinner regularly on weekdays, and he was flexible with that.”

Introduced by a mutual family friend, they both knew from the beginning that what they had was something special, different from any of their past relationships. Anu and Maneesh are both Indian-Americans who were born and grew up in California and found themselves having a lot in common in their personal backgrounds and experiences. Their relationship was always a comfortable, easy thing in which both had the liberty to be themselves.

Going on hikes had become a monthly tradition for the couple after Anu made a resolution to be outdoors more that year. They dated for under a year before Maneesh proposed at Immigrant Point in the Presidio of San Francisco in May of 2016. Anu, who was not usually one to make New Year’s resolutions, had decided that she would take up hiking at least once a month with Maneesh. “I had my phone and was taking all the pictures and was wearing Maneesh’s backpack at that point and he needed something from the backpack,” she said. “I was completely oblivious and blissfully unaware, and then he had a ring and proposed.”

Anu’s family is originally from Rajasthan while Maneesh’s family is from Uttar Pradesh so when it came to their wedding each group brought a few particular traditions though the basics of the Hindu ceremony—two hours in total—stayed the same. In particular, the wedding followed the Rajasthani tradition of eight pheras with Anu leading for three and Maneesh for five. Throughout the circles Maneesh wore a pink cloth around his neck, as members of his family had done for generations.

Anu Oza and Maneesh Sharma
Anu Oza and Maneesh Sharma

“I led the first three rounds and then Maneesh led the fourth one,” Anu said. “And then after that we did four more where Maneesh actually lifted me and then walked around the fire. Altogether eight pheras.” They also had a Rajasthani ceremony between the mothers after the Ganesh puja at the altar, where their mothers exchanged water, sweets and garlands in a mini ceremony to symbolize two families uniting into one.

For Anu and Maneesh, writing the wedding program became a project to understand exactly what each part of the wedding meant-—translating the ancient rituals into something their guests could understand and also they themselves could be wholly part of while at the mandap. Anu discussed each part of the ceremony with both sets of parents, delving deep into each ritual’s meaning so as to make sure they corresponded with the couple’s values. Then Anu and Maneesh used progressive feminist language to turn the ancient Hindu ceremony into something less patriarchal and far more personal.

“It felt like we were writing our vows together,” Anu said. “We didn’t do traditional Western vows but talking about the ceremony and understanding exactly what was happening on the day of was very meaningful.”

Maya Murthy is a student at the University of Toronto majoring in Equity Studies and Religion. She is currently spending the summer as an intern in the offices of Vice Mayor of San Jose Magdalena Carrasco and Assemblymember Evan Low. In her spare time she enjoys rewriting movie scripts and reading translations of medieval Indian love poetry.