It’s a fact for the history books: In 2004, it first became possible for the individual to amass hundreds and hundreds of friends. New friends, old friends, lost and found friends, borrowed and blue friends—there were seemingly no limits (at one point, 5,000 was Facebook’s limit). This ability to friend-ad-infinitum has been the subject of considerable pop cultural reference and indignant sociological study. But what’s the big deal, really? Haven’t we Indians already managed friend, family, and acquaintance lists in the hundreds and thousands, and not just in virtual worlds? Doesn’t the proof lie in our big, fat Indian weddings?
Of course, not all Indians have thousand-person mela-style nuptials, but I’ve been to enough desi weddings with guest-lists in the hundreds to venture my opening questions. Sometimes, the big, fat wedding is the product of two stereotypically large families, complete with cousins and second-cousins, great-aunts and uncles—the veritable family tree, down to the fallen leaves. Sometimes, there’s an element of one-upmanship that risks entering into the performance of something as universal as a wedding. But more often, the big wedding is a product of something else: the famed Indian appetite for community, extended family, the large heartedness with which we, the story goes, embrace friends, family of friends, friends of family, distant acquaintances, your grandmother’s cousin’s grandchild. (You know who I’m talking about; you delivered her that suitcase in 1995.)
There are other historical factors, too; there are religious particularities and diasporic trends and, of course, the unique circumstances of the families in question. It’s the community question I’m invested in—or rather, how the guest lists for so many Indian weddings get so unbelievably long. The kicker is that invariably the people on the wedding guest list all seem important: old neighbors, formerly good friends, and almost-kin.
These are people you’d feel terrible to exclude; indeed, people who expect to be invited. This manner of expectation stems from what is arguably a distinctly Indian attitude toward friendship. Rather than remain within the province of the present—of those who are currently in your life—or act on the assumption of continued/future friendship, we are inextricably bound to the relationships of our past. Like snowballs barreling down powdered mountains, we go through life in a mode of acquisition. No childhood friend is left behind.
Yes, I’m generalizing and exaggerating, but with the aim of painting a picture you may nevertheless recognize—if not from your life, then perhaps another’s. In any case, what is at stake today may very well not be an Indian attitude toward friendship, but simply the fetters of social networking technologies and the increasing ease of communication, which together conspire to yoke each of us forever to our pasts.
But since weddings are about a future marriage and family, an alliance for the years to come, the beginning of a journey, and the start of a shared life, does it make sense that they serve as occasions to connect with old friends or distant family? People you haven’t seen for decades, who you probably won’t count on much in the coming years … Let me just say it: folks with whom you frankly have no future?
I’m not advocating a radical break with the past. The people with whom we celebrate our lives should rightly be those with whom we have shared experiences and connections over the years. But I do wonder what it would mean to be more honest about the people who are present in our lives, with whom we remain engaged in the business of living, and with whom past, present, and future merge seamlessly—which is to say necessarily and by mutual design.
This is not a veiled attempt to cut down my own wedding guest list. Honest. My thinking about how and why we maintain expended connections has to do with a nagging fear that we can all only be good friends and relations to so many people. Yes, there’s always more room in the heart, but what does that mean, in practical terms? How many relationships can you manage in a life, and how many do you conduct well? We all know what happens to untended gardens. I, for one, would rather live in the midst of a dozen thriving flowers than participate in the maintenance of a hundred empty pots. The metaphor might be clumsy, but the sentiment is fierce.
Because every once in a way you make a new friend or connect with an old relation, and you want to have, not just adequate, but comfortable space for them in your life. And what does having space for someone really mean? What does it require? (It’s a question that only needs asking in the 21st century, like that other mind-boggler: What exactly is a “friend”?) Maybe having space means having time for a visit or a phone call, an exchange of stories and photos, the airing of grievances and disappointments, for the sharing of joys and celebrations. Maybe, to return to my little garden, it just means room for the planting. But what if that requires crossing someone else off of the list?
The guest list joins those flower pots in the realm of metaphor. Weddings are devices, too, for staging alliances, performing the past, and ensuring futures, which is why the question of who we invite to a wedding has significant relevance to the question of who we call into our lives. I must make, then, another admission: This article is not about Indian weddings or flower gardens or Facebook friend-lists or even guests. It’s a modest addendum to the philosopher’s question: “How should a life be lived?”
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.