By Andre L Turner
Priya, the bride to be, had taken a unique journey to arrive at her own wedding. The beautiful Punjabi bride previously lived in America and New Zealand before returning “home to Chandigarh, India,” where she’s found a sense of place and fallen in love with the Bhangra musician Hari after the newspaper she works for sent her on an assignment to interview him.
We met Priya under the hallucinogenic pink and blue tarpaulin she’d designed and hung over her grandparents’ (Jasbir and Premi Gill) back lawn. Priya was sitting under an arch made out of flowers. The bride, the object of everyone’s eyes, and the focus of the local paparazzi’s attention, welcomed us. She took an investigative journalists interest in our journey from London. Priya told me we were cousins. I felt embarrassed that I didn’t know this, although as more beautiful and unknown cousins joined and informed me of their links to my family; we had something to talk about, for up to then safe conversation like the weather (29 degrees), jet lag and the glorious smorgasboard of food, colours and cocktails on offer had prevailed. My Anglo Chinese wife commented on the similarities between her and Priya’s cultures, specifically how the family unit meets many needs – support, a replacement welfare system and invests in each others futures, as opposed to the Anglo Saxon model which stresses independence and self reliance.
The wedding followed tradition and ritual, as far as I know. It would last four days. “And a lifetime, acha,” Premi, the bride’s Grandmother and Gill family matriarch told me in her stern and powerful way. I waited for Premi’s wry grin. It followed quickly. She told me to eat something. I obeyed. According to Premi; my cousin Shaan and I were too thin. “Eat, eat, how do you say – get stuck in,” Premi said.
There were pre-wedding parties to attend; a welcoming ceremony, a day of Henna tattooing (Mehndi), a separate day for the bride and groom’s friends, followed by the wedding ceremony in the Gurdhwara on day three and a farewell reception on day four.
The conversations I had with people who knew my family were philosophical, clipped, conventional and investigative. Some dialogue was magical, literally – one Sikh man, whose beard, Turban and jewellery had me thinking I was in a scene from Aladdin’s lamp, told me India’s sacred spirituality could turn the manure of the countries holy cows into bars of gold! I was lost for words though not for long as I was joined by a farmer who knew my Dad. He wanted “you and I sir to engage in dialogue about Robert Burns’s poetry.” I declared my ignorance of the Scottish Bards work immediately. The farmer looked intense and wise.
“Not a worry young man, join me over here besides the bar and I will recite some of his best works for your pleasure.” And he did, as far as I know.
“You know your father is a spiritual man, a no materialistic man, and this is important. I’ve discussed Burns with him,” Opinder said. Opinder looks forty five; he’s seventy. I asked what was the secret behind his youthful good looks.
“Read fine literature for an hour a night, wash it down with two stiff whiskies and wear sunscreen,” he said. I will visit his farm the next time I travel to the Punjab, armed with Burns’s poetry and a fine Scottish malt, anything else would be treason.
Magical is a befitting description for India. The words trying, exasperating, exhilarating, heart and guilt wrenching come easily to mind as well. In between attending the opulent parties Tree and I spent time on the streets of Jaipur where Westerners are sometimes viewed as creditors and consumers. For every beggar we gave to there were more waiting outside train stations, crawling over pot-holed roads where they dodge rustic bicycles, cars, lorries, rickshaws, monkeys, cows, dogs and elephants. The poverty in some places makes me feel guilty and angry, likewise decadent India delivers the same feelings, so I ponder why such inequality, why the caste system, and ultimately why are we Humans so hard on each other?
The predominantly male cast of merchants and retailers massed upon Jaipur’s hectic streets enjoy wheeling and dealing, they certainly want our business. “Just looking, no worry. I have this for your wife sir, just looking.” The charismatic and audacious men seem to enjoy the game. I imagine they share much in common with the obscenely rich elsewhere; however, these shopkeepers need the money. Bob Diamond and his cartel of belligerent banking friends sure don’t. There is often no fixed price in India so one haggles, in some places hotel and restaurant bills need to be counted as extra charges arise still deceiving your fellow man and being found out has no more repercussions other than a smile, a head nod or a reluctant acknowledgement that lasts a few seconds before the next deal begins. This haggling and deceit is exhausting and upsetting so to discover from my aunty that it’s not personal, neither is it because you’re a tourist, helps one come to terms with the continual conflict. “Why does Priya want to live here when she could have been in New Zealand or New York,” my wife Tree asks, “She wouldn’t have to put up with this.”
The standard of talking, negotiating and the letting go of residual anger and irritation is one of the great qualities Indian people possess. There is no road rage when driving despite the continuous tooting and cutting off of your fellow driver, there is “no problem” not giving way to “sir,” or “Madame.” The Anglo Saxon is a human of great attachment and irritability when compared to the denizens of this complicated land. They can let go of anything, or so it seems.
“The beauty of East meeting West is we can learn so much from each other,” Maninder the Guru said. “Spirituality means everything is an illusion, so I can drive and enjoy it, besides its great fun and never boring.” If Maninder’s not careful he could set up a new Ashram and become the Osho of the North.
Priya and Hari’s wedding took place on the third day at a Gurdwara (meaning the gateway of the guru) temple on the outskirts of Chandigarh. The two families opposed each other under the Gurdwara’s feta cheese colored arches and exchanged gifts, embraces and respect before entering the Temple. The assembled guests from the West, dressed in turbans and traditional garb, bling Sari’s of Rajastani custom, sat cross legged admiring the mosaic tiles, shrines, trinkets and chandeliers; we listened to three men recite passages from the Sikh holy book – the Guru Granth Sahib. The bride and groom walked around the temple four times accompanied by my cousin Shaan, the rayban sunglasses tucked into his turban encapsulated the East meets west vibe perfectly.
The voyage is never over in India. The wedding party moved to a banquet down the road where four hundred people mingled under a giant lime coloured Marquee. There was a cocktail bar, tables and waiters galore, steel pots full of every delectable dish and a Rajasthani band in tow of gypsy dancers from the fort city of Jaisalmer. They’d traveled two and a half days to get here. The wedding guests were diverse – ex mayors, Bhangra singers, Burns enthusiasts, spiritualists, businesswomen and Jugnu, proud father of the bride; he was dressed like a Bollywood star and he danced with more glint and sprite than all and sundry. I asked Jugnu what the lyrics to a song we were dancing to were and before he could respond his brother Bawa intervened and said: “Andre the singer is saying if you’re not dancing now, then you never will.”
We didn’t see the fourth and final day’s wedding celebration. The state of Rajasthan called us into the desert. Ten years ago there wasn’t much in the way of domestic flights, nor Western coffee brands at airports so I wondered if Jaipur, a city I was new to, would disappoint. There was little to fear on arrival other than holy Cows on litter strewn streets, Monkeys frolicking over Moorish like architecture and schizophrenic traffic. I felt like I was returning to the India I knew. The India I adore.
My beloved Pushkar, three hours drive away, was in the middle of its annual camel fair. The holy town had been overtaken by more stalls than usual thanks to the camel trading taking place yet its pink, purple and white buildings remained the same as the last time I was here. The holy lake still required the buying of a Pushker passport; that is the purchase of a flower that must be thrown into the holy water, only then is one free from the attention of Saddhus and holy men, only then is one free to sit and view the sacred mix of color, architecture and the crimson hue of a Rajasthan sunset closing over the mountains and desert beyond.
Tree and I sat at holy waters edge. Staring at the fading sun and the hazy desert; I read a paper and drank a chai tea. The stories about corruption and political fighting could have been written ten years ago, or more. They will be written forevermore. The stories of economic boom and prosperity in India are written more frequently than before and there did seem evidence of fewer beggars on the street, and yes there’s a new city on the outskirts of Delhi stuffed with call centers and multinationals outsourcing their costs to the east, teams searching for new markets and demographics where no demand for Western goods existed before. I read an article in The Hindustan Times written by an Indian businessman who mentioned the West has lots of educated young people without work, whereas India has a shortfall of educated people and lots of work.
I used to think ten years ago, thanks to ruthless Western neo-liberal economic policies, and their corporates outsourcing to the east, that generation X and Y might relocate to the East one day for opportunities that no longer exist in their homelands. I told a friend and he said I was mad! I thought of Priya, and her voyage from the East to the West before she’s returned home to the East. I thought about Tree’s question – why does she want to come back here? And then I thought about Hari and Sukhmani’s Bhangra music as I was listening to the tribal drummers counting down the sunset from across the lake in Pushka. Priya and Hari, the newly wed’s, like the west, are marching to the beat of the east’s drum. They feel India, its impossible not to. Thanks for the invitation.