India journal entry

[From December 2007.]

Holy shit, went to a wedding last night, and it was insane and wonderful.

Three of us — Sunil, his cousin, and I (Raju had to work) — took a cycle rickshaw uptown, stopping on the way due to the incredibly dense traffic and to get beetlenut.  Of course, my mouth immediately filled with blood red saliva, and I’m sitting there with it spilling out on to my chin and running down my throat, and I’m like, “do I swallow the first part?” because it starts with chewing the leafy outside, which causes the spit, and they have no idea what I’m saying because my mouth is full.  Until I get it across what I’m asking, it’s not as if Sunil’s english is that great anyway, and they’re shaking their heads vigorously, no, “no drink!” and I’m thinking, uh oh.  But it only made my stomach achy later, though that was somewhat overdetermined.

Sunil and his cousin keep looking at me funny until I’m like, “what?”

And then Sunil, “I know I said dress smart, but you look so nice! So much better than us.” I’m wearing slacks,black t-shirt, and a sport coat.  This, it turns out, will put me in the upper echelon of looking formal among the younger men. So, we get there, and it’s this throng of people, women all in colorful saris, men in western dress, and it’s super crowded in this kind of party hall/temple on the last ghat, one room with the music and dancing, with lights on the floor and huge speakers, one with the long tables for eating.  We start off standing in the coffee line for a half hour, there’s a shiny coffee machine, Sunil is introducing me to people and describing his familial relationship to them, but his english on this topic is, even for him, unusually limited, so he’s saying “this is my father’s father’s other son’s son who had a son. This is him.”  And I’m frowning, like, whaaa? so it’s your second cousin or something?, but don’t venture a guess out loud.  I have some very sweet milk coffee, almost like a dessert, a little like Cuban cafe con leche, and soon I’m wired, which is the point, I guess.  I score big points with everyone when, standing in the scrum, kids, grandparents, everyone jostling for the coffee treat, when I early on get handed a cup by Sumil — I guess as the guest I would have some priority — I shake my head and pass the cup to Sunil’s father and say earnestly, “your father first,” and everyone is nodding in approval and Sunil bows and thanks me, his father softening to me a bit.  People are coming up to me and asking Sunil who on Earth I am.  Every few minutes a group of three or four guys would get up the gumption to meet me and try out a few words of english, then that would run out and I’d be grinning stupidly at the awkward silence, and they’d slink off, or tell jokes about me in Hindi.  I get separated from S. and his cousin for awhile, and this big guy, important to himself, comes up to me frowning, “Why are you here?” “I am a guest of Sunil’s.” “WHY ARE YOU HERE?” “I am a guest of Sunil’s!” “Who?” “Sunil.”  And there’s scowling tension until Sunil shows up again, “He is your guest?”  Sunil nods, and the guy breaks into a grin, “Oh! Then welcome to party and have beautiful time! Later, after eating, will you be my dance couple?” and he shakes my hand vigorously and asks me my country and shit.  And everyone around is smiling and nodding again, no one knows what the hell is going on with me there, least of all me.

The bride and groom are sitting on these thrones up on a stage in the dance room at a long table and friends and relations are coming to sit for a photo with them by sitting in chairs on either side.  They whole night I do not see them move, and when I ask about it, I’m told that it’s traditional and that they have been sitting there since 5, and will be there to the end since everyone must have a photo.   The dancing is interesting: for the thumping raucous tunes it’s only men and boys from 11 to 40, acting just like in a dance club in the west, bumping and grinding, some fake break dancing, extravagant sweating, but, like I say, only men.  And these episodes are intermixed not quite but almost in equal parts with what I gather are popular Bollywood movie songs since everyone sings along with them and they have that theatrical cheese about them, at which point the women come on (the men stay), mostly younger ones but some old, and girls the same age as the boys.  I’m dragged out there for all the dancing, and the crowd howls whenever I do a “move.”

Me and Sunil, gasping for breath after all the jumping on the dance floor:
“Dude, in my country, um, it is never where only men are dancing.”
Sumil seems shocked, aghast. “Oh! In my country, sometimes gents with gents, sometimes gents and ladies, sometimes ladies with ladies.”

After that I often dance with the younger kids, girls and boys, 8, 10 years old, they’re delighted, and everyone seems comfortable with that since I’m kinda babysitting, and it neither looks like I’m trying to find an Indian wife nor does it mean that I have to bump and grind with Sunil’s friends and cousins.  A couple of times some of the more developed teenage girls come out to dance with me, but they are discreetly escorted away by nervous looking older Indian women.

And then I head out to pee and on the way back there’s a throng of men, probably my age, but I’ve been mostly hanging with Sunil’s generation, he’s 21, and there’s some consternation and dismay in the crowd.  I get roughly grabbed by the arm, and after some baffled assessment, I see that there’s a guy — brother of the groom, I think they are trying to say — who is dressed really nicely in a western suit, and is holding a tie, but no one knows how to tie it.  It’s a quite nice Italian silk tie, pink.  They hand it to me expectantly, I nod confidently but instantly understand that this is a dangerous situation. As you know, it’s hard to tie a tie when it is not on oneself and with no mirror, since that’s how one learns to tie them.  I give it one shot, then another, it comes out dismally, and clearly people are losing faith in my credibility.  “One more time, one more time,” I shout.  By this time Sunil and his cousins and friends are around, so there’s a crowd of maybe 50 guys in a circle and I’m sweating it.  But I tie this one on myself not looking down at it but just doing the hand moves, and it comes out a perfect lovely windsor knot and I take it off, squinting, put it on the guy and smooth his collar, fix his jacket, and a cheer rises up over the ghat into the night.  He’s ecstatic and heads off to show off how nicely dressed he is. And people, maybe even people who weren’t there in the tie-tying crowd, are patting me on the back for hours, “good tie! good tie!”

It’s midnight by the time we sit down to eat.  As near as I can tell, the first wave was older, like grandparent age, men and women together.  Then middle aged men alone.  Then middle aged women alone.  Then girls and women teens and 20 something women (is the class all unmarried women, I wonder).  Then men teens and 20 something men, the crowd that I am part of and, numerically, equal in size to the all unmarried women group. Then, after us, boys.  There is a divine thali spread, and Sunil is freaking out that I’m going to eat something that makes me sick, but I’m trying everything, and the people at the table are psyched, egging me on. Dhal, channa masala, rice, fresh chipatis, curried vegetables, and some stuff that I’ve never seen before, some sort of yoghurt based curry which is quite nice.  I have many helpings and I’m stuffed, but I’m not drinking the water, so I’m parched.

Then back to dancing, with segments of rest sitting in plastic chairs as people come up to just look at me or talk to me if they know english.  I worry that I’m generating unwelcome competition with the bride and groom. Later Sunil says, “I saw bride looking at you when you were dancing, she wishes she marries you!”  Some of the little boys ask me for rupees, and the adults are mortified and pretend it is not happening.  Sunil is holding out for it to be my turn to take a photo with the marrieds, but that’s not any time soon, so at about 3am we head home, again by cycle rickshaw in the creepy quiet misty calm of Benaras.  We stop for more beetlenut, of course, four of us, counting the rickshaw man, spitting the whole way home.  Sunil points out the 24 hour tea stalls, there are groups of muslims sitting around talking gravely in the way that they do.  I get dropped off, Sunil is beaming when I tell him what a great time I had, I tuck into bed.