The Price of Wedded Bliss

Today I received another invitation to a wedding, the fourth one in two weeks. This card, personally handed to me by the eager bride, looks like a miniature work of art. A saffron-colored image of the elephant-headed Hindu God Ganesha is embossed on the cover. Inside, the calligraphic lettering is elegantly inscribed in English and Hindi and a small gold tassel peeks out from one end.

These young people getting ready to tie the knot are not my close friends or relatives, but colleagues at work. It is the wedding season in India. I know I will be invited to several more weddings before the season ends. As a child growing up in India, I remember looking forward to weddings. It was a chance to dress up, meet people and enjoy a scrumptious meal. Now that I have returned to India after spending over a decade in the US, such invitations put me in a difficult spot. Having only recently made the acquaintance of these soon-to-be brides and grooms, I am not sure what my response should be. If I go, I know I will be uncomfortable. If I choose to stay away, I may be perceived as being rude.

In India, it is normal to invite hordes of people to weddings. Just imagine the wedding scene in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding where the bride's side of the church is filled with people while the groom's side is deserted. Now imagine both sides being chock full of people, move the location to a large indoor space with poor ventilation, add women with colorful saris, loads of jewelry, loud music, talkative guests and naughty children chasing each other. That is a full-blown Hindu wedding.

For a lot of people, attending a wedding is like going to a movie, an effortless entertainment experience specially now that weddings have gotten ritzier with live music, DJs, celebrity appearances and extravagant costumes. The logistics are mind-boggling. Hundreds of invites are handed out, with no concept of RSVP. Tradition dictates that a guest (whether invited or otherwise) is considered equal to God which makes soliciting a head count almost a sin.

Having lived in the US for so long, it has been a while since my presence was so whole-heartedly sought at a wedding. During my years in graduate school, at least half a dozen of the students in the department got married. The only weddings that I was invited to were those of the other Indian students. American weddings seemed to be restricted to a close circle of invitees whose names appeared to be secretly guarded. At first, the cultural differences regarding this important life event seemed too wide to comprehend. Over the years however, I came to appreciate the fact that most of my American colleagues paid for their own weddings and the costs of even a small wedding were quite astronomical.

Traditionally in India, the expenses are borne by the bride's family. Given the financial status of the majority, it is a huge drain on the family's savings. In middle class homes, a mother starts saving for her daughter's wedding from the day of her birth. With an appreciation for the value of education climbing among this group, most families also put their daughters through school and college, just as they do for their sons. But it is this disparity when it comes to the time of their marriage that tips the scales against the girls. Wedding ceremonies have scaled up and become multi-day events. The exorbitant sets and extravagant song and dance routines of wedding scenes in Indian movies have etched these unattainable images on impressionable minds. What looks spectacular on screen is just a dream, well beyond the reach of the multitudes.

At such ostentatious weddings, I always wonder what my contribution will be. The invitation asks me to come with "family and friends" to bless the couple. I wonder if that is on the minds of all the attendees. I am suitably impressed by the vast dinner buffet but when I see the people outside on the street who go to bed hungry, I wonder if the money would be better spent elsewhere. It is a matter of social prestige, I am told, to count the number of attendees in the hundreds. More people means more witnesses. While this may have been true in the last century, today you still need to register with the authorities to be certified as married. Why so many people then? Once the grand reception is over and the couple embarks on a lifetime of togetherness, will I be around to guide and advise this couple when they struggle with the daily business of being married? Will I share in their triumphs? Will I offer a shoulder to cry on, more valuable, I think, than the obligatory gift? If the answer to these questions is no, I feel I should refrain from attending.

My idea of a perfect wedding is an intimate and elegant ceremony blessed by those closest to the couple. While many American weddings fall prey to the social expectations -- as in India -- that are handed down by years of tradition and Martha Stewart's Weddings magazine, Americans are able to choreograph a more free-form celebration.

The most memorable wedding that I witnessed was one where I was not even invited. I just happened to be a dispassionate observer who had chosen to spend an afternoon by the beach. One cloudy October day, I was sitting by the waterside in Monterey when I noticed a small group of people clustered around a couple, the bride dressed in white and the groom in a tuxedo. With the blue ocean in the background and a cool Pacific breeze ruffling the bride's veil, the couple read out their wedding vows, surrounded by a handful of friends and family. I imagined the guests to be people who were indispensable to the couple as they navigated through their new life. Each of these attendees might serve as anchors and cheerleaders, friends and babysitters, advisors and mentors. A union created in the presence and with the wishes of such a group is destined to succeed. This is what I believe.

My little daughter watched this ceremony with me that day. She may not remember it in the long run, but I will tell her about it one day. I will tell her why I am not saving for a lavish wedding for her. When the time comes for her to choose the kind of wedding she wants, I hope she will ask the same questions I do. I hope she will pick the kind that endures long after the flowers wither, the music fades and the guests leave.

Essays by Ranjani Nellore have appeared on Pacific News Service and India Currents.

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