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Published: November 29th 2019
My Indian son Kari bubbled with excitement over his upcoming engagement party, to be held on a day and at a time astrologically auspicious for both bride and groom. He told me it was important that I be there. I was one of his “moms” after all, and we’ve enjoyed each other’s company off and on over the last several years.
There was only one catch. I had to wear a sari, supplied by him and his family.
Kari handed the bag with the sari inside to me, after first insisting I bring out my camera to capture the moment. I was taken aback by it’s weight, and even moreso by the two-toned purple/orange color combination. The silk blouse glowed orange, and was embellished with embroidery on the back and on the sleeves. The sari and blouse were gorgeous, but Kari was worried that I would not be able to carry its weight easily.
I wasn’t worried about that. I was worried about putting it on.
It had to look perfect. I was not going to look frumpy and ill-tied. I wanted to be able to blend into the crowd of other sari-wrapped women. That would be
a challenge. They all have long dark hair and skin. I would glow like the moon among them.
I’ve tied a sari before. Many times, actually. But that was over 40 years ago. And I always looked like a mess after I tied it. Other Indian women probably stifled a lot of laughs when they saw me. People back then had good reason to laugh.
Saranya works at the reception desk in the hotel where I was staying. She swooped into my room with safety pins and experience. After about 40 minutes, I was all tied up, swooshing around in my new sari. It wouldn’t fall off, she had made sure with nine safety pins anchoring it to my sari blouse and underslip. The slip was tied around my waist with a bow knot which I worried about. The blouse wasn’t going anywhere, because it was skin tight and squished me in ways I didn’t know possible. The seams could have burst, I suppose, and the sari would have gone down with it.
And there was the puu problem. The evening before I got a string of creamy white flower buds—puu—and stuck them in my fridge in
the room. Saranya thought it would be nice to drape the strand over my head and let the bottoms dangle at my ears. That way when I talked, my head shaking would help the puu emit a sweet fragrance. That was her idea. But another woman working at the reception desk said we had to correct it because it didn’t look right. One of the managers chimed in, saying it belonged on the back of my head. Others supervised the woman readjusting the location of the puu to the side of my head. Then when it was all fixed, a guest waiting for her room approached us and said it belonged in the back, with one strand draped over my shoulder.
It would stay on the side of my head.
Next came all the photos and selfies with employees of the hotel. It was all very flattering, because everyone said I looked beautiful. I felt very elegant, all bound up in my sari.
At Kari’s house, family, relatives, and close friends were gathering. An engagement function typically has far fewer attendees than an Indian wedding, so there were only about 100 guests, about half coming from each
side. After gathering, we all loaded into buses and cars and drove to the village marriage hall where the function would happen. The bride’s family and friends were gathering there. Most were surprised to see a westerner, and after they got over their initial shyness, asked for selfies with me non-stop.
Kanmani, the bride, was in a room to the side, getting pampered by women applying makeup and fixing her hair. I sat and watched amidst a crowd of women, but was not allowed to take photos of the bride getting makeup.
I fluttered about, trying to get candid photos, which hardly anyone here believes is the best way to take photos. After realizing the people I came with were not around, I wandered outside where Kari’s supporters were gathering. Someone motioned to me to cover my ears. A strand of firecrackers 50 yards long stretched down the street. It was to be a grand entrance for the groom and his family and friends!
Then pow pow pow pow pow pow and on and on it went. Sparks flew, smoke rose, and boom-boom arrows pierced my eardrums. I ran for cover. Kari had told me he wanted
to get top quality firecrackers. I believe he did.
Kari strode down the street and into the wedding hall with his male friends and family, followed by dozens of women balancing baskets of gifts on their heads. Pineapple, pomegranate, oranges, guavas, bananas, flowers, incense, and garlands entered and were placed on the stage. A man from the bride’s side welcomed them by sprinkling rose water as they entered the hall.
Men gathered on stage, bride’s family to the left, groom’s to the right, and they talked. And talked, loudly, shouting instructions and directions and who knows what. Almost sounded like they were negotiating something important. I hope not the marriage!
A woman from the bride’s side entered with a basket of gifts and symbolically presented them, then the men got up and the baskets were removed. Everyone dashed into the dining hall, where rows of banana leaves awaited on narrow tables. Men with shiny buckets streamed by, plopping first a sweet called kesari on the leaves, then rice, sambar, rasam, mutton, chicken, a banana. People ate quickly, then went back into the main hall.
Meanwhile Kanmani’s face was finished and her hair was arranged, and she
had donned a beautiful gold-trimmed green sari. Kari had chosen his clothes to complement the bride’s outfit. She emerged and the couple sat on the “thrones”—red chairs where countless couples had sat before them.
Women from Kanmani’s side gathered on stage, and others from Kari’s family mounted the stage also. The couple exchanged hefty garlands of red and white flowers, stiffly following the instructions of the professional photographer. He demanded they pause at critical times so he could get a head-on photo of them looking straight at the camera. Sometimes they had to repeat certain movements just so he could take the photo.
A more recent addition to the engagement ritual happened also—cutting a cake and stuffing each other’s mouth with a bite. Neither the bride nor groom seemed to have much fun with that part, but they were good sports about doing it. Then the critical moment of Kari placing a ring on the finger of the bride’s right hand sealed the deal—rice tossing, cheering, and clapping ensued. They were officially engaged.
The blessings took place, where each relative and well-wisher placed a dot of sandalwood paste and kumkum on the foreheads of the engaged couple.
They had to freeze the natural flow of their movements and awkwardly look at the camera for the photo. Hence a ritual that might have taken 20 minutes lasted 45 minutes.
I didn’t speed things up at all—when it was my turn, they made me repeat my movements several times because I did not pause long enough with my finger on the forehead while looking at the camera. I only put the sandalwood dot on them and skipped the rest because I took such a miserably long time.
Before, during, and after the happenings on the stage, people chatted and visited and took hundreds of posed selfies around the hall. Spirits were high, and everyone seemed to welcome the witnessing of the promise made in their midst—that of the joining of two families through the engagement of Kari and Kanmani.
And I’m happy to report my beautiful sari stayed put for at least seven hours and raised many compliments. Later I was able to remove eight of the nine safety pins—but the ninth one I couldn’t access until I removed the sari blouse along with the sari pinned to it. Everything crumpled to the floor.
was wondering how Kanmani the bride felt right about then. Was her sari falling to the floor also? Was she gazing at the gold ring on her finger? Or looking at herself in the mirror and uttering, “I’m so glad we got through that! Now on to the marriage ceremony!”
Perhaps I will get to ask her someday.
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