I recently attended a wedding in Chennai. It was hot as hell, but even the withering weather couldn’t dampen the joy of the event. My cousin got married to a boy from Vijayawada and so the rituals were a mesh of Tamilian and Andhra traditions. The auspicious moment when the mangalsutra is tied — what we call muhurtham — was at 3am, something that would never happen in a Tamilian wedding. The Andhra in-laws wanted the bride to wear a white sari for the occasion. The Tamilian mother-of-the-bride demurred. White was only worn by widows in the Tamil tradition, she said. A compromise was reached: the bride wore a beautiful off-white Kanchipuram sari with an appropriately auspicious maroon border. After the havan (called homam in south India), the muhurtham and the Satyanarayana puja, the bride and groom jetted off for the US — she to the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to finish her PhD and he to San Francisco where he works. This, I suppose, is the new India, I remarked to my mom, feeling like such an old-timer.
Rite of passage: Muhurtham is when the bride and groom tie the knot. (Photograph: IndiaPicture
month, another cross-regional wedding happened in Pune: a Gujarati girl marrying a Tamil boy. Google printouts were handed out to all the guests, describing the meaning of the rituals. This was useful because barring a few Sanskrit scholars, I doubt if any of us urban Indians know the meaning behind our wedding traditions: why seven for the sat-pheras, for instance? Indians are surrounded by so many traditions that we tend to take them for granted; to tune out.
Weddings are one of India’s cultural unifiers. There are regional variations, differences in traditions, but all Indians take great pride in their weddings. It is a time to gather all and sundry to share your joy, to show off a bit. So you invite all your relatives, even the ones you cannot stand; friends, both close and distant; colleagues and casual acquaintances. The sheer size and spectacle of Indian weddings — more Mardi Gras than sober and elegant church weddings of the West — makes them an indelible part of our culture.
Family weddings, depending on the kind of person you are, can be great fun or a royal pain. You meet the same people over and over again: the ageing matron who always stops you with the question, “Do you know who I am?” when you have no idea who she is. The white-haired gent who starts talking about horoscopes and the prophecies of Nostradamus till your ears curl. Numerous relatives who bore you with family gossip. I used to run away from my relatives as a kid. I couldn’t bear the cheek-pinching and the inane jokes. Nowadays, I feel differently. I find that meeting these uncles and aunts time and time again is a great comfort. Surrounded by people older than me, I become a child again. I find that I don’t have to supply all the answers as I routinely do with my own kids. There are others who jump in with solutions and wisdom; these buzurg log (wise people), who tell me to boil tulsi leaves to stave off my younger child’s cold; who watch a young mother struggling with a bawling child on the verge of a meltdown and start singing tuneless folk songs in gravelly voices that somehow seem to calm the kid down. Grey-haired matrons who deposit their plump frames into plastic chairs and sternly reprimand their pregnant niece to go easy on the coffee.
As is typical of my generation, I come from a large family. My father is one of 10 siblings and my mother, one of five. I have nearly 50 cousins. The same applies to my husband. When we attend weddings from his side of the family, it is neat to watch the way he becomes a boy again. He may be a busy urban professional, toting a BlackBerry, making deals, talking to clients and flying all over the globe. But when he walks into a Chennai wedding clad in dhoti and kurta (or jibba as Tamilians call it), he is no longer Mr Urban Professional. He meets one mama after another, whose method of greeting is to slap him on the back and say, “Enna da?” Being Hindi-challenged, I asked a Tamilian friend what the Hindi equivalent of “Enna da” was and he couldn’t come up with an answer. It literally translates to “What da?” or “Wassup?”
How do older people greet youngsters in Delhi, I asked this friend. “Kaise ho, beta?” was the answer. But “Enna da” is not as polite as that. When a retired ageing mama slaps you on the back and says, “Enna da,” it is a sure-fire way of bringing you down to earth. You may think you are a hotshot investment banker making multimillion dollar deals all over the place, but this uncle still remembers that you used to steal mangoes from that forbidden tree in his garden. This uncle still remembers that you didn’t score ‘Centum’ in math. That’s what “Enna da” means in Chennai. And, in order to experience the pleasures of this greeting, you have to attend a big fat Tamil wedding.
Shoba Narayan routinely addresses younger cousins with an “Enna da” in the hope that they will treat her with the respect she deserves. They don’t.
Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org