Champagne and cake? Try chai and samosas: a bride-to-be returns to India to shop for her wedding in a bumpy, smog-filled trip, in-laws in tow
On a Tuesday in December, from the dark corridors of the Delhi metro, we climbed the staircase of the Chawri Bazar station single file, me last, since I had no idea where we were going. We emerged on the fringes of a traffic circle, into a thick, hazy smog, which clung to our skin and throat and nostrils, and which formed a film that for the next three weeks, would never really go away.
Around us, on a chaotic street that used to anchor a 19th-century hardware bazaar, a million negotiations were taking place. My soon-to-be father-in-law, a New Delhi native and the Magellan of this city, brokered a deal of his own. He hailed two rickshaws—the three-wheel kind powered by people, not motors—told each where to go, the price he would pay and motioned for his son and me to hoist ourselves into one, while he and my mother-in-law climbed into the other. The seats faced backward, offering an uninterrupted view of Old Delhi’s traffic-thronged streets, crumbling facades and canopy of power lines.
“How is this legal?" I asked, staring up at a lethal-looking knot of electrical wires, not really expecting an answer. The driver started pedalling. I clutched onto the bar in front of me like a child on a roller coaster. We hit a bump in the road; I screamed.
Some brides shop for their weddings while holding flutes of Champagne. I could barely hold my phone long enough to take a selfie.
Indian weddings bring to mind glittering gold jewels and swingy skirts studded with rhinestones and tiny mirrors. But my future husband and I would be getting married in California’s wine country, and sought a different aesthetic: a celebration to reflect our distinctly American way of life while nodding to our heritage. Both sets of our parents emigrated from India to the United States before we were born, mine from south India, his from the north. Growing up, I visited India with my parents every three or four years; he went back yearly, without fail, always to Delhi, where his 97-year-old grandfather, an archaeologist, still lives.
Shopping for our wedding in both Delhis, New and Old, would root us back to our cultural homeland, this cacophonous place of silk hawkers and honking horns and a deal around every corner, where heavy velvet lehengas hang from shop windows like so many skinned chickens.
I first got acquainted with his part of India in December 2016, when we got engaged at Lake Palace, a majestic hotel and former royal residence in the middle of a lake in Udaipur, 400 miles southwest of Delhi. At the time, I was so besotted by the romantic, five-star version of India that my fiance had shown me that we considered returning there for our wedding.
Back in Los Angeles, where we and much of our extended family live, reality set in: It would be prohibitively expensive. A lot of our loved ones wouldn’t be able to make the trip, what with the cost, their children, their jobs. We’d have so little control over the final product, planning a wedding from half a world away. But a “pro" had always been that it would be easier to find outfits and accouterments for our multiday Hindu wedding—we’re culturally Hindu, if not the most religiously observant—in India than in the United States, where the selection along strips like Oak Tree Road (Edison and Iselin, New Jersey) and Pioneer Boulevard (Artesia, California) pales in comparison with that of shops in the motherland, where clothing rods sag with the weight of ornately beaded outfits, and proprietors pull ever more options from the back, loath to lose out on a potential sale.
It’s like an airport bookstore versus Amazon. (Thanks to the internet, I lusted after a devastatingly elegant gown of embroidered roses by designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee; to try it on, I would have to visit one of his India boutiques.) While online shops exist, it seemed unwise to measure an outfit that I wouldn’t be able to try on before buying, and also, not fun.
I knew from experience. I had been married before and purchased a gorgeous, peacock feather-festooned lehenga, the two-piece bridal gown native to north India, online. But I failed to diet or exercise enough to be comfortable showing a 6-inch swath of my midriff, as the outfit did, and six weeks before my wedding in New York, panicked and bought a less revealing lehenga from a store in the Jackson Heights neighbourhood of Queens in New York. The photos make me cringe.
There were other reasons to return to India: my fiance’s aforementioned grandfather, along with many relatives that we rarely see. My in-laws, whom I referred to with the reverential Auntie and Uncle, go back every December. If we went with them, I’d have an opportunity to bond with the tight-knit family I was marrying into before I walked down the aisle again, something I knew was more important than the “wow" factor of the centrepieces. The memories banked during this trip could carry us through Thanksgivings and Christmases to come. My fiance and I would have an army to help us wade through the sea of bridal gowns, lehengas and achkans, the knee-length jacket worn by north Indian grooms, and we could also get wedding invitations made for less than we’d pay in the United States.
The caveat: since we were in his parents’ old stomping grounds, they would dictate the order of operations, which is why, within 12 hours of landing, we were barrelling through the streets of Old Delhi in bicycle rickshaws, trying to find an alley that my father-in-law promised was lined with wedding invitation makers (many of whom also printed ornate business cards and stationery). Our goal: design the invitations and get them into production as soon as possible, so they’d arrive in Los Angeles by early January.
After 10 minutes that felt like much more than that, our rickshaws pulled to a stop near a stand of pomegranates. “Let’s check out a few shops, see the selection," my father-in-law said. (As the founder of a Los Angeles clothing manufacturing company, he’s always on the hunt for a good deal.) If I was looking for Amazon, here it was: hole in the wall after hole in the wall, hundreds of them, hawking invitations as thick as hardcover books, some the size of shoe boxes.
The seventh shop we went into, R.K. Cards, had a chic, book-style invitation in the window, its blush pink cover embossed with a gold tree of life. A flurry of Hindi broke out as my father-in-law haggled over its price with the shopkeeper and my fiance and mother-in-law tweaked the design. (Not knowing Hindi, I sat on a stool, sipping a paper cup of instant chai, smiling, nodding and offering opinions in English, which were then translated, presumably.) My father-in-law stood up to leave: “It’s nice, but let’s check out a few more."
On we went, my bladder slowly expanding. Starbucks has yet to invade Old Delhi and indoor plumbing remains a luxury. In the putrid-smelling bathroom of a second-floor card shop, I decided the search had gone on long enough. I pulled my fiance aside: “I think we should just do that one with the tree," I said, eyes pleading. We hopscotched back to R.K. Cards, put a down payment on the order and tore into potato and green pea samosas at Haldiram’s, a cafeteria-style vegetarian joint that specializes in snack foods. Mindful of the bathroom situation, I washed them down with nothing.
Clothes shopping came with other obstacles. Dressing room photos provide crucial points of comparison between outfits, but many stores prohibit the taking of photographs for fear that shrewd shoppers will take the images to a tailor and have the garment recreated for less. Some confiscate phones before letting you try anything on. In Shahpur Jat, a New Delhi district packed with independent boutiques, my fiance and I figured out a workaround. I emerged from the dressing room of Inchee Tape in a drapey, silk gown with a crochet bodice and ambled around the couch where he sat with his phone, pretending to check ESPN but actually snapping half a dozen photos, only one of which was serviceable.
No matter. It wasn’t until his younger sister arrived in India that I tried on an outfit that made my heart swell. The three of us took an Uber car to the chicest mall in New Delhi, DLF Emporio, ostensibly to browse the bridal collections of India’s high-fashion designers but also to get some space from the apartment we were sharing with five more members of their family. The mall might have been airdropped in from Beverly Hills: all marble corridors and surfaces of mirrored gold, redolent of musk and masala. At Monisha Jaising, I tried on a $5,000 gown appropriate for J. Lo—plunging mesh V-neck, gold beads, figure-hugging skirt. A poofy pink train framed the hips in a manner that recalled Marie Antoinette. It was the type of gown that, worn to the Oscars, would turn heads; worn to our wedding, it would turn my mother against me.
Across the hall, a lehenga in the window of Falguni Shane Peacock caught my eye: the palest hue of lavender, with a blouse covered in tubular silver beads and a skirt splattered with silver appliques. It slipped on easier than expected. I had heard women wax poetic about trying on a wedding dress and instantly knowing it was “the one"; I assumed they were being overly romantic. Nope. Never had I felt so bridal so quickly. My fiance’s praise was succinct: “I love it." (Having done this once before, I figured that the groom seeing the bride in her regalia before the wedding had no bearing on the outcome of the marriage. He works in apparel; I wanted his opinion.)
My sister-in-law gushed. I wasn’t ready to make a decision, yet—I had plans to meet the designers behind Falguni Shane Peacock in Mumbai, India’s fashion capital, and wanted to browse shops there—but it was reassuring to know that there existed an option in Delhi that happened to be on sale for half the price. Hungry, we rode the mall escalators up to Set’z, a place with white tablecloths and an incongruous hodgepodge of cuisine, ordered pepperoni pizza, Sichuan chicken and sticky toffee pudding and toasted our find with a bottle of Fratelli chenin blanc, a relative steal at ₹ 1,500, or about $22. The wedding diet would start back home.
Food and drink tided us over when shopping got tedious, as it did in Jaipur, the city of palaces with pink walls and ancient forts that serves as the capital of the northern, desert-draped state of Rajasthan. Six of us attended a reunion of my mother-in-law’s family there and shopped, unsuccessfully, for my fiance. After six hours of tramping through stores, tired and parched, we gave ourselves over to flimsy plastic stools in the parking lot of a Pizza Hut, where a crowd milled about a chai stand. Served in conical tumblers, rife with cinnamon and cardamom, the tea felt like a hug for the insides and restored us to the degree that we were able to make a decision about bridesmaids outfits, which my sister-in-law gamely modelled at the multilevel Indian clothing superstore Pratap Sons. (What we didn’t realize until later: Once tailored, the off-the-shoulder blouses prevented my bridesmaids from raising their arms above their heads. Freedom of movement trumps photos; they all changed after the ceremony.)
My fiance would find his wedding outfit in Delhi, thanks to reconnaissance trips his parents conducted while he and I went on a three-night jaunt to Mumbai, where I bought a blush pink Falguni Shane Peacock bridal lehenga that outshone the one from the mall. We returned to a more crowded Delhi than the one we left. Two weeks into our trip, my cousin-in-law, his parents and his girlfriend arrived, which meant there were now 11 people sharing a three-bedroom apartment. The teakettle in the kitchen started whistling at 5:30 each morning; showers ran cold after the first three. Family breakfasts of samosas, masala scrambled eggs and many, many cups of coffee got us to laugh about whatever funny thing had happened the day before—like me telling an Uber driver, “No habla Hindi."
There remained the matter of the invitations, whose production my fiance and father-in-law insisted we check on in person. “We can’t just have them email us a proof?" I asked, dreading a trip back to Old Delhi. But in addition to invitation savants, that ancient part of the city also contained the Chandni Chowk district, where I could find an outfit for our sangeet—the night of music and dancing that precedes a Hindu wedding—similar to those at the fancy mall but for a lot less.
We piled back into the metro and then into rickshaws. I grumbled as we dodged mud puddles and scooters and stray dogs. Through an alley, up a dark, steep staircase, in an airless room where a graphic designer worked on a Windows desktop that couldn’t have been made more recently than 1999, I understood: we had to sit there and review the invitation line by line. This part of town valued clients who communicated in person rather than over Wi-Fi.
Afterward, we hustled down the streets of Chandni Chowk, the American-born among us in awe of the Sabyasachi knockoffs dangling from doorways. At Indu Fashions, where shoppers remove their shoes, sit on the floor and assess outfits that salesmen unfurl in front of them, I bought the first thing I tried on: a peacock-coloured gown with a mesh back and gold embroidery that felt scratchy but looked too regal to return to the rack. (Weeks after the sangeet, I still had scars on my shoulder blades. The things women do for fashion.)
There was one more must-see on my list: Sabyasachi. Even though I had bought a gown for my sangeet and a lehenga for my wedding and loved both outfits (thought of them fondly, like pets), before leaving Delhi, I wanted to visit the place that informed what I first imagined I might look like as Bride 2.0.
Four of us took an Uber car from the apartment to Sabyasachi’s New Delhi flagship, in a gated colonial mansion shielded from the road by a row of tall hedges. On the second floor, in a low-lit room perfumed by dozens of fresh roses, there it was: the gown I’d been eyeing on Instagram for months, that I had envisioned getting married in before even knowing how to pronounce the designer’s name (Saab-yah-saa-chee). It was even more stunning in person, yards of velvet-studded netting and beads that folded and draped into a robe of epic effect.
An attendant helped me into it; my fiance and soon-to-be family oohed and ahhed. But standing on a pedestal, in front of a panel of full-length mirrors, I realized the gown would be perfect for the type of wedding—and marriage—that I wasn’t going to have. The dress inhibited movement and revelry. It was for standing on stage and posing for photographs, not dancing to Cardi B. I had done right to go with outfits that reflected my lifestyle, not that ephemeral “wow" factor.
Our invitations would arrive a month late owing to a fire and subsequent strike that derailed business in Old Delhi; they’d cost more to mail than they had to produce. I’d have second thoughts about the Chandni Chowk gown because it required heels that made me an inch taller than my husband-to-be. But a funny thing happened abroad that continued back home: After years of calling my fiance’s parents Uncle and Auntie, I started calling them Chacha and Chachi, which I thought meant “uncle" and “aunt" in Hindi. I was so proud of myself. The day before my May wedding, my best friend from college, who’s more versed in Hindi than me, pointed out that “Chachi" is actually a term reserved for your dad’s younger brother’s wife. My usage was incorrect on so many levels. I was horrified.
The day after the wedding, I apologized to my mother-in-law (I avoided family titles in the interim). She laughed and said, “I thought it was kind of funny, but then you kept doing it and it sounded nice!" She didn’t want to hurt my feelings. I didn’t want to be inaccurate. I asked her what I should call her, now that I was officially her daughter-in-law. Her answer: Mom.