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September 14, 2008

Brides and Biryanis

Text by Anita Nair. Illustration by Abhijeet Kini

From her trousseau to the final moment as the bridal finery is draped on her and around her and till she is led to the altar, the bride in true Zen mode lets things happen rather than make them happen, observes Verve, an unabashed lover of weddings

Between mid July and mid August is a bad month for weddings. The land lies fallow and so do the wedding halls. As if to compensate, the next month has a flurry of weddings ranging from the extravagant to the simple. And since I have always loved weddings, I decided to attend one in my village in Kerala. In true Malayali tradition, the wedding was mostly about the jewellery the bride wore and the food served at various points of the wedding day – the breakfast for the bride’s party, the grand lunch served on a banana leaf at the wedding hall and later in the evening, yet another meal for the bride’s family and some visiting members of the groom’s family. The morning after the wedding, M, my regular taxi driver when in Kerala who is the social commentator of the village, had his own review of the wedding. “Everyone expected upma for breakfast so no one turned up and they missed some good iddli-vada-sambar; what do you think they did with the leftovers? The lunch was quite mediocre, I would say, but the paalada was as always spectacular. How many cups did you have? They say no one wanted any of the jaggery payasam! As for the biryani at night, I was watching everyone grope for that chicken leg through the portion served on their plate…. It was funny to see the expression on their faces when they discovered it was only vegetable biryani…and soya chunks.”

M had captured the culinary path of the wedding quite succinctly. Funnily enough, he didn’t remark on the groom’s looks or the wedding itself which customary to Nair weddings lasted all of twenty seconds. (Just long enough for the groom to thrust the ring onto the wrong finger of the bride’s hand, I noticed.) No ceremony, some networking and that final mad clambering into the lunch hall to be seated first…and that was the greatest moment in a girl’s life! In contrast is a wedding like the one Ariel Meadow Stallings, author of the Off Beat Bride arranged for herself. ‘Unenthused by a white wedding gown and bored by the hoopla of the Hollywood-style reception, the author found herself absolutely exhausted with the nuances of traditional nuptials. So, she chose to take a walk off the beaten aisle and embrace the non-traditional bride within. Through trial and error, Ariel and her fiancée managed to crank out a budget wedding with all-night dancing, guests toasting champagne in mismatched mugs, gorgeous gardens, no monogrammed napkins, no garter, no bridesmaids and lots of lesbians. Shortly after her 2004 matrimony, Ariel began searching for other brides whose ceremonies defied age-old tradition and reflected on who they were. From there, she developed the idea for a guide for the offbeat couple.’

I do wish my Kerala bride had been able to bring something of herself into her wedding. She perhaps may have enjoyed it more. But like everything else circumscribed by tradition, the bride had little say in her own wedding apart from perhaps choosing the colour of her sari. To truly experience the dynamics of a celebration, a wedding home is the best place to be. There is a certain excitement in the air as the wedding preparations begin. The family one knew nothing of suddenly emerges from the woodwork wanting to take charge. Fathers and uncles, aunts and cousins, sisters and brothers, all hustle and bustle. There is much food cooked, many discussions held, voices raised even and perhaps a few things stolen…. Strangely enough, amidst such an ocean of frenzy, the bride is the lone isle of calm. This, despite being the star of the show. From her trousseau to the final moment as the bridal finery is draped on her and around her and till she is led to the altar, the bride in true Zen mode lets things happen rather than make them happen.

I always wonder if it is that state beyond nerves or is it a placid acceptance of whatever will be will be…no point in getting your knickers into a twist about it…. Yet how can a bride, any bride, not fear what could go wrong? For most of us who have had to encounter Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, the jilted bride is a ghoul that perches on one’s shoulder. Miss Havisham in a faded wedding dress, keeping a decaying feast on her table and surrounding herself with clocks stopped at twenty minutes to nine – the hour when Miss Havisham received a letter from Compeyson and realised that he had defrauded her and she had been left at the altar. Humiliated and heartbroken, Miss Havisham had all the clocks stopped at the exact point in which she had learned of her betrayal. From that day on, she remained by herself in her decaying mansion putting her life on hold.

In Usha KR’s The Girl and the River, there is the story of a bride who goes for a ritual visit to the temple with her groom and who in his youthful impetuosity dives into the river to his death…. Perhaps because those moments between being a bride and becoming a wife are so fraught with the terror of the unknown, English brides have always armed themselves with an amulet to protect them. ‘Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a lucky sixpence in your shoe.’ Something old was often a family heirloom and the bride’s link with the past. Something new could be her dress or a gift from the groom. Something borrowed was of real value like a veil or headpiece and returned to the owner. Something blue was often the garter or an embroidered handkerchief. The touch of blue symbolised faithfulness, while the sixpence ensured future wealth. Literature and cinema have often pounced on the wedding and the bride for themes. Contradictorily, it is both a vast canvas to play with and a microcosm to capture…. Perhaps the only other such moment in a woman’s life, which seesaws between pure joy and utter fear, is childbirth. The waiting. The not knowing and finally sheer relief at having got past it unscathed….

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