The bustle at 5 a.m. wakes me up. I get up from my room to be greeted by the strong aroma of Elaichi tea. The old ladies, in their soft, printed cotton saris have huddled around the dining table. Their loud slurps of tea match their greed for conversation at that unearthly hour. As they see me, their crinkled faces melt into a smile. They are happy to find an early riser in me. Someone's cold limp hand thrust a cup in my hand. The sugar surge shocks my system and in an instant all sleepiness is banished. I cringe stealthily, but smile at the lady and walk to the noises that woke me.
Looking at the aangan from the balcony I see that the cooks have arrived. Large aluminum cauldrons, blackened with use, are being cleaned with clay and Surf. The fat head cook peels vegetables. His hand wields the peeler with a vengeance but his eyes, stoic with experience seem numb. The rest busy themselves with more menial labor. For as long as I can remember, the head cooks have always been fat. In real life and in movies. The smell of Surf, freshly made cheese and tea, mingles in the fresh air of the small city. Looking at the uninterrupted view of trees, I know the wind will carry this smell far. And all those who wake up before dawn will know there is a wedding in the vicinity. As though to confirm my thoughts, two stray dogs walk in to be pelted joyously with stones.
Pulling myself away from the scene, I rush to grab one of the two washrooms. To get a super clean washroom, right after the cleaning lady cleans it, is the sole purpose of my dawn awakenings. As I return, fresh and dressed, I am greeted with satisfied gazes from the gossiping quarters. The Rasogullas are now bubbling in the cauldron. I have never felt hungrier at 6 a.m. But just then the household help thrusts another sweet cup of tea affectionately. I accept graciously but the lethal combination of sugar and milk completely vanquishes my buyout appetite.
By now the big house is full of busy, merry noises. Word spreads to the cooks that one of the brothers has come from America. On one of my chases to keep my toddler away from pulling the tail of the puppy, I cross the cooking quarters. Shyly, one of the cooks asks me if I'd like a 'bret-omlett' instead. I politely refuse, touched by his sweetness. I look at the multitude of golden puris frothing in oil and doing a merry dance as they get orchestrated by the ladle. My smile confirms my interest.
Suddenly uncontrolled voices of women laughing reminds me that I am missing out on one of the most essential parts of a North Indian wedding- fun. Almost abandoning my son I rush to the scene. My twenty something cousin-in-law is in tears but the rest of the ladies are tickled. Master Sahib, the old tailor has done it once again! In spite of strict instructions, Master Sahib, has made the neck of her blouse too 'high'. Even by my cousin-in-law's mother's standards. This old gentleman prided himself in being the moral police of the neighborhood. Much to the chagrin of the teenage girls. I check the blouse, any higher and this would be a boat neck top. The ladies of the house decide that it is no use going back to the senile Master Sahib for the alterations. Another tailor will have to be hunted for and lured. The girl's tears dry quickly in excited discussions of jewellery and matching accessories. She is also given the responsibility of packing and decorating the bride's saris. Smug with her new found responsibility she leaves the room without a care in the world.
Our pleasant and engrossing discussion is interrupted by one of the men of the house. Annoyed, he wants to know what we are up to. The cook has just announced that there is not a drop of refined oil and no vegetables to prepare the next meal with. Undoubtedly, he explains, the cooks have stolen the groceries with no one to watch them. Hearing him a very old lady huddled the corner of the room begins to mutter. We look up, surprised at her presence. Shaking her head she talks mainly to herself, 'These ladies can only talk about making themselves beautiful. What nonsense! Their time to be a bride is over. It is time to work. No one is taking care of the bridegroom and of how he looks? Look at him, roaming without a drop of oil on his head. No kaajal, no altaa ( red liquid used to decorate feet)! His sister-in-laws are not bothered!!!'
Now my brother-in-law, like many boys of his time had refused to adorn himself in the traditional way, much to my satisfaction. Of course change will be met with some opposition, we knew that. The younger ladies of the house had decided on many other changes. The bridegroom will dance at his own wedding. After all he is the happiest man at the wedding! He will not fast on the day of his marriage. He was a foodie and an accomplished cook. Besides this we unanimously agreed on many changes. But I always had the uncanny feeling, that all fingers ( invisible, old and pruny) pointed at me when these changes were witnessed. After all I was the one who had come from abroad. But this was just a feeling.
Early, on the day of the wedding, we stood waiting for the taxis to take us to a nearby city. There, in the evening, the wedding would take place. Soon an impressive line up of AC taxis and a bus drove outside the sprawling house. The bus sounded like fun and in spite of opposition we took our seats. The taxis, hired by my father-in-law for his children (so used to the luxuries of big cities), were welcomed by the rest in the baraat. The bus was also the finest found in those parts. A fully A.C. imported bus. Sadly, it didn't quite live up to its facade. The engine broke down midway.
Ignoring the cacophony of voices scolding the driver and his side kick, I looked out of the window. The place was straight out of a R K Laxman story. Collected rainwater, enjoyed its transient presence. Pretending to be a quiet, beautiful pond, it lovingly painted the horizon. A man stared at us with interest while his buffaloes stared at us without interest, as buffaloes always do. My son wanted to play with this 'black cow'! A godsend, as we needed something to do. Help was far away. All the taxis had zoomed leaving us far behind as though to prove a point. People were called over cellphones. They would come back with help.
Help arrived and true to Murphy's law, it was late. We wouldn't reach on time. But we all knew that the wedding would have to wait since we had the bridegroom. Everyone except the bridegroom seemed satisfied with this knowledge. He sighed with frustration and made many trips to the driver with requests to speed up. All this was lost on the occupants of the bus who seemed so busy in conversation. After all, here were people getting together after years, with stories to share. A few anecdotes and with timeless, tall tales that were narrated from generation to generation. Their stories and their hunger to share them was bigger than the bride or the bridegroom. Known in the family for their stories they guarded their fame zealously. Weddings gave them the rare platform with the largest audience. They were the people who were never forgotten when you addressed the wedding cards.
When we arrived in the city, we were three hours behind schedule. Wisdom ruled and we decided that the bridegroom would change in the bus. My makeup was put to good use. He looked squeaky clean and fresh. Though secretly I knew that this was relief washing all over his face and not the effect of my department store cleansers. We decided to attend just as we were, to save time.
We drove into the lighted aromatic venue, sheepishly and ready with our barrage of words citing the unavoidable circumstances that lead to the delay. But surprisingly our delay wasn't discussed. It seemed that the bride's family saw the whole thing through a different lens. Since the boy's family is expected to be late, (in fact in many smaller cities it is sort of customary) they assumed that we were fishing to get pampered. So our late arrival fetched us a warmer, more grand welcome. Though baffled by their assumption I can't say I complained.
Rasogullas: Sweets made from fresh cheese
puris: Deep fried bread
baraat The bridegroom's family