Wednesday, 2 June 2010

The Wedding

I'm back from a wedding in Chamba, a town about 50 kms from Dalhousie. The bride was the niece of Premila, the housekeeper of Dakshinamurti cottage where I'm staying.

To get there and back, I take a local bus. Local buses are basic. Very basic. There are seats for about 45 people and standing capacity for as many as can get on. Not only are there seats in the places you'd expect, there are bench seats beside the driver which seem to be filled by his friends. The journey to Chamba climbs high along mountain roads and then descends, dropping quickly into the town. Driving needs total concentration. The roads are narrow, very windy with precipitous drops. The bus is big for the road, and so are the lorries coming the other way. The bus fills. There must be 70 or 80 people packed on board. The bus is remarkably fast and gets faster as it descends. The driver is in animated conversation with his friends and as each bend approaches, his hand sits hard on the horn warning the approaching traffic that he's coming. The trucks coming the other way do the same and there's a crescendo of sound as both somehow slip by each other. The driver's conversation continues. The journey takes three long hours. Those who do this daily are totally unaffected. I'm shaking.

I was told that the bride would arrive about 6.30 but could be later. Guests are arriving and having a self service lunch of rice and dahl. The wedding is taking place in what looks like the shell of a half built hotel. I assume it will be a hotel sometime because it's called Nayar Palace. A palace it isn't. But inside, the brick and concrete walls are being covered with blue and silver wall hangings, a dais is in place with two red and silver thrones side by side and on the open roof, folding tables and chairs are being laid out. There seems an awful lot to do in just a few hours. People are sitting around, the women dressed in beautiful coloured kurtas and shalwa kameez and an occasional sari, the men in jeans, slacks and shirts. 6.30 approaches. No one seems unduly interested but all the wall hangings are up, chairs set out and the place looks good and ready....maybe it is a palace after all.

7.30.....8.30....I ask if there's a problem. Maybe the bride has decided it's not for her after all. And the groom's nowhere to be seen either. Perhaps they've eloped and the romantic me sort of hopes they have.

9.30....10.30....this is serious. But I'm the only person who seems to care. This is India after all. There's a bit of movement. The young girls are getting excited and start to drift downstairs to the entrance.

11....a faint sound of brass instruments and drums. I go down and the girls have lined up across the entrance in a line. No one shall pass, especially the groom. I get out onto the road and coming up the hill is the groom sitting uncomforably on a white pony, surrounded by his cortege of friends and musicians. He's dressed from head to toe in a red and silver outfit with a headdress with flashing lights that defies description. Sewn into his clothes are 50 rupee notes, lots of them. Women and girls start to dance in the road and the music gets louder. Garlands and gifts are exchanged between families. No one seems to be smiling let alone the grim groom who gets off the horse and what looks like a wooden saddle. Maybe that's why he's so sullen. He and his male friends approach the line of girls and negotiations begin. He has to pay to come in, has to persuade the girls that he is wealthy enough for this bride. Just as well he has all those notes up his sleeve. The deal is done. The line breaks. The girls laugh and giggle. All very symbolic. But where is the bride? She's been smuggled in. I missed her. She's in a room having final words of advice about men from her family. Everyone slowly moves up the stairs. The mothers-in-law are waiting, facing each other. No handbags. Gifts to exchange. They smile. The families are happy. The groom is still grim. Is this a love marriage? Oh yes. The groom and his friends move to the dais and occupy the two thrones.

Under a canopy, the bride and her female helpers lowly approach the dais. She looks magnificent in a costume matching her husband to be. Her face is partly hidden, eyes down, not looking at dais or him. This time it's the groom's friends who block the way. More negotiations and at last bride and groom are side by side. No glances at each other, no smiles. They stand and face each other. The bride, eyes still down, puts a garland around her husband's neck. He places one round hers. That's it. Done. The take their thrones again and two by two, family and friends take their turn to stand being the couple, blessing them with rupee notes of differing denominations. The pile of notes in their laps is growing.

It's 12.30 in the morning. Husband and wife go to a small room, hopefully at least to smile at each other and count their blessings. The buffet is served. Water or Fanta to accompany it.

It's three in the morning, the end of May. I find a mat in the corner of the room and sleep. I'm not alone. I wake at six. The ceremony is continuing around me, the Hindu priest incanting blessings round a flame. There's been no sleep for the couple and family. This is a ceremony that befits the vows. A lifetime's commitment. Unable to be broken. Problems to be shared and worked through. No running away.

David, a 22 year-old musician has befriended me and over breakfast we discuss the merits of Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, John Denver, AC/DC, the blues, country music and jazz. He teaches at a school in Dalhousie. Sacred Heart. He will show me around when we get back.

But first we have to face the return bus journey. We follow the Ravi river, one of the five rivers that flow from the mountains, meeting in the Punjab to create the Ganges. The bus climbs out of Chamba and way down in the valley, the terraced farms look rich and fecund. Huge light green lakes fill the valley. A land of milk and honey.

The bus is not alone. There are two others following, not far behind, The driver needs to get ahead to be sure of picking up as many passengers as possible. So do the buses behind. It becomes a race. A race along the precipice, round-hairpin bends, halting only to pick up or put down. I look at David. Even I haven't been so fast he says. But no-one seems to care. It's fate.

I hope the newly-weds are enjoying their fate at last.

ps...for those of you with Facebook, I'm posting a lot more photos there.

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