Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Mixed Emotions

Can a journey of nearly 12000 km with an 11 hour wait in between be enjoyable? Mine was, because apart from the fact that I was going home, I also saw something from the plane that I had not expected to see. I saw Aurora Borealis, or the northern lights, through the plane window during my night flight over Iceland.

It was a strange experience, and frankly speaking, not totally unexpected. I had hoped to see the thing when I bought the Finnair tickets in September and that is why I had chosen a left side window seat. Yet, when I peered outside the darkened cabin and saw the flickering green light dancing in the sky, I could hardly believe my eyes. The whole plane was sleeping, or so it seemed to me. As far as I could see, I was the only person who was looking out with face (and later camera) glued to the window and gasping as the light played around in the star-studded clear sky like a giant green curtain twisting and waving in the wind. In the incredible joy of being able to see such a thing, I didn’t seem to mind the long and boring journey at all.

Similarly, when my sister Jolly bade goodbye to us and left for her new home with her husband at the end on my month-long stay in India, it did not matter at all that I had known for the past 24 years of my life that this day would come. I still couldn’t hold back my tears. It was an occasion of great joy, and one that was completely expected and prepared for. I knew she would be happy where she was going. And yet… and yet… speak of mixed emotions!

An Indian wedding is, of course, a lot more than the silent tear-shedding goodbye part. Bollywood movies seem to have given the western world some idea of what it is like (“Was it a big splashy three-day Indian wedding?” a colleague asked me after I returned) but what people here know is still the tip of the iceberg, especially if it is a wedding in your own house.

The month leading up to the wedding was busy – I and my sister were preparing the trays of gifts that go to the groom’s house on the day of the wedding reception. “Is it dowry?” once an American friend had asked me. It is not dowry as the gifts contain mostly items of clothing and toilette for the bride, the groom and close family members, and then specific items are completely chosen by the bride’s family. Similar trays of gifts arrive from the groom’s house as well. But coming back to the story, these gifts are sent in trays or platters and every family tries to decorate their trays and platters in some unique way. For us, the decoration consisted of an origami model stuck on to each item, and I had been making these models for a month when I was not helping Jolly pack and catalogue the other items. Then there was some shopping to be done, some other important work to be finished (like taking Jolly to see Harry Potter 7), and some old friends to be met with since I was back in Kolkata after a year. Overall, it was a vacation that was busier than the average semester at school.

The hard work was not without its rewards, of course, and the fact that I am scared to step on the scales now should suffice to indicate the nature of that reward. In our parts, it is customary for the bride-to-be’s relatives to invite her for an elaborate lunch in the time leading up to her wedding. In this case, the invitations were for me as well, and even if my sister got away with eating less with her “I am dieting for the wedding” excuse, I was always confronted with “You don’t get this stuff in America, so eat it now.” Not that I need any confrontation when served food, but whatever.

The wedding itself was four days. Those four days now seem like a colourful blur of space time where I was too busy most of the time. Now, as I sift through the tens of gigabytes of photos taken during those days almost half a month after the event, small sights and sounds come back to the mind. We did not employ a professional photographer for the event – it was I and some of my cousins who covered the entire event. The first day was the day before the wedding, the day when Jolly ate her last lunch as a bachelor. The day started with me photographing the cutting of the fish at the caterer’s early in the morning, and then passed in a rush as scores of friends and neighbours and relatives joined us for lunch. Jolly’s friend painted her hand with “mehendi” which is an herbal dye made of powdered henna leaves usually worn during weddings. The evening passed in last minute preparations.
After a sleepless night, the next day started very early, quite some time before dawn. A Bengali wedding is full of so many rituals that there is hardly a moment during the whole day when something or the other is not going on. The gifts from the groom’s family arrived sometime in the middle of this. The house was full of guests once more as Jolly proceeded to have her “gaaye-holud” or ritual turmeric bath. After a hurried lunch, professionals arrived to adorn her for the wedding. She was dressed in a red-and-gold Benarasi sari, gold jewelry made for the occasion and her face was adorned with sandalwood paste designs. In between other work, I went and took pictures of this process. Then we left for the wedding venue which was on the lawns of an outdoor swimming club. Sayan, the groom, arrived directly to this venue for the wedding.
The wedding went on uneventfully and by the time we came back home with the couple, it was well past midnight and we were utterly exhausted. However, nobody slept in the night and the night was customarily spent in singing, chit-chat and general merry-making among the couple, their friends, cousins and siblings. We even saw part of a movie on Jolly’s laptop. Next morning, by the time Jolly and Sayan left, we were sad, but tiredness and relief were both more important feelings for all of us.

But our work was not finished. Although I did sleep like a log for a few hours after lunch, I was back at finishing the trays in the evening. The house was empty now – only my parents and I were left, and parents were busy with other work. A cousin dropped in to help for some time, but I could still sleep only at 1:30 a.m. I had to wake up again at 6:30 and continue the work. We went to deliver these gifts to Sayan’s house (which is an hour and a half by road) a little later. By the time we reached, delivered the platters, had lunch there and came back, it was evening and it was time once more for us to go to the reception in their house. Friends and relatives had started coming in once again to join us.

Jolly was sitting on a throne in the reception, and her only jobs were grinning at guests, accepting gifts and posing for photographs. I realized I needed some more time to get used to the idea that she was not a part of our household anymore when I started looking for her absent-mindedly when we were eating dinner at the buffet to see if she was done eating, and then remembered with a start that she was sitting on a throne downstairs.

A one-day gap between the reception and my return trip seemed too quick and unfair, especially for my parents. But my school had already reopened and I had my teaching job to take care of, so I bade adieu to my family once more on the 20th of January. Jolly had Sayan had joined my parents and some other relatives at the airport, and as I talked with her using our exclusive jargon and laughed at the little internal jokes known only to the two of us, I overcame my earlier sorrow. She was happy. She was still the same sister to me, and what’s more, I now had more members in my family.

But time was running out. I had the 63-hour long journey back to Newark in front of me, with 12 and 24 hours of waiting at New Delhi and Helsinki respectively. What’s more, I was leaving home this time, and there would be no Aurora Borealis to cheer me up. So here I am, back at this snow covered depressing city which I had once described as a winter wonderland but which now looks like a huge construction zone with snow instead of earth heaped higher than my head all around. The only good thing about being away from home this time seems to be that it makes it easier to accept my sister’s absence in the house.

One way or the other, life is full of mixed emotions.


  1. Nice one.
    Our home will always be the place where we grew up, i guess.

    Belated wedding wishes to your sis, Sugata.

  2. Nice recap Sugata.....and Aurora Borealis!

  3. Nice Post.

    "The first day was the day before the wedding, the day when Jolly ate her last lunch as a spinster"

    - spinster usually refers to an old unmarried maid which your sister hardly is/was.

  4. @Bhavana, Nishamathi, Kuntala: Thanks!

    @Anonymous: Thanks for pointing it out. However, I couldn't find a better feminine form of bachelor.

  5. I'm glad you didn't hire a professional photographer. They seem to intrude too much. To be honest, family/friends can capture the most emotional moments much better than a professional can.

    I love Indian weddings. As a bride, every step of the transition is so well paved with rituals that at the end of three days, it seems natural to be part of a new family. Nice post!

  6. @CLS: Intrude is the word! You hit the nail on the head. That was precisely the reason why we did not hire a professional. They tend to try and capture what the ceremonies should look like rather than what they are actually like.