Underwater handshakes

British Airways:
Mumbai to London

I left Mumbai pretty much as I arrived: pressed in a sea of people. I boarded my flight (departure 13:35) at 13:32. The long lines for security screening before and after each stop (check-in, immigration, boarding) reminded me of the bureaucracy in Belgium, in which you think you’re on the last step only to discover that there’s another one, and then another . . . and another . . .
Still, I made the flight and the entire visit in Mumbai was perfect. Well, we did miss most of the actual marriage ceremony (oops) but they were still unmarried when we arrived! Who kept re-setting snooze? Couples. You gotta watch out for them.
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I was there at the beginning. Maybe not the very beginning, but I was around when the light began to dawn. I had already seen the signs: “it seems you are giving each other a lot of comfort.” Nonetheless, who would have guessed, even a year ago, that I would be attend a Brahmin wedding between two dear friends – and in Mumbai, no less? Peak experiences are infrequent, but yesterday was a sixteen and a half-hour nonstop wonder. The whole trip has been great: my senses were unable to sustain the full onslaught of constant stimulation but I did fairly well considering I was hardly there long enough to get over jet lag.
Being with such close friends eased much of the culture shock I might otherwise have felt. Against the backdrop of stark poverty, a bewildering maze of trains, auto rikshaws, and busses, with barefoot people everywhere (even running jackhammers), there is an organic self-organizing system of constant commerce, from evening train carriage entrepreneurs to millions of home-cooked lunchbox deliveries.
The city surges in huge gulps and massive swallows. Need to get off the local train at rush hour? Just wedge those hips into the tiniest crevice and wiggle open the gap. Like mudwrestling without lubricant, bodies morph around each other like blood squeezed through a capillary. As long as you plan ahead, you’ll be close enough to the doors to be disgorged, to all extents and purposes simply ejected in the periodic spasm of rolling stops and abrupt starts.

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My friends’ wedding unfolded in delightful contrast. More a relaxed social event than the solemn witnessing characteristic of U.S. weddings, people chowed breakfast and caught up on recent news while others showered rice blessings on the couple as the priest made stuff up.

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Laughter and goodwill permeated the crowd. It was a crowd – approximately 350 for the marriage proper. This was primarily the groom’s side of the family, although a solid contingent of the bride’s side did make it all the way from Chennai (and Sydney, among other globally-scattered locations). The bride’s side gets their turn on Sunday: another three hundred or so will gather to eat, toast the new couple, and eat. Did I mention that food is really the main event? 😉
I ate much more than seems reasonably possible. It did not help that the US version of headshaking “no” translates pretty closely to the Hindi headshake for “yes.” Then there are the sortof rolling headbobbles that look like yes/no at the same time. No wonder the general attitude about nearly all things is a relaxed, “whatever!” 😉
Although it felt effortless, there was nothing casual about the ceremony and rituals. The groom’s parents began planning last summer, setting aside enough mangoes to make the most delectable mango dessert imaginable. I can’t name the dishes, but I can say every single one was delicious and abundant. Between dinner the night before, breakfast during the morning rituals and actual wedding ceremony, and lunch afterwards, I could have eaten comfortably for a week. Everyone’s finery was on display, including some brash young men who sought to compete with the groom for splendour. (They had permission, outfits purchased with groom in tow; mine excepted.)

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Still, the ease with which the women navigated in their saris, and everyone circulated among familiar relatives and strange foreigners was delightful. You wouldn’t know, for instance, that the bride and groom didn’t really want to sit in the royal chairs, so carefully maneuvered were they into conforming to tradition. Parents are definitely dangerous. The bride’s dad, in particular, pumped us for incriminating information on the lucky couple. Some people cooperated. Ahem. This is what happens, I think, when the entire sociocultural structure is designed to make relationships work. Whether the goal is to prevent divorce or promote harmony is beside the point: everything is geared to keep the couple together – even if “and happy” is a contingent on a variety of circumstances and conditions.
Which is all rather different than queer folk who pretty much have to make a relationship work on its own merits, often against overt hostility and nearly always against the subtler forces of indifference. I was stared at a lot, but only aggressively by one person (that I noticed). Others were curious: but then again, being American is an excuse for all kinds of strange behavior. 😉
Did I mention how cool my friends are? They are the greatest.

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