We may be divided by culture, food and customs, but one thing binds all of us: the desire to preserve family ties
My cousin Parth, aka Parthasarathy Ramasubramanian, has gone and fallen in love with a Punjabi girl named Pinky, according to The Hindustan Times.
My relatives in Palghat are agog with dire predictions about the marriage.
“Punjabi weds Palghat? Never!” says an uncle, imitating erstwhile Tamil thespian ‘Nadigar Thilagam (acting superstar), Sivaji Ganeshan.
His wife has a more immediate question. Does the girl eat meat? Or for that matter, garam masala? The two seem fairly equal in her eyes, given that the only foods she eats are doused with coconut oil, curry leaves and chillies.
Shiva, Shiva, says an uncle. Of course, she will be a meat-eater. Or even a man-eater. He belly-laughs at his weak (and sexist) joke. That boy should never have been sent to study in Delhi. Look at who he has turned up with.
Well, at least it isn’t some foreigner girl who eats meat. The ‘M’ word again.
In the centre of this storm is the boy’s father, who at 72 is still called Baby. At 100 kilograms spread evenly over five feet, Baby Mama, my uncle, trundles through life like a cherubic baby elephant, albeit one that sings Carnatic music songs continuously and slightly off-key. He deserves the second most common of nicknames amongst Palghat Iyers. The first most common is Ambi, but it is usually given to a male child. Baby is the second and is unisex. I have a Baby-chithi and a Baby-mama.
For a long time, Baby Mama and Visalam Mami played ostrich. They pretended that Pinky didn’t exist. When their son Parth (family nickname: Paachu) brought the girl to their home and announced that she may be pregnant, they had no choice but to go to Delhi to meet the girl’s parents. Which is how some 25 of us from my side of the family sat nervously in a sprawling bungalow in Lutyens Delhi facing General Ahuja and Mrs Ahuja who were profusely (as only Punjabis can do) serving us sugary masala chai.
The initial pleasantries took all of five minutes. The Ahujas stared blankly at the strong Malayalam-accented English coming out of my uncle’s mouth. Cousin Paachu didn’t help matters any further by saying that most of his family hadn’t left Kalpathi village in Palghat except for brief sojourns in Chennai.
Chennai was the cue that General Ahuja was waiting for. He launched into an explanation about how he was posted in Chennai. Or was it a diatribe? All the familiar names sounded like rocket launchers when they came out of his mouth – Meenambakkam, Nungambakkam, Injambakkam and Kothavalchavadi – it was all one big mash up by way of a Sikh beard.
Finally, my aunt, Visalam piped in. “What is the biggest difference between a North Indian and a South Indian wedding?” she asked her to-be samdhis (in-laws).
Mrs Ahuja didn’t miss a beat. “Alcohol,” she replied.
There was a pause. Nobody in my Kalpathi clan has touched alcohol. Or at least, that is what we tell ourselves when we sit at our banana leaf plates and I am sticking to it.
“What about rituals?” Visalam continued. “We typically have the wedding ceremony in the morning, preferably early morning.”
“Yes, yes,” said Baby Mama sitting up. “My wife and I were married at 4.20am.”
General Ahuja looked like he wanted to throw up. “That is when we go to sleep after our weddings,” he said. His wife glared at him.
Paachu and Pinky sat beside each other, looking more and more despondent.
Weddings in India are more than rings. They are the co-mingling of two clans. And while we may be divided by culture, food, customs, and yes, consumption of alcohol, there is one tie that binds all of us. It is the desire to connect with each other, to preserve family ties, to accommodate every last irritating aunt and uncle in that ceremonial rite of passage that we call a wedding. This is why an uncle can call you up before your wedding and give you a list of people that need to be invited. This is why there are symbolic roles for the chachis, mamis, buas, maasis and kakis in the actual ceremony.
For all the back-biting and complaining, the great Indian joint family comes together to celebrate their union with another equally dysfunctional family. Which is what we did.
The Ahujas sweated it out in Chennai where we had the muhurtham, not at the crack of dawn which is when my family would have been in peak form, but at a civilised 10.30am to accommodate “those North Indians.” And later, we went to Delhi for the reception on the lawns of the Ahuja household. A lot of us from South India made runs to the bar and came back carrying clear liquids that we said was Sprite. None of us imbibed, of course.