A Heady Mix of an Alien Kind by Madhu Kamath A short story

Tanmayee Sikand’s wedding was an affair to remember. No, not because of the pomp and show it was conducted with. Far from it. The wedding was a simple affair, but it was unique. 

Tanmayee or Tanu. as she was affectionately called, was the last grand-daughter left to be married off. In fact, she was the only one whose marriage was a totally arranged one. Her fiance, Shirish, was the editor of a popular business magazine and she herself was a lecturer in Economics.

Besides their professional interests, they had found that they had a lot in common. Neither was aware till they met, for instance, that they had studied at the same primary school!

The crisp January morning dawned bright and clear. Only a person who is a Delhite to the core, can enjoy the indescribably delicious sunny winter days of the Capital. Tanu's brother Vibhor's Japanese wife Motoko sat in a garden chair, gaping in fascination at a group of elderly relatives sitting round on a durrie, chatting, as they cracked peanuts and popped the nuts into their mouths.

Tanu's sister Pragya was there with her English husband Jason who looked quite bewildered and uneasy at all the gaiety and leg-pulling. Her cousin Naveen had come all the way from Milan with his Italian wife Gina and their infant son Carlo, and his brother Praveen had made it a point to come with his African-American wife Cheryl, a Diana Ross look-alike.

Their daughter Cherveen was already a stunning beauty at the tender age of 5. After years, the entire family was together!

The wedding was still 2 days away. After lunch, a bag of roasted peanuts materialised on the centre-table in the living room. By it, lay a fragrant heap of raveries from Meerut. The 5 cousins and their 4 spouses had assembled to watch a video recording of a friend’s wedding.

Vibhor, Pragya, Naveen and Praveen, had tried to describe to their respective spouses from abroad, how a Hindu Indian wedding took place. Understandably, none of the foreigners had been able to comprehend the intricate details. So, it had bean decided that the only way to help them get a clear picture was, by letting them see the proceedings on film and giving them a running commentary.

During Tanu's wedding, they were bound to be busy with a 100 things. So, an afternoon of video-watching was likely to prove more than worthwhile.

While the cassette was being rewound, Tanu passed the bag of peanuts round to the others. Picking up a raveri, Cheryl examined it closely. “Sesame seeds, aren’t they?” she asked, and placed once hesitantly in her mouth.

“Made with sugar syrup and rose essence”, Pragya informed her. Cheryl's expression changed as she bit into the raveri and moved it around on her tongue. "It's delicious," she almost moaned. “Mmm.” As if by reflex action, the others who had never tasted raveries, reached out too.

Motoko, Jason, Gina and Cheryl exchanged glances. It was obvious that they had been discussing peanut-popping. It was Motoko who took the initiative.

“Tell me, Vibhor,” she asked in all innocence, “Why do you people pop, I mean kind of throw, the peanuts into your mouths instead of just putting them in?”

Vibhor burst out laughing. Tanu and Pragya, Naveen and Praveen tittered.

“It's our style, Motoko. Try it. You’ll enjoy it. Jason, Gina, Cheryl, try it with the raveries too.”

Ishtyle would be more appropriate, wouldn’t it?” suggested Praveen. “After all, it's a desi habit!” He proceeded to explain what he meant as simply as he could.

The 4 gingerly cracked a peanut each between their thumb and forefinger, rubbed off the skin and directed the peanuts towards their open mouths. Motoko's landed in her lap, Gina’s back in her hand. Jason’s flew off, God knows where. Only Cheryl’s landed right inside the target and she munched happily.

By the time the cassette was ready to be played, all 4 were thoroughly enjoying themselves. Carlo had fallen asleep with his head in Gina's lap and Cherveen was busy “target practising” on the carpet. As they watched the wedding right from the arrival of the baraat till the vidai, the Indians kept giving a commentary on the significance of the various customs and ceremonies they were watching being performed.

The 4 foreigners were a knowledgeable lot by the time the cassette wound to an end.

“Hm! Very impressive,” Jason nodded in approval. “Amazing” Cheryl slowly shook her head in disbelief. “I had never ever imagined that a wedding could involve so many different customs.”

“There eez one thing we still don't know,” said Gina “After the wedding, why deed the couple keep dropping and peecking something up in front of the elders”

It took the Indian better-halves a moment to realise what she meant.

“Oh! That!” Pragya explained with a laugh. “I am sorry we left that part out. They were not dropping or picking up things. The newly-wed couple touches the feet of the elders as a symbol of respect and they, in turn, bless them by putting their hands on the couple's heads.”

Gina giggled at her blunder. The others were amused too.

The peanuts and raveries had disappeared. Tanu picked up the mound of shells to throw them away when she noticed Gina, Jason, Cheryl and Motoko exchanging wistful glances. Curiosity made her stop. The others noticed too.

“Are you thinking what I am thinking?” Jason looked at the 3 ladies enquiringly.

“Yes, I am,” said the pretty Motoko, her eyes almost disappearing into slits as she smiled.

“Telepathy huh?” Vibhor remarked.

“Yes,” nodded the dusky, doe-eyed Cheryl, her 101 braids swinging in agreement.

“Eye surre yam too!” There was eagerness dripping from Gina’s voice, as she ran her fingers through her raven hair.

“So, what are we waiting for? Let's ask!”

“WHAT!” the 5 cousins exclaimed in one voice when they heard the request. They were completely nonplussed but after a few moments of discussion, they fell in with the whole wild scheme.

On the evening of the wedding, the guests began to arrive shortly after dusk and each one of them was taken aback. The arrangements were most unusual. Consumed with curiosity, they sought out members of the family. But they in turn only heightened their curiosity by requesting them to wait. More than the usual amount of gaiety seemed to be in the air on this occasion.

The baarat arrived on the dot at 8 and the mystery started to unravel when, after Tanu’s and Shirish’s jaimala, Jason, Vibhor, Naveen and Praveen appeared in white churidars, royal-looking achkans and turbans. They lined up, as if on cue.

The strains of the shehnai softened as all eyes turned towards the portico. With a rustle of silk appeared another 4 brides, all in identical red and gold lehngas and choli’s, with the chunnis pulled down a little over their heads, their hennaed hands holding jaimalas.

The guests all gasped audibly. Shirish and Tanmayee exchanged quick, stolen glances. The groom’s family had already been apprised of the suddenly made new arrangements.

The 4 “grooms” waited in anticipation as their “brides” drew closer. Yes, they were brides, not wives, at least for that day !

Cherveen, walking next to Cheryl, was looking round in wonder. As the 4 couples exchanged jaimalas, Jason actually did not have to hold on to his pugree and his chest swelled in pride when it did not fall off. The photographer was clicking away furiously and the videographer was a picture of concentration.

Seeing her parents exchanging garlands, Cherveen looked up at them expectantly.

“What about me?”

Some one handed her a veni of fragrant mogras and she was quite happy with it. The guests had never seen or heard of such an event. Over dinner, everyone discussed the 5-in-one wedding. Mr. Sikand was accosted by one of the guests.

“Sikand Sa’ab, has it occurred to you or to any member of your family that you might be eligible for a place in the Guinness Book of World Records?”

“Really?” Mr. Sikand’s eyebrows rose.

“From national integration, your family has moved on to international integration. A Bengali wife, a Maharashtrian bhabhi, a Sikh Jeeja!”

Mr. Sikand laughed, “There are others too. I’ll tell you about them some time at leisure. Excuse me, please.” He moved on to look after his other guests.

The biggest surprise came when most of the guests chose to stay on after dinner to watch the marriage ceremonies. Tanu and Shirish were in the centre, with 2 couples each on their right and left. They had settled down on the chowkis and the chanting of the mantras had started, when someone came running to tell Gina that Carlo had woken up and was crying. Tanu's mother came out, holding the baby and trying to quieten him.

Gina started to get up but sat down again indecisively. How could she leave? “Naveen, what am I to do? He must be hungry ...”

Flustered by the situation, Naveen blurted out, “Pull down your veil and feed him.”

Flabbergasted, Gina whispered fiercely, “In front of everyone?”

The priest came to their rescue. “Take him inside. We’ll wait," he said.

“Mi spiace, I’m sorry.” Gina excused herself. The moment she took the crying infant from her mother-in-law, the baby instinctively turned to her mother's breast. It took Gina only a few minutes to feed him. Contented, Carlo went back to sleep. “Sleep well my bambino”, she said and kissed him on the forehead and quietly put him on the bed.

In the meantime, Cherveen, seeing Gina walking away with her baby, started insisting that she wanted to sit with her Mama and Dad. Vibhor and Cheryl looked at the priest helplessly but the priest nodded and holding Cherveen's tiny hands, sat her down between her parents. “The child should not feel neglected,” he said sagely.

The guests were very impressed because it was obvious from the expressions on the face of Motoko, Gina, Cheryl and Jason that they understood the solemnity of the actual ceremonies. They conducted themselves with quiet dignity and the eyes of the alien brides remained lowered throughout. They hadn’t even had to make any effort to do this.

The experience had an overwhelming effect on them, in fact, no less than it had on Tanu and Pragya. It was like a heady mix of strong perfumes.

Later, when piping hot coffee was served, the guests took the opportunity to get acquainted with the “newly-weds”.

“How are you feeling at this moment? Tell me in Japanese," someone asked Motoko.

She blushed. “Tokui,” she said. “What does that mean?”

“Proud satisfaction!” and, Motoko smiled in contentment.

“How do you say it in Italian?”  the person turned to Gina.

“Come si dice in italíano,” Gina replied and immediately clapped her hand on her mouth. she had thought that he wanted to know the Italian translation of what he had asked ! She gave him a broad smile. “Whyee een Italian?” she asked. “Eye’ll say eet een Heendee... Bahut achcha!”

From under her veil, Cheryl's 101 plaits swung in agreement. “Bahut sunder” she gushed.  “Mein bahut Khush hoon.”

Sabse badhiya!” added a soft, shy voice. That was Motoko whose pale cheeks were still red.

Pragya and Tanu were beaming, their respective hubbies proudly standing next to them.

After the guests left the 5 couples found themselves on their own. Cheryl exclaimed suddenly, “Hey! I just realised something. Here the groom doesn’t kiss the bride after the marriage has been solemnised!”

It was the turn of the Indian grooms to go red in the face. Praveen leaned closer to her and whispered, “In our country we don’t do it when others are looking.”

“How exciting. You mean you do it when others are not looking?” “No, my darling dumbo! We do it only when we are alone!”

Cheryl’s expression softened. “How romantic!” she said, sounding rapturous.

The moment the 2 magic words left her lips, 9 other pairs of eyes grew dreamy with anticipation. And no prizes for guessing which 2 pairs must have been the dreamiest!

***

Articles & stories by Madhu Kamath - Index of writings on Kalpana