I’m told by my team mates that there are plenty of advantages of being a foreigner in India. For example, they claim that whenever we go out for dinner together, they get better service in restaurants. Now that’s not for me to comment on because I’ve got nothing to compare it against. I’m friendly to waiting staff and they mostly seem to be friendly to me.
However, there are times I do notice the little extra attention such as the case a few months ago when we went to a wedding. Don’t ask me whose wedding it was. Wedding invites come in by the dozen in India and you can kind of pick and choose. The great thing about going to Indian weddings is you get good food, and I’m not a person who can easily say no to good food that’s free.
So anyway. We were invited to a wedding. It was the sister of my wife’s ex-colleague, neither of whom I had met. The ex-colleague of my wife was insistent that we come and it was taking place in the city so we agreed. In no small part because it had the benefit of taking care of our Saturday night dinner.
I opened my wardrobe and fished out my wedding shirt. I have three shirts in life. One is my date-night shirt when I take my wife out for dinner, one is the client-investor shirt for when clients or investors come to our office and the third is for weddings, including my own wedding two years ago.
My wife put on an elegant pinkish-red silk saree. For many married Indian men reading this, they will know that the wife putting on a saree invariably means standing still and being ready to hold pleats, handing over pins, and making encouraging noises about how beautiful everything looks.
Glammed up, me in my wedding shirt, we headed to the wedding. Except of course it wasn’t the actual wedding. Weddings in India take place at times deemed to be auspicious which usually turn out to be 4:30 in the morning. What we were attending was the reception, which is held at a much more convenient hour: Dinner time to be exact.
Upon arrival we realized we might have over done it a little on the glam quotient. I was the only gentleman in formal attire and my wife was the only one with makeup and her hair all done up. We got out the car and started walking through the crowd of guests. It was like a scene from a clichéd Western film when the guy walks into a saloon, the piano stops and everyone turns to stare.
Fortunately my wife’s ex-colleague arrived on the scene and whisked us away before any revolvers were drawn.
“Come” he instructed and led us up to the stage where his sister and her new husband stood. We followed him up onto the stage, murmured our congratulations and posed for the photographs. Incidentally, I’m the guy that ruins all the photographs in India as I grin like a Cheshire Cat the moment the camera is pointed at me.
As the photographs were being taken there was a little commotion behind me. This was a wedding, commotion is to be expected, so I ignored it. That was, until someone touched my arm. I looked around and saw a man holding up a gold shawl and saying something in Tamil.
Yes, I know I’ve been in India for eight years now, and I know it’s a total disgrace that I haven’t learned the local language.
The man continued in Tamil and was now holding open the shawl. In panic, I turned around to my wife. We didn’t know the people getting married and I was pretty sure he was demanding to know who we were and why we were coming to eat the food he had paid for.
My wife was chuckling.
Whether it was my panicked expression or what the man was saying, I didn’t know. The ‘help me’ plea look on my face didn’t get the response I was looking for. I was certain we had been busted and were about to be frog-marched out of the venue for gate-crashing the wedding for which we had no formal invite.
In fear, I looked back and forth between my wife and the man on stage, desperate for some kind of explanation about what was going on. After toying with me for a few seconds, my wife finally came to my rescue. “Pete, he wants to put that shawl around your shoulders.”
Huh? I have been to many weddings in Chennai (formally invited, of course). I’ve never experienced or even seen this before.
My wife was still grinning. “Shawls are given to distinguished guests. You seem to have made the cut.”
Oblivious to the fact that we were having a private conversation in front of the happy couple, oblivious to the queue of well-wishers that was starting to build up and waiting for us to leave, I continued the conversation with my wife.
“But we don’t even know these people.” My wife’s grin gave way to a glare that every husband knows means ‘oh you are in so much trouble’. I ran that line through my head again. Realization dawned.
I turned to the bride and groom. “I mean, sorry, err, I know my wife knows, err, umm…” I couldn’t for the life of me recall the name of her ex-colleague. I risked a glance at my wife, she offered nothing, curious to see how I was going to get myself out of this one. “…her ex-colleague, and you are his sister” I gestured to the bride. “and obviously you are the groom.” And err, sorry. We did get an invite though. Sort of. It came on whatsapp.”
I wasn’t doing much to help my role as a distinguished guest.
Finally the groom smiled and decided to put me out of my misery. “Please don’t worry about it” he said with an American accent, “we don’t know you guys either, or many others that have come, but you are both very welcome and we are happy you came. This is my Father.” he gestured to the man who still had an expectant look and holding out the golden shawl. “He would like to put it around your shoulders to show his appreciation for you coming to our wedding.”
“Oh.” Part mortified, but mostly thoroughly embarrassed, the blood rushed to my cheeks and I turned deep shade of red. The bright camera lights illuminating the stage felt like they were directed specifically at me. The sweat formed on my head and started dripping down my temples. “OK”.
The father came forward and with a certain amount of ceremony draped the shawl around my shoulders. “Thank you.” I mumbled. We turned our attention back to the camera crew. “Say cheese.” the photographer shouted.
Red faced, sweat streaming from my hair, I breathed in and grinned like the happiest distinguished guest in the history of Indian weddings.
Illustration by Jessie Miller
Pretty detailed description of your participation in an Indian wedding function. Glad that you got to experience firsthand the famous Hindu saying: “Adhithi Devo Bhavaa”
The one sentence that I really liked in your article was this: “My wife’s grin gave way to a glare that every husband knows means ‘oh you are in so much trouble’.” Having experienced such glares myself, I had a hearty laugh.
By the way, it would have been nice if your wife was not cut off from the group photo. We would have had an opportunity to see your ‘better half”.
Hi Ramani, thanks for stopping by and letting me know about the tradition of Adhithi Devo Bhavaa! I hadn’t heard of this exact phrase before but I know from my past eight years in Chennai that people in India are the most hospitable in the world 🙂 So I guess I’ve experienced it without knowing about the background.
As for my wife, she’s a little camera shy and would like to remain behind the scenes 🙂
By way of explaining what I meant by adhithi devo bhava, here is a brief explanation.
Atithi Devo Bhava refers to the procedure of host-guest relationship.
It is a Sanskrit verse, (from the Taittiriya Upanishad, part of ancient Hindu scriptures), and is part of a full verse: “matrudevo bhava, pitrudevo bhava, acharyadevo bhava, atithidevo bhava”, which means:
“Be one for whom the mother is God, be one for whom the father is God, be one for whom the Teacher is God, be one for whom the guest is God”, illustrating the “code of conduct” for a pious Hindu.
You got an excellent writing flair Peter 🙂
Thanks so much, Abdul! It really means so much to me when people take time out to let me know what they thought!
Nicely articulated. You do grin like a Cheshire cat, though! 😛
😀 Thanks, Rajat!
Peter: Please watch this interesting ad which captures the spirit of Indian hospitality!
Hi Peter…your post was most enjoyable! Did you dine off a banana leaf or was it a buffet? At one reception guests were also served the hugely popular Maggi noodles (read Italian spaghetti) on the banana leaf! You should try attending the actual wedding ceremony – the vows are very meaningful. This photograph with a short write up on my daughter’s flickr account may motivate you.
Thank you, Shakuntala! The photo looks really interesting. It seems to be wedding season in Chennai at the moment because I have multiple wedding invitations sitting on my desk right now! When me and my wife got married we had an Agni blessing ceremony with all our friends and family sat around the fire which was very special.
Here is the link..
I enjoyed your post. It seems more than embarrassment, you too enjoyed the privilege:)
It was a great honour, but still pretty embarrassing! Thanks for stopping by!
Peter, Good to know you enjoy being here in India and in Chennai…..
Marriage is an event where the well wishers of bride and groom, and, of course, their families from throughout the locality come together and wish them for their future. Its not important that you gate crash the wedding venue…. its important that you with the couple…….
Nice way to write your experience….. i enjoyed it….
Enjoyed your post, Peter. Foreigners enjoy Indian weddings because
they are so different from theirs. Last March my son Mukund got
married at the Connemara, and the few foreign couples who came
enjoyed the gorgeous flower-decor, the Arya Samaj ceremony
conducted by an articulate priest, the ambience, and the superb
lunch and dinner served by the Connemara. Wish I had known
S R Madhu