Our daughter got married in late 2020. Photos to share, congratulations to field, gifts to open, thank you cards to send, lots of feel good moments to savour yes, but something to write about? Not really. Except it was in the year of Covid-19. And we are Indian. The two just don’t go together. Any Indian astrologer looking at the charts of Wedding and Covid-19 would have frowned on the match and declared ‘Jodi nahin banti’.
Quite rightly so. We Indians are a sociable lot who love the following, in no particular order: touching, feeling, crowds, noise, group dances, loud music, food, relatives, distant relatives, friends who are as good as relatives, hugging, chaos, jostling at buffet counters, glamorous brides, make up, hairdos, designer clothes, wedding planners, alcohol, lots of opportunities to mingle, lots of drunken aunties on the dance floor, lots of youngsters at room parties to get away from the aunties. Then think of the coronavirus restrictions: social distancing, at least 2 metres apart, strictly limited guests at weddings, face masks, washing hands ( how do you do that with justapplied henna, huh?, and how do you get it applied anyway, with the mehendiwali holding a cone on a selfie- stick, absurd!), quarantine, seated meals, self-isolation… let me not repeat what has been beamed into every home for the past nine months. You get the idea. Coronavirus is the buzzkill that every good Indian shaadi dreads.
So, as parents of the bride, we had a difficult choice to make. Postpone the wedding to an uncertain date in the future or go ahead in its pruned down, sanitised, Covid-enfeebled state without the fun, the glamour and the guests. We opted for the Wedding-On- Ventilator. While there is life support, there is hope and we were hoping that one day we would all revive and recover. Live to party another day. We also wanted to respect the original date the astrologer had picked after consulting the bride and groom’s charts.
What an inspired decision it turned out to be! In many respects a shaadi during the pandemic was so much easier. The online shopping for instance. A boon for any harassed mother. At the click of a key I could get to see sarees, zoom in if I wanted to check out a design close up, visit many more shops and outlets than I could have done physically and share them on my phone with my daughters for advice. Of course, I missed the unfurling of the sarees and the massive gleaming silk mountains I created and left behind in actual shops. I missed seeing the sarees draped on the salesmen (amazing how in India, the sales of sarees and women’s lingerie are almost exclusively done by men!). I love the way their fingers expertly pleat the saree into obedient folds, I love the way they suggest colours and designs, never ever running out of patience or ideas, even with the most difficult customers. Actually now that I think about it, having salesmen instead of women is an inspired marketing idea – a lady customer will buy anything from a man who is patient and gentle with her fickleness and never runs out of compliments.
The ease of finding a venue and a photographer at pretty much the last minute could not be discounted either. In an ordinary year, wedding venues get booked up years in advance and the stressful time between getting engaged and married is an endless round of viewings and disappointments. Not for us though. We decided at the last minute, to select the Isle of Wight on the southern coast of England as a location since our daughter had lived there for the past few years and guess what, we found the perfect venue – available on the very dates we wanted and before and after. Miles of scenic coastline, endless rolling hills of green, all deserted. No wedding parties in sight even on ground hallowed by Benedict Cumberbatch and his celebrity wedding. We heaved a sigh of relief – in a year when most things did not go according to plan, some unplanned things did go right.
In other respects, however, a wedding in the middle of a pandemic posed many challenges. The guest list for a start. With a strict 15 person limit in the UK, and nine of us being immediate family, it meant we only had six places to play around with. Divide that between the boy and the girl and that left only three places each for relatives and a lifetime of school friends, university buddies, work colleagues. Lists were made and cancelled, arguments were won and lost and finally three special guests were invited and told they had made the cut but their other halves had not! Because they were special guests and this was a special year, they understood. Otherwise, imagine an Indian shaadi where the mama’s son is invited but the chacha’s son is not – or worse, where one bua’s daughter is asked to come without her husband – we would never have lived it down. But it was that sort of year, when unique circumstances created their own etiquette and our guests were graceful beyond compare.
Finding an Indian caterer, even for a wedding this size, was also very difficult in a place that has almost no South Asian presence. Since we are all fond of food and cooking, it was decided that the parents would cook the Indian wedding feast. So, saree pallus were tucked in, pots and pans brought out and the mothers of the bride and groom pitched in with their favourite dals and sabzis. The dads were not to be left behind and decided to have a go with their favourites too so before we knew it, there was a north-south blend of delicious home made food on the wedding banquet table. It was a unique privilege to cook at my daughter’s wedding – again something I did not anticipate, but like everything else this year, gracefully accepted.
And while the preparation for the shaadi had its ups and downs; once the ceremony was underway, the grace and solemnity of the occasion kept us all enthralled. As the different steps of the Vedic ceremony unfolded in front of the sacred fire, we all felt drawn into the sacred event. Unlike the social whirl that accompanies the traditional Hindu ceremony at larger weddings, there was a hushed quiet. Instead of a dash to the chai counter there was a rush of gratitude: that we had something joyful to celebrate in a year that has wrought havoc with so many lives. Instead of the admiring glances at sarees and jewellery, there was a celebration of the beauty beyond the material. Instead of the ceremony being adjunct to the fun and the frolic of sangeet and the colourful gaiety of mehendi, it was the prime focus and the piety was not lost on anybody who was there.
Well, it has been that sort of year. When we have all changed in many fundamental ways. And as I saw my little girl take her first steps around the fire at her 15-person wedding, her head bowed under the weight of blessings, her every move followed by loving eyes around her, I thought, yes this is not the wedding I imagined for her. This is bigger, better and far more meaningful than a mother’s humble imagination could have conjured. This was the master wedding planner Himself, in a year in which he had everything his way.
The writer lives in London and is the author of East or West: An NRI mother’s manual on how to bring up desi children overseas.