Saturday, January 24, 2015

"You co-operate with us"

On this latest trip to India, 9 years into being a part of my Big Fat South Indian family....I finally felt like I was an actual part of the family. Yes, it took me 9 years to get here. I felt like I was a respected and crucial member of this family who contributes in her own way. And this....this was ground-breaking for me. After so many years of feeling like an outsider, and many times feeling less than dirt on this golden brick Brahmin highway, I felt important and I felt valued.

There were a lot of little moments and big moments that made me feel like this. Here and there, it was a smile shared. A joke shared with me. Someone making the effort to speak to me. Complimenting me. A bond of inclusion. A sense that my opinion was respected. A feeling that they wanted me to be there - but not just be there - be really there and participate. A feeling of being wanted; and the start of being beloved.

One of those big moments came when I attended cousin-sister's engagement...

My MIL's younger sisters have always been quite conservative. They are very devout, very by-the-book, and generally strict with their children. The youngest two have been the hardest to bond with. Eight years ago, on my first trip to India, I remember visiting Chinnathha #3's house. I was not spoken to the entire time, except given a bad look when I refused ghee on my Aloo. Chinnattha's MIL refused to be in the same room as me, but instead she stared at me from behind the kitchen curtain like a crazy old ghost lady. I felt like the caste-less foreigner who polluted their space. I remember how I cried and cried after. How it stung for years after that. How I wondered why she did not even look at me; why she did not like me. What did I do to her? I thought. How I wished that my skin was brown, just so that she would acknowledge me.

A similar thing happened with my MIL's other younger sister as well. And as the years went on, there was virtually no improvement. I began to think that the mere concept of me - was just too different for them. Somewhere along the lines, I accepted this fate - if only to be at peace with myself.

So, when I saw Chinnattha #2 approaching me at the engagement, I thought she was coming to see Maya - my daughter being the connecting bridge between us. At least she is loved by them, I thought.

Instead, she came up to me and looked me dead in the eye, like the hawk she is. "You're enjoying the event?" she demanded. "Yes, I am. It's lovely and I'm glad we came to see it," I said quietly.

Then, she said, "I appreciate you. You co-operate with us. You are just like a daughter to me." It was so blunt. My jaw dropped. My eyes filled with tears of joy. I choked up a bit. I embraced her and whispered, "Thank you, thank you for letting me be a part of your family". She waddled off quickly, with that strange penguin-walk that aunty's-of-a-certain-age do, maybe embarrassed that I hugged her. I was left there standing like I just got hit by a rainbow. Like I starving roadside dog that had just been thrown a treat. Was that my initiation into this family? Did I finally make it into the inner circle?

That was a big turning point for me, and I still can't even believe it happened. To be appreciated. To be acknowledged for my efforts. To be told that I'm a part of this family, as if I was born into it. Maybe it was a one-time thing, but it really meant a lot to me and I'll never forget it.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Seeing a traditional Telugu engagement

 -----Click HERE to read part 1 ----

On the car ride over, all the girls had such a nervous, but excited energy. We all sang along to the Telugu hit songs on the radio, to release some of the anxiety. By the time we got there, Maya had fallen fast asleep on my shoulder and was drooling on my saree.

We waited at the function hall while all the 3 Chinnattha's ran around and got their display of offerings together. The groom's side started to arrive and the staring proceeded. They had a look of confusion, as if they had gone to the wrong room since there was a foreigner there. All of us girls sat around and chit-chatted as everyone piled in and looked at us like zoo animals. It was almost like a high society type of event, where everyone is looking at what everyone else was wearing. The groom and the bride didn't speak before the ceremony started.

The priest arrived and got the families to sit across from each other on the stage - the parents presenting their child to each other in front of God. By this point, Maya woke up and started running around, thinking that this was a big party for her!

The wedding "photographers" were just god-awful. They looked like ex-cons, foaming at the mouth for all the young women. They asked people to pose in certain awkward ways, like touching their hand to the chin like a Bollywood poster. It was so cheesy. They set up these big gigantic high-beam lights so that everyone's faces were blown out - husband-ji said it was to make everyone look fairer. 

Mid-way through, the groom's mother presented the bride with a saree and all of us sisters shuffled up to the hotel room upstairs as Chinnatha #2 draped her saree. There was still a nervous energy in the air, but by that time I was kind of over it and watched Maya jump on the bed as I ate one of the mandarin oranges which was given to the bride. The bride took one of my baby wipes (again) to make sure that there was no makeup left on her face "to scare the groom".

There was a lot of rituals involving the honoring of the parents - almost as if it was a marriage of the parents (in some ways it is). The priest wrote down the marriage details in his booklet to make it official.

Then the couple exchanged rings while the groom's family was getting very boisterous. They kept shouting and saying "Ohhhho!" in an embarrassing way. The groom decided to pull a prank and get down on one knee and ask the bride to marry him. But it was more of a demand, and less of a question. Not like how we do it in the West, where the girl can actually out-rightly refuse the guy. The groom was posing at the camera's flashing to get the moment of him bowing down on one knee, rather than looking up to her for her answer. If she answered, I didn't hear it.

Then, they cut the cake and had to feed each other a slice. It was a little sexualized, I thought. Whenever I think of a man and woman feeding each other, I picture I half-naked Cesar feeding grapes to Cleopatra! We did this at our own Hindu marriage and I didn't think so then. Apparently it is supposed to enhance intimacy between the couple.

After that was hours upon hours of group photos while all the guests ate from the buffet. The bride couldn't eat until everyone ate first. She was absolutely famished and she scolded her sisters when she saw them eating before her. During this time, my MIL and her sisters - "The Masala Spice Girls" took the mike and sang three beautiful songs.

Once they were finally off the stage, booming Telugu hits started playing and all the kids under 5 got up on the stage and danced their asses off. It was great entertainment! Of course, the adults didn't dance (conservative South Indian Brahmins don't dance, except to Bharat Natyam of course) but they all enjoyed watching the kids. Maya just loved the chance to show off her dance skills!

Then there was more chatting and sitting around with family - for so long that I nearly got hungry again for a second meal. A girl brushed past me and said "excuse me, Aunty" I really as old as an 'aunty'??? Behind me, cousin-brother's friends were marveling at how I looked just like a traditional Indian girl, dressed up with Jasmine in my hair. "Everything is Indian about her except her skin," they said. Quite funny to overhear these types of conversations when nobody thinks I'm listening!

I was sitting around with all of husband-ji's aunts when the function hall decided to turn off the lights as a notice that we should all vacate there. I joked that they could still clean the floors around us and we'd still be there chatting! The whole event felt like more of a gab-fest - or at least I know that's what I was doing!

We headed back to the Nagaram house after and by that time I was absolutely exhausted - it was over 8 hours since we left in the morning! I took a nap with Maya in one of the bedrooms for I don't know how long. The rest of the relatives in the house displayed a mix of emotions - some happy, some sad. The parents were really happy that the event was joyous. One of the younger cousin-sisters started sobbing.

Overall, it was really fascinating seeing this type of event from an arranged marriage perspective. All the other events I have seen 'til date have been love marriages (which are a radical minority in India). The presence of family involvement is heavy - it is fully engineered by the parents. The bride and the groom hardly know each other at all, but they are excited and nervous to. There is a sense of giving away one's daughter to the new family and a new life. The groom's side is joyous; the bride's side is melancholy. The bride and the groom are child-like in their personalities - they don't quite look grown up enough to fit into their clothes. They are not even called "the bride" and "the groom"; they are called "the girl" and "the boy". As with everything, traditions and rituals mark the transitions in one's life - guided by the elders.

Before we left for India, I was a bit apprehensive to attend such events. First of all, because I'm a foreigner I will be getting stared at extra-extra, which sometimes I'm not in the mood to deal with. Another reason is that it is just a crowded event that goes on for WAY too long. BUT...looking back, I really liked attending. It was nice to see all the relatives in one space. It was fun to get dressed up and contribute as a solid member of the family. And seeing all the rituals was really interesting for me. It was a sensory overload - so much to learn, watch and do. After it was over, I told husband-ji that we should try to come back for more events.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Getting ready with the girls (for a Telugu engagement)

For me, the most fun part of our trip was being in Chinnattha's house before cousin-sister's engagement time. There is something about the simple act of "getting ready with the girls" that is such a bonding experience for young women. It certainly was for me.

I have never really gotten the chance to bond with husband-ji's younger cousin-sisters. They have always been very conscious that I have been an outsider, and then after that there was a formality that I was their elder brother's new wife. Having been in the family for more than 9 years, I was surprised to come back this time to girls who had matured into women. They all seemed so grown up now. Many of the girls have almost finished college and are earning from jobs. I remember back in the day when they were young enough for Barbie dolls. It was a quite surreal.

This time, all my younger cousin-sisters were all fascinated by the process of beautification - something that I am also obsessed with, like any other 20-something aged girl. Before we left, we got requests to bring "moisturizing shampoos" and "American lipsticks", to which I promptly went to Sephora and had a lot of fun picking out makeup kits for them.

The days before the engagement were a blur. We did all kinds of shopping with all the cousin-sisters, making me feel like Kate Plus 8 - me herding my little women around Hyderabad.

The day before the engagement, we hung out at Chinnattha #1's house in Nagaram. There was such a nervous hustle and bustle in the house. When we arrived, the girls had just returned from the hair salon in which cousin-sister (the bride) was complaining that the hairstylist did the other sister's hair straighter. She asked if I could fix it, and I used the paddle brush and the hair dryer and straightened each piece one by one. The girls sat there in awe and Chinnathha #3 even wanted to video it so that she could do it later!

After that, another cousin-sister did all of our mehendi's. She did an incredible job and could even open up her own mehendi boutique! But of course, she is studying engineering or something boring like that.

All the while, my MIL and her 3 sisters were practicing their singing for the engagement party. They planned on singing 2 or 3 songs, with my MIL being the lead. I told them they could form a new girl group called the "Masala Spice Girls"!!!

The day of the engagement was even more anxious than the day before. The whole family crowded in the 2 bedroom flat trying to get ourselves ready and pack all of the "offerings" for the engagement.

We got dressed first - the women in one room and the men in the other room. Of course everyone was hiding except for me, who just whipped off my shirt and all the girls got a Victoria's Secret show and a good look at all my tattoos! Chinnattha #2 tied my saree, and then I piled on all my gold. Chinnattha #1 (bride's mother) said that I can wear a more fancy saree because "the elder SIL should dress fancier than the bride", but I declined being already aware that my foreign-ness would draw attention. And a surprise foreigner, no doubt. I knew they would not have told the groom's family that there was a foreigner in their own family. Still the secret foreigner, in that sense...

It also dawned on me then that I was suddenly given this "higher status" role. That suddenly I mattered - because I was their eldest brother's wife. I didn't know how to process this change in perception that everyone had towards me. I felt like a responsibility was given to me (as a married woman), to help this younger woman transition to being engaged/married. To guide her. To be the elder sister that she can lean on.

After that, I did my cousin-sister (the bride's) makeup in about 5 minutes. She just wanted a very light makeup so I used a little bit of foundation and blush. All the girls were peering behind me like a scene from The Goonies, in complete observation of the makeup techniques I was using. The girls loved the makeup and they thought I did a great job. As soon as Chinnattha #1 saw her daughter's face, she looked horrified. "IT'S TOO MUCH!!!" She cried. She wasn't used to seeing any makeup on her daughter's face. "LET US NOT SCARE THEM!!!" Then the bride felt ashamed and embarrassed and wiped off nearly all her makeup. By Western standards, I only used a pinch of makeup - it wasn't even a half-face! I felt bad that I overdid it.

With everyone finally ready, it took another half hour to get everyone loaded into the 3 cars to the function halls. By this time everyone was like a bunch of mad hens clucking around a chicken coop! As we were waiting in the car, I felt cousin-sister's nervous energy, as she was just about to be engaged and sealed to someone for life. A man who she hardly knew at all. She didn't even know his birthday. I grabbed her hand and held it in mine and told her that she looked beautiful.

"I am a little nervous because everyone will be staring at me. All the guy's side will keeping staring the whole time," she said with a jittery undertone. I paused. Then I smiled and said, "I know the feeling. To this day.... I know the feeling." We both smiled and chuckled.

I think it was then that she truly saw me for the first time. In that short fleeting moment, we were finally speaking the same language, with no translation needed...


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Seeing a traditional Telugu wedding

One of the fun things about going to India for a longer trip is that there is bound to be some type of event going on - whether it be a festival, engagement, wedding, housewarming ceremony, or family get-together. Trust me, when you inherit a big fat Indian family - something will always be going on!

This time we were invited to see a traditional Telugu wedding of one of husband-ji's friend's brothers - someone he went to school with. I was totally excited to see this event because I had never seen a Telugu marriage before. The actual marriage took place at the inconvenient auspicious time of 12am in the night/morning. Since it was so late, the reception was before the wedding at 8pm.

I wore a gorgeous new magenta silk saree and matching bangles, and husband-ji wore a dapper Nehru style 3 piece outfit. I put Maya in a delicate Italian sundress which was evidently not bejeweled enough for Indian standards!

We were already exhausted by the time we arrived, having been stuck in Hyderabadi rush hour traffic for over an hour and a half. We arrived when the bharath dance was happening. The groom was at the entrance of the function hall on a silver horse and carriage (kind of like Cinderella) while all of the youngsters in the family were dancing like mad in front, as if it was Studio 54. The drummers were incredible performers but they were drunken teenage boys who looked like the Indian equivalent of the Backstreet Boys, circa 1998. The bharath is supposed to be a procession, but the youngsters just wanted to keep dancing so the Cinderella carriage only moved about 2 inches per minute. Everyone was sweating their asses off. Then there were fireworks lit in front of the whole procession - quite dangerous actually. It made it look like a discotheque on the street in the middle of Baghdad!

We watched it for a few minutes and then got bored and decided to go to the function hall. The walk to the inside area was on a beautiful pathway with gorgeous gold beams, white canopies and flowers. I felt like I was at some Bollywood event on the red carpet.

Inside, there were about 500 white plastic lawn chairs with all the senile people elders sitting and chatting away. We entered and all eyes were on us - the Firangi in the saree with a thaali and back tattoos? Looks of utter confusion came our way. The stage was utterly gorgeous - gold and flowers everywhere. Full blowout beam lights on the stage like a crime scene.

We decided to sit down on the chairs as the plastic was getting stuck to my open back. Slowly people started trickling in. You couldn't really tell exactly who was the bride since every woman was wearing their own full bridal jewelry - at an Indian wedding, there is NO such thing as overdressed! I felt silly for not wearing my entire set.

We were sitting behind one of the aunty's with a permanent grump face, who was sitting with her young unmarried son. Every time someone would walk past us - because clearly it was like a runway ramp - they would whisper and discuss. It was quite a funny thing to watch, since she didn't know that I was watching her!

People started to pour in, and then everyone just started to eat the buffet food. Maya wanted some ice cream, so I fed it to her as a pick-me up. By this point is was nearly 10pm and I'd do anything just to avoid a meltdown from her. Husband-ji pointed out all the weirdos who had just trailed in off the road to get free buffet food.

During that time, the groom had finally arrived to the stage after his 2 inch per hour journey down the red carpet. The bride came out and they both sat on the stage - they looked gorgeous against the intricate stage backdrop.

Then, the line started, which was worse than the line for customs at Heathrow airport. Everyone who was done eating wanted to get a picture with the bride and groom. Total cluster f*ck - as by then there were over 400 guests. I was telling husband-ji one of us should stay in line while the other can run around with Maya. Maya was doing the rounds and working the crowd like she was a mini Priyanka Chopra! Husband-ji said that we have to wait for his friend to "present" us to his brother. Oh formalities!!! I almost lost my shit because by this time I was exhausted. We managed to flag down his friend about 45 minutes later so that we could be "presented" to the groom for our picture. I was so ready to get out of there and say deuces!

After that, we were pleaded to stay longer but luckily now that I'm a parent I can always use my daughter's so called "tiredness" as an excuse. The bride's SIL said the wedding would go on for another 6 hours, with a peeved look. I was relieved to get out of there, and so glad that I didn't have a traditional Telugu wedding myself! I had fun seeing this one, but it was utterly exhausting just to attend it!

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