Originally published in First City magazine, Delhi, September 2011
A few months ago my ‘cousin-brother’ Anil got married. I’d been to a Hindu wedding before, but since this time I would be a proper guest, invited by the groom’s family (and not just the token foreigner), I knew it was going to be a Big Deal. So I decided to wear a saree.
On the day of the final ceremony everyone congregated at Anil’s family’s house in north Delhi. While the menfolk hung around outside drinking beer and being manly, us women were busy painting our toenails and applying mehndi (note: paint toenails first to avoid henna smudging disaster). The ladies were all wearing luminous, heavily bejewelled salwaar kameez, and when I asked B’s mother when we were changing into our sarees she just looked at me and blinked. Why had nobody told me I would be the only one in a saree? As well as feeling stupid I was a bit annoyed.
‘Koi baat nahin! You’ll look beautiful in your saree!’ cooed the women, removing my six yards of ‘silk’ from its crumpled plastic bag, and spreading it out to admire. Not being saree-wearing types, nobody knew how to wrap one, so I was escorted to the local beauty parlour, where, for the sum of Rs.50, I would be dressed to perfection. Anil’s numerous sisters were already inside – they had completed their fairness treatment and were moving on to hair and makeup. I was instructed to strip off behind a curtain and put on the blouse and petticoat.
‘It needs to be tighter,’ said the beauty parlour lady.
I untied the petticoat’s drawstring and pulled it in a bit.
I breathed in and tried again.
‘Tighter!’ she growled impatiently, grabbing the drawstring and tugging it mercilessly.
It ended up taking three women half an hour and a full packet of safety pins to successfully enclose me in the saree. And it felt horrendous. As well as the constrictive petticoat, the blouse was so tight I could hardly breathe, plus I couldn’t walk or sit down. I shuffled back to the house, trying not to trip over the pleats, feeling more self-conscious than I’ve ever been in India. Of course, everyone pinched my cheeks and went on an on about how sunder I looked, but I really just wanted to go home and put on my polkadot maxi nightie.
There wasn’t much I could do about it, though. It was already 6pm and we were going to Rajasthan. Anil, in his brand new golden suit and faux snakeskin shoes, climbed onto a horse, and led our multi-coloured, singing, dancing procession to… the bus stop. Where a coach was waiting to take Anil (not the horse, though) and the guests to the bride’s Rajasthani village. A small car and driver had also been arranged, and it was decided that B and I, along with B’s Mausi, his sisters, Komal and Rakhi, and Kunal, Rakhi’s three-year-old son, would be the ones to travel in style. With B and the driver occupying the front seats, the remaining five of us were squashed into the back of the little car. I attempted to sit in such a way that both the saree and my ribcage remained intact, and initiated my well-practised ‘smile and try to look happy’ approach that had got me through my first Indian wedding.
The pain, however, kicked in almost instantly, and by the border of Haryana I suspected I was suffering some serious spinal damage. I also hadn’t taken a single breath in forty five minutes. Two hours in, we stopped for something to eat. I tried (in vain) to realign my vertebrae while B bought some in-car snacks, including greasy pakora, chowmein and dal in a paper bowl. We squeezed back into the car, this time with me in the middle, and hit the road.
I decided that in an outfit this tight, eating wasn’t an option, but that didn’t stop Mausi from force-feeding me pakora for the next fifty kilometers. Komal was attempting to eat the chowmein with her fingers, but dropped a handful of it on my saree as we drove through a pothole. To add to the ‘fun’, Rakhi was trying to feed the dal to Kunal, and of course most of that ended up on the saree too.
Five hours into the ‘four hour’ journey, the car ground to a halt on a deserted road. After performing extensive checks on the vehicle, the driver came to the conclusion that we had run out of petrol. Everyone piled out of the car and stood on a muddy verge by the side of the road. It was completely dark. With no other traffic around, the driver had no choice but to walk to the nearest petrol pump, armed with an empty two-litre Limca bottle. The rest of us waited by the car. By now I could feel the blouse and underskirt slicing into my flesh and I longed to sink into a comfortable chair, but I had to make do with appreciating the cooling night air (nice when you’re having breathing difficulties) and the star-filled sky, which you never see in the city.
An hour later the triumphant driver returned on the back of a tractor, clutching a full bottle of petrol. When he started the engine, B saw me grimace at the prospect of re-entering the car, and insisted that I spent the remainder of the journey in the more spacious front seat. I didn’t argue. Finally we were able to get going, and after filling the tank, we soon reached the village. The problems, however, were far from over. It turned out that the coach carrying the all-important groom had got lost. By this stage it was after midnight, and the few guests who had made it were bored and hungry so to pass the time the post-shaadi buffet was served. This seemed to please everyone for the time being.
At 3am there was a sleepy cheer as the coach arrived. Anil climbed onto a different horse and we followed him with slightly forced enthusiasm to the wedding tent. ‘Dance! Daaance!’ screamed Anil’s heavily made-up sisters, grabbing my hands. I politely explained that considering the excruciating pain I was suffering, it was a miracle I could stand, let alone dance, and after B translated this, they quickly backed off. At 4am we received an update: the bride still wasn’t ready. Little Kunal was dozing on Rakhi’s shoulder and Mausi was snoring in a plastic garden chair. We decided to slip out, and headed to a relative’s house to sleep. We would congratulate the newly-weds in the morning.
In the little bedroom of the house I feverishley removed the safety pins and pulled out the pleats. I unhooked the blouse and untied the petticoat. And finally, I put on my polkadot maxi nightie. I swear, in all my life, it was the most blissful feeling I’ve ever experienced. And I’ve never worn a saree since.