Last week I witnessed at one of Mumbai’s famous hotels an especially lavish and beautiful wedding. It was a Muslim wedding, which explained the omission of the Hindu festival of Diwali celebrations from the proceedings. However, the mood was festive all the same with handshakes and greeting exchanged between all the crew working. The Muslim factor also explained the lack of alcohol present which, for the first time in my life I found to be a desirable quality as it meant the event (and therefore my working day) would finish comparatively early as, in my biased opinion no-one could be having much fun.
Now I have to be very carefully not to offend anyone here (or come across as an alcoholic!) so apologies in advance as no offence meant, but a wedding without booze – seriously?! I have full respect for the Muslim religion and it’s principles of course but I can’t imagine the daunting prospect of dealing with not only your mother-in-law, but her whole family(!) without the social crutch of pain-dampening alcohol. Yet these tee-total wedding-party animals were to have a reception that lasted for two days. All these customs are completely alien to our Western working class tradition of “get married, get out of the church as quick as possible in order to drink as much as possible whilst listening to painful speeches, followed by dancefloor action to shake up the copious cake and booze ingested until the best man cops off with head bridesmaid, someone has a fight and the bride and groom make a hasty exit to get as far away from all their relatives as they can on a package holiday honeymoon.”
Curious about this intriguing part of Indian culture as well as being a woman and therefore obsessed with the whole fairytale romantic dream of matrimony, I wanted to know more about how weddings happen over here, so I quizzed my friends for more info.
Apparently the first day was about inviting all your business contacts while the second was about inviting important community members, with the overall aim to put on a grand social show with a focus on impressing the great and good. The great and good could amount to rather a large number in many cases – one friend from work had several thousand people attend his ceremony! Puzzled as to where romance and love and personal experience fitted into this picture I probed further. Was this all to do with the arranged aspect of marriage – marriage being a ceremony cleverly created to enforce the carefully planned links chosen by the bride and groom’s parents? Maybe I was being ignorant, cynical and unfair – after all I had read that Hindu astrology and predicted compatibility between couples was an important factor in choosing a match- this at least appears to have love somewhat in mind.
According to my friend, spontaneous love marriages have a bad reputation and are known to have a high failure rate in India. His view was that it was important that a life partner understood him, but romantic love was not essential. I wanted to tell him that he was screwed in which case as the day that women learn to understand men will be the day that men learn to understand women, which will basically be never! I kept this to myself however, and tried my best to be open-minded about the concept. Try as I might though, I am a hopeless romantic and just can’t get my head around it all! I can’t even to begin to imagine spending the rest of my life (let alone my bed) with someone I wasn’t madly in love with and just being so OK and accepting about it.
Bollywood confuses the matter further and enforces my hypothesis that India is a giant living breathing contradiction. Here you will find on celluloid the romantic spirit of a nation in love with heartbreak and happy endings – arranged marriages not being an uncommon feature therein. Perhaps the film industry is both a reaction and an antidote to the common reality of marriage in India – a dreamworld where fantasies can be safely lived out. The underdog guy always gets the girl, wins over her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunties and countless cousins and they all live happily ever after, singing and dancing merrily to the tune of true love triumphing against all odds, in-laws, castes, bad scripts, stomach churning dramatic camera zooms and low budgets.
Still traditional Indian weddings are second to none in terms of show, colour, energy and drama, much like Bollywood itself and to my Western eyes look wonderfully romantic. With rich traditions and costume they are a breathtaking sight to behold and once again our European counterparts pale in comparison.
Yes our divorce rates are higher and I am no one to question the superiority of one culture over the other when it comes to marriage and morals nor would I try to, but if you are interested, my personal view is that neither one is right. Both cultures can learn from one and other and should try to. The importance in India placed on marriage and family as an institution is one that is definitely positive for society and something that the West has let slip to it’s detriment. However, the social pressure to stay in or enter into unhappy, abusive marriages for the sake of being publically shamed if you end/refuse them (and yes I’m talking mainly, but not exclusively about women here) is clearly something that needs to be addressed in India. Divorce rates may be less but domestic violence is higher and I have seen first hand how this is swept under the carpet. Single parents are often refused entry to ‘family only’ housing societies and treated badly in many other ways I won’t even begin to list. Thus victims of circumstance also become victims of social injustice- this is not a cost worth paying to protect the sacred institution of marriage in my opinion. I can only hope that like Bollywood, things will get better in the end, true love will triumph and we will all live happily ever after….