Wednesday, May 7, 2014

My Pakistan Diaries: Mehndi at Midnight

In March of 2013, I was invited to attend a wedding in Pakistan. I spent two  weeks in Karachi, Hyderabad, Lahore, and Islamabad. This is the account of my real experience there.  Out of respect for the privacy of my friends, I have not named anyone, and I will not be posting pictures of their faces, or providing details which may reveal their identities or locations. Read more about my diaries here

Thursday, March 28th, 2013 
Karachi and Hyderabad, Pakistan

       On Thursday there was no time for sleeping in. I was awoke at 10:15am and told that we would be leaving soon for Hyderabad, the hometown of the groom and the site at which the wedding was to take place. A mere a three-hour drive away. I hurriedly packed and changed clothes, expecting to leave at any moment.
But instead of rushing, relatives lounged around the house, chatting calmly as usual. I was even told that we would probably have time to stop at the Dolmen mall before leaving (!!!????) I had asked the bride’s two cousins from India, to whom I had bonded with in the last few days, if I could come with them to the mall before leaving for Hyderabad. I had my eye on a red dress at a store there since the last time I visited, and I was hoping I would get the chance to buy it before leaving Karachi. Going to the mall involved gaining permission from their uncle as well as inviting other family members, and by the time they had done so, a trip in one car with three people again became three cars with fifteen people.
We did not arrive at the mall until 1:00 pm. First we dropped of the second eldest sister at the bazaar, where she would be running errands in preparation for the wedding,  then dropped off one cousin at Roses Parlour, where she would be getting her mehndi done.  
After we passed the security checkpoint at the Dolmen Mall, I told the girls I wanted to do some shopping on my own, and that I would meet them an hour later inside the mall. As I walked around the first floor, I spotted a foreign family at a café. These were the first foreigners I had seen since coming to Pakistan. I again was overwhelmed by the complete sense of safety I felt inside the mall, as it was so modern and reminded me so much of home. [Author’s note: As I read this now, the recent mall massacre in Nairobi is fresh on my mind. I am sure the shoppers and expats there felt completely safe as well. I am now struck by how false my sense of security was. Even in Pakistan, people expressed concern that I walked alone in the mall.]
Being alone for one hour of shopping was therapeutic for me. I finally got the red dress I had been eyeing, and as I headed up to the top floor food court to find juice, I saw the bride’s cousin. Without greeting me, she simply said, “Gloria Jean’s has a sea view!”
I had no idea what that meant, I thought she was talking about a person. But then she led me to the window of a beautiful cafe, with a remarkable terrace and view of the Karachi beach. At Gloria Jean’s café I finally ordered the latte that I didn’t know I had missed so much. But before I even had time to drink, the bride’s sister found us and suddenly we were in a rush to get back to the house. I stared at the couches longingly. How I wanted to relax and pass time writing on my laptop as I usually do. How I wanted to sit outside (though I noticed only men were sitting outside) and gaze at the harbor, but the driver was waiting for us. We took our drinks to go and hurried back to the car.

The house was in a far more chaotic state than when we had left. Luggage was strewn about in all corners of every room. Relatives were pacing from room to room, in an obvious rush to leave but somehow not being ready to do so.  We had only three cars and some twenty people who we needed to transport. Not all of us were present at the house, and of those present not all were ready to leave. The bride’s sister and cousin were still at Rose’s getting their mehndi done, other relatives were running errands, but the drivers were ready to go. It was 3:00pm. The mehndi was to start at 7:00, and it would take three hours to drive to Hyderabad.
traffic on the way from Karachi to Hyderabad
Everyone was in a state of panic. Since I could not provide a solution or contribute anything to the situation, I sat on my red suitcase in the parking lot and waiting for things to sort themselves out. I didn’t bother to ask when I was leaving or who I would be riding with. We would be lucky just to get there. In the end, the bride’s youngest sister, two cousins, and I piled into the white car driven by the fast mustachioed driver. Since there was no time for lunch, we were handed a pot of chicken biryani, which we took into the car with us, and ate with our hands. I was given the lid to use as a plate, but the other girls fed straight from the pot itself.
We swung by Roses’s to pick up her other cousin, ready or not. Inside the two-story salon, many young women were sitting on pillows, having henna applied into intricate patterns to their arms and feet. We pulled the cousin off a pillow and took her to the car. Her mehndi hadn’t even dried yet so she had to carefully slide into the front seat.
As we sped out of Karachi, I tried to put on my seat beat which resulted in a roar of laughter from the car’s passengers. No one wears seat belts in Pakistan. There is a persistent belief that it’s cool/sexy/macho/desirable not to wear seat belts. People even cut them out of their cars because they’re “a nuisance.” I was told that if you are caught wearing a seat belt, other drivers will know you are not from Pakistan, and they will purposely mess with you. I didn’t care. The driver was such a frightening speeder, and the roads were so ill-kept, not wearing a seat belt was akin to a death wish.
At 4:00 pm the car finally departed for Hyderabad. It was a terrifying journey. Once we were out of the city, the pavement on the roads had long since worn off around the edges creating an abrupt ridge between the road and the desert sand. With no visible paint lines in the road, drivers swerved in and out of imaginary lanes. Five cars would drive side by side in a lane only wide enough for three. Our driver sped past them all, he sped through the tiny opening between two semi trucks, he overtook from the right, the left, and the center. He drove off the road into the dessert just to overtake cars, and he would follow behind them, the front of our car almost touching their bumper at 80 miles an hour. I gripped the seat in front of me with such intensity that my arm and abdomen muscles ached after an hour. 
a rest stop on the side of the road
At 5:30 we made a rest stop at a gas station. Until this point, most of my moments in Pakistan had been spent in enclosed spaces. Whether I was in the family house, or a tiny salon or store, I was somehow shielded from the view of curious strangers. At the gas station every patron stared at me when I got out of the car, and only draping my dupatta over my head solved the crisis. [Author’s Note: To clarify, there is no issue with a woman walking outside with her hair uncovered in Pakistan. Indeed, all of the women in my host family did not cover their hair. However, my face and pale skin were eye-catching on the streets, and covering my head disguised me so that I could move about freely without the gazes of stranger.] At the gas station I used the outdoor restroom. Although it was a large white building with a clear sign in English, the toilet itself was little more than a hole in the ground with a dirty pitcher of water. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with the pitcher of water.
After another hour-and-a-half of living a near-death experience on the road, we finally reached Hyderabad. The straw huts of villages on the outskirts of the city were illuminated by a the backdrop of a watery sky and the pale orange of a sorbet sunset.  When we finally pulled into town, we stopped the car between two crumbling buildings underneath a net of telephone wires.
We left the bride and her cousins at the parlour to get ready for the mehndi. I was asked if I wanted to join them, but seeing how long it took them to get ready at home, I had no desire to spend another 3-4 hours in a parlour. Besides, I was staying in Hyderabad for three days, and I wanted to unpack and settle into my new dwelling. I opted to be taken directly to the bungalow, where I could get ready at my own pace.
We arrived in the bungalow just past 7:00 pm. I was the first to enter, along with one of the young cousins, a girl of only ten years old. The two of us walked around that silent, dusty house exploring every room and corner. The ceiling of the house rose to an impressive height, the furniture was bold and gaudy, but everything was covered by a cloak of dust. Cobwebs hung from the staircase. The rugs smelled moldy. This was the house of some distance relative. The family had migrated to the city and now the large bungalow was rarely used. 
French doors opened to a long wide hallway with white tiled floors. Couches, wide as twin beds lined both sides of the wall as though they had been temporarily laid out for visitors but then never moved. Nearly every room in the house was a bedroom, all of them a study in contrasts. Lavish drapes adorned broken windows, immaculate rugs placed over dirty concrete floors, mirrors with rotting and decaying edges.
Remembering that the mehndi invitation said 8:00 pm, and it was already half past, I got ready in a hurry. I put on a wig, so I didn't have to bother styling my hair, and did my make up in sections, in case I had to leave before finishing.
I then sat on one of the hallway beds and waited…and waited. From time to time I would go into the bathroom hallway, which had been sectioned off and was being used as a dressing room by the younger girls, and each time I would find them no closer to being ready than the last moment I looked. They were still slowly applying making, braiding their hair, putting on their garments, one piece at a time, all the while laughing and talking to make each moment last longer. I was infuriated with the lack of urgency. I was also bored and ready to get out of the dusty house and on to the party. [Author’s Note: It didn’t occur to me at that time that these women were all from different parts of the country. It had been a long time since they had seen each other and events like these were their only opportunity to meet again. In their villages, they covered their faces on the rare occasions that they left the house. This was their time to see each other, faces uncovered, to laugh and talk and catch up on old time. They were not just family. They were best friends.]
After my frantic (and unnecessary) complaining, one of the bride’s cousins got her father to drive me to the hotel. I entered the grand ballroom at 9:45 pm along with the ten-year-old, expecting to walk in on a ceremony halfway finished, but to my amazement, we were the only two people in the ballroom besides the staff.

         The ballroom was shaded in red and purple lights. Chairs cloaked in purple fabrics were arranged in rows for over 500 people. The stage was made from bold black and white stripes that drew the eyes to its center almost immediately. On the opposite side of the stage a platform had been erected and adorned with wreaths of hanging flowers. Two ornate white sofes were placed side by side, facing the guests. One sofa for each couple. Up until that point, I had forgotten that this was a duel wedding. My friend and her fiancé were one couple, and her fiancé’s older brother and his fiancé were the other couple.
The stage
 Around the stage, lavish fabrics and cushions were arranged on the floor, though I did not understand why. The DJ played American pop music to an empty room, and the young cousin  and I went to the tables opposite of the stage, where the smiling staff happily served us pani puri and chaat. I had heard that the food at Pakistani weddings would be lavish and abundant, so I was a bit disappointed to see only two dishes being served. It wasn’t as good as the food cart we had in the back ally of Karachi, and I wasn’t sure if that was surprising or not. These foods were street food after all, and it makes sense that a street cart would do a better job than a luxury hotel.
          They also served a variety of juices, grape, apple, and orange were among those I could identify, (cheeko juice was, unfortunately, not among them). Since alcohol cannot be served in Pakistan, I welcomed the juice variety. We ate off paper plates with no napkins, and I dirtied my hands and silk kameez before anyone could even see it. I ate a plate of pani puri and chaat each, and when I approached the counter to get a second helping, the young cousin thought better and stopped me. There would be a big feast later, she said.
“You mean this isn’t the feast?” I asked.
“No, of course not!  This is just the appetizer. There will be so much food later.”
Later? I wondered when that would be. It was already after 10 pm. Slowly small groups of people began to train in. I spotted two college-aged women with long black braids and the most elegant dresses I had ever seen. One was made of sheer black fabric, and the other was a deep emerald green. The dresses hung loose like drapes just barely grazing the floor. Both women wore black eyeliner, and had obviously gotten their hair and make up done at a salon just before. It was flawless.
Since we were among the only people in a hollow ballroom, we began talking. They were Muslims, and students at the groom’s university. They were the only students from his university to attend his wedding. [Author’s note: I would later meet the groom’s best friends in Lahore and Islamabad,  none of whom attended the wedding. I didn’t realize this at the time, but it was a tremendous act of courage for two Muslim girls to attend a Hindu wedding alone. They likely faced some criticism from other Muslims about associated with a Hindu, and they may very well have faced criticism from Hindus who were present. Their gesture was significant and meaningful in a way I had neither the context nor knowledge to understand.]
As more people began to enter the ballroom, I noticed that every single woman wore an equally elegant dress. Tailor-made and bejeweled.  While I was gazing longingly at women’s dresses, and feeling ever more ashamed over mine, the ballroom filled before my eyes. As guests funneled into the ballroom they naturally self-segregated by gender, women occupied the entire seating area to the left of the stage, while the men occupied the seats to the right of the stage. [Author’s note: Gender segregation was such a natural part of life in Pakistan that it was not something I had initially even noticed.]
Nearly all of the faces in the crowd were strangers to me. I had not recognized anyone from the Sangeet or the Saat, but soon I spotted some of the bride’s cousins.  Fully dressed and made up in their gowns, they led me by the hand to the cushions encircling the stage. When we sat on the floor I realized why the fabrics had been laid out. Although I would have rather taken a chair, I could see that sitting with the family on the floor near the stage was an honored seat. We had the best view of the dance floor, which no one in the audience had after the third row, and it somehow felt like I was part of the in-crowd.
I was so comfortably enclosed in womb of cushions that I didn’t notice at first when the bride and groom arrived at 10:50pm, almost three hours later than their invitation stated. All 500 of the cushions were occupied and people spilled out into the aisles, so that when the bride and groom-to-be arrived, the walls inhaled people at both sides, forming a narrow aisle in the center leading towards the stage, and as soon as the bride and groom emerged, the room seemed to exhale and filled to the ceiling with people.
mehndi selfie
The dresses of both brides could not have been more different. My friend’s was a two-piece ensemble consisting of a long flowing skirt, and a short, sleeveless top. An embroidered dupatta was draped over one shoulder like a sari, but barely covered her exposed stomach and bare arms. The other bride wore a loose dress with long sleeves and a high neckline. She wore her dupatta draped over her head like a veil.

What progressed was not the formal ceremony, instead the bride and groom were lead to a seat on the stage, where they watched their friends and relatives perform. The groom’s side of the family went first. At that point, I had not met them at all yet since I was staying with the bride’s family.
Each dance lasted only two minutes, and all the songs were clips from popular Bollywood movies. The dances were all choreographed and rehearsed by the performs, who were all members of the family. The order was also important. It started with the grooms side and then the bride’s, first the bride of the oldest brother, then the youngest. One of the more romantic moments came when the groom's parents danced to a duet. It was a slow dance, filled with the kind of subtle passion that still lingers have thirty years of marriage. Smoke and strobe lights added to the mood of the dance, and with each song that ended I got close and closer to my solo performance and was dreading it every more.
I had no time to rehearse, having only arrived in the country four days before, and it appeared that I was the only one who would be doing a solo. Suddenly there an abrupt silence, followed by cave darkness. The power had been cut. There was an audible grown from the audience, but it seemed this crowd was all too used to power outages, and we waited in the darkness for almost a minute until a machine-like sound brought the strobe lights and music back.
outdoor banquet
I was hoping that the power outage would cancel my dance, but the performance resumed as usual. The power ended up going out two more time, three in total. I was told later that evening that power outages were a purposeful attempt by the hotel management to get us to vacate the space, since we only had the venue reserved until 11:00pm, and we were way past our deadline.
I watched the bride’s sisters and cousins perform the dances they had rehearsed in their living room, and when it was my turn I completely improvised my dance to Sheila, until I noticed that one of the bride’s cousins had jumped onto the stage to save me, and we danced together, first two, then three, then four of us. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t practiced. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t dance. We were a spectacle. We were fun.
At 12:30am the bride’s youngest sister pulled me out into the courtyard where the buffet dinner was being served. As promised, there were at least ten vegetarian dishes and ten meat dishes. I was eager to try al of them, so I took small portions of twenty things and piles the onto my paper plates, which resembled a kaleidoscope. There were no tables, chairs, utensils, or napkins outside, so the guests stood holding their paper plates in one hand, and eating with the other hand. I saw the groom’s sister-in-law, who I had first noticed on stage dancing, now wiping her dirty fingers on the white table linens of the buffet.
“It’s Pakistan,” she said, in Australian accented-English. She and her husband had been living in Australia for the last year.
         I followed her guidance and wiped my hands on the table cloth as well. I realized when I stepped out to the buffet that most of the guest had come through and eaten already. Many things, particularly the bins of coke bottles and dessert table were sparse, but there was still food to be served. I got one of the last gola-ganda - snow cones - before the vendor packed up and left. The snow cone was blue, green, and red, and was likely made from the same syrup that was in the green milk I had been drinking every night before bed.
buffet dinner
              I finished eating dinner around 1:00 am, and almost al the guests had gone home. The crowd, which the groom told me was over 1,000 people, had shriveled down to one-tenth its size. This made moving through the aisles much easier, and I was relived that I had stayed later in the ballroom and missed the rush at the buffet. When I returned I saw that the dance floor was now open to anyone who simply wanted to dance. The DJ played Bollywood songs, classic hits and modern fusions.
              The bride’s family, who dominated the dance floor, and beckoned me to come. I danced along side her cousins, her elderly aunts, and her tiny nieces. It was fun, it was freeing. I have never been so sweaty and sober in my life. I cannot remember have more fun dancing to better music with anyone, anywhere, ever.
              We returned to the bungalow at 3:00 am. The girls quietly removed their dresses and jewelry, and we took turns washing our faces in the bathroom, before making our beds on the floor in the giant living room. I had found a desirable spot and laid out a blanket and pillow for myself, but when I returned from the bathroom I found a small child asleep on that spot. So I found another blanket and pillow and lay beside her. The ground was as hard as concrete. In that hard darkness, I drifted to sleep. 

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