Monday, May 12, 2014

My Pakistan Diaries: Memoirs of a Hindu Wedding

the author with an unknown child

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

Friday, March 29th, 2013 
Hyderabad, Pakistan

At 1:30 pm I awoke calmly to the sounds of people chatting around me. I was one of only a few women still sleeping on the floor. The pillows and blankets were still lying around the room in disheveled positions, but only a few sluggish bodies broke the expanse of carpet like sand dunes across the desert.
On the large blue couch a few cousins were chatting.  Lunch was handed to me around 2:00 pm on a paper plate. It was basically the same food I had at the bride’s house, only more oily, and not as flavorful. Looking to escape the musty house, I ate outside, sitting on the edge of a concrete wall. The power had gone out just before I made it to the courtyard, and the dining room was so dark I could not see the food on my plate.  I still had not fully digested the banquet feast from the wedding, so I ate very little of what was served to me, and tried to hide the rest so that my hosts would not be offended. At this point I was getting very sick of rottis, and I missed rice, like the kind I had eaten at the wedding. As usual, I ate with my hands and there was nothing to clean them with.
Naively, I asked the bride’s Indian cousins where we would be going today. Somehow I assumed that I could spend the day exploring Hyderabad, since I didn’t expect to start getting ready for the wedding until 8:00 pm, and showing up at 10:00pm or 11:00pm like yesterday. They replied that today would be spent preparing for the wedding. I asked what they meant by that, and they gave me the same answer. Getting ready.
“All day?” I asked.
“Yes, we’ll stay here and get ready all day.”
 I was displeased at this prospect. I wanted to be outside, I wanted to be anonymous in a group of people. I wanted to go shopping. I wanted to eat at a restaurant. I wanted to be free. I was tired of having my time controlled and yet having no idea what was going on. I didn’t know how I was expected to spend a day “getting ready.” I was annoyed by the heat, the hard floors, the frequent power outages which turned off even the fans, and my general lack of clarity in every situation.
I went back into the large room where we slept on the floor. The blankets and pillow had been collected and were neatly folded and stacked near the wall. I sat on the blue couch and took out my writing pad.
I  was running out of ways to occupy myself in the house, where I was never alone, never without noise, never without heat. So my writing was more an a rant. In the room opposite to me the small children banged the walls with a rocking chair, laughing louder each time they do it. Just across from me, in a relatively more quiet room, a woman ironed her dress for tonight, deep blue fabric with gold embroidery that glistens like light on the ocean. Every now and then she looked back at me, unsure if she should speak or ignore me. Whereas the servants have been taught to ignore, family and guests have been taught to engage. Many times I found myself in the middle of a group of women and if I look away for even a moment, disengage ever so briefly from the conversation, the questions rain down on me. Am I bored? Am I hungry? What am I thinking? What do I want to do? They look so hard for ways to keep me entertained and engaged, when all I want to do is retreat. 
I felt grateful to be so cared for, but I longed for independence.
I was not in control of my fate. I knew it would be this way. Everything is a group effort. We talk about stepping out of the house long in advance and then hours or days of planning ensues. Nothing is spontaneous. Yet, nothing is so meticulously planned either. Each time we leave, I don't know who is coming with us, where we will go, or how long we will stay out. Perhaps this is because the plans of so many people are involved, so they all get tossed together in a giant cluster of activity. I can only accept it. And wait.
I sat there writing until around 4:00pm. Within an hour I was called in for dinner, which I considered lunch, since we would be having another feast at the actual wedding. It was the same food I had eaten earlier, so I ate even less of it.
Afterwards we went into the bathroom, the only bathroom in the house, and poured water on the bride’s head. This was another wedding day ritual. The bride squatted on the bathroom floor and the woman gathered around and drenched her with stone pitchers of water.
The streets of Hyderabad at dusk
When the cousins asked if I wanted to go with them to the parlour to get ready, I jumped at the opportunity. It was my only chance to get out of the house. And I longed to be in a place with a public restroom that wasn’t being used by thirty women at once. Also, since we would be in the company of the bride, I knew that it would be impossible to be late for the wedding. The mustachioed driver took us to the parlor. Since the bride was dissatisfied with the parlour she attended yesterday, we would be going to a different place, somewhere that came at the recommendation of the groom’s brother’s fiancé. However, we didn’t know exactly where the place was. We had an address, but when we arrived in the vicinity it proved difficult to find. We drove around block and block looking for it. Normally this would have annoyed me, but I was still elated at being outside the confines of the house. I was also enjoying the view of Hyderabad. Large estates lined the streets, each with walls and wire fences protecting them. In the yards of some manors, men in white trousers sat on the grass and looked into the distance. They were migrant workers, hoping to get picked up for a job.
On the road I saw a sculpture garden of animals, with tired people lounging on the zebra, elephant, and giraffe. While driving through the neighborhood of the parlour, I saw many large and gorgeous houses. They all looked like castles from an issue of Architectural Digest. Yet outside their walls the road was unpaved and piles of garbage stood taller than a person could climb.
Whenever our driver passed a pedestrian, he would roll down the window and ask him in Sindhi if he knew where to find the parlour. Each answer from a stranger got us closer and closer, until eventually we came to the right place. There was no sign, and it was impossible to see inside the building. It had an iron gate and thick wooden door. The façade was as decrepit as every other public building in the city, but inside it was modern and clean. Wooden floor boards lead the way to a modern bathroom, with toilet paper, a sink, and soap. I was in heaven.
I decide not to have my hair or make up done. I didn’t want to spend the money and I opted to do it myself. There was also a certain sense of pride I had in doing my own make up. Inside, the groom’s brother’s fiancé was already wearing her wedding dress and was nearly ready. Her make up was very dark and strong. She was a naturally beautiful woman, with elegant features. The bride was also told to put on her dress first. Apparently it was important for the staff to see the dress in order to decide on the hard and shades of makeup. Her cousins, who seemed to find themselves at home in a parlour, got to work right away telling the staff how to do their hair and make up. I sat in the entrance way, pulled out my notepad, and again started writing.

the bride's gorgeous dress

Around 8:30pm, about an hour after we arrived, I began the process of getting ready myself. I decided on an up-doo, bangs brushed to the side, with a tika. I had the cousin’s help again with my sari. And one by one the staff came out to take pictures with me. In my mind, I titled their photos, “a white girl comes to Hyderabad.” We took the photos on their phone cameras, old sad pieces of technology that I had long since discarded years ago.
We were all ready to leave around 10:00pm. The salon closed at 9:00 pm officially, but the staff seemed used to staying late to accommodate brides-to-be. They brought out their black abayas and covered their faces and heads with black scarves as we left the salon. They locked the door behind us and their black-clad bodies all but disappeared into the night.
That was when the bride made the most amazing statement I had heard since arriving to Pakistan.
It was odd and random, considering that she was about to get married, and about to have a feast in her honor, but we escorted the bejeweled bride into the car, and went through the McDonalds drive way. 
We ordered six extra sets of fries, for “everyone else” at the wedding. [Author’s note: I didn’t understand why at the time, but it would have been incredibly rude in Pakistani culture to pick up food for oneself and not for others.]
We arrived at the venue at 10:45. The wedding venue was outside, in a large, open patch of grass. Since it was a tented wedding, I envisioned a white plastic tent propped up over the dirt floor, so imagine my surprised when I walked into a room grander than yesterday’s ballroom. The white tent had cathedral like ceiling, from which hung crystal chandeliers. Blue and purple lights cultivated a chic atmosphere. The setting was definitely more akin to my image of a lavish reception, rather than a formal wedding venue.
entrance to the wedding tent
Like the Mehndi, there was a stage with two sets of cushions for the couples to pose for pictures. To the far right of the tent was a small square platform, covered in curtains of orange carnations. This was the stage where the actually ceremony would take place.
 There were hundreds of round tables and chairs, each covered with elegant linens, but now one was sitting. All the guests seemed to be walking around the tables, chatting and mingling. There would be no dancing at the wedding, so there was no performance for them to watch. Instead, they used this time to socialize. Worried that I would be left out and awkward, I snaked between the tables occupying myself with picture-taking. Yet, at just that moment I arrived I was approached by guests from all sides and asked to be photographed with them. They were all strangers to me, but they approached me with no hesitation and asked me to pose for portrait after portrait. I stood next to them, held their hands, held their crying babies. I was glad for the opportunity to have pictures with many women. I wanted to chronicle their dresses,  which were more modest and sophisticated than those I saw at the previous night’s Mehndi party.
I was the only woman in a sari.
A group of young boys from 5-8 years old perhaps, followed me around yellow, “Aunti-ji, Anuti-ji. One photo please.” How could I say no. We took the picture with my camera, since they did not have one. “How am I going to send this to you?” I asked. They boy found me again, running up with me like a pack of wild animals, with a pink cell phone in hand. It was the same type of old phone that the women in the salon had. We took a blurry group portrait with the phone, and they seemed happy.
As time passed, many guests lounged on the sofa and fabrics chairs, while others walked around the venue, going from group to group and making introductions and chatting with long time acquaintances. I spotted the jeweler there, the same man and his wife you had served me at the jewelry store in Karachi. They were apparently good friends of the family.
lavish dresses at the wedding
It was around this time that I noticed the tent was divided in half by an aisle way. I assumed that one half was for the grooms’ families and one half for the brides’ families, as in American weddings. However, it was only when the dinner buffet opened the I realized the tent was divided male and female. When I saw guests rush out of the tent to the courtyard, I followed suit, not realizing I was going out the men’s side. Apparently I'm so comfortable being in crowds of men that I am entirely unaware of it. The bride’s Australian sister-in-law stopped me and lead me over to the female side, as if I didn’t know better. I didn’t.
The outside space was divided more directly, with a small rope to partition the two sides. The buffet tables were identical, serving the same foods and deserts, the only difference was that there was a men’s side and women’s side. I thought this was strange because last night’s outdoor buffet was not segregated, but I was already finding myself more attached to the groups of women I met, and was thus not bothered to be separated from the men.
I did not make the same mistake as last night and load my plate up with everything. I already knew I liked the vegetarian dishes more than the meat, so I took one sample of every vegetarians dish, and left the meat alone. The evening’s desert was kulfee, a delicious ice cream which everyone seemed to flight over. The servers took out a large block of white ice cream, and cropped it into squares with a butcher knife. Then they handed it to us with bare hands. I had to fight for it. Women kept cutting in front of me a the table, and I felt ignored by the staff, but eventually a bare hand put a white block of kulfee on my paper plate and I could leave the madness of the ice cream table behind.
Later on in the night, I found the paper McDonald’s bag discarded in an ironic presence on the lavish rug, empty of food that was ravenously devoured by the guests.
Unlike the Mehndi, we ate dinner at midnight, before the ceremony began. Everyone kept saying the ceremony would begin late.
wedding banquet at midnight
I had to use the bathroom, and asked several women where I might find one. They all shook their heads with great concern. Port-a-potties had apparently been erected to serve the guests, but they were out in the field, amongst uncut grass and completely dark. I was also assured that there would be no toilet paper or water. Better to go back to the bungalow.
So at 12:30 am one of the male cousins drove me to the Bungalow to use the bathroom. Instead of entering the part of the house where I had been staying, he opened the door to a different wing, one I didn’t even know existed, and I used the lavish blue bathroom in that side of the house. That’s when I realized that I had been staying in the female section of the home. The men were all in this section. I hadn’t even realized that our living quarters had been segregated. But come to think if it, I didn’t ever see a man in our side of the house, and the bathroom I was sharing was always crowded because we were all women. I was stunned by my lack of awareness. Gender just didn’t play into my consciousness. I was unaware of a different in feeling whether I was a woman in a group of women, or a group of men.
He drove me back to the venue where the wedding had not even begun. I hung around outside by the parking lot, where one of bride’s younger male cousins wanted me to photograph him near the wedding car, decorated with paper carnations.
He puffed his chest out and planted post fists to each of his hips, like a tiny super man. He seemed so excited just to be photographed, even though he would never get to look at, or keep, the picture for himself.
When I returned from the restroom the tent had an entirely different feeling. What at first seemed so luxurious and glamorous now seemed muggy and humid. The heat of the night was descending upon us, and I only realized that moment that the tent was not air-conditioned. Mosquitos started finding their way in and I was having to swat them away. It was now close to 1:00am, the wedding of the groom’s older brother and his wife was already taking place, but no one seemed to know when my friend’s ceremony would be. I wondered around aimlessly, running out of ways to occupy myself. I had already taken photos with practically every guest at the wedding, eaten dinner, used the bathroom, and now I would have to wait however long for the actual ceremony.
the ceremony stage
At this time, I noticed that the crowds thinned significantly. One of the relatives told me that most guests just come for the food, and don’t even stay for the ceremony. Only close family stay for the ceremony.
Coke was the beverage served at the party, and in wonderful glass bottles with Urdu writing, so I decided to keep one empty bottle to take home with me. This proved quite difficult, as I could carry the coke bottle no further than a few feet without a gracious servant offering to relieve me of my empty bottle, or another guest trying to take it from me. I couldn’t explain that I wanted to keep an empty coke bottle, so I let them have it, circled the table, then picked it up again when they weren’t looking. This happened so many times that eventually I decided to just keep a full one with me. That way no one would think I was walking around with garbage.
Since I wasn’t wearing a watch, and there were no clocks to be found, time lost all meaning. When the Australian sister-in-law lead up onto the stage for my friend’s ceremony, I checked my iphone to see that it was 3:00 am. The power outages had been happening frequently after midnight. The groom’s older brother and new sister-in-law were lead to the opposite stage, where they were being photographed on the large white couch.
We were obviously well past our time limits for the reservation, because the movers had already come to disassemble the tent. I watched its entropy from begin a curtains of orange carnations. The chandeliers were holstered down. Fabric was being pulled off the tables and chairs, revealing their bare wooden legs. The purple lights that gave the tent its dream-like feeling were turned off and taken apart. The workers started by disassembling the buffet area, then working from the edges were there were no guests. The tent that could hold 2,000 people was now only covering about 200 close family members who had stayed to watch the ceremony.
The ceremony was conducted in Sanskit and nobody could understand the priest, so although we were onstage we talked loudly, laughed, and swatted flies away. We made funny faces and took pictures as if  the whole thing was a comedy. I was surprised by the irreverence shown at the ceremony, but everything in Pakistan had been so casual and irreverent up to this point, why not the actual ceremony? 
wedding ceremony at 4:00am
The ceremony finished at 4:45. I was watching my phones religiously at this point because I was tired and wanted to go home. At this point, everything had been taken down and disassembled except the stage we were one.
My newly-married friends posed for a few quick portraits on the white couch, which only had it’s backdrop remaining. Had the photographer pointed the camera in a different direction, he would have photographed an empty field in the pre-dawn hours.
As promised, a chocolate cake was served, but it looked nothing like an American wedding cake. It was a one-tier, rectangular cake with the names of each couple written in frosting. As with everything else it Pakistan, we ate the cake with our hands, this time with no knives or plates, just bare hands. I grabbed a piece for myself, although I was terribly full of food from the buffet, it seemed like a waste not to eat the wedding cake.
the bride and groom pose for pictures until morning
Out in the parking lot, as expected chaos ensued as no one seemed to know who would be riding home with whom. Eventually I got in a car with the bride’s parents, and pulled into the bungalow at 5:00 am. I got out of my saree and washed my face. That was all I could hope to go. Many of the guests had returned early, and were already asleep on the most desirable bedding on the floor. The couch was still unoccupied, so without hesitation or reserve, I laid my back on the couch. It was 5:30 am, I guessed. The ceiling fan was blowing at full speed, but the light was still on, so it was hard to sleep.
“Can we turn the light off?” I asked the bride’s youngest sister, who was lying somewhere amongst the crowd on the floor.
“I don’t know,” replied her sleepy voice. “Maybe we have to keep it on.”
And at just that moment, as though god had heard me, the power was cut. In the dark room, I could hear the ceiling fan slowly stopped revolving.
Sleep came to me in the still, dry heat.

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