Thursday, May 27, 2010

Binika bride

I would love to say I had a lovely time at the wedding I attended earlier this week in a small rural village called Binika but I have returned with very mixed feelings. The bride was a cousin of Geeta's, and it was fascinating to be part of the female side of a very traditional Indian marriage. On arrival Geeta, who had arrived several days earlier, looked happy and relaxed to be in the bosom of her family again and they were wonderful family – generous, warm, welcoming and all clearly revelling in the opportunity to be together again. Unlike a Western wedding, the party took place before the ceremony and was restricted to relatives and friends of the bride who, rather than joining in, sat in a side-room greeting and chatting with the random guests and presumably preparing herself for the ordeal ahead. Binika is situated on the banks of the River Mahanadi and after lunch we wandered down there and took a boat across to a temple on the other side. It was a precarious journey - with about 30 of us on board, the boat sat very low in the water and everyone perched on the rim as there were no seats. I was relieved I could swim – I was the only who could – but it was a very romantic side trip - full of rural Indian charm. On our return, we all changed into our finery and I donned my sari – with, I have to admit, a little help from my friends. Suitably togged up we waited for the groom to arrive … and we waited … and we slept … and supper was served … and we waited … and the bride was photographed for several hours … and we slept ... and we waited some more. Finally at 1am, to the sound of drums and fireworks, the groom finally pitched up and the proceedings began. Unfortunately, by this time I had taken so many random pictures to fill the time that the batteries on my camera had run out so I got none of the ceremony itself. It did, however, seem more organised than the wedding I had attended in Bhubaneswar. There was definitely a point which equated to the "I do" bit where a white sheet was placed over the groom's head which was then tied to the bride's veil following which the couple's hands are ritually strung together and then everyone queued up to pour water over them. The ceremony lasted about 3 hours but, at various times, the bride or groom retired to an ante-room whilst the other continued with the rituals on their own – the guests wandered in and out continually. Finally at about 4.30am, the service ended and the couple prepared to leave. Far from being a jolly send-off, their departure can only be as a traumatic affair. It made me realise just what a wrench marriage is for an Indian bride who leaves behind her family and friends – and the only life she has ever known – to join a family she's barely met who, to all intents and purposes, now have ultimate control over her. Geeta's cousin collapsed with grief on departure and had to be carried to the car by her weeping mother and aunts whilst her father looked on with tears straming down his cheeks. Exhausted and distressed I retired to bed which turned out to be a sheet folded in half and placed on a stone floor in amongst all the other guests  … but to be honest I was too tired to care. It's very difficult to say what I thought in retrospect – I was made to feel extremely welcome and they were a lovely and clearly a loving family but the sound of that wailing will haunt me for a long time to come. I sincerely hope her husband and new family are as kind as they looked to be and, if not immediately, she will have a happy marriage.  Click here to see where Binika is. Click here to see more photos.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Mehndi moments

I'm off to a wedding tomorrow so I thought it would be a good occasion to have my hands decorated Indian style. Called mehndi , it involves painting intricate patterns using henna and you usually have it done for special occasions– in fact it's an integral part of the marriage ceremony for the bride. Dillip's wife, Reena, said one of her neighbour would be able to do it for me so this afternoon I strolled down the road with her and a girl from the office called Suchi to be tattooed - albeit temporarily. Although I had little to say in the matter, there was much discussion amongst those much more experienced than me on what I should have – one hand or two, only my hands or up my arms as well – until it was decided I should have the whole lot … well why not I thought I might never have it done again. The henna was applied from what looked like a miniature icing bag - in fact I felt a bit like a cake being decorated. Although the lines were much finer, they were quite deep and you could feel it drying on you. At times it looked as though she was doodling – much as you I would on a notepad during a boring meeting – and there were frequent stops to think about what to do and where to go next. The results, however, were much better than I've ever produced in a meeting and there's clearly a lot of skill and artistry involved in the process. Each hand and arm has a different but complimentary design and as my left arm was being done, the completed right one was dabbed with lemon juice which apparently ensures a better colour. During the proceedings I was offered a dish of noodles and, forgetting that one hand was covered in layers of gooey mixture and other was in the process of joining it, I accepted and then realised the only way to eat my snack was to be fed like a two-year old – Suchi obliged. Suitably nourished, I then had to wait for two hours for the henna to dry and to soak into my skin so, continuing in her motherly role – although I'm probably old enough to be her mother - Suchi very kindly offered to escort me home and carry my bags on her bicycle – it's amazing how incapacitated you feel when you can't touch or hold anything. On arrival, I was dabbed with sugared water – again to improve the colour - and then I sat, twiddling my toes, feeling very sticky – what with the lemon and the sugar – for what seemed like eternity until I could wash the stuff off. At first the finished effect had a very orange look to it – rather like American-tan tights – but as this evening has worn on the colour has become much browner – apart from the palms of my hands which for some reason are a completely different colour from the rest despite being done at the same time and with the same mixture. Maybe they'll go brown overnight or maybe they won't in any event I rather like it and think it will look really good when I don my sari again for the wedding.  To see more pictures click here.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

One billion … and one

I had read in the papers that India was starting its national census and had thought it must be a bit like painting the Forth Road Bridge – by the time you have finished counting what is around 1 billion people you would have to start the process again - if not before. Do they count the seasonal migrants who are often taken illegally under duress to work in isolated brick factories hundreds of kilometres from where they live? What about the people Antodaya supports many of whom live in remote areas that are only accessible on foot and who, being illiterate, can hardly be sent a form to fill in? The homeless? The beggars who basically live on the trains? These vulnerable groups represent a sizeable proportion of India's total population - does this affect the amount of money allocated to them? The scale and complexities were mind boggling. It was only a passing thought, however, until this evening when Lara, my landlord's daughter, arrived at my door accompanied by a government official – they had started the counting in Bhawanipatna and, as a legal alien, I was to be included. The form was in Oriya and the official didn't speak that much English but with Lara acting as translator we muddled our way through. They wanted the normal stuff – name, occupation, date of birth etc but also my "village".  An important part of an Indian's identity, your village links you back to the place your family hails from even if you, yourself, have never lived there.  Should I put Skirpenbeck - where my parents now live, London - where I've spent the last 20+ years or West Byfleet where I was born?  I plumped for London - it was easier to spell. They also wanted to know my father's, mother's and husband's name – her pen hovered hesitantly over the appropriate box when Lara told her I didn't have a husband – "No, not even a dead one". Dad's name was underlined by way of compensation. Apparently my answers have to be transcribed into Oriya before I sign it. I'm mildly interested in what my name looks like in Oriya although I'll have no idea what I'm actually signing of course but, whatever it says, I'm now officially in the system – my name and details, as well as Mum and Dad's but minus hubby's, will be winging their way into the bowels of  the Indian bureaucratic system. At sometime in the distant future when they announce the final tally - it's expected to be over billion … plus me.