Mom was the first child of my grandparents. Seven uncles
and three aunts followed her. That was some work by my indefatigable
grandparents. Can you imagine? Seven uncles and three aunts!
I was only seven when my eldest uncle got married. My youngest
uncle was married only a few years back. So you can imagine
the number of weddings I had to attend, along with my family.
Each wedding was special. All, but one, took place in Chennai.
Raju mama's wedding took place in Tiruthani, one of the
abodes of Lord Muruga. We are iyengars and our weddings
stretch over a period of three days. For us kids, the longer
the weddings lasted, the better, as it meant more days away
from school. The weddings comprise some important rituals.
The Janvasam was one that I thoroughly enjoyed. The
groom would be seated in a car, a decorated one, and it
would go round the streets around the wedding hall. The
groom would be clad in a veshtee - a white dhoti,
and a garland around his neck. The kids would be all over
him throughout the whole procession. The groom had a smile
stuck on his face and it seldom masked the obvious irritation
caused by the brats who kept screaming right into his ears.
Suresh and I were a little mature for our age, so we usually
just sat next to him, watching the circus. The procession
would end at the entrance of the wedding hall and the groom
would be escorted in. Everyone stays at the wedding hall
for the night. That night would be an eventful one for the
kids as well as the grown-ups. While we played through the
night, the grown-ups came up with their own arrangements
such as booze and cards. Prasad mama is an expert gambler.
He made a lot of money in these weddings by washing the
wallets of the other players clean clean. These get-together
acts provided a nice opportunity for us to socialise with
the other party - the bride's folks. The grown-ups had no
problem with getting along until Prasad mamaís brilliant
cards did them. We kids, a huge gang from 'my' side, were
notorious for our mischief. Suresh once caught a frog and
somehow managed to† slip it inside the pants of an unsuspecting
kid. The kid's screams, I thought, could have been heard
in Uranus. I, on the other hand, had a way with the girls
from the bride's side. My quick, witty tongue and my good
manners impressed them, I guess. I never bothered about
the boys. They can wait, you see. The guys thought that
I was a girl-crazy nut. I never disputed their claim. Everyone
is entitled for their point of view and sometimes impossible
statements are made by envious minds. I always chose to
ignore these statements.
The muhurtam is the climax of the wedding. The pundit
would chant slokas and mantras, with the homam,
the sacred fire raging in front of him. The bride and the
groom would be seated in front of the pundit and they had
to repeat all the tongue-twisting Sanskrit slokas that he
chanted. After the couple endure the heat and the smoke
of the homam for a few hours, the pundit would then announce
that the groom could tie the 'mangalyam', the sacred
thread, around the bride's neck. The bride would be seated
on her dad's lap and the groom is supposed to tie it in
that rather clumsy position. I found this boring, as it
offered no entertainment for me. Nevertheless, the ritual
is very sacred and I firmly believe that there is a reason
why it's all done in such a manner. Our forefathers are
very wise and there's always a reason behind all the traditions
and rituals. While all this is taking place, music is played
in the background. The musicians just position themselves
in a corner and play on and on. The pundit would wave at
them whenever an important phase of the ritual is reached
and the musicians will increase the tempo and go all out.
There was the thavil- the percussion, and the nadaswaram-
the wind instrument. Nowadays, the saxophone is also used.
I was drawn to these instruments from the minute they started
playing. Sometimes the musicians allowed me to touch the
musical instruments. I even tried my hand at the thavil
once while the band was having lunch. The leader of the
band thought that I had a good ear for music. I was on cloud
nine. I asked my dad why they didn't play the guitar or
the drums, and he explained that those were only used in
Christian weddings. I strongly doubted it.
The food served at our weddings is a gourmetís delight.
It has a wide variety. I used to steal the laddus while
Suresh stole the fruit. We used to carry the bounty back
to Chittoor. It was pretty simple. Before the guests are
invited to the dining hall, the cook and his assistants
would arrange the banana leaves, on which the guests ate.
They would then place a laddu, a pappadam and a glass
of kheer on the leaves. My task was very simple. Armed with
a plastic bag, I would walk along the tables, on which the
leaves were placed, pick the laddus up and drop them into
the bag. The most important element in this task is to look
very casual - as if you were only there because of your
curiosity and nothing else. And always smile at the cook's
assistants, who rush about like scientists about to launch
a spaceship. I suppose I had lady luck on my side, for,
I was never caught. Once in Giri mama's wedding, Suresh
was caught stealing fruit from the storeroom. That idiot,
instead of finishing his task and escaping from the scene,
was blissfully munching away on an apple. One of the assistants
caught him with a huge bag that contained half of the fruits
in the storeroom. Mom and dad were so embarrassed and incensed
by Suresh's atrocity. Dad slapped him in front of all the
guests. Suresh started to wail. I made a mistake of smiling
at his miserable fate; almost sure that he hadn't noticed
it. Unfortunately, he did. The expression on his face changed
from agony to that of anger.
He pointed an accusing finger at me. "He was stealing
laddus from the dining hall. Why don't you look into that!"
I prayed that the ground would open up and suck me in.
My dad looked at me, with his eyebrows knotted.
"N-no!" I blurted out.
There was a cynical smile on Suresh's face. "Check
the pink plastic bag in our room, beside your suitcase mom,
and you will know," he said. I had a murderous look
on my face. My blood was boiling. There wasn't any reason
for him to two-time.† He didn't want to be a lone thief,
I guess. We were ordered by our dad to stick by him till
the wedding ended. No play. No fun. My pocket money was
stopped for a month and that was that.
But when I moved to Chennai, I never imagined that those
eighteen months there would teach me a lot about the strange
ways of life. I had to sit at home and wait for the new
academic year to begin while Suresh was in his second standard.
We found a home just next to my grandmother's house. For
the first time in my life, I was faced with the prospect
of living among ten other families.
38, Seethammal Road was an old building, probably not white
washed for years; the ground floor that was divided into
ten portions. The owners of the house lived on the first
floor. The tenants, ten families in total, had to share
two bathrooms. I found this rather unhygienic, but was forced
to come to terms with this practice.