This past April, Andrew and I were fortunate enough to be invited to celebrate the wedding of a good friend of ours. The wedding happened to take place in Mumbai. Now, I’m sure many have an inkling that an Indian wedding is a little bit different than the traditional Western wedding. How much different, well, we’ll get to that. India has a large Muslim and Hindu population, so both styles of wedding are rather common, with many similarities stemming from the Indian custom, as well as other customs which are more specific to the region and religion. My friends married most similarly according to the Bohri Muslim custom.
When invited to an Indian wedding, it’s not just a ceremony and reception. There are a multitude of events, each with a different significance and guest list. Andrew and I were invited to four events; the Nikah, a welcome party, the Mehendi / Vanne-Tanne and the Reception. Now there were other events, such as the kick off ceremony for both the bride and grooms family, an event for local friends and family as well as numerous parties hosted by various close friends and family. And the bride and groom hadn’t a moment to spare between getting ready and attending each event, oftentimes attending multiple events in a day! I know this all too well as my efforts to fit in a bachelorette party were thwarted early on. At first I was a bit surprised, but then I reasoned that in the US, it’s not uncommon to have an engagement party, bridal shower, bachelor and bachelorette parties, a rehearsal dinner and I’ve attended more than one post-wedding brunch. But despite my reasoning, just how different the festivities and, more broadly, the Indian culture was to my expectations was quite enthralling!
After leaving Auckland, and a brief layover in Melbourne, we arrived at our second layover in Malaysia and the first thing I noticed, or didn’t notice, was a shiny porcelain throne in the little girls room. A hole in the floor starkly reminded me I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Fortunately, there was a seat in another stall, and throughout India, toilets were usually western. One hurdle down.
Flying into Mumbai, after descending below the thick smog emanating from the earth, the first thing I noticed was the slum. Landing at the airport from the south, the plane descends over the Dharavi slum, one of the largest slums in the world, and from many accounts the largest in Asia. Grime coated grey hued shacks give the impression the slum is covered in a fine layer of dust. Each structure appears ready to topple if a single straw is removed from the intricately dense and ramshackle sprawl of lean-tos. What a welcome. I cannot tell you how many times during this trip I thought of how grateful and lucky I was to have been born in the place I was born, to the parents I was born to and the society in which, while not easily, but readily allowed a hardworking person to get ahead. As a white, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied, middle class American, I know I have experienced many benefits of privilege. But this was something else.
After de-planing, Andrew and I were both a bit startled by the lack of people filling the airport. We arrived on a Sunday, which must be a slow day. We expected masses of people, as airports are normally crowded and here we were in densely populated Mumbai! We learned those arriving to pick up or drop off passengers are not allowed in the airport. Proof of a plane ticket is required to enter the premises. When we exited the airport, we were overjoyed to quickly identify our friend’s uncle, a very kind and upbeat personality, who would take us to our hotel. Like a hot and humid day in Chicago, the heat of India smacked you in the face, but more oppressive was the pollution and slight smell of sewage that hung in the air and felt thick in our lungs. Absolutely tolerable to our well cared for lungs, especially living in the green New Zealand for the past couple of years. We quickly took note of how grateful we were to live in a more egalitarian and clean country. Again, a sentiment we were reminded of often on our adventures.
After a brief stop at our friends place to say hello in our tired and jet-lagged state, we finally arrived at our hotel, a club down the street from the Taj Hotel. Per our request, our friend located a very affordable and clean accommodation with air conditioning. The AC unit did wonders to help dissipate the smell and oppression of the humid city. The stiff mattress, or should I say slate, wasn’t quite meeting our expectations, but from our informal sampling, appears is a common phenomena in India as well as south east Asia. A friendly staff, they were always willing to accomodate our strange American idiosynchracies as best they could. The culture was quite different, and when I was feeling ill one night, we had asked for some room service and they said they’d send someone up. Instead of someone to take our order, they sent cleaners! We did get some soup to our room later, but never did figure out what they called “room service” in the Indian lingo.
On our to-do list, Andrew and I had a bit of shopping to do. My traditional dresses and fancy outfits didn’t all jive with the wedding festivities that Andrew and I were planning to attend. While Western wear was appropriate for some events, the religious ceremony required a greater level of modesty. Instead of buying a long-sleeved, longer length Western dress in New Zealand (which I would be unlikely to subsequently wear) Andrew and I opted to seek out a shop to buy a modest kurta. A long sleeved dress, called a shalwar kameez would also be appropriate, but I didn’t find any I particularly liked.
To that end, it was a lovely adventure wandering around the city in search of the department store called Westside. When we arrived, as is rather common throughout Mumbai, we entered through the metal detectors and had our bags searched by security. Now, despite a bit of research beforehand, I was at a bit of a loss of what was appropriate garb. I had names of outfits, but how fancy, how flashy, or how modest was required of this event? It was surprising just how lost I was when it came down to it. After asking several staff members, a younger woman was able to help me pick out a nice kurta, matching shoes, earings and a bracelet all for the low department store price of under $40 NZD! I was ready for the Nikah!
We took a cab home from the store, and the poor cabbie took off in the wrong direction! He misunderstood or intentionally took us to a rather different hotel than the one in which we were staying. After clarifying our destination, we traveled on for another ten minutes until we arrived back at our hotel. The meter came in at 40 rupees. Despite having done a scenic tour to get back, the price of the ride came in under a dollar! Did I feel like he scammed us? Perhaps. At these prices though, who am I to argue?
Cabs were one of the funnest and most dangerous parts of India. Well, walking as a pedestrian ranked up there too as I’m pretty sure crossing the street in India is considered an extreme sport. Drivers didn’t respect lanes, lights or speed limits. Fortunately, the traffic meant no one was able to drive too fast, which led me to reason if we got t-boned running a red light (or do they just say driving through an intersection there?) we might survive. It was with frequency drivers would careen into the oncoming traffic lane if they felt they were not able to traverse fast enough on their side of the center line. On-coming traffic wasn’t given a second thought. It all appeared to work though. Each driver appeared to have learned the art of ESP as despite every action and reaction appearing to be guided by a random and unpredictable madmen, we witnessed no accidents. There were times that cars were driving, slamming the breaks or honking both politely and aggressively with seemingly mere millimeters of space between vehicles, livestock and people.
We survived though, so there is that.