One Bengali Wedding

Sayantani Roy

Feb 23 2023

<div style=' background:#FFFFFF;color:#191A1A;font-size:16px;font-family:sans-serif;width:auto;padding:5px;max-height:100%;'><span><p>Weddings are in the air and on Facebook. My feed has turned into a relentless barrage of wedding photos from all those who have held off getting married during the pandemic. Things certainly have changed. Brides are not demure anymore. The ceremonies are prolonged with ancillary ceremonies, and the grandeurs overshadow earlier festivities by a long stretch. Vedic rituals and customs passed down by matriarchs took the center stage in Bengali wedding ceremonies…that was then. But now, the priest is cajoled into keeping the rituals brief. Instead, youngsters demand pre-wedding bashes, such as the mehndi and sangeet ceremonies, customs we have borrowed from North India. <br>As the Bengali diaspora grows, mixed race weddings are all too common. These weddings become a milieu for intercultural mingling and inevitably spawn more such weddings. And then we have couples who are jettisoning weddings altogether in favor of expensive honeymoons. Some perhaps want to be ecologically mindful by keeping it small. They usually prefer registry marriages and a small reception. We won’t talk about them here, although they have my respect and wholehearted support. <br>The success of Bengali weddings is measured by the sheer number of guests, and the weddings of yore were no different. Months went into a wedding preparation—finalizing the design of the invitation card, paying personal visits to each guest, and shopping for months for the wedding trousseau. But, in the end, what became the stuff of family legends were the events of those three most important days—the wedding, the bidaai, and the boubhaat, when the new bride <br><br>serves the first helping of rice at her in-laws’ place. My (much older) cousins never fail to bring up anecdotes from my parents’ wedding, which happened many decades ago. <br>There are hair-raising tales of firecrackers gone awry and a car that almost went into a ditch. They boast about the dance drama they had staged and how they had managed to rope in my mother, the new bride. My brother and I, in turn, talk about their weddings--we were mere children then. <br>Now and then, I pull out an old album and look at the black and white photos of my parents’ wedding day. There are only a handful of them taken by a relative who owned a camera. These are sepia with age, of poor resolution, and faded around the edges. You can barely see my mother’s face, tucked into the folds of her heavy sari and wedding finery. How serene the women look in their traditional attire, simple jewelry, and flower bedecked hair! How dashing the men in their suits that they had gotten made especially for the ceremony! <br>Occasionally I pick up my mother’s wedding sari, now in my possession, and take in its fragrance of nostalgia mixed with the smell of naphthalene balls. I try to smooth down the creases worn with age, although the zari is threadbare in places. I can still see her draping it on for someone else’s wedding reception. A wedding saree is a prized possession that is worn with great pride and care. This emotion seems to have withstood the test of time. Women are still in love with their wedding sarees and don’t hesitate to wear them often.<br>What often dominates the discussions is the dinner menu. Now of course, you have made-to-order menus sporting twenty-seven different combinations with choices for vegans, eggetarians, and dairy-ditchers. The caterer takes care of it all. Hiring a caterer was unheard of when we were growing up. Cooks set up temporary kitchens on rooftops or in an alley adjacent to the house. The crew ran up and down the staircase with buckets of shrimp, fish, meat, and myriad vegetables. They hauled up enormous vessels and set them upon equally gigantic makeshift stoves. It was up to the menfolk to serve the food during the reception. For young boys, it was a matter of great prestige to hand out paan** and saunf (sweet fennel) to the guests at the end of dinner. <br><br></p><span></div><div style=' background:#FFFFFF;color:#191A1A;font-size:16px;font-family:sans-serif;width:auto;padding:5px;max-height:100%;'><span><p>And then there were eating competitions! Egged on by cheering fans, intrepid eaters polished off trays of mishti** and buckets of rosogollas** in minutes. For years we talked about one Biswanath Babu, who had downed 30 rosogollas in one sitting, and his archrival Nimai babu, who left the kitchen crew in tears because he ate faster than they could supply those gulab jamuns**. Nowadays guests are either diet conscious or dyspeptic. Eating contests have truly become a thing of folklore. <br>The only thing we didn’t see a lot of was interracial marriages. Bengalis were, and still are, by and large an insular society. Elders like to marry their children within the same caste and even the same subcaste. Many still raise an eyebrow when they hear about interfaith or interracial love affairs. Nonetheless, we did witness the free mixing of cultures in our small town, which had a good population of both Hindu and Roman Catholics. <br>Once, to our great delight, we were invited to the wedding of a young teacher who was new to our school. On her wedding day, she was resplendent in her white gown. Both bride and groom were Catholic, and the ceremony held at the local cathedral was joyful and sublime. She came back to school a week later, shy in her crisp sari and sporting the traditional Shankha-Pala (conch shell and coral bangles) like a Hindu bride. Her parting was blushed with a streak of vermillion. We didn’t make much of it back then because all new brides looked just like her. <br>After all these years, I realize how profound it was that the inhabitants of our small town had imbibed each other’s cultures with such ease. It seems to me that we have lost some of that innocence along the way. <br><br></p><span></div><div style=' background:#FFFFFF;color:#000000;font-size:15px;font-family:Verdana;width:auto;padding:5px;max-height:100%;'><span><p>I don’t for a moment, however, doubt the innocence of the men and women who embark on this new journey today and commit to a new life. I rejoice in their wonderment. Everything evolves, and so do ceremonies. We look back to the past to find solace in familiar things. But, how long before the newness of today is tinged with the patina of age? <br>Let’s rejoice with all the newlyweds today and hold them close to our hearts. Let them shine and let us partake of the celebration that they have dreamed for themselves. This day is theirs to cherish and hold onto memories for years to come.<br><br>** mishti, rosogolla, gulab jamun are delicious sweetmeats of the Bengalis<br>** paan is a delicious preparation made from betel leaves and specially prepared mix of sweet and sour spices, served at the end of any auspicious ceremony<br><br></p><span></div>

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