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Field Notes from the Digital Prairie

Monday, May 28, 2012

An Indian Vacation (Part II)

(continued from Part I)

We arrived in Jaipur mid-evening on Saturday, and quickly checked into our hotel, a "heritage" place called Hotel Madhuban, west of the old city. India is dotted with beautiful old homes that belonged to princely or other aristocratic families, who were forced to find new ways of supporting themselves after India became an independent democracy. Madhuban is owned by the Patan family, who are apparently the former ruling family of one of many small kingdoms that used to exist in what is now Rajasthan. Madhuban had been recommended by Lonely Planet, but unlike some of our previous experiences, the amenities in the Royal Suite (we splurged and spent $81 a night, since we knew we would be there for five nights) did not disappoint. As elsewhere, though, the higher-ranking staff tended to be dour and unhelpful, and the man praised in Lonely Planet as "the convivial Dickey" mostly sat morosely by the pool. The room itself, however, was quite pleasant, with antique-looking furnishings, a large and comfortable fourposter bed, and the cleanest bathroom we encountered during our entire trip.


We left J. and V. to enjoy the wonders of a hot shower in our room (they had been taking nothing but traditional Indian "bucket baths" in their accomodations with one of S.'s brothers) and high-tailed it to the shops to pick up wedding-appropriate clothing for myself, Kate, and M. As we were starving after our long bus ride, but needed to get to the shops before they closed, we stopped at a KFC that had apparently opened not that long ago on M.I. Road. I am, if you haven't been able to tell already, rather fascinated by the ways in which American fast food is translated into other cultures, and KFC's "School of Lickonomics" campaign did not disappoint -- unlike, I'm afraid, the Veggie Snacker that I had to eat.

The area we went to go shopping was Raja Park, a relatively new neighborhood southeast of the old city, and the area I would walk through each day on my way between my host family's home and the Institute. It was difficult to orient myself, not having my normal landmarks to navigate by, not to mention that it was dark, so it felt both familiar and strange; I found this to be the case for much of my time in Jaipur, where streets that I had once known very well now seemed transformed. Such is the march of progress, I suppose, but I'm not really sure that Jaipur has any need for a hotel tower with a revolving restaurant.

We immediately set to work finding outfits for the ladies at some of the shops that S.'s family frequented. The retail experience in an Indian shop can be overwhelming for someone used to browsing unmolested through an American department store. In most, especially clothing shops, the customer sits in one place while what seems like every item in the shop is pulled out for inspection, even ones that are exactly the opposite of what the customer has requested. Even in shops set up on a Western model, you are usually trailed by an absurdly attentive salesman who will point out with great enthusiasm the most obvious of qualities of the object your eyes happen to land on ("This... this is green."). And of course, most transactions in India are preceded by elaborate rituals of haggling over the price to be paid, featuring many expressions of incredulity that the shopkeeper could charge such ridiculous prices and assertions that the customer is driving the poor merchant into poverty. I had developed a modicum of haggling skills during my summer in Jaipur, but to watch our friend S. engage so fluently in this wheeling and dealing was a thing of beauty -- he clearly loved the process, and, as far as I could tell, managed to save us a good deal of money over the course of the trip.

With the ladies' outfits procured, we retired for the evening. The next day Kate and I were laid up for much of the day (a result, we suspected, of us both having eaten the questionable "fruit pancakes" at the sketchy rooftop restaurant in Agra), but we had recovered sufficiently by evening to go and pick up a kurta pajama for me. The following day Kate, M., and I spent the early part of the day wandering the old city, then headed to S.'s brother's home, where J. and V. were staying so that the ladies could have their hands painted with elaborate designs in henna by a frighteningly talented teenager. As the bride, J.'s designs were incredibly complex and took hours to complete. 

That evening we all went to S.'s parents' house for some pre-wedding festivities. The house was filled with life and noise, as there were literally dozens of relatives crashing there, many of them from the small village that S.'s family originally hailed from. Many of them sang as the family went through a haldi ceremony, in which S.'s close female relatives rubbed a mixture of sandalwood, rosewater, and turmeric on his his hand, feet, and forehead and fed him sweets. In a departure from tradition, J. also attended the ceremony, and without much warning, wound up becoming a recipient of the haldi herself. After dinner, there was a sangeet, basically a song-and-dance talent show put on by the family, on the roof. S.'s eldest brother owns a dance studio, and J. and V. had been taking lessons to perform a traditional-style dance, along with numbers by many of the other close family members (the showstopper was S.'s twin nephews doing a hilarious dance to the pop hit "Desi Boys"). A guitar (a "Givson") had also been dug up a few hours before, and I was shanghaied into playing a tune towards the end. 


The next day we spent some more time in the old city, mostly at the Hawa Mahal ("The Palace of the Winds," a structure that had been built to allow the ladies of the Raja's court to observe the bustle of the city without being seen), then headed back to the hotel to get ready for the wedding. We joined much of S.'s family at a hotel about a half-mile from the grounds of the wedding hall, and that's where we got our first taste of what an Indian wedding is like. 

A procession formed across the busy street from the hotel, at the center of which was the horse that S., in resplendent finery, would ride up to the gates of the wedding hall. On either side were bearers carrying what I can only describe as handheld chandeliers, powered through connections to a truck that brought up the rear of the procession, and would honk if you lingered too long. In between were at least a hundred of S.'s relatives and friends and a very loud standard-issue Indian wedding marching band. The whole lot of us processed slowly down the side of the road, stopping every few minutes so some of the revelers could dance their hearts out in front of the groom on his horse. 

It took half an hour to travel that half-mile, but we eventually approached the wedding hall, the entryway lit by arches of bright white electric lights. S. rode the horse up to the very door of the building, horns blaring the announcement of his arrival. His immediate family attached strings of flowers to a veil over his face and he was led into the room, toward a stage where J. sat concealed by a blue and white canopy (she had earlier been brought in on a palanquin). Unlike a Western wedding, where the procession towards the altar is treated as a solemn affair, this was a cacophonous one, as guests danced and jostled for prime snapshot position while the band played on. Already overwhelmed by so many stimuli, we had no idea that we were also about to become part of the ceremony.

S. was led up to the stage, where the maulvi (priest) was seated, and joined by a number of his relatives, while one of his sisters sat with J. under the canopy. The others had  just hauled Kate, M., and V., who had joined us in the crowd up onto the stage to sit by J. as well (though outside the canopy), when one of S.'s brothers-in-law, T., tapped me on the shoulder and yelled in my ear, "Come! You will be the witness!"

Pausing only to kick off my fancy pointy shoes, I suddenly found myself huddled with the groom, his family, and a number of bearded and skullcapped Muslim clerics on the stage. Though I had attended a Hindu wedding before, I really had no idea what to expect in terms of the ceremony (or nikaah) at a Muslim wedding. Luckily, T., whose English was impeccable, hovered behind me, giving a play-by-play. There was very little ritual involved, as far as I could tell -- a few verses read from the Quran, a lot of signing documents written in Urdu, the giving of consent by the bride, and the acceptance by V., on behalf of their father, of a token sum of money as a show of good faith that they would care well for his daughter. The whole thing was over in about fifteen minutes; confetti poppers were set off, J. emerged from beneath the canopy, and the party began in earnest.

Only a fraction of the 1600 (!) people who would attend the wedding would have been able to fit in the small building where the nikaah was held, so most of them were already outside on the grounds. It was not unlike a music festival or a county fair: a dozen or so food stalls were set up around the perimeter, cooking vast amounts of celebratory victuals for the guests. In a pavilion, hundreds of chairs had been set up in front of another stage, where S. and J. sat and greeted their guests (one of whom was rumored to be the Prime Minister of Rajasthan), for hours at a time. After the bride and groom, we were definitely the star attraction of the evening, especially among the children, who couldn't get enough of shyly staning in front of us until we took their picture. Poor M., who had already been the object of much unwelcome attention in the form of crowds of people wanting to take photographs with her in Agra, had just about had it at this point and had to spend some time hiding under her dupatta. Exhausted, we left as the celebration was winding down, around midnight, and just as the bride and groom were finally able to sit down to eat. 


The next day we met up with J. and S. for a late lunch, then headed off to see some more of Jaipur's tourist sites, including the City Palace (built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, the founder of Jaipur, in the early 18th century, and former home to several generations of Jaipur's rulers) and the Jantar Mantar, Jai Singh's observatory. In the evening we met up with S. and J. again for dinner and for some more shopping in Jaipur's bazaars (given Rajasthan's desert climate, evening tends to be when most people are out and about). Then it was time to bid our friends farewell and head south to the "beach vacation" section of the trip in Goa.

(to be continued...)