Saturday, February 20, 2010

Udaipur, India




Indian Wedding Travelgasm


My eyes sprung a bit of a leak this afternoon when we piled into two auto-rickshaws with our host family, the Ranawats, and bade farewell to our village of Badgaon. The goodbyes have been the hardest part of this adventure, and there have been so many of them. A dozen of the neighborhood children who have been running in and out of our house for the past two months came to see us off. They ran down the road behind our tuk-tuk, waving as we chugged out of their lives.


A few days ago this same cast of characters took part in a buzzing assembly line in our living room. They helped us pack 100 gift bags for the 100 students at the school where we have been volunteering in the nearby tribal village of Kavita. Most families in our neighborhood are from either the Rajput caste, which was traditionally made up of warriors, or from the Brahmin caste of priests, artists, and teachers. Both castes were traditionally in the upper half of the caste system in Hindu society, though this is certainly no indicator of wealth. In fact, as far as I can tell, the only notable differences between our street and lower caste neighborhoods in the village would be that most houses on our block are equipped with indoor plumbing and a gas range. So, while people in other neighborhoods have to lug their buckets, soap, and washcloths to the community well to bathe, we get to shower indoors.


It was heartwarming to watch our little Rajput and Brahmin friends having so much fun helping us stuff school supplies, toothbrushes, fruits, and vegetables into gift bags for our students in Kavita, who don’t even factor into the caste system since tribal people are ranked even lower than Dalits, a group previously known as Untouchables. It was even more gratifying to see the smiles on 100 little faces during our last day of volunteering. We gathered all of our students on the porch outside the four-room school building for our last rendition of the Itsy Bitsy Spider. Mothers draped in colorful saris listened in as they filled metal pots from the nearby community well. Cyrus, Bella, and little Cruz handed out the gift bags while Jason demonstrated how to use the toothbrush. The most popular items in the bags were undoubtedly the pictures. Over the course of our month of volunteering I took hundreds of photos, and we stuffed one print into each of the gift bags. The students, many of whom may never have seen a picture of themselves, were still eagerly comparing photos when we finally zipped up my guitar and waded through a sea of schoolchildren toward our rickshaw, giving 100 high-fives along the way.


Earlier that afternoon, as Cyrus and Bella led a rowdy game of Duck-Duck-Goose on the playground, a crowd of whispering students had packed behind Cruz and me in the school office to watch as I taped 100 student close-ups to the dingy white wall. I thought I heard the faint sound of women’s voices in unison. I stopped taping for a moment and cocked my head. Sure enough, the singing grew louder. I dropped the photos, grabbed my camera, and ran out to the porch where Jason was reciting the ABCs in English with another group of students. I got there just in time to see the bridal procession—my Indian wedding wish had finally been fulfilled!


I was guessing that this was Day One (out of four) of the wedding tradition that I’ve been so hoping to witness. The bride-to-be wore a dazzling, if dusty, crimson sari, tribal silver jewelry, and a particularly worried expression. She was surrounded by a singing circle of older women dressed in their finest saris. Her elders sang with gusto, perhaps hoping to offer courage to the young wife-to-be. It’s safe to assume that this was an arranged marriage, since Jason and I are the only couple that any of our Indian friends have met who’ve actually had one of those new-fangled love marriages. They’ve heard of such things, of course, but love marriages range from being frowned upon in some parts of India to downright unheard of in more conservative areas, such as our corner of Rajasthan.


The beautiful young bride couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen years old, though I admit it’s hard to tell in this village: poor nutrition definitely slows development and stunts growth. I knew, of course, that what is considered a marriageable age in India is much younger than in other parts of the world. But this terrified young girl brought that reality home to me, and I instantly felt her fear. I’m not generally one to judge the customs of another culture, but she was just an adolescent—not even old enough to legally buy alcohol back home. And honestly, if you can’t drink, how are you going to make your marriage work?


I noticed that the young bride was covered with henna tattoos, and I remembered a recent conversation with Pratchi, a fifteen-year-old cousin of the Ranawat family, who lives with us, speaks nearly perfect English, and has become my constant confidante. One afternoon, Pratchi, Bella and I sat on our front porch where Bella had agreed to act as my guinea pig. I practiced tracing henna tattoos on her forearm, while mining Pratchi for more details on the four-day wedding tradition, which she had already spent the better part of the month describing for me. Pratchi explained how the women in the bride’s family would spend the first three evenings covering her hands and feet with henna tattoos. The bride was not allowed to do any work during the entire four-day period. Instead, she was expected to relax and allow the henna tattoos to soak in deeply. For it is said, Pratchi continued, that longer her wedding henna lasts, stronger her marriage will be. On the fourth night, Pratchi explained, the groom applies the final henna tattoo. Upon mentioning this last detail, she saw the dreamy look in our eyes and quickly added: And next day, the bride will meet her new mother-in-law, and she will never to relax again.


There was definitely fear in this young bride’s eyes. Maybe she had not yet been introduced to her husband and was still wondering whether she would get stuck with a lemon. Maybe she wasn’t ready to be torn away from her childhood family to live in her new husband’s home, as tradition demands. Maybe her mother-in-law, who would essentially become her new boss around the homestead, was less than charming.


My fingers were frantic—fumbling to focus—in the hopes of snapping a photograph before the procession passed us by. However, when the ladies caught sight of the exotic family of gora (which is how folks around these parts generally refer to Westerners), the singing suddenly stopped. For a precious few moments the colorful estrogen-fest shifted its focus onto us, which was a surprising, though happy, turn of events. They gladly posed for my camera, crowding in front of the bride-to-be to get their pictures taken, holding up babies, and temporarily forgetting that they had something better to do.


India has been a photographer’s dream, only rarely bordering on a nightmare. Its people are strikingly beautiful and, to the eyes of this Kansas girl, about as exotic as they come. And on top of that, thanks in part to the escapist glamour of Bollywood and the paparazzi-fuelled star-worship that goes with it, most Indian people I have encountered love to have their picture taken. Couple this with the fact that very few people can afford to own their own camera (certainly not in tribal villages like Kavita), and you have a scenario in which the photographer is a very popular person. What a fortunate decision it was to have finally switched from film to digital before this adventure began—if only for the little preview image that pops up on the back of the camera. I love passing the camera around after each shot and wish I could somehow capture the smiles that erupt when people see their own faces on the screen.


Still, I’ve learned that you have to be careful with this fickle photo fame. It has reached a point where I can no longer show my face in my favorite little village of Bedla. I used to love wandering each afternoon, armed with my camera and a few words of Hindi, through the farmland surrounding Badgoan and into the beautiful neighboring village of Bedla. Beautiful is a relative term here, to be sure, and in Bedla’s case refers to narrow dirt streets lined with holy cows, gossiping gaggles of elders, brightly-painted elephant murals, crumbling adobe walls, and colorful heaps of trash, replete with the smell of dung and smoldering plastic—all in the shadow of a huge dilapidated palace that speaks to the village’s former glory. Precisely my kind of place.


I recently had the brilliant idea of developing some of my favorite portraits of the villagers and taking prints back to Bedla as gifts. I remember this notion coming to me one morning as I was leaving Badgoan’s tiny little fly-ridden internet café, which I’ve gotten to know quite well since the internet in the Ranawat house is down more often than not. On my way home, I stumbled on another little hole-in-the-wall establishment that I had not previously noticed. There were yellowed prints taped to the dusty window and a handwritten sign on the door advertising photo development. Seeing an advertisement in English caught me a bit off guard since we are the only five people in the village to whom the shop could possibly have been marketing. But being an American, and therefore a sucker for direct advertising, I ducked into the shop nonetheless. A thin young man named Prakash was waiting for me behind the counter with a smile. The following week, Prakash had a few extra rupees in his pocket, and I was on my way back to Bedla—this time with a fistful of photos.


By the time I finished knocking on doors and handing out portraits, I was surrounded by a new crowd of admirers, each begging to be photographed. Precisely according to plan. I came home with a hoard of amazing new shots that day and was incredibly proud of my ingenuity.


My fame turned a bit sour, though, on my next trip back to Bedla with prints. By the time I reached the village, they were ready for me. There was a family on each corner waiting—patting down tousled hair and pulling pants on the little ones, real quick-like, ready for their family photo shoot. After an hour of dutifully taking portraits of babies and aunties and grandmas and neighbors, and then of the neighbors’ babies and aunties and grandmas and neighbors—all of whom were quite clear about how many copies of each shot I should come back with tomorrow—I eventually had to start saying no. And keep saying no. And then pushing my way out of town to where I could breathe again. It’s funny how the last time I left Bedla, I remember riding out of town high on a wave of grateful shoulders—a sea of smiles, super-slow-motion, really flattering lighting. This time, I couldn’t get the hell out of town fast enough.


India has taught me to be careful what I wish, for what it has to offer, it offers in abundance. The day after my Indian wedding wish was fulfilled by the bridal parade in Kavita, we were invited by our new friend, Sapna, to another Indian wedding for her cousin. In actuality, it ended up being forty weddings in one.


Sapna is from one of the lower castes, and it’s common for such families to pool their resources and marry their daughters off in one joint ceremony and reception in order to cut down on expenses. I was very excited about the invite, despite the warnings from our host family. The Ranawats are proud Rajputs from the warrior caste, and they cautioned us regarding the social implications of accepting an invitation to a lower caste wedding. Cyrus and Cruz gladly took their advice, happy to have an excuse to stay home and play cricket in the streets with their friends. Bella and I, however, never pass up a chance to play dress-up.


When the Ranawats realized that we were not going to be talked out of attending, Pinkie, Lala, and Pratchi, the ladies of the family, set about to doll us up so we could properly represent their family. I had never before fully appreciated how much work goes into putting on a sari, which is apparently a three-person job. Pinkie was an expert, of course, having been forced by Grandpa Ranawat to wear a sari since the day she married his son Yuvraj and joined the Ranawat family. Lala is a widow and now wears a tunic rather than a sari, but she had years of sari practice before the death of her husband. Pratchi, on the other hand, has not yet been married off so she still gets to make her own choices on how to dress. She generally prefers blue jeans and t-shirts and, as a result, wasn’t much help with arranging our saris. She held the safety pins, however, and did her best to keep us laughing.


After an hour of fussing over Bella and me—feverishly wrapping and pinning and draping and tucking— the ladies stood back to admire their work. Jason looked on, dressed in the finest outfit he could assemble from his backpack—black pants and a white collared shirt. For the finishing touch, Pinkie lined Bella and my eyes with black mustard seed powder, stacked our wrists high with sparkly plastic bangles and adorned my forehead with a red bindi to mark me as a married woman. Then, the ladies sent the three of us off to the ball in our very noisy, petrol-smelling, rickshaw-shaped pumpkin carriage.


We met Sapna outside the event on a street corner and paraded nervously into the wedding tent. It was empty. We had apparently arrived a couple hours too early. No matter, Sapna said, now I’ll have time to share to you the particulars of the tradition of matrimony. The reception was apparently part of Day Three of the wedding sacrament—the day when the new bride and groom must perform a myriad rituals, just so, in order for the nuptial knot to be properly tied. After all the formalities have been dealt with, the newlyweds are finally carted off to the reception to celebrate with their families.


Hours after our arrival, the tent was finally abuzz with forty extended families who were all members of Sapna’s caste—Hindus who had migrated to India from what is now Pakistan during Partition. The glitzy newlywed couples began filing in and taking their places, each on one of forty spot-lit stages that had been set up around the perimeter of the tent. We waited for Sapna to point us toward her family’s stage. She scanned the room for a few moments and then eventually gave up, admitting, I really can’t tell which one is my cousin. I’ve only met her once or twice, after all. We’ve since learned that cousin is a very loose term in India, which can be used to refer to anyone from your uncle’s children, to your neighbors, to old family friends.


When all of the newlyweds had taken their respective stages, Sapna motioned us to follow her. We crossed the rubbish-strewn dirt floor and joined in the single-file line of pushy guests making their way around the perimeter of the tent to gawk at each of the brightly lit newlyweds on display. Forty videographers, each of whom had been hired to record one of the couples’ wedding day, steadied themselves above the multitude atop wobbly chairs, each focusing spotlights on one of the glitzy stages. Each stage was adorned with two sets of heavily jeweled in-laws, between whom sat a dashing groom and a petrified young bride. Each bride was draped in a sparkly wedding sari and adorned with henna tattoos, a bindi, plastic bangles up to her elbows, the largest and shiniest necklace her family could afford, and a jeweled chain stretching from her nose ring to her ear. I took out my camera, ecstatic to finally be experiencing at least one incarnation of the wedding tradition I had been hearing about for so long.


I remember the exact moment when my Indian wedding travelgasm turned from ecstasy to nightmare: the heat of the lights and the dizzying discomfort I felt when I realized that hundreds of eyes had suddenly turned their focus on us. Flashbulbs popped, and forty videographers abruptly turned their spotlights away from the stages to instead follow the progression of the family of goras making their way through the extremely tight crowd. Of the many times we have found ourselves unwittingly at the center of attention while in India, this was the most uncomfortable. The crush of the crowd, the spotlights and the sudden unsolicited attention were overwhelming. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, we bid Sapna a hasty farewell, snuck out the side door, and jumped in the first rickshaw home.


This afternoon, after saying our goodbyes to the neighborhood children, we hailed a tuk-tuk en route to the bus station in Udaipur. When the entire Ranawat family insisted on accompanying us, we flagged down another—one for the men and a second for the women. Both of the rickshaws were overflowing with our backpacks, school supplies, computers, and an unexpectedly large bag of parting gifts from the neighborhood (which we failed to account for when formulating our packing strategy). And our newest acquisition, my beloved sitar, which had to be strapped on top.


Bella and I climbed onto the front bench in the women’s rickshaw, facing backward, and held hands as the driver carried us away from our home. As we watched our little friends grow smaller in the distance, my mind snapped one last photograph of India. I made a pathetic attempt to stifle tears until I noticed that Bella and all of the Ranawat ladies were fighting back waterworks of their own. I wiped my eyes and attempted to distract myself as Bella waved out the window flap toward Minna and her grandmother who were leading their prized dairy cow home from the fields. Minna would soon begin making rounds through the neighborhood with the fresh milk we’ve been using to make our daily yogurt.


A colorful train of trash tumbled across the street behind our tuk-tuk. After nearly three months in India I might not have even noticed were it not for the fact that this was undeniably our trash—a Corn Flakes box, chocolate wrappers, and Christmas paper—all items foreign to most Indian households. When we first moved into the Ranawat home I remember asking Yuvraj, naively, which day the trash service would pick up. I could tell he was a bit surprised by my question, and have since learned that no such service exists in these parts, so families generally throw rubbish at the end of the street. Yuvraj smiled at my ignorance, nonetheless, and insisted that he would put our trash somewhere special.


Just when my face started to dry, we passed three separate wedding parties along the road into Udaipur. In each group, a crowd of sobbing women embraced a young bride, still dressed in her sparkly wedding sari from the night before, but now with tears streaming down her face. Day Four of the wedding ceremony, I guessed, when the new bride is torn away from her birth family to start a new life in her husband's family home.


And there we were, with our bags packed yet again, voluntarily tearing ourselves away from our new friends and foster family, yanking up roots that had just started to flourish in this stark desert land, only to start all over again somewhere new. Leaving India has been the hardest part of our big field trip thus far. And it’s making me wonder whether this harebrained adventure is at all worthwhile.