It’s time to continue our South Indian Wedding story.
For now, I’m calling it Mr Chorizo Finally Settles Down.
(Soon to be a major motion picture.)
I left you last time on Kovalam beach, in Kerala, South India, a few days before I was supposed to get married.
I was feeling pretty good. Done with all the shopping, and ready to enjoy a tropical Christmas with a couple of beers and a plate of spicy squid.
Some friends arrived from Spain over the next couple of days, so I had company while Morena and family made the final preparations and received visitors at home.
(I saw a bit of this myself, when I was there… the door of the house was always open, and people were walking in and out all day: distant relatives, people from her mom’s bank, local politicians wearing all white. They bring gifts, or money, or give congratulations and their blessing, and Morena curtsies and touches their feet. She touches a lot of feet over the days leading up to the big event.)
The only problem so far?
My mom is trapped by the “once a century” winter storm in the US, and can’t make it. Her flight is canceled. All the flights are canceled.
That’s a real bummer. But soon, it gets worse.
Indian wedding (almost) disasters
The morning of the big Indian wedding, I get a text from Morena.
“I woke up at 4 AM to women wailing downstairs. My uncle had collapsed was taken to the hospital. We thought he was going to die.”
Her uncle is the patriarch of the family – as well as a sort of a father figure to Morena – and this would be a very bad thing, at a very bad time.
“I was thinking we might have to cancel the wedding”, she says.
For now, though, he’s alive, and they’re saying might be out of the hospital in time for the ceremony.
So I have some instant coffee in my hotel room, get dressed up in my kurta, and get in the car to head out to the temple with our European friends.
We park outside the gates, and walk down some stone stairs to contemplate the nearby river.
It’s a big rushing river with a wall of palm trees on the other side, and there are people who have brought a bar of soap down to the water. They’re bathing and doing laundry at the same time. They take off their outer layer, stand in the water, and scrub it with the soap. Then they scrub themselves. Then they get back up on the riverbank to dry off in the tropical sun.
And here I am, a guy from Arizona – having flown halfway around the planet to get married – and I’m still thinking my bride might not show up.
I’m checking my phone every four seconds for a message from Morena, and doubting whether the whole thing’s even going to happen. But I haven’t said anything to our European friends. They decide to go to a fruit stand to buy some bananas for breakfast. We walk back up the stairs and stand around while they eat bananas.
It’s all very exotic and tropical and in secret, my stomach is turning over, as I stand there in my silk gown counting the minutes.
Scenes from the Hindu Temple
Finally Morena arrives.
She texts me saying she’s right around the corner, and I find her at the temple, in a saree, with heavy makeup and draped in lots of gold.
She looks great. And apparently, it’s happening.
We go in, take off our shoes, and a guy with a big snake charmer flute starts playing a wild tune, accompanied by another guy slapping a two-headed bongo drum. Morena’s brother puts a white dot on my forehead and a garland of flowers around my neck and tells me to pray to Shiva.
The gold necklaces and rings are handed over to the Brahmin (a heavy, shirtless priest) so he can put them in front of the idol and imbue them with good karma. The photographers are snapping pictures of everything.
There are lots of people around, and it’s a noisy, confusing scene. At one point I notice Uncle is next to me. He’s out of the hospital, and looking exhausted.
“I hear you had an exciting night”, I say.
“Well, you know…”
Brother’s girlfriend changes my current flower garland for another, heavier flower garland. Morena and I pray to Shiva together. The Brahmin puts her hands in Uncle’s left hand, my hands in Uncle’s right, then Uncle puts our hands together. People throw flowers at us. There’s a lot of shouting and cheering.
Like I said, it’s confusing.
Nobody’s prepared me for anything except the bit with the necklaces, so I tie the smaller necklace on Morena, and she ties the bigger one on me. And that’s it. We’re married.
In the eyes of Shiva and before a couple hundred Malayalee people, fully and Hinduly married.
But the temple ceremony is just the beginning.
After the big Indian Wedding… the big Indian post-wedding lunch
Later, after much photography, we’re back at Morena’s house.
Mom and the aunts wave an oil lamp around us at the door, we walk up the stairs (right leg first) and sit on the sofa, where mom feeds each of us a spoonful of milk and a bite off a tiny banana.
This symbolizes prosperity, or something. I don’t even know. I’ve spent the whole day barefoot, in a silk gown, and fairly confused. But everyone’s happy I’m here, and VERY VERY happy I’ve decided to drop whatever I was doing back in Europe to fly out here and marry Morena.
After the milk and banana thing, there’s a catered vegetarian lunch which involves several colors of gravy served with a little bit of rice on a banana leaf. The guy who sells coconuts on the streetcorner is there. So are the drivers. The local politicians. The banking people. The neighbors. The cousins. And all the “uncles”. (More about them later.)
We eat with our hands.
Most of the food is liquid. It’s messy. And it’s not like cutlery is totally unknown here. They use spoons for serving. Forks are occasionally available upon request. I guess eating with your hands off a banana leaf is just how we do things out in Kerala.
And now that I’m a local, there’s no complaining.
Here’s a tip for all you world travellers…
When you’re dealing with people from a completely foreign culture, who don’t necessarily speak more than 20 words of your language, just do the following: tell them that their food is delicious, and that their landscapes are beautiful, and then just shut your damn mouth and sit around smiling.
Everyone will like you, or at the very least, tolerate you.
Trust me, I’ve done this in several countries at this point. It works.
And luckily, in the case of Kerala, everything I say is true. The food is delicious, the landscapes are beautiful… and I’ve never had so many random strangers being nice to me.
My smile is totally genuine.
Welcome to the big Indian family
I’ve spent years trying to understand who’s who in Morena’s family.
Finally meeting people around town does nothing to clear it up. Everyone, apparently, is her uncle. The guy selling tea across the street is her uncle, the random guy who hangs out with the driver is her uncle. About thirty guys with mustaches – mostly, of course, wearing white cloths around their waists in lieu of trousers – have, at this point, claimed to be an uncle.
After a while I pull Morena aside to ask, “So how many kids does Grandma have, exactly?”
“What? Just the three. My mom, Suresh Kumar, and the guy out in Atlanta.”
The uncle who just handed her over to me at the temple – the one who has been rushed back to the hospital for more tests – is Suresh Kumar, one of the literal “emerged from grandma’s womb” uncles.
He’s not at the lunch. And the uncle in Atlanta couldn’t make it.
So if there are no literal uncles at this whole event, who are rest of the people claiming to be an uncle of some kind?
That’s not clear.
“What about that guy who claims to be your uncle?”
“Oh, that’s just a figure of speech. He’s my high school principal.”
“Okay, so what about that guy who claims to be your uncle? Is he just some randomer?”
“He’s not just some randomer… He’s the guy who sells tapioca outside my great aunt’s house three towns over!”
“And that guy?” I point to some bystander, who may or may not have claimed to be her uncle at some point. By this point I’ve lost track.
“He’s my grandfather’s brother’s seventh daughter’s husband’s cousin’s nephew. So yeah, basically my uncle.”
Screw it. I give up.
We’re all one big family. Just don’t quiz me on everyone’s names.
Day Two of the Indian Wedding Experience
When I told people I was getting married in India, most of them said the same thing: “Oh, that’s so exciting! Is it going to be a week-long party with lots of drinking and dancing?”
No, I told them. No it’s not.
Apparently, that’s what they do for a lot of weddings in the north of India. Here in the south, there’s no alcohol, no dancing, and the whole thing is done in a mere two days.
The first day was the ceremony at the temple and the banana-leaf feast at the family home. The second day is a reception in an auditorium at Kerala Arts and Crafts Village – a place worth visiting for the local handicrafts, if you’re ever in the area.
Morena’s grandfather was involved in local politics back in the day, so a lot of people who have shown up are there because of him. Mostly, they’re from Gandhi’s party – the Indian National Congress – but at least a couple of them, it must be said, are Communists.
Not that I know who’s who. Dressed in all-white outfits, they wander the grounds hobnobbing and looking vaguely important.
One such guy grabs me outside the venue and starts reciting his CV. His English is better than most. He tells me he’s a friend of granddad’s, and he’s held some pretty important government positions.
“So what do you do?” he asks.
“I’m a writer.”
“Ah, a writer. Do you write books?”
“Yes, of course. I’ve written several books.”
“And have you heard of the Bhagavad Gita?”
“Definitely! Actually, I have two copies of the Bhagavad Gita.”
This happens to be true. One copy is at home in Barcelona, and one I got from the Hare Krishnas last week, when they gave me the certificate saying I’m a practicing Hindu.
The guy seems impressed. He turns to a colleague, exclaiming, “This guy is a writer, and he owns TWO COPIES of the Gita.”
Like I said earlier, a little appreciation of the local culture goes a long way.
The Big Indian Wedding Reception
The wedding industry is big out here. So big that I’ve taken to calling it the Wedding-Industrial Complex.
As I’ve mentioned previously, Morena’s draped in gold jewellery, and she’s so far been through three different outfits. We’ve also bought clothes for a lot of people in the extended family. And that’s not even the expensive part of the whole thing. Apparently, the expensive part is the reception.
Out here in Kerala, “wedding reception” means that we sit on a stage in the auditorium, while everyone in the region walks up to be photographed with us.
Morena’s in her purple dress with lots of silver sequins, and I’m wearing a blue suit for the second time in my life. And we’re meeting and greeting whole loads of people in front of the cameras.
Most people who come up to shake hands know approximately one English word. Usually, it’s “okay”.
So I smile and shake their hands, and say “Nice to meet you. Thank you for coming.”
They waggle their heads in the Indian style, and say “Okay”. That’s the whole conversation. After that, the photographers snap a couple of pictures, and the guests wander off to eat, or hang out for the afternoon, and more people come to greet us. There’s a ton of photography.
You know how if you force yourself to smile for a minute, you’ll actually start to feel happy? Well, it turns out that if you force yourself to smile for three hours, you’ll feel really really happy. After a while, in fact, I can barely stop giggling. I feel great. And that’s even taking into account the objective annoyingness of the situation: just handshaking and photography, all afternoon.
I feel like I’m running for president, with all the hands I’m shaking here.
Finally, around 9PM, we’re done being photographed, and Morena and I rush off to the buffet before it closes.
According to the caterers, they’ve served 475 plates this afternoon. Morena’s mom and uncle claim that that’s impossible, that they only invited 300, and that the caterer is inflating the number so he can charge extra. On the other hand, I feel like I’ve probably just been photographed with everyone in India. So 1.4 billion plates, or thereabouts.
Anyway, Uncle’s fine. The doctors ran all the tests, then finally said he was just stressed, and needed to sleep. So now he’s feeling well enough to debate the number of people served at the buffet.
We leave him and Mom in stern conversation with the event manager, and head back to the hotel for our second night of marital bliss.
Honeymooning on Kerala’s backwaters
Two days later, we’re off to Kollam, for a bit of honeymooning on the backwaters.
The Kerala Backwaters are a series of lakes and canals that run parallel to the coast, and have, in recent years, become a popular tourist spot. We’ve booked a couple of nights at a resort in Kollam, with views of the waters of Ashtamudi Lake.
The part of Kerala I’ve seen so far seems to be a strange mix of dusty, low-tech tropical lifestyles with 21st-century technology – and even luxury. Your fishmonger is a lady sitting in the dirt with a bucket of mackerel… but she accepts Google Pay. The street scenes are like a snippet from Mad Max… but there’s also a store selling gold jewellery every 50 meters.
And the town of Kollam looks like everything else: dilapidated, chaotic, and lacking infrastructure. But driving through the gates of the resort, we’re swept in a second into a world of shiny clean luxury.
“Just one thing”, says Deepna at the check-in desk. “There’s a mandatory gala dinner tonight for New Year’s Eve.”
“Mandatory?” I say. “In what sense?”
“In the sense of mandatory. It costs 12,000 rupees per couple and you have to come.”
“A mandatory gala dinner…” I mutter. “What is this, Stalinist Russia?”
Twelve thousand rupees is about $145 US – probably a significant portion of most people’s monthly salary out here. I’m slightly embarrassed. But mostly, I don’t like people telling me what to do.
“Also,” says Deepna, “there’s an open bar.”
Morena sees me perk up.
“She probably should have led with the part about unlimited alcohol.”
At the Mandatory Gala Dinner
So we go to the gala.
It’s not quite like Stalinist Russia, because Stalinist Russia had no food, a whole archipelago of gulags, and (definitely) no Indian wine or chili beef fry.
This mandatory gala, in fact, is in a big ballroom, and they have an MC up on a stage, speaking a mix of English and several other Indian languages.
The crowd is virtually all Indian, from various regions, but I hear a group speaking Spanish at one point. I had them pegged as wealthy Latin people, but Morena runs into them in front of the biryani stand and starts up a conversation. Turns out, they’re Catalan, and the older guy has a daughter who lives on our street in Barcelona – literally two blocks away.
Small world, huh?
The resort has hired various types of performers for this mandatory gala. It’s loud. Then again, all of India is loud. We watch a bunch of shirtless guys pounding on drums, and some Bollywood-style dancing. There’s a magician walking from table to table, doing card tricks.
As far as mandatory galas go, I suppose it’s not bad.
We duck out before midnight, dodging the Gala Gestapo, head back to the room, and catch the fireworks over the lake from our balcony.
Happy 2023, everyone!
The Kerala Backwater Boat Tour
The next day, we get a boat tour of the nearby backwaters.
For about 10 bucks, two guys take us around in a long boat all morning.
It’s the most relaxing experience I’ve had out here in Kerala, or anywhere else in India, for that matter. The boat is slow, and the palm trees slide by on the shore. Every once in a while, there’s music coming from somewhere in the jungle… presumably from temples hidden back in the dense greenery.
Morena chats with the boat guys, and I notice she’s speaking pure Malayalam, without mixing in any English words. When we stop on a little island to walk around, she tells me, “The older of the two guys worked his whole life as a government functionary. His kids live in London. When he retired, his kids bought him the boat, and now he does this.”
By this time I’m used to being wrong in my first impressions of Indian people. All the usual ways I’d size people up just don’t seem to apply out here.
For example: in Europe, I might look at someone’s clothes to figure out who they are. That just doesn’t work out here. In Kerala, at least, the mundu (the white cloth in lieu of trousers) might mean you’re rich, it might mean you’re just a regular guy working on a banana farm, it might mean you’re on a religious pilgrimage with your homies. It’s confusing.
Well, my little Western brain thinks, just check out their shoes… Okay, done. A lot of people are in flip-flops or sandals, and the rest just walk around barefoot half the day. The women’s outfits (sarees or kurtis) give me similarly little information. Some of the babies and children are straight-up naked.
The mall security guys dress like dangerous paramilitaries. And the guys who look like they’ve spent their whole lives on the river are actually government functionaries whose kids live in London.
I have no idea who’s who. I can’t read the social cues.
And with that…
Let’s finish up our Indian Wedding Adventure here.
That evening, back at the resort, we each get Ayurvedic massages.
Morena describes hers as very relaxing. I’d describe mine as “Having the shit beaten out of me by a burly dark-skinned man with a mustache, while simultaneously being drizzled in oil”.
The next day we go back to Neyyattinkara, Morena’s hometown.
We spend a day walking around in the jungle, and opening wedding presents. We’ve received a lot of idols, and a few pots and pans. Morena’s aunt gives us a really nice painting of Ganesha that she made herself.
And then, back to Spain. Another middle-of-the-night flight through Qatar – we leave India around midnight, and with the time change, we’re back in Barcelona for lunch.
It’s weird being in Spain again. Disoriented, I wander around the Born neighborhood, shocked at how clean, well-organized and mostly empty of people things are.
Then there’s the strange thoughts about India that bubble up in my mind. Despite being about as deeply involved in Indian culture as it’s possible to be (at least given the three-week timeframe of this visit) I’m left with more questions than answers.
As a “Western” person, I have a certain worldview that I was taught from the time I was a child.
Allow me to explain my Eurocentrism…
You see, according to what I heard, back in the day, world history started out in the Middle East.
Then it moved to Greece, then to Rome, then (despite not much happening for about 1400 years there in the middle) out to Western Europe.
Eventually, things started happening in England, then America, and finally North America completely took over world history, and – except for a couple of small blips like the bombing of Pearl Harbor and (more recently) 9-11, the existence of Asia is largely a footnote to the story of Western world domination.
Mind you that nobody actually says it in so many words. Most of it is understood through the subtext, and what the history books don’t say.
And I’ve been convinced for a while now that none of that’s true… it’s just a cultural fiction we tell ourselves out here in the capital-W West.
Read Sapiens, read The Silk Roads, read Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World… I’m pretty sure we Westerners have it backwards. We’re the blip, the brief glitch in the history of Asian world domination. And future historians (probably Asians themselves) will someday write a definitive world history in which Europe and North America are just footnotes in the story of Asia’s awesomeness.
Asia rules everything around me
A few days after I got back to Barcelona, I read that India’s population had (allegedly) passed China’s. The earth has 8 billion human beings, and most of them are concentrated in a ridiculously small area called the Valeriepieris Circle.
I’ve been to Asia twice now, and all I can say is this: something is happening out there.
I’m not sure what, and I have no idea what the endgame is. But India’s growing fast. China’s done pretty well for itself over the past couple of decades. And countries like Japan, South Korea and Thailand (etc) are among the biggest economic success stories of the 20th and early 21st centuries.
So, my dear westerners, this is purely hypothetical, and I’m just a nobody who reads a lot and travels a bit when I can, but my recommendation is…
Hold onto your hats. The next few decades are gonna be wild.
Mr Chorizo AKA Mr Daniel. (Now a Married Man.)
P.S. It took me an unreasonably long time to write this. Eventually, I decided to split my draft up into two articles, so soon I’ll be sharing some general conclusions about the Indian experience (which have nothing to do with the wedding bit). For more, check out my series from the previous Indian trip, which starts with Two Days in Glorious Mumbai. Enjoy!