[Dedicated to my brother and sister-in-law who are NOT the inspiration for my characters Thambi and MaliniAmmal. If you believe that, I have a business proposition for you.]
The car made a smooth halt in front of the mandapam (Wedding Hall) and a couple of more-than-middle-aged women started rapidly waving a plate in front of Thambi. Mangalam (though 'Mangalam maami' (Mangalam Auntie) sounds pleasant, Swami's mother absolutely refused to respond to it.) thrust some shining coins into Thambi's hand. Thambi deposited the coins into the plate and the women placed a red mark on his forehead. This arcane ritual was to to continue throughout the next three days. Sambasivam should have spent quite a fortune on just the coins that Thambi was obligated to deposit into the plate everytime this ritual repeated. Sometimes the torture was doubled by one of their kin (or one who was soon to become one) breaking into a spontaneous off-key singing.
Thambi's prospective father-in-law met them at the entrance and performed the modern, yuppie version of the preceding ritual by shaking hands with all and sundry including the coolie workers. Swami had no idea who was whom. Perhaps Thambi too was unaware of the identities of those in the welcoming commitee. The bride's brother, Swami's counterpart, whisked Thambi, Mangalam and Sambasivam away. Thambi showed his bonhomie by cracking some jokes. The brides family obligingly laughed respectfully.
Swami was left behind to ensure that their luggage reached safety. Once the luggage was safely deposited in the rooms allotted for Sambasivam and his relatives, Swami could heave a sigh of relief. He had avoided Mangalam's wrath. For the moment, at least. Thambi's prospective parents-in-law trooped into the room and started to explain the wedding arrangements to Mangalam and Sambasivam.
Sambasivam tried cracking a few weak jokes but they withered under Mangalam's piercing glare. Sambasivam was blissfully unaware of the myriad protocols and the associated ego hassles of a marriage. Mangalam was well versed in this area - her experience from marrying off all of Sambasivam's siblings.
Swami's thought back about how fast events were progressing. Thambi had come back on a months holiday from his cushy job in Silicon Valley only a few days back. Thambi, with two Airline regulation sized suitcases stuffed with gifts and a passport with a H-1B visa attached to it, were swiftly whisked away through the Green Channel - thanks to Sambasivam's friend in Customs. Thambi showered his kith and kin with "Phoren" goods that he had picked up on sale at the places like Wal Mart and K-Mart. For the near and dear ones was reserved the costlier items from the shopping malls.
Swami detachedly observed as Thambi had nodded his consent to getting married. The 'poNNu pArthal' (Meeting the prospective bride) followed and Thambi was suitably impressed. This sparked off a frenzy in Sambasivam household. Thambi selected his invitation cards, wedding wardrobe (which consisted of a couple of suits tailored at Syed Bawker or Raymonds, a complete set of shoes that would have been Imelda Marcos' envy, and the more traditional 'mayilkaNN paTTu vEshti' (silk sarong)) and various other things. His interaction with his wife-to-be also began to increase. They timidly started off as a lunch with the whole family in tow at the snazzy restaurant (where Thambi proudly paid the bill with his newly acquired Gold card). It then progressed into more personal lunches. Thambi kept borrowing Swami's motorbike so that he could keep his appointments at the restaurants. The phone was monopolized by Thambi till the day before the wedding. Much to Swami's annoyance.
After a couple of hours of rest to relieve Thambi of the strains of his harrowing journey through the streets, the festivities and rituals began. Swami went to the dining room and had a hearty 'tiffin'. A nice filter coffee served as a nice finale to the meal. When he came out he saw Thambi seated in front of the smoky holy-fire, performing some rituals as dictated by the 80-year-old, hawk-eyed family sastrigal (priest). Some of the older relatives of Swami were seated around this fire while the younger at heart were spread out around the hall.
Thambi, after serving a couple of hours of time in front of the fire, changed into a suit (presented to him by his father-in-law to be). Thambi, in typical yuppy fashion, flatly refused to bow to the threats, from the brides relatives (perhaps made just in jest), of a traditional Tamil 'jAAnuvAsam' (decked journey through the streets). Swami remembered how this, now unpractical, ritual used to be. It entitled the groom to a ride through the lanes and mostly the bylanes of the city in an open car (typically a flower bedecked 40's Plymouth). The ordeal was further worsened for the groom by the fact that he had to be seated beside a couple of runny-nosed nephews/nieces/cousins (in knee length khaki trousers or 'pAAvAAdai chaTTai'.) The groom, during this torture, did not even have the use of his own hands because a 'poo chendU' (bouquet of flowers) was thrust into his hands.
The modern version of this ritual goes something like this - An air-conditioned car, commandeered, perhaps, by Thambi's PFILaw from a wealthy client, swiftly carried Thambi and his immediate family to a nearby temple where the 'Gurukal' (priest) was having a field day as this was the peak of the Madras marriage season.
Swami, now dressed in new clothes which his brother had bought for him from the States, started moving around the hall trying to find a group into which he could fit. The conversation was either too simplistic for Swami's liking or too involved (there were a couple of chartered accountants around who were discussing the present government's economic policy in great etail). Swami was especially at risk as he attracted unwanted attention because of his position in the Groom's family tree. Thambi's PPIL made some conversation with Swami. "Which year are you now in?" asked Thambi's PFIL. Swami answered "Final year" and thought to himself "This geezer has been asking me the same question God knows how many times and since he is who he is I have to answer all his @##@ questions!"
Swami wandered towards the kitchen to grab a glass of water. He saw mammoth vessels on fires and a few people chopping, what looked like, tons of carrots and potatoes. Swami did not wait for Thambi before proceeding to the dining hall to eat. Thambi would be involved in the rituals for another hour (their family priest was a stickler to tradition and details). He sat next to his cousin and made some conversation. After the dinner they made their way to the nearby 'tea kadaI' (tea shop) where Swami's cousin asked "dUm adippaiya?" (do you smoke) Swami's mouth went dry and he managed to croak a "Yes". They discussed the depths of philosophy over a smoke. After buying a pack of chewing gum avoid detection, they made their way back to the manadapam again.
Swami saw that the festivities for the day were over. Thambi assigned the duty of escorting the drinkers to the nearby Bars to a college friend of his. Phone calls started pouring in from Thambi's friends in the US. Swami noticed a young cousin secretly smuggling his brothers favorite vice - 'Paan Parag' (chewing tobacco). The kid walked around jauntily like a king on being given this prestegious job of serving the groom. The youngsters started playing card games. The adults (who chose to include Swami among them) started playing rummy and poker. Swami looked at a young cousin. This child was pestering Swami's uncle.
Swami dozed off into sleep pretty late and was woken up by Mangalam after what seemed like 15 minutes. The 'nAAdaswaram' (shehanai) started blaring something out and the 'thavil kaaran' (drum player) started coaxing and cajoling his instrument with energetic punches and slaps. Swami swiftly got ready. The main hall was the scene of bedlam. Swami's status exempt him from the wait for using the few restrooms. After having a rejuvenating 'Kaapi' (coffee) Swami entered the marriage hall full of vigour.
Young moms with their yuppie hubbies in tow were trying to feed their truant heir who stubbornly refused to open his/her mouth. Sambasivam introduced Swami to his colleagues and added the comment "He has applied to MIT, Harvard, Stanford and Pace University (NY)." Sambasivam's colleagues added their 2 naya paisa worth by making comments like "My cousin's greatgrandfather's uncle's nephew's son-in-laws daughter (Swami's pulse quickens) is doing her MS in Political Communication and Private Speaking. Her husband (Swami's pulse returns, unhappily, to normality) is a Green Card holder." Sambasivam then introduced Swami to his old neighbours. "Don't you remember Rao uncle?" Sambasivam asked, "He used to live in the same colony when we were in Patna. You were very dear to Rao uncle." 'Rao Uncaal' endows Swami with a bear hug, much to Swami's embarrassment. Swami polishes his Telugu and starts speaking in a smattering. And Rao Uncle insisted on replying in broken English.
Mangalam's becks draw Swami away from the clutches of Rao. From the frying pan into the fire. Mangalam points Swami to the old balding man near her and says to the old man "Ithu thaan en suppithiran" (This is my son). The old man with emaciated hands grabs Swami. "Dei Swaminatha (Hey you Swaminathan)!! Yennai nyabagam irukka (Do you remember me)? Naan thaan da unnoda maama thaatha (I am your <insert a really vague term for a very distant relative here>)." "Oh!! IruukE," (Yes, I remember) Swami lied. The old man said "When I last saw you you were this tall. You have really grown up!!" Questions about Swami's education soon followed. Swami absentmindedly mumbled.
Swami saw that many of his eligible female relatives were dressed in their finest jewelry and clothes - their faces caked with make up. "Perhaps trying to find an unsuspecting victim whom they can trap into a marriage!" thought Swami. The mothers of these female relatives were busy talking to everybody in the hall and thrusting horoscopes into every strangers face. Swami was harassed by the typical "Enna da Swami? Unakku 'line' clear aayidutthu. Adutha kalyaanam unakku thaan" (Now that your pesky brother is out of your way, you can be comforted by the thought that the next marriage in the house hold is going to be yours).
Swami's comrades from his college started pouring in. The bunch consisted of Mani, Hari, Maadu and Con. They capitalized on Swami's embarrassment and started gently harassing Swami. A few among these had opted for the more traditional look of a 'vEshtee jibba' (loose shirt and sarong) and a few of them sported teeshirts with 'New Orleans Jaaz Musicians.' Swami suspected, rightly, that the person wearing this did not even know that New Orleans was a city or that Jazz was a type of music. Swami's chums profusely embarrassed Swami when he introduced them to his brother and the bride Malini Ammal. Swami was angry by the fact that his friends were complicating the already complex relationship he had with his brother.
The 'Reception' that evening was an even bigger trial on Thambi's patience. Thambi and Malini Ammal were stationed near red colored, velvet cushioned ornate chairs. The ordeal reminded Swami of the Spanish Inquisition. The chair's sole purpose was adding to the atmosphere. The newly married couple could not sit on them for a moment throughout the evening. Thambi was dressed in a snazzy two piece suit and Malini Ammal, following the modern trend in Tamil marriages, was dressed in a North Indian dress.
Guests who started pouring in with gifts stopped near the couple, gave them the gifts and shook hands. Thambi introduced his friends and relatives to Malini Ammal and Malini introduced hers to Thambi. Swami wondered how many of these guests Thambi or Malini Ammal would recogonize, afterwords, in a nearly empty room. The guests were stationed on both sides of the couple and were subject to a minute of scrutiny by the glaring lights of the videocamera man. Some of the guests spent the minute staring unashamedly at the camera and some, wanting to look "natural", made dull conversation with the couple. Malini Ammal's make up started to run under the piercing glare of the video camera lights.
Somehow Swami survived the 'Muhoortham' and the Reception. The festivities associated with the marriage in Tamil Nadu does not end with the actual ceremony. The newly wed couple are harassed into visiting all their relatives in the city and in every house they are stuffed with food and other goodies (after a few days in Madras' humid weather, the goodies turn into really stinking baddies.) Mangalam spent the next week or so setting the house to shape and did not have the time to cook. The whole clan watched the video made during the wedding passing snide remarks about all who were not around. Thambi assigned to the more technically savvy Swami the task of converting the tapes to NTSC. The relatives left one by one. The 'kattu saatha koodai' (bread basket) from the marriage rescued the household for a week.
The next week was hectic. Thambi frequently lost his temper because Malini Ammal's Passport and Visa were monumental issues. Thambi spent a lot of time with Swami advising him on the Do's and Don'ts of life. Marriage seemed to increase Thambi's stature in the household. He started behaving maturely, much to Swami's discomfort, and suddenly turned practical. Swami was sent out on errands like going with Malini Ammal to the Passport office (Swami had got his passport a few months earlier to write his GRE). Swami initially found talking to Thambi in the presence of Malini Ammal a big problem. But as the days proceeded, it became easier.
Swami bid a heavy hearted farewell to Thambi and MaliniAmmal at the Madras International Airport. Mangalam filled Malini Ammal with last minute details about how to use the 'rasam pOdi' and how to cook 'vengaaya vattha kuzhambu' (Thambi's favorite) while Thambi continued his advise to Swami Swami could see tears in Mangalam's eyes. Sambasivam remained the cheerful detached observer that he always was.