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Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Wedding in Warangal, Part I

Half a century ago, wedding invitations in India were commonly issued 'with best compliments of' aunts, uncles, and/or other close relatives of the couple who were, in turn, entering a marriage arranged by said relatives and/or a marriage broker. The recipient was invited to attend 'along with family and friends.' In 2012 the last phrase is omitted, but the custom continues. This February we were invited by a Minneapolis Telugu friendto attend the wedding of her brother's granddaughter in Warangal, a town in Andhra Pradesh, a couple hundred kilometers from our place in India.

We set out by train (32 steps down to an underground passage and 32 steps up to reach the right track) at 5:30 in the morning. (Train travel in India is very convenient, and would be more of a joy if the windows were clean enough to enjoy the stunning landscape of passing villages, rice fields, palms, pastel towns, and folks waiting at railroad crossings.) In the past we were beseiged by red-shirted and turbaned helpers, then called 'coolies,' before the train had entirely halted. On this trip, we saw that people have learned to carry their own luggage; we had to search, ask, and wait for a porter to tote our luggage on the steps and overbridge for us. There seemed to be even more than 32 steps up and down the bridge spanning tracks in Warangal, and at least a thousand people, hurrying, limping, staring, and/or chattering as we made our way up, over and down the chain-link-fenceded bridge enclosure. We took an auto-rickshaw several kilometers, through late morning traffic, to the City Grand Hotel, a small, modern, and comfortable place on the main road...a broad and straight thoroughfare which we were to travel several times during our visit.

We'd barely time to put down our suitcases when our hostess called to say she had sent a car to fetch us for a pre-wedding ceremony taking place at the bride's home. Other Minneapolis friends had driven from Hyderabad, and gone right to the house. Abandoning plans for a bath and clothes change, we quickly freshened up and found our friend and another niece waiting for us with their driver and car, a recent model Innova, at the parking area on the ground level of the hotel.

The joint family home is a new building built on the site of the ancestral home, completely surrounded by commercial buildings...we approach through an old and irregular passageway, open one one side to several tiny (no more than 8 x 8 feet, if that) one of them, a silversmith bends over what is apparently a refiner's fire. Cross a busy street of larger (but not much) shops, and up a flight and a half of stairs to the apartment which is full of people who have come for the ceremony just concluding.

They have delayed closure of the bride's blessing with her parents and priest until we arrived, we are told. She's seated between parents on the floor, facing religious icons and items of silver, flame, and flower. The priest and father are clad in traditional white dhotis, the bride and her mother and other women guests in rich silks. Harika, the bride, is decked with bejewelled golden ornaments including a wide belt, chains, bangles, armlets, hair pendant, as well as necklace, earrings, and ankle bracelets. A dazzling array. We are invited to sprinkle rice and add our blessings to the trio.

The girl's parents, aunts, uncles, even her very young grandmother, all greet us warmly and usher us to sit on a sofa and armchairs. The aunts and uncles are introduced and their relationship described. We are garlanded with flowers, and are each given a gift of silver. The parents bring the bride to meet us; all three of them greet each of us with deep respect, touching our feet. This last gesture is hard for me to receive, as my psyche and spirit protest that only God deserves such obeisance. But, I am told by our HIndu hosts, "It is our custom."

Next the womenfolk participate in a traditional "talambralu", each one first giving a few token beats to bits of dried turmeric root, using two giant pestles in a large, yellow mortar, then sitting to sprinkle and grind a handful of dry lentils in an antique handmill, followed by grinding of a handful of cumin seeds, evidently a symbolic wish for the abundance and success of the couple's future home.

All the while, a home made meal is being prepared, and serving begun, for the "small" crowd, who eat standing around the same rooms, or upstairs. The family women serve our Minnesota group, first the men, then women, at a special table. There are a dozen home-made vegetarian items ranging the gamut of tastes: sweet, sour, hot, salty, spicy...okra, bell pepper, spiced garlic-and-dry-coconut powder, fresh 'pickle' of green mango bits marinated in red chillies, spices and oil, two or three varieties of lentils, and freshly deepfried, chilly pepper potato bits, two kinds of rice, fresh yogurt, .

More and more relatives arrive; each is introduced to us. A niece goes out to buy the silver gift we Minneapolis ladies have decided to present the couple. She returns with our selection and an alternative, 'just in case,' in short order. It seems that family silver shops are nearby.

Next, some of the uncles take us to visit an old family rice mill which is being renovated by some of the bride's uncles. The fragrance of dusty fresh grain in dim sunlight transports me momentarily to the granary of my maternal grandmother's farm, where I spent languid childhood summer afternoons reading a series of girls' books left there by an older child.

We decide to visit a much-touted local site, the thousand-pillar-temple, whose gate is set between small houses on a small lane just off the main road. The car needs to park elsewhere, and we walk the lane, a bit taken aback, as we learn that the thousand pillars have been numbered and put into storage until the temple, its grounds, and grand entrance can be renovated, a project that has been 'on the books' for several years already, with little visible progress.

Then a break, at our hotel, where we are finally able to take a hot bath and change from clothes we've worn since our early morning train trip. For dinner, we are invited to the home of a white-clad aunt who had greeted us earlier today with a hearty "Om, shanti." (I leaned forward to read what appeared to be a small nameplate pinned to her saree, but the nameplate turned out to say the same words.) Here. we Minneapolis folk are the only guesets. Again, we are welcomed and gifted (This time with a simple dish, handkerchief, and an envelope containing several hundred rupees.)

We spend a pleasant evening chatting with the auntie and her recently married son and daughter-in-law, young professionals, who live with her. Auntie is a widow, and devotes mega-time to Hindu prayer. The three cheerily serve us another multi-course curry dinner, typical Indian except for the Asian veggie rolls, which, her son tells us proudly, were prepared 'at home.' As often happens, I am to sit with the men at the table, while the women sit in the living room. Auntie serves the other ladies and instructs them, while they eat, in her theory and practice of spirituality.

The night seems incredibly short as we return late to our hotel. We have to be ready to leave for the wedding at 8:30 the next morning. Thank goodness that the stars of this couple (horoscopes are routinely consulted for Hindu alliances) did not require the wedding to be in the middle of the night!

(There's more to come...we're not even at the wedding yet!)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Cacophany or Epiphany

You may think of India as a tranquil place, where you might go to learn yoga, meditate, or perhaps participate in a mission trip. But, in any 'middle class' [what is that??] neighborhood in town, outside your air conditioned hotel, you would find a lot of living going on, in full color and, as likely as not, at full volume. Take this mid-morning in Guntur, a city of a million, more or less, about forty miles from the Bay of Bengal, just under the 'bump' that juts out from the center of the east coast of India.
Simply navigating what my fatherinlaw would call 'the morning needful' involves a series of interpersonal encounters which, while not unexpected, nevertheless challenge this writer's slow-wakening brain to pay attention or be left behind. Someone, thankfully my brotherinlaw, needs to turn on (and off) an outdoor pump for an hour between three and five a.m., in order to fill the rooftop tank for the day's household water supply. An hour or more of silence, before the crow of a rooster, the neighbor's motorcycle revving up, the chirp of sparrow and throb of nightingale, and the cry of the first vegetable vendor of the day are heard in the lane.
Then it's unlock the padlock on the gate, pick up newspapers ("Saakshi" ['truth'] in Telugu, "Deccan Chronicle" in English) from the sidewalk, let the moaning dog out for a morning run, open the kitchen door to let the cook in, make a cup or wait for her to make the morning chai, and be available when it is served, fill vessel to heat bathwater on the same two-burner gas stove(others might have 'geysers,' overhead water heaters, in their bathrooms), decide who will have their bucket-mug pour-bath first, confer with the cook over what to have for breakfast, make sure water is heated for the next person's bath, sort clothes for the laundry, separating those to wash personally, by hand, while in the bath, bathe, soaping and rinsing one limb at time, dress, eat breakfast which the cook has now gotten ready, notice that the 20 liter container of purified water is nearing empty and leave twenty rupees on the kitchen table for its delivery later today, send someone with clothes washed yesterday to the ironing man, who plies a giant, brass, charcoal-filled iron at his cart on the other end of the block, all the while paying attention to paired doors of the interconnected kitchen/bedroom/bathroom areas for privacy for whoever's turn it is, at whichever task.
By now it's mid-morning, and I have some time to think about the day ahead, my thoughts leaning into the surround-sound of the neighborhood. As I start writing this, I can hear rapidfire news, movie songs, a woman shrieking, all on tv in the next room where my brotherinlaw flips channels (evidently a universal male activity). My husband rolls up his grass exercise mat with a faint swish. With the rasping buzz of his idling motorcycle, a cyclist plays an echo game with a mockingbird, until the cyclist gives one long rasp and the mocking bird falls silent. The motorcycle rumbles away. A large Indian crow in the widespreading gulmohar tree shading the front gate breaks into hoarse laughter, haww, haww, haww, haww.
You can almost feel the hammers rebound as a team of carpenters pounds away at doors and windows in an apartment building under construction a few feet beyond our back compound wall. (Window and door frames are the only wooden parts of houses and walls in this city of concrete, brick and stone; even homes with air conditioning will open shutters and doors to fresh air during most or all of the day; so every little sound is amplified to some extent.) Childish voices nearby vie with their mothers' matter-of-fact tones as they negotiate the time and space between getting up and getting ready for the school bus due to putter by a few minutes later.
Each car backing out of its parking space and every cell phone has its own unique, repeating ringtone. Beeps, hums, bumbling black-canopied automobile rickshaws, fathers' motorcycles, and small yellow buses with school names emblazoned on the sides compete for ear and road space. Blue and white uniformed students, bowing under the weight of bulging book bags, walk seriously by, intent on their way to early morning tuition at the crumbling English Medium School at the near end of the block. Two college girls speed by on a smaller motorcycle, headed in the opposite direction.
Metal vessels grate against stone as the neighbor's helper washes last night's dishes in the outdoor laundry/water area in a corner of their verandah. Water splashes from the single, cold, water faucet.
At appointed times you might hear the lonely call of a muezzin from a nearby neighborhood mosque, or, during their festival, life-change, and auspicious times, the voice of a priest reciting a mantra or invoking the names of their Gods at the home altar of a Hindu neighbor. Except for a periodic rise, fall and full-stop of his voice, it evokes the atmosphere of a busily humming beehive.
Then there are the ubiquitous ceiling fans, the inevitable caller who drops in to deliver an invitation, then sit and chat, and share a cup of tea, and, today, the whoosh of the washing machine (yes, the electronics industry here is booming). At the end of the cycle, the machine spins out a cheery version of an apt and familiar hymn: "There shall be showers of blessing..."
It's easy to understand why a friend here rises at 4 a.m. in search of a quiet time for scripture and prayer, or to imagine why Jesus so frequently sought quite times and places to pray alone or with his disciples: to avoid such daily cacophony! But, as another friend said, describing the movement of people and traffic on Indian city streets, this is probably the only way you could move so many through such a limited space in a short period. Quiet time, meditation, emptying the mind and agendae: It seems like we have to do it however, wherever, whenever we can, no matter how interrupted or full our days become. It's a daily blessing to be alive, so why complain about the interruptions and noise? India is teaching, nay, requiring me to learn to say, like St. Paul, "I have learned in whatever situation I find myself, to be content."
And Amen to that!