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Monday, January 30, 2017

Sounding Boards

Though we manage a great deal of jet lag recovery, reconnection with relatives, and two visits to PUSHPA village evening schools, our first and following weeks in India this year are preoccupied with the run-up to the wedding of our niece later this month. Numerous discussions occur within and among the families, and the bride's father and her uncles meet daily, sometimes twice, to debrief and update. Although he disavows being 'in charge,'my husband, as the eldest member of the extended family, is the default reference for innumerable decisions: lighting, catering, menu, extended guest list, venue, groom-bride family get-acquainted visits. In other words, a sounding board. The others are 'point' persons for go-to information.

After we go for a lunch to meet 'the boy's' family in another town about an hour away, things seem to calm down a bit.  The visit is short and sweet:  We all tell teach other our names, prayers are offered, and a wonderful meal is served. On the way and at home, everyone has an idea and/or assignment to pursue, going forward: some shopping, some tailoring, some doing comparisons of vendors.

Meanwhile, we make village visits to touch base with families, staff, students in several evening tutoring schools which we sponsor. Here, too, my husband is the sounding board for teachers and our ngo staff.  He uses their interviews, and more with the children, to gauge the needs and progress of each evening 'school.' But more of that in other posts.

Then, the week before the wedding, things really start to intensify.  Last minute shopping and tailoring orders, and every little thing we think we need to have done suddenly seem to have become urgent business.  The bride, having so far politely deflected all attempts to learn her preferences, begins to show her mettle.  The uncles' suggested, modest floral church decoration idea is set aside in favor of a commercial one coordinated by her sister and brother in law.  This is something she has looked forward to. (It was lovely.)

We want to schedule one of the prenuptial events on a certain day. Though it inconveniences the host, our bride-to-be defers to her mother and aunts' new found rule that once these events begin, she must not leave the house again before the wedding: she wants her freedom for as long as possible! The event is postponed for a day.   She goes along to the jeweler to choose a set of his and her wedding rings.

We go shopping together for a dressy dress.  My idea is to make her  a present of something light and lighthearted. like her personality. She would have only a heavier ensemble because  "uncle said he liked (i.e. was impressed by) it."  Well, hmm, she will be living in Minnesota, hm, the dress will probably be practical there.  After alteration: She is smaller than the women's 'small' clothing size.

A saree is a more traditional gift for the bride, and, accordingly, our bride-to-be receives several. Not to be left without part of the ensemble, she promptly has each 'blouse piece' (which comes attached to a new saree), as well as the new dress, sent out to a tailor who keeps her measurements for reference. In all of this and the events to come, her best friend takes the part of a true bride's maid: being at her side, advising, errand running, accompanying, debriefing, just 'being there.'

Being a sounding board. A key role in a society where consent and consensus trump independence, and crucial to navigating neo-independently through the intricacies of multiple hierarchies. If you think this sentence is a bit difficult to untangle, well, welcome to India.  Daily life in the context of constant social complexities can certainly sharpen the mind...perhaps that is one reason that techies flourish here. And a reason to remind you that, even in the socio/political turmoil back home, yes, you can...

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Wedding Plans and Preparations

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Our housekeeping has been set in motion, faithful Raghava and Pushpa at the ready, full and half time, respectively.  It's deceptively easy to slip into our daily routine, with them doing things we usually do for ourselves in the 'states: meal prep and cooking, serving tea (frequently throughout the day and when a visitor  drops in, which also takes place frequently), garbage and recycling, cleaning, laundry, transportation, and errands we don't even have to do at home, like taking washed and line-dried clothes to the iron g man, heating and filling a bucket of water for a bath, swabbing the floor daily with a disinfectant.

Sounds luxurious, right?  But it's common enough in middle class and/or joint families in India. Life can be hectic here too, but seems less so when there are at least pockets of leisure, with common tasks out of the way. More time is available for other things we have to do; we are able to make two village visits, the first week. (More in other blog posts to come.)

By the end of our first week of this year's winter stay in India, we have exchanged visits with five Gummadi siblings who are from the 'states, or live in town.  A sixth will arrive from the states next week. Lots of chattering and the opportunity to visit with a niece, still at home for the Christmas holidays with her fiancee' from the UK. But the focus soon turns toward the upcoming marriage of another niece. 'The girl,' as the bride is referred to here in India, lives in the U.S. but wants to have a 'traditional' wedding in the church she attended as a little girl.

The planning and preparation for our niece's wedding are elaborate, and need to be thoroughly vetted by various family members.  The stairs and elevator ("Please shut the door!" has toned down a bit since last year, but the mysterious voice inside the elevator still exhorts us, day and night, to be sure to leave the elevator available.) are busy as family members interact among the three apartments where most of the us are staying this year. The five Gummadi uncles in charge of the basic arrangements take to it with enthusiasm, conferring and shopping and vetting vendors and preferred procedures morning, noon and night.  Shopping is especially good because this is the season of a major winter festival (more of that in the next blog); stores are brimming with fresh stock and potential sales.

So what goes into this Indian wedding? The bride's and the groom's families each have their own idea. The groom's family comes from their town an hour away just to say hello.  Tea.  The bride's extended family goes to visit the groom's family. Lunch, along with a couple dozen of their relatives and friends. Protocols are fine tuned. What pre-nuptial rituals will be observed? Whose opinion or preference will prevail defaults to uncles and the couple's parents. When and where will the marriage occur? The couple being Christian, may ignore horoscope considerations, but family trees and customs are compared. The availability of church and reception venue are verified. Where will the bride and groom spend their first night?  The next several days before going on a short trip? Who will provide what? Each side prepares a list of don't miss items the other side should provide. Lists are exchanged. The bride professes no opinion on all of the above.  So far. Presumably, the groom, still at work in another state, does not weigh in, at least that we know .

Each side of the family designs and delivers (in most cases, by hand) a wedding invitation to family and friends on their side of the family. One of the men delivers our invitation to 'the boys' side.' They reciprocate.

I host an American type shower for the women of our side of the family to share the gift of memories and blessings on behalf of my Attamma (mother-in-law), the bride's grandmother, who was a remarkable woman, but no longer with us.  (MAJOR boo-boo.  I forget to invite Attamma's younger sister. I am ashamed of myself, but am counting on the sister to be more gracious than I. There will be other events)   We send the men off, and have a hilarious time playing shower games, then open our hearts to share fond memories of a Godly, and generous woman. Tea follows.

The same day happens to be the wedding anniversary of one of the uncles and aunties, as our generation is/ are known, so a cake is duly fetched from a bakery for an impromptu, obligatory 'cake-cutting.' For reasons of her own, Auntie disavows the celebration this year, so the joint family members all troop into her room to sing 'Happy Anniversary,' and share a cake and prayer anyway. Auntie is nonplussed.  Uncle is good sport about it all.

A sister-in law reminds her siblings to have a group photo, since one can never know when the seven will meet together again.  The siblings oblige.  Nieces and the sole nephew clamor and clamber over each other and the sofa opposite,  each seeking to take the best group photo. I lend extra led lighting to brighten the visage of  dark faces.  Hilarity crescendos, and the Anniversary Uncle suggests that we take it to the Sankranthi program being noisily conducted in the school grounds, a few doors down the street. There, costumed drummers play lively rhythms, welcoming and accompanying guests into the venue.

Wedding banns are announced in church on the first of two Sundays preceding the wedding. Then comes a lull of five days while conferring, shopping, and planning continue. Flower vendors are sampled. Decorators and designs are chosen for the reception venue: how to please and yet conserve. Dispense with carpeting over the grounds lest it wrinkle unsafely. Flower pillars to do double duty in church and at the reception. Caterers are interviewed; one is chosen and the menu agreed upon. Bargaining throughout, with an eye on the budget.  Everything seems to be more expensive than expected. But on one point, all the uncles and family are agreed: the meal has to be excellent.

A week before the wedding a niece and husband who live in the 'States host a rooftop barbecue for all of our side of the family. Strings of lights including several IKEA fixtures, (real) potted palms, and a boombox provide atmosphere, along with the evening breeze. (It was 90 degrees f, earlier today.) Dinner is served up from a buffet created upon the rooftop utility room stairs.

As we are getting ready to go up for the barbecue, the groom drops in to meet family who have not met him previously.  He seems open and down to earth. He and the bride-to-be have a brief opportunity to talk face to face for less than an hour.  Total time they've met in person thus far, a couple of hours. ("Introduced" by family contacts, betrothed in the presence of a few elders from both sides, they've been face-timing and phoning only for several months.) They go downstairs to wait for his car. After he leaves; we tease her for coming late to the barbecue. Her dad appears relieved that she has re-appeared.  "He's gone, for now anyway.  Good." We laugh. And the party continues with photo opps and Qubani ka meetha, a festive dessert of apricot sauce on ice cream, traditional in Hyderabad, the former state capital.

Later one of the uncles perceives an element of disrespect in that 'the boy' appeared. unannounced, however briefly, at 'the girl's' side's party before the marriage. I am taken aback. Was it disrespectful? With so much variation in expectation from country to country, family to family, and sub-culture to subculture, religion to religion, not to mention person to person, that I wonder whether it is ever possible to arrive at a common acceptability of manners. Times are changing, have changed since 'our day.' Our elders are gone.

Without them, we are new elders, brainstorming and comparing notes as we make our way through new times in old territories. A brief encounter at a party thrown by his age group peers (most of whom live in the U.S.) seems innocuous enough to me.  But I am the foreigner, the outsider, here; what do I know? 'The boy' lives and works in a more progressive Indian city.  'The girl' lives in America, but, being a dutiful Indian daughter, wants to have it 'the traditional way.'  But nothing is as it was, and, for sure, the Indian experience never turns out quite as one expects.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

He packed me a potato!

December 31

The old year ends hurriedly, distributing perishables from the frig, packing last minute items, tidying up, finishing laundry, snatching a few hours of shut-eye before the airport van is to pick us up at 4:30. Yes, that's a.m. My darling husband, knowing potato is my favorite vegetable, boils the last one whole. (Our anxiety over differing luggage allowances on domestic and international flights dissipates when our bags are checked in all the way from MSP curbside to Rajiv Gandhi Airport, Hyderabad.) Cold boiled potato tastes great while we await our flight, beyond slowly opening restaurants, at the end of the concourse. (Do you know potatoes are a good source of potassium, vitamins C, B6, iron and magnesium?  My argument in favor of a penchant for potato chips.)

It feels odd to miss worshipping in our own church for the fourth time in a month, this first Sunday in the New Year.  Illness, snow, and ice consumed three Sundays in December, and today, the flight. We simply thank God for blessings of travel, reunion, service, family, friends. I hate to think of being half a world away from our children, but even they are supportive of our going forth.  Wonders of modern communication: additional blessings, not so readily accessible even a couple of years ago. We can hardly wait for the next face time.

We travel to India via Orlando, where there is a seven hour delay; The airline serves sandwich lunches to us passengers as we wait at our gate under a glass rotunda, once again, at the remote end of an expansive concourse; and Dubai, where there is a ten hour delay: Immigration and security formalities in Dubai appear to be negligible.  Perhaps the Emiratis have found a way to conduct surveillance without appearing to do so. It certainly makes for a relaxed airport experience. Emirates staff in Orlando, on the flight, and here seem tirelessly cheerful, prompt, and specific about telling and listening to details and requests.

Two amiable young men waste no time taking us on a mile long wheel chair journey past endless seating and service areas, soaring silver striped columns, indoor palms and fountains... to a counter where our two seats, mistakenly listed on two different flights, are re-booked, and we are to await a bus. His flight, the earlier one, is already missed, and we are happy to be assigned seats, though not together, on a later flight. A few hours' rest in a pleasant hotel room and a leisurely supper at generous buffet refresh us for the shorter flight to Hyderabad, where the morning arrival 'formalities' are similarly seamless. What a contrast to the not-so-long-ago 'old days.')

Faithful Raghava, our driver, cook, and 'right hand,' meets us at the airport with the car, and we set out for Guntur right away. We stop for lunch at a large and bustling roadside restaurant mall with everything from served, sit down meals and a Subway counter (you heard right!) to ice cream and pastry shops. The four to five lane highway is only interrupted as we drive through the city just before Guntur, where urban clearing of ample lane space proceeds by fits and starts. But Raghava knows bypasses, and traffic is light, so our progress through town takes half the time it took last year..

Continuing on our way to Guntur, close by now, we chuckle ruefully as we pass a small parcel of land we'd bought years ago. We'd thought to build a small house in a housing development, planned for the area. Alas, highway widening precluded said development. Our government-appropriated space is now a turn lane near a twelve port toll gate!  Finally, we arrive home at mid-afternoon on Tuesday, the third. A half day 'lost' in the international time difference between India and the U.S.

Once a quiet lane of modest three to four room bungalows, our street is now blacktopped, and home to four and five story apartment buildings. Ours has ten apartments, half of them occupied by Fr. and his four brothers. Two brothers' families live there year round; they and two sisters' families meet to greet and debrief, feed and exchange curries with us off and on; the pace will quicken when another two brothers and some of their children also arrive from the states a week later.  One of the girls is getting married, and the topic of weddings is constantly on our agenda.

Sleep, blessed sleep, takes over for much of the rest of the week.  'Managed to stay awake for the quickening stream of family visits and/or meals, though. Occasionally a potato curry, even.  And chips! And of course, tea,'chai' style, two or three times a day.