Decades ago, a hastily written American paperback memoir provided good company on a train from Kokrajhar in Assam to Howrah. I had picked it up in a dusty bookshop near the train station and the author was a mid-tier Providence hoodlum by the name of Vincent Teresa. In my “Life in the Mafia”, Vinnie espoused the theory that—in a case of life imitating art—all the wiseguys in the mob began speaking like Brando did in his role as Don Corleone, after seeing the movie The Godfather. Decades later one can make a similar argument about Indian marriages. They have changed in style, across the country, to conform to their representation in Bollywood movies. At some point, as the evening wears on, these ceremonies end up with groups of men and women dancing indiscriminately to non-descript Hindi film music wearing the sort of uni-culturally Indian formal clothing that takes its gaudy colors straight from celluloid. Yet, striking differences remain in the philosophy with which different cultures approach a marriage, and I saw no better example of this than in a recent marriage between a Bengali and a Punjabi family that I attended.
In the early evening of the reception, hosted by the Bengalis, the entire Bengali contingent waited (I being part of it) in the portico of a stately hotel for the Punjabi groom’s party to arrive. It was a handsome Federal style building that looked onto a circular brick driveway with manicured grounds beyond. And arrive they did. A large BMW swooshed by. Two large buses drew up. A horse materialized in the distance. Guests poured out of the buses and the groom alighted and mounted the waiting horse. Under skies that had darkened to a thunderous gray, the empty courtyard now filled with men in ceremonial turbans, women in bedecked splendour, and a groom who stood ready for action poised upon a horse. As the party began its fifty-meter walk to the hotel, on cue, the air cracked with the rhythm of a Punjabi beat belted out by a tall drummer in a virile lungi. A troupe of Americans in headdress struck up baraat music with their wind instruments. A couple of young dancing women in green led the convoy like whirling dervishes and the men and women followed, shoulders snapping to the rhythm, a bubbly, joyous, precious stone laden mass ebbing and flowing like a viscous melt as they made their progress to the lobby. Photographers swarmed and in a sign of the times a drone took to the air angling for camera position. In the meantime, the gathered Bengalis--themselves representative of a culture whose celebration of even the most joyful of events will strike melancholia into the heart of any normal human being--waited by the entrance, three deep in rows, largely silent, taking in the ebullience of the Punjabis with wide-eyed bewilderment. And what instruments of sadness they offer for such a celebration! Slow, delicate, lilting songs that will have you close your eyes in concentration, the heart wrenching note of the conch, the eyes of a bride who you know will cry as she leaves the house. All this for a marriage. Imagine their activities during a funeral. And so as the joyous, swaying Punjabi morass met the gathered Bengalis, the two fronts of these poles-apart cultures merged at the seam between the portico and the brick driveway like two muddy rivers, each carrying the fine sand of their differently colored lands. They had two things in common today—no shortage of jewelry and no shortage of warmth.