A Brahmin wedding

I was at a wedding this weekend. It had a distinct Omelas-like quality throughout. For most of the elders present, it was an oru naal koothu — a single-day celebration that has been many weeks in the making. But the bride, whom I knew, didn’t want to get married, especially to the groom her parents had picked out without her consent. I was told they had gone ahead anyway because the bride’s parents had liked the groom’s parents, and the two families had liked each other and wished to be related.

When the bride insisted, as best she could, that the wedding be postponed (or the groom be replaced — not a bad idea considering this was a man who believed sincerely that the women who spoke out in #MeToo were doing so only for attention), she was first met with a barrage of emotional blackmail: “think of what will happen to your mother”, “your grandmother will have a heart attack”, etc. — followed later by her father insisting that she provide a good enough reason, only to dismiss each one (‘don’t like the groom’, ‘don’t want to get married now’) promptly as not being “good enough”.

The wedding itself was a deeply patriarchal affair — an upper-caste conclave in which its members asserted their caste and “culture”, made a display of observing and preserving ancient traditions, brought two families together by unanimously waylaying the life of one woman. Like the story of the Mahabharata seems so different from that pieced together in Yuganta, viewing a Brahmin wedding through the eyes of an unwilling bride can reveal a very different picture from the wedding that everyone else experiences. It is no different from a tradition that her parents, the groom and his parents, and the extended family on both sides — enabled by a swarm of priests — further using the body and soul of one woman, with or without her willing participation. Good wedding ceremonies with willing participants exist, but only the bad ones truly demonstrate their totalitarian character.

For example, furthering the agony are the rituals immediately preceding the knot-tying, in which the bride and the groom are led through a series of joint activities by the priests and the extended family. They are apparently modelled on the rituals of two gods who got married: sitting on a swing together, exchanging garlands while perched on the shoulders of their fathers and brothers, and so forth. Surely these sound like the activities of a pair of people excited about getting married; to force them on a bride who has been brought there by (emotional and social) force has really no meaning, other than to reinforce the importance for all these rituals of a pliant woman, the ultimate vessel of Brahmin assertion.

The instrumentalisation of the bride and her functions begins in fact from the make-up — slathered on the bride, who also has to don silk sarees and other ornaments with no regard for the Chennai weather, while the groom stands next to her in a cotton shirt, a cotton veshti and the customary streak of vermillion on his forehead. She also has to sit through more rituals than him, some of which happen late at night or early in the day (she was woken up at 2 am for the make-up); cannot know when or what she can eat, or if she can visit the canteen or must have food brought to her; and, of course, she is expected to smile at all times for the cameras. While the matrimonial traditions of the families of the bride and the groom overlap for the most part, there are a few differences – yet all of them impose an equally unforgiving information asymmetry on the bride.

Meanwhile, the priests are chanting something in Sanskrit, a language no one in the room understands. It is hard to know what they are saying and why, but even as they are, there is another man with a bag full of cash standing just behind them, possibly belonging to the bride’s side, handing bills to them as part of rituals that require people to exchange wealth or give it away to others — i.e. to more relatives or to the priests themselves. There are some new observances as well, and while everyone is keen to observe them, no one asks the priests of their provenance or meaning. If they’ve been invented, it seems they will be observed — like the bride’s father having to carry a plateful of cash (intended to be donated to a temple) out of the room. They’re clearly nothing other than more lines drawn to distinguish between those whom the priests claim are “real Brahmins” and those who aren’t, and charging a fee to do so.

As the groom tied the three knots and everyone in the hall blessed them, and came away smiling, the wedding ended. Everyone was happy, nodding at each other in an implicit acknowledgment of having brought another conclave to a successful finish. The bride and groom were still onstage, next to a “holy fire”, spelling out the remainder of their prayers. The camera crew was taking a break, the relatives were heading in droves to the canteen, and the bride had to take a quick break in between as her new mother-in-law approached her with a make-up kit.

Featured image credit: Viktor Talashuk/Unsplash.