Weddings in India are a monumental affair. Here, it is a significant day not just for the nearly-weds but also their families, relatives, friends, neighbors, you name it! Indians were gearing up for the wedding season when COVID-19 crept in, deferring a lot of fixed marriages to an unpredictable future.
I write from a coastal town on the outskirts of Mumbai and here, what has shifted from before-corona and now is a few people wearing masks as mandated, some wearing it but having their nose exposed or embellishing it on their chin, and most having it inside their pockets. Other than the six-inch cloth concealing some faces, I think it is safe to say that things are back to being the original normal. Offices, hotels, retail shops, factories, and weekly markets are teeming with people. It comes off as no surprise to witness weddings boom like before. I happen to be a participant in a ceremony not less than two weeks ago.
Since the start of this pandemic, I have been privileged enough to take utmost precautionary measures to steer clear of COVID-19. Even as the normalcy returned, I retained my prevention to safeguard my aging parents and a pet cat. At this wedding particularly, where I knew there would be at least a hundred people, the likelihood of getting infected was through the roof. In addition to my parents and my pet, another concern of mine lay knowing my brother needed a negative covid test to move overseas in the next few days.
An easy option would have been to skip the wedding altogether, but it being one of my closest friends’ matrimony which I was most looking forward to for the last two years left me no choice but to be a part of her happiness (and mine!). So I, having happily sequestered for months and with partial reluctance, took part in all – Haldi ceremony, the wedding, followed by a reception.
A MAKESHIFT HALDI CEREMONY
Cooped up in a 2 BHK apartment, a horde of at least forty people dressed in yellow were waiting to rejoice and partake in the Haldi ceremony a day before the wedding. In a pre-covid circumstance, this would have been the day for me as a bridesmaid to go bonkers with my girl-gang. However, the constant fear and paranoia of getting infected made me have ‘corona on my mind’.
Utensils filled with Unni Appams (sweet Kerala snack) and Chakli (savory rice snack) were awaiting us at the table. Right as I was about to savor it, dozens of other hands dived into the same bowl to grab their share of food and I lost my appetite as if on cue. A while later, the celebration officially began with the Pudava Kodukkal ceremony – the handing over of the wedding saree and accessories by the groom’s sister. There were guests huddled over one another to witness the ceremony, the bride and immediate family members trying to follow the protocols of the exchange, photographers and videographers maneuvering in between the packed room trying to capture the perfect moment, and a beautiful pet dog forcefully chilling by the balcony away from the hubbub like I was.
The night soon elapsed onto the main event – a makeshift Haldi. I say makeshift because the wedding was mere hours away, we were unable to douse the bride in Haldi as expected and instead were advised to pose for the photographs and videos only. One by one – with no social distancing – each person present gently applied a dab of haldi on the bride at the photographer’s direction. It being already past 10 PM worked in my favor. We glided past all the festivities, photographs, and multiple takes of slow-motion videos within minutes.
THE WEDDING AND A RECEPTION
The thing about a Malayali Hindu wedding is that it is often agile in a pursuit to complete the ritual in the given Muhurtam (Muhurat or auspicious timing), and this one was no different. Soon after the groom is welcomed by the bride’s family, the couple is immediately directed to the pandal and they are married within minutes!
With half my face veiled with a mask and dressed in my best, I was pumped to have a ball at my friend’s wedding however short it was. As one of the bridesmaids, my duty was to greet the groom with a thalappoli (a tray containing flowers, small Diya, rice). Divided into groups of six, the twelve of us were made to stand parallel facing each other by the bride’s maternal aunt.
“I think you should remove the mask”, said the maternal aunt to me, a repetitive statement I had been hearing since the day before.
The mask did come off once the festivities began. Eighty something people clothed in their fineries foregathered under a floral archway trying to get a peek at the nearly-weds. As we were collectively walking towards the pandal, a snide remark from one of the key family members at the only person wearing a mask appalled me.
“What is with you and wearing a mask at a wedding, man? What would you do if someone hadn’t discovered this mask?”
Similar scornful statements befell my ears every once in a while that I simply chose to ignore.
Morning turned to night, the wedding switched to the reception, eighty people became two hundred. In comparison with the wedding, the reception felt more secured. We had a table to ourselves, far from the roistering uncles and aunts. Those few hours were the first time in two days that I let my guard a little down.
Personally, I find it hard to go back to how things once were. It might be an irrational fear, I do not know. But not washing our hands before eating, rubbing our eyes, sharing half-consumed food and drinks are all activities that serve as nightmare fuel to me. I panic when people are too close to me. I find quarantining a privilege, a boon than incarceration of any sort. Knowing I am thoroughly done with the wedding was a massive relief. To be amongst two hundred people after being isolated for over nine months was formidable. I was constantly panicking, second-guessing every move I made, cleaning my surroundings and the utensils I consumed food and drinks from and sanitized my hands at regular intervals. I was frequently called out for being too timid, too fearful.
“How long will you do this? Stop it already”
I do not think it was absurd of me to put my safety and that of my family members first as selfish as it may sound. We were safe from COVID-19 until now. One wrong move and I could have been telling a completely different story. However, two weeks have passed, and I am fit and back in a safe cocoon.
In hindsight, I think it was frivolous of me to think people would wear masks and follow social distancing during a wedding celebration. Maybe that would have rationalize what I witnessed, neglecting the existence of a deadly virus amongst us.
However, what stuck out to me was how people, young and old, were enjoying the ceremony in a new light as if they’re making up for all the lost time spent in quarantine. Every embrace lasted longer. Conversations were deeper and more relieving. Everyone seemed genuinely happy to be around each other. The prevalence of a virus was the last thought on anyone’s mind.