Let me just begin by saying I apologize for not having written as much as I originally anticipated. My life here is constantly filled with work and non-work related activities. I barely find a minute to just sit down and write. On that note, the majority of my writing from here on out will probably be in relation to Chapter 3, lessons I have received here in India. The countless adventures and subsequent experiences I have had have provided me with an education no school could have ever given me. Of all the authors whose books I have read over my short twenty-two years of life, I have come across several quotes, which have helped to shape my imagination. From Return of the King to The Count of Monte Cristo I have read thousands pages filled with an infinite amount of knowledge. Oddly enough I find that one of my most encouraging quotes for life here in India comes from professional snowboarder Travis Rice, who at the beginning of his 2011 documentary “The Art of Flight” says, “You know it’s funny what’s happening to us. Our lives are becoming digital. Our friends are virtual. Everything you could ever want to know is just a click away. Experiencing the world through endless second hand information isn’t enough. If we want authenticity, we have to initiate it.” And with that we will begin Chapter 3.
Chapter 3: Perspective
When I first arrived in Bagru one thing became clear almost immediately. I would be seeing the swastik (swastika in the west) everywhere I went. At first it was a little weird for me. In hindusim the Swastik is a symbol of auspiciousness, benevolence, good deeds and good wishes. Virtually everywhere else in the world it is a universal as a symbol of hate. Coming from a Jewish family and growing up in a small town in which the majority of residents are Jewish, I was taught (and I’m pretty sure all of my non-Jewish friends were also taught) that the Swastika epitomizes evil. “Never forget” is the lesson that was embedded in us since we were children. Being the grandson of a survivor I know just how important this lesson is. The reality of what is meant when we are all told as children to not forget what happened to six million Jews in Europe is essential to creating a safe future for people of all ethnicities. Even still, I decided to keep an open mind when I began to inquire about what the swastik meant to the people of India.
Before coming to India I had an idea of where the swastik had come from, but had no idea just how big it was. It is painted on cows, written in books for businesses at the beginning of a new financial year, and is on every single automobile in the country. There is rarely a day that passes by without seeing at least 20 of them. The image we have in the west could not be further from the one here in the East. It is virtually the opposite. The swastik serves as a symbol of safety and security for these people. When I mentioned the Nazi’s and the swastika to Vijendra, his eyes blew up and he couldn’t really believe how negatively it is viewed. I quickly had to explain to him that it was simply a matter of perspective. It is incredible to see how what might be darkness for one person, is a beacon for someone else. The light and the dark are simply determined by the world we grow up in. Now that I have been exposed to a much more positive version of this symbol, I can honestly say that I will most likely think of India every time I see it. I hope that does not offend anyone. It is simply a part of who I am. And that was it. I thought I had learned my lesson on perspective, and I was ready to write a whole blog post about it. Boy was I wrong.
The middle of November marked the beginning of the wedding season here in India. From mid November to the end of January couples all over India get married. The celebrations are grand and colorful and are unlike anything I have ever experienced. My first wedding was a common wedding held in Sanganeer, a nearby suburb of Jaipur. Sanganeer, Jaipur, and Bagru rotate every year to host these common weddings. These ceremonies are held for countless families who cannot afford to have weddings of their own. They simply register for the grounds and everything needed for the ceremony to take place is provided. This particular ground had 71 weddings going on while I was there. It was overwhelming to say the least. Anup and I walked through the grounds and I actually saw several friends of mine from Bagru there. We were standing and talking when all of a sudden a parade of groomsmen on their horses paraded into the grounds. Their soon to be wives quietly awaited their arrival in tents placed all over the grounds. The place was buzzing with excitement, but Anup and I decided to leave so we could catch the beginning of his cousin’s ceremonies.
We went by the house and took some delicious Indian food with a few of his extended family members. We then sat with his cousin for a short while as he had a good majority of his body covered in henna. I asked if he was ready for his big day and he seemed completely collected. In fact I think he wondered why I would even ask such a question. (More on this little moment later) We then left to meet with even more of Anup’s cousins. Everyone is cousin’s with someone here. It is a product of having such a deep tradition in the caste system. After taking some chai and running around to get some gifts it was finally time to go to the big wedding that we had come for.
Anup’s cousin is fairly well off and was able to afford quite the extravagant event in Sanganeer. Weddings here are about three or four days long with Jimna parties (big meals for all family members and guest) are held every night, but the actual marriage is only for one night. We were there to witness the marriage. It started out with his Cousin being paraded around on his horse amongst a sea of his friends and family. The groom (or dula) is dressed in a traditional India dress called sherwani which is the most kickass outfit I have ever seen. The horse is dressed in equally awesome attire. (Pictures below) The women walk directly in front of the groom, then come the men, then the band, and then a moving generator which is powering these beautiful lanterns surrounding the parade. The groom rises above the crowd as he is placed on his horse to make for an incredible image of this beautiful ceremony. This part, known as barat, is filled with lively dancing from everyone involved over the 1-2km march to the bride’s house. Naturally people were enthused when they found out I knew how to dance like a real Indian person. I was dragged in and out of dance circles for over an hour and had to take momentary breaks to make sure I was not sweating through my clothing.
When we arrived at the bride’s house it was time for the Toran ceremony. The house is covered in decorative lights much like it would be for Diwali. At the front gate there is a small box like shape hanging from the above window or roof. The groom is handed a long shaft and with this he touches the box. That’s about it and the most difficult part is getting the horse back down the stairs or ramp. From there everyone marches to the wedding grounds. The long walk back is still as lively as it was in the beginning. The pulse of the crowd escalates to an exciting climax right before the wedding ceremony. The feverish dancing and fireworks continue until both groom and wife are brought before the crowd.
Wedding ceremonies differ according to how much money each family has. The ones in the common wedding in Sanganeer were pretty much sped along to make sure there was not too much waiting going on. Others are far more extravagant and are filled with drums and an alter that is mechanically raised right before they are wed. I have seen a few at this point, and no matter how many I see I am still taken aback by them. The two people exchange fuloke mala (a necklace of flowers) and that is it. They will spend the rest of their lives together. The rest of the night they are seated on stage as all their family members come up to have their picture taken. Everyone else eats from the delicious spread of authentic Indian cuisines, and then burns off the calories and energy from the sugar intake (Indian people eat an insane amount of sugar) by dancing furiously to numerous Bollywood anthems, of which I am growing incredibly fond of. (See the theme song for Akshay Kumar’s latest movie “Boss” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTfoGGjMjAM)
While I have loved all the celebrations that I have been too, part of me still feels uncomfortable with arranged marriages. In western culture we are taught that arranged marriages are often unfair to the individuals involved. Our culture prides individualism and freewill. This combination makes for a lifestyle that is far removed from the one in India. More often than not the wedding night is the first time the couple will meet. This fact alone baffled me when I first heard it. I could not imagine having such a lack of free will in my life. Choice is not an option for the bride or groom. The decision for marriage is left up to the parents and a few other family members. As soon as the fuloke mala is exchanged that’s it. Those two people are spending the rest of their lives together. They will create children. The mother will raise them. The father will earn money to support them, and when the time is right they will choose people for their children to marry.
As I learn more and more about Hinduism I have learned how hard this must be for both of them. It is a beuatiful religion that is incredibly spiritual but also one that emphasizes dominance and obedience. It is reiterated in Hindu literature that “A son’s foremost duty is to obey his parents.” This is especially difficult for the women who in turn have to obey the wishes of their husbands. After reading an abbreviated English translation of Ramayan, one of the two most important epics of Hindusim, I have read a descent amount about what it means to be a good wife. In Indian culture a wife is not her own person. Her prayers and deeds are all for the good of the family, and more importantly the husband. In certain parts of India this no longer applies to women, but here in Bagru it does. There is a specific quote from the book, one that is in the actual Ramayan, that translates to, “For a married woman there is no greater duty than to follow her husband like a shadow, and never leave him even for a moment. That undoubtedly is, in my reckoning, the foremost duty of a wife.” This line blew me away especially because it came from Ram’s wife Seetha who is the most admired female character in all of India. It haunted me during the wedding ceremonies and in the weeks after.
It was not until I sat down with my new best friend Yogesh and discussed it with him that I came to at the very least understand it. It was his birthday and we were discussing how he and his girlfriend (there is a very vague line of what defines a girlfriend here, but they do exist) and how they both had the same birthday. I’m a bit of a sap and thought that was really cute and was heart broken when I found out that she is already engaged to be married. Yogesh seemed ok with this and accepted it as a result of their society. A little later he was swiping through pictures on my phone of my photos from college. He said in his broken english, “In America everyone always enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. All the time you are having fun. Here my family is my life. I am always working for my family.” I began to tell him that it was no different for me and that my family is the most important thing in the world to me. My family comes before everything else in life. As the words were coming out of my mouth I began to realize what I had neglected to see for so long. Both myself and Yogesh have the same goal in life. We both want to love and take care of our family members. It is for this reason that Anup’s cousin had such a stoic demeanor when I asked him about his “big day”. He knows that this ceremony is an obligation in his family, and thus was more than happy with what was happening.
Much like the swastik and the swastika, our conceptions of how to go about honoring our respective families differed because we are both products of our environment. I don’t have to like the lack of free will in marriages here, but I can definitely understand where it comes from. THAT is perspective. Being able to place yourself in someone else’s shoes even if only for a moment. For a brief second I was able to go against every fiber of being that I had known to be true about marriage and love to see exactly where Yogesh was coming from. Around here marriage and family is viewed as more of a business. Free love is simply a risk that this business cannot afford. There is not enough security in life to make time for it. A family is a fragile thing and whether you believe that your love and passion for another person is enough to support it, or that an arranged agreement with a complete stranger under this common understanding will nurture it, the goal is still and admirable one for both.