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Gate-crashing a big fat Indian wedding

September 01, 2014 18:55 IST
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No wedding invitation? No problem! Rajul Punjabi who gate-crashed a wedding shares her experience

There I was, on the dance floor with complete strangers. One of them was flailing a bottle of Johnny Walker Gold around, as if it were an extension of his arm. It was about 1 am so the bhangra had transitioned into 90s hip hop and the party had boiled down to the hardcore: young singles in their smoothest attire busting out their best drunken dance moves.

I had a Grey Goose martini in hand, and I was dancing too. But mostly, I observed.

I watched the young women in their studded lehengas and cascading dark hair, dripping with their mothers' jewellery.

I watched the men with drops of sweat accumulating on their foreheads -- their suits and tuxes dishevelled by now, thanks to the top shelf open bar.

I marvelled at the decor of the venue. There were white calla lilies and candles everywhere. The lighting was immaculate, the DJ was famous, and the buffet was fit for royalty. The opulence was almost off putting.

But why wouldn't it be? It was an Indian wedding.

And I was a crasher.

The best part of being a journalist is doing crazy things in the name of curiosity. "Social experiments," we call them, inspiring stories worth telling, sometimes exposing realities that otherwise go unexplored.

This particular social experiment had been on my bucket list ever since I watched the movie Wedding Crashers, and I stumbled upon it by sheer chance. It all began when my best friend and I decided to have a girls' weekend out of town. Coryn and I checked into the Sheraton in Philadelphia one Saturday afternoon and to our chagrin, heard some very loud Beyonce playing somewhere above us.

"Mam, there's a big three-day wedding at the hotel this weekend," the woman at the concierge said, acknowledging my facial expression.

"A three-day wedding? Wait," I said to her. "Is it my people?"

The lady laughed, and the gentleman next to her grinned as well. "Yes," he replied. "It's the Patel wedding -- they're Indian. You guys really know how to celebrate. We've got extra saris in the back, if you want one."

His joke about the extra saris got my head spinning into overdrive. I must attend this thing. But we didn't bring any formal attire.

Will Coryn commit this mischievous misdemeanour with me? Will we get caught?

The gentleman must have read my mind. "There's something like 700 people attending," he said with a wink. "I don't think anyone will notice two more."

Coryn rolled her eyes at me. "We're doing this, aren't we?"

One hour later, the planning had consumed me completely. With a little research (Google is truly a gift and a curse), I found the couple's wedding website, as well as all the information I'd need to feign my status as a guest in case we needed to.

Then we created alter egos. Just like in the movie, our stories had to be water tight. I was the groom's college roommate's girlfriend and Coryn was the brides' friend's wife.

After explaining to non-Indian Coryn that Indian folks serve dinner at what most would consider bedtime, we decided to hit the reception around midnight when it would be in full swing. Unfortunately, we were a little off. Due to the hotel's strict late night noise policy, the party had tapered down to only about 100 guests and they were all on the dance floor.

"This just got a little risky," I said to Coryn. And then I realised it was riskier than I thought. Earlier that day, I called my mother to coach me on Indian Wedding Etiquette (she was all for my crashing the event, since she thought I'd meet a dashing man), but she had forgotten to mention the bright colour rule. Every single woman at the reception was wearing a vibrant sari. Coryn and I were wearing black cocktail dresses. My mother would later scold me: "You should know better! Gujaratis never wear black to weddings. It's a time to celebrate, not mourn!"

We walked right into the hall and headed straight to the bar. If there's one thing I've learned from my 29 earthly years, it's that confidence is everything. If you act like you belong, then you belong. Even if you look like one of the waiters in your black cocktail dress.

We danced. We mingled. We met people. And I noticed some things about Indian nuptial celebrations that I had already known, but were highlighted further that evening, when I was an outsider.

Without the actual ceremony -- the seven trips around the fire -- this one-night event was just a showcase of money that could have been someone's college tuition, undergrad through PhD. I'm not usually one to devalue the choices of others, but I couldn't help it. And I didn't know these people so it was easier to pass judgement.

To my esteemed readers: please help me understand the significance of spending all of this money in one night? It could go towards a house so the couple could build a marriage, not just a wedding. Please explain the cultural context of having the most expensive of everything, from the live music to the flowers just so that guests who you barely know sit in awe over not the aesthetics but the means a family has in order to attain them.

It's a cultural thing. It's tradition to go all out for the wedding occasions of your child. I love my Indian heritage as well. I love it so much that I stood staring at a centrepiece for five minutes, calculating that just one of them could pay for a little Indian child's school tuition and supplies for one year. I balked at the price that I later found out the DJ charged. I could travel the world in luxury for this amount -- spend a semester at a Parisian culinary institute or learn Italian in Rome.

Funny how my financial and social values differ so greatly from this family's, even though I grew up in a fairly sheltered, definitely privileged environment probably not too different from theirs. So why did this showcase of wealth offend me?

Why have I always run in the other direction when my mother tries to put diamond earrings on me before an Indian event, telling me that going "bare" (sans bling) doesn't look good? It's the Indian way, she says.

And at the wedding, as I watched an older uncle sip from a tumbler of expensive Scotch (what the Brits used to drink, of course) I often wonder if our people's wealth disparity back home is to blame for this perspective or if we are simply a victim of years of colonisation, a slave mentality of sorts.

Coryn and I eventually got discovered as crashers -- not before talking to guests, vogue-ing for the wedding video and appraising the decor. We high-tailed it out of the reception hall before anyone could call security, giggling and yelping all the way back to our 17th floor room. But I had spent just enough time in the biosphere of braggadocio to form a new inquiry about what it really means for Indian people to celebrate a union.

When I get married, I would like a small mandap in the backyard of my parents' home in New Jersey. I will wear a plain red sari and no jewellery but my silver nose ring and my engagement band. If my future husband agrees, we'd have my friend Patia -- a talented writer who is ordained -- officiate the ceremony. And if my brother has time between patients, perhaps he could DJ the reception. He's got an excellent repertoire on his laptop -- everything from Arijit Singh to vintage Bad Boy.

I might have the money for calla lilies tucked into crystal centrepieces and I might not. But I want the celebration to be about simplicity, love, and family. To me, that's the Indian way.

Rajul Punjabi is a New York-based journalist, as well as an adjunct professor of journalism at Long Island University and The City College of New York.

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