Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Wedding

It was, apparently, an auspicious day for a wedding.

David Willis (who has written on this blog – also known as “the other David” – who teaches cultural anthropology at Soai University in Kobe) and his bride-to-be Mika, a U.S.-trained social worker from Japan, decided to celebrate their marriage at a Shaivite Mutt (chapel) inside the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

David told us to bring who we chose to the wedding. It being a school holiday, Krishnammal decided to take most of the Gandhigram hostel children. Most of these children – sons and daughters of migrant workers – had never been to Madurai no less the Temple, nor to a wedding, nor certainly to a wedding of a blonde-haired Iowan to a Japanese woman in a traditional Hindu ceremony.

We packed 18 of them into the LAFTI jeep, together with a Japanese prawn farm researcher currently staying with us at the Workers Home. The children could barely contain their excitement, though I think Krishnammal had read them the riot act before leaving, so at least they all stayed in what passed for a seat. Out we went in the usual riot of traffic on the Dindigul-Madurai road. I joked (more than half seriously) that the road is one big moving violation. More accurately, the only known moving violation seems to be what it is called if you hit a cow (and then, beware!)

We arrived at the Temple, and it is indeed an auspicious day. Both elephants are out roaming the temple grounds, as is a brahma bull all bedecked with intricate weaving stuffs and semi-precious gyms. There are many weddings happening here today, and the temple grounds are teeming.

We find the little chapel where our particular wedding is to take place. There is David, in traditional wedding dhoti trimmed in gold and white kurta, and his bride, in Kanchipuram red-green silk, and with the traditional jewelry, specially rented for the occasion (this is the custom for most families.) Her hands, forearms, and ankles are all hennaed in traditional patterns, in a process that must taken many hours.

We are a motley crew! Some Indian, some American, Americans living in India, Indians living in America, teachers from the foreign student programs in Madurai, an American khadi clothing manufacturer who has lived here for 30 years. I am looking at David – I think he has aged a bit more gracefully than I have, but alas, neither of us are still in our twenties as we were when we first met in graduate school. He wanted to learn to play the veena, but alas Saraswati did not shine her blessings on him, but it is through him that I got to play for the first time. I wanted to, among other things, study languages, but alas, I lack the gift for it, as is among the other David’s chief talents. Watching him switch gracefully from Tamil to English to Japanese is to me a great wonder.

The bare-chested, white-bearded Shaivite priest seems amused by the whole thing. But the ceremony is after all being conducted at all, which is a tremendous sign of progress. Thirty years ago, one would never see a Dalit in the temple, and foreigners would be cordoned off from certain areas. In addition, with the election of the new Chief Minister, has come an order opening the temples to sacrifices from folks of whatever caste. But one can’t overstate the changes: yesterday’s paper reported that the upper castes of a village in Dindigul ostracized an upper caste woman who married a Dalit, barring all contact with the family, use of the public well, and extended the punishment to all relatives. The family was evicted from their home, and all their goods confiscated, until the Dalit husband paid “a fine” to every member of the village. The family might win a court case; more likely, they won’t be able to afford to move it forward.

The children were wide-eyed at all the various ritual proceedings (which was truncated to western tastes). My wedding present was the donation of two goats in their name to a widow’s cooperative in Mutaho, Burundi (they will have to go if they want to pick them up!)

A wedding feast was held, and I got to spend time with some few of David’s relatives who, just off the plane, were here for the occasion, and because his niece, a high school student, wanted to meet Amma and do some volunteer work. The bride and groom’s picture is frontpage news in one of the Tamil papers!

Then I jumped a train to Chennai – there is work to be done!


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