You Will Dance: Finding Joy at An Indian Wedding

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For a year and a half, my friend had been inviting me to visit him in India. I knew this friend through his website, where I occasionally posted articles. I always declined his invitation. A trip to India wasn’t in my budget and held potential dangers to my health, since my immune system is compromised. Then last June, I called him and said, “Guess what? I’m coming to India!”

My nephew had already gone through a courthouse wedding to a native of New Delhi, and the Hindu ceremony was scheduled for the following year. Despite my initial reluctance to travel halfway around the world to a place well known for its health risks to Westerners, I would never miss an important family event, and I began to plan the trip.

I’d traveled alone to Europe in 2017 and 2018, but preparing for India took my usual tourist preparations to a new level. The difference seemed like a lovely day hike on flat terrain in the spring versus rock climbing in winter.It took three tries just to successfully submit my application for an Indian visa, and I became so frustrated with the computer application, I thought I might need to engage a millennial to help me through it (a method I’d used when previously challenged by computer issues). If I drank, I’d have been chugging martinis to calm my nerves by the third try.

I researched what might be required of me to the extent possible. Everything I read stated that I needed to dress modestly, necessitating that several parts of my body be covered. This resulted in some frantic late-summer sale shopping to ensure I wouldn’t offend the locals or my nephew’s wonderful in-laws. I would also need two sets of hotel and plane reservations since I chose to travel directly from San Francisco to New Delhi. I flew from San Diego, where I live, to San Francisco the day prior to my trip to India, avoiding the risk of missing my mid-morning international flight because of local delays.

I spent the night before the trip and the night I returned to the U.S. at an airport hotel. After taking care of shopping and reservations, I needed vaccinations. The preparations seemed endless, but by early January I was ready.

The minute I arrived at the gate for my international flight, I knew I was starting out on an adventure. There were few identifiable Americans among the waiting passengers, and instead the seats were filled with women wearing intricately patterned saris and men in turbans of bright red, deep ochre, and brown. The sixteen-hour flight might have been easier if the electronics in my seat hadn’t immediately malfunctioned.

I couldn’t access any of the in-flight entertainment or turn my light on and off. The light stayed on for the entire flight, and I gave my new sleep mask and earplugs to my seatmate as a form of apology. I slept only about three hours, and the rest of the time ate the meals offered and read a good book.

I’d arranged for a limousine from my hotel to pick me up at the airport. I knew once I arrived at the hotel, I could relax. There I would rendezvous with my family and for the rest of the trip would simply enjoy whatever activities they arranged. We spent two and a half days being tourists, and a day and a half engaged in wedding events.

Although India was not on my previous list of desired travel destinations, I will be eternally grateful that I visited this country. I saw many beautiful sights, including the Taj Mahal, The Lodi Temple in New Delhi, the vast countryside (albeit from a bus window), and several markets.

But the most magical part of the trip lay in the wedding. I’ve never been to a more joyous, moving, and loving affair. My nephew’s in-laws had trimmed the celebration from the usual three days down to two. The festivities began in the morning with a henna ceremony, which lasted until early afternoon.

My family had met seven members of the bride’s family at the civil ceremony in the United States, but we were greeted by the rest of her clan that first morning. Every member of my new niece’s family whom I’d met six months earlier embraced me.

Throughout the day other guests approached me to ask if I was enjoying myself or to explain the meaning of the rituals. I had no idea who some of these people were, but as the ceremony progressed, I learned they were aunts, cousins, and, in one case, the best friend of the bride’s father. I’ve never been received with more warmth or hospitality. The henna ceremony was particularly moving in its inclusive.

All the relatives partook of anointing the bride and groom with saffron. Four 20-something boisterous girls attended, cousins of the bride, all dressed in saris. They seemed to be perpetually smiling and laughing. Less boisterous but equally charming was my new niece’s best friend. This young woman had a shy smile and a quiet, lovely gravitas that I found enchanting. When describing the festivities for the evening ahead, she declared“You will dance.”

That night, dressed in our Indian celebratory garb, my family joined in the second part of the wedding. My niece’s best friend was right—we all danced. I reminded her of her prediction, and she and I danced together. She showed me the moves, and I followed as best I could, as happy as an auntie could ever be.

There were many prepared dances  performed by the bride and groom, by the bride’s friends and cousins, by a group of little girls, and by many middle-aged ladies of both families. (I had missed this rehearsal somehow, so I didn’t know the steps.) I danced with one of my uncles, also new to the family, who I quickly learned could whirl me around as if he were Fed Astaire.

My family and the bride’s family were enchanted with each other, both thrilled that these two wonderful young people had found each other and that we were all now connected through them. The bride and groom’s vows were touching and heartfelt. I have never been to a happier wedding.

The next night, the families participated in another party and the religious ceremony, which ended the celebrations. During the evening, my nephew slowly approached the wedding venue in a horse-drawn chariot.An entourage of friends and family danced in front of him while a live band played. This would be a rare occurrence in the United States and was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. The party on this night was also lovely, and I met more of my niece’s relatives, who continued to warmly welcome my family and me. Joy, whenever it is felt, is rare and precious. But to experience those emotions with many of the people I love most made my nephew’s wedding blissful.

At many weddings,countless photos are taken. While photos often memorialize some of life’s best moments, other moments are ephemeral, and no one’s around to record them or even know they’re occurring. Although I have photos of my wedding, no one knows that as we said our vows with clasped hands, my husband quietly rubbed my palms. Nor did anyone record the moment he first saw me in my wedding dress and told me I looked beautiful. The first moment I saw my nephew,I was standing in the doorway of my brother and sister-in-law’s home.

My brother had him strapped to his chest in a baby carrier, and I could only see the top of my nephew’s head. But this was a peak life moment. I’ve adored him ever since I saw that reddish-blond fuzz sticking out from the carrier. I had a similar moment on the first night of his wedding. As I stood there looking at our exuberant families,I thought to myself, I would have spent thirty-two hours in the broken seat of an airplane to be here.

For my relatives, family is paramount. I heard this sentiment uttered repeatedly by my niece’s family during our time together. Everything they did made us feel welcome. I don’t know if I’ll have an occasion to return to India, but my visa is good for ten years, and I feel comfortable with the idea of visiting again. The thought fills me with warmth.  If I choose to return,I’ll have family there,and in my heart, I’ll be home.

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Joanna Charnas

Joanna Charnas has been a social worker for over thirty years, and currently works in the Mental Health Department of a large teaching hospital. Her first book, Living Well with Chronic Illness (MSI Press, 2015), evolved from her career experiences and years as a patient. Her second book,100 Tips and Tools for Managing Chronic Illness (MSI Press, 2018), elaborates on the numerous methods she utilizes to maximize health and wellness. To learn more about her writing, go to joannacharnas.com.
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