This past weekend, Jessica and I attended a three-fold celebration: a baby shower, a 60th wedding anniversary, and graduation celebration.
Colors, music, talking and standing Indian men surrounded us early on. The lovely pregnant woman and her younger sister sit on the love seat accepting the blessings and prayers from female relatives and close family friends. Perfumes, oils and incense are waived before their faces, then oils and spices are spread across their cheeks and forehead, and, finally, rice is thrown into their hair. The men did not offer blessings. I guess it was not our place to bless a pregnant woman.
In the hour Jessica and I watched the child-blessing ceremony, we saw 30 or more women bless Smirthi and Swati. The parade of blessings began with two women and a man chanting in an old language. The chanting lasted close to 15 minutes. At most Indian events, we have heard the chanting. At Swati’s wedding ceremony the chanting began and ended every significant event: the engagement ceremony, the trading of gifts, the blessings, music and celebration, and throughout the entire wedding ceremony. I should not have been surprised when I heard the chanting begin, but I was.
As with every other Indian ceremony and celebration I have had the opportunity to attend, everyone except those at the center of the celebration is talking. An Indian religious ceremony is a social event, not merely a solemn rite. I think that is something lacking in Christian ceremonies.
In 2008, Jessica and I were invited to ten weddings. We were able to attend five (several overlapped other weddings or me taking the Bar). Four were variations of the traditional Christian wedding and the fifth was an Indian wedding. At each of the Christian wedding ceremonies, people sat or stood during the ceremony. We paid attention to the bride and her groom and listened avidly to their vows and smile at their unabashed love for each other. Socializing was before or after the ceremony and largely restricted to the specific events designated for celebration and socialization, like the rehearsal dinner (the get-to-know-the-other-family dinner) and the reception. At the Indian wedding, 300 plus people socialized during the entire four hour ceremony, at times requiring the priest/monk to ask the designated MC to tell everyone to be quiet so a particular rite could be performed without interruption. While the Christian Bride and Groom are the center of attention for the day and the eye of a storm, the Indian Bride and Groom are the calm at the center of a category 5 hurricane for three days of social ceremonies. Privacy and clear thought are for those on the outside of the hurricane.
This last week, at the baby shower for Smirthi, again the celebrants socialized and seemed to pay little heed to the reason to be at the party. Do not take this to mean that Indians do not respect their own religious traditions. Much the opposite. As Jessica was pulled by Jothi, the Grandmother-To-Be, to the next in line to give blessings, I moved to a typical male Indian position and role: proud on looker and cameraman. I stood off to the side of the love seat and took a dozen pictures of Jessica and the lucky mother-to-be. From that vantage, I could see that all aspects of the event center around those women. The women folk, able to become pregnant and bring life into the world, offer their blessings to the newest mother and life-giver, while the men folk smile and talk and help maintain the familial ties. The socializing during the event ensures that the family ties are maintained and strengthened. Possible new connections are made and family politics play.
Never was I told from my Indian sources that I should beware of talking to one relative about politics, issues, or another relative. At no point did I have the feeling that I would be endanger of offending a member of the family. It seems as though this large and extended family had no in fighting. I know this is not true—common sense and past experience tells me that. But at the family event, all the problems that may be under the surface are not invited into the celebration.
Every individual invited is brought into the fold of the family, like Jothi pulling Jessica to the front to offer good health blessing to Smirthi and “get pregnant vibes” to Swati. The Indian heart is large and encompasses the family friends. The ceremony is a reason to the pull the family together and ensure that the family renews its ties—beyond email, facebook, and phone calls.
In addition to all that I have learned about Indians, I have not learned much of India. I have learned of the people that have come to the United States and have grown up here, but of India, I only know its successful, hard working, and opened hearted class of people.