Just agreeing to get married can bring families together
There’s always something to look forward to at family functions when cousins, uncles, aunts, elders and friends come together and everybody enjoys meeting each other and exchanging banter. It’s like the good old days when I used to look forward to visiting cousins’ homes in Kerala, and even a couple of their homes in the city where I grew up – Calcutta.
Although I might not have made many visits – traveling by train to Palghat, with a stop-over in Madras, or to Bombay, where an aunt stayed, by second-class sleeper was considered too cumbersome to be done at regular intervals. Also, there was the cost factor – parents in middle-class families in those days tried hard to make ends meet and save whatever money was possible.
I, of course, looked forward to every train journey. I loved sitting by a window and watch the world go by, which was often the greenery of Bengal and Orissa, and the seemingly endless tracts of Andhra Pradesh. It was an absolute thrill when I first passed tunnels during my first visit to Bombay in the early 1970s. The trip was memorable for another reason – it was the first time I had a drink (I was still in school), thanks to a generous uncle who poured large pegs of Chivas Regal into steel tumblers so that my dad could not make out. Or if he did get a whiff, he did not show he knew and I must thank him for it. Strangely enough, I did not get tipsy and remember watching the fare dished out by Doordarshan (another first) in the sitting room, occasionally entering the bedroom to take a swig.
Coming back to the subject of family get-togethers, I attended one on Saturday, which brought together a fairly large group of cousins and their children, and aunts and uncles. The occasion: a niece’s engagement. It was an elaborate function, almost as grand as a wedding, complete with a sumptuous banana-leaf lunch. The only thing missing was ice cream (or did I miss it?) but that didn’t seem to matter.
Generations ago, Malayali families really conducted no engagement to announce a marriage. Once an alliance was decided, it was marriage straightaway and the groom would present the bride with a kasavu mundu. That was it. No tying the thali or garlanding each other. All that came much later. Malayali marriages were so short that over time some of those who conducted such weddings added a little extra here and a little extra there – exchange of betel leaves, touching the feet of elders etc – to prolong the ceremony. All this I have from a fairly authentic source.
Perhaps in those days, there was more trust or there were no fears of the groom or bride running away! I was engaged myself, although my wife now insists it was no proper engagement. All that happened was some of the elders in her family arriving at my uncle’s and ‘sealing the deal’ while presenting fruits and betel leaves and nuts and what have you.
Of course, once you are engaged you know you're stuck. You can almost feel your feet being fettered. Being engaged didn’t give me a license to do anything either. My would-be wife refused to come out even for a cup of tea, she was loathe to accept any gift, and all that she did without making a fuss was post letters to Korba where I was working. In short, the license was only for communicating – quite safe in those days, as snail mail took its time and it was just about ten years after Bill Gates had founded Microsoft. The one time she came out (I must give her credit for that), she was accompanied by her elder sister and brother-in-law and I dared not even hold her hand as we traipsed over crumpled footpaths around Gemini, a few steps behind the senior couple, me trying to make sweet conversation. The dinner at the Chinese restaurant was a bit of non-starter because it was there she decided she wanted to throw up – perhaps the occasion had overawed her or it was just one of those periods when a woman's mood swings beyond a man's comprehension.
Today’s youngsters, however, don’t have such problems. There’s MSN and Skype, there’s SMS, Android, iPad… never really a dull moment. And if they are not allowed to go out together they’d surely call their parents weird or feel weird themselves. Like I overheard a college girl telling another: “They all have boyfriends da, always out most of the time… and I feel kinda weird…” If she can get so desperate I can only wonder at what boys her age who are forced to lead cloistered lives must feel… Anyway, more power to engagements, marriages and family get-togethers.
Pictures taken at the engagement I attended show the para (vessel) being filled with nira (rice) by family members; the nirapara, which symbolises prosperity and perhaps fertility; an elder stands up to formally announce the engagement as close family members strain their ears to listen; one of the signatories to the document; and women power and bonding.