You may think Indian weddings are like any other wedding, but with brown faces in brighter colours. Not so. It’s a different world with its own set of rules and quirks that have taken years of getting used to. Luckily for you, I am armed with all the knowledge you need to survive the days (yes, DAYS) of festivities, from engagement parties, to henna nights, ladies sangeets, to evening receptions. So be sure to carry this survival guide with you the next time your presence is requested at the joyous occasion of Mr Patel’s daughter’s Vivaah/Shaadi/Lagan/Wedding. And remember the most important thing, there is no such thing as a small Indian wedding.
Don’t wear a saree
There are plenty of alternatives to the human clingfilm that is a badly draped saree. You can find endless YouTube videos that show you the basic principles of wrap, pleat, tuck, pleat again, and pin, method, but for it to look flattering, there are tips and tricks that even I have yet to master. Add to that, the fact that though you think it may look pretty to have it hanging over one arm, your arm will be sore from being held aloft in a position not unlike the one doctors recommend when you’ve broken it to elevate it and assist the blood flow. Stick instead to a comfortable churidar or a lehenga suit. They can be pulled on with minimum fuss, and discarded at the end of a long day, unlike the saree, which you’ll be unpinning and unwrapping long after the bride and groom have announced the arrival of their firstborn. I don’t want to scare you with the idea of a loo break in a saree so we’ll move on..
Call every woman over 40 ‘Auntie’
If you’ve spent any time in the company of Asians, you’re probably under the impression that we have huge families and you would be correct, but they’re probably not AS big as you think. In order to show respect, we don’t call our elders by their names, so everyone becomes an uncle or an auntie. Sounds simple enough you say, WRONG. There are specific ways to address REAL uncles and aunties depending on how they’re related to you. For example, your mum’s sister and her husband are your Masa and Masi. Your dad’s brother is a Kaka and so on. Don’t mistake these titles for their names, or you’ll end up calling them Uncle Uncle.
Don’t expect all Indian weddings to be the same
India is divided into states, and the wedding ceremony will vary according to which state your family descends from. In short, you’ll always have more fun at a Punjabi wedding. They like to drink, dance, and have a good time. Unfortunately, I’m a Gujarati, so unless the bride is lucky enough to be marrying out of the Gujju circle, expect a dry affair and terrible dad dancing from even the youngest guests. You may even have to take part in ‘dandiya,’ the stick dance where you have to pair up, and then endure the agony of someone dropping out at every turn, so there will always be one person looking slightly lost and wondering how on earth the Indians stole Morris dancing and made it even shitter without anyone noticing.
Beware of the Matchmaking Mafia
A few years ago, non Asians would have been safe from the Matchmaking Mafia, comprised of a group of seemingly benign looking little old ladies. (Don’t be fooled, they are experienced interrogators who will have you spilling your guts before you know it.) Back then, it was considered scandalous to marry out of the community. Nowadays, we’re marrying later and later and there is no greater fear for any Indian parent than the prospect of an unwed son or daughter. These are desperate times, so customs and traditions have been relaxed and any fuss about the suitability of the match has been done away with. The bottom line is clear, marry someone, ANYONE*. If only to stop Ani Auntie, whose daughter married the doctor with the Mercedes, from asking your age for the third time so she can say “Never mind” with a superior smile. You will be asked your age, occupation, prospects, and the information will have filtered through to all 500 guests quicker than you can say Match.com.
Be prepared to hear ‘The Story.’
All Asian children have grown up with ‘The Story.’ It’s like the American Dream, but lengthier and duller. There are slight variations and it’s been updated over the years, but it is basically the tale of how your parents/grandparents came to this country with a five pound note in their pocket and a dream of a better life. The purpose of ‘The Story’ varies. For children, it’s a reminder that one should never forget the sacrifices our parents made for us. For anyone else, it’s the original humble brag about how clever you are to have reached the pinnacle of success, so that your children no longer have to get married in a draughty school hall in North London. Your job is to congratulate them on their hard work and scarper before they start interrogating you about your job and you have to explain the concept of a gap year to them.
Posh and Becks stole our thrones
I think we can all agree that the best bit about weddings are the thrones. You can keep your 5 minute ceremonies, our weddings are bum numbingly long affairs, and the bride and groom deserve a comfortable velvet throne to perch their posteriors on for the duration. You may laugh when you see them, but by the end, you’ll all wish you’d had your own. If the unthinkable happens and I do get married, I’m getting replicas of the GoT iconic throne and the groom will carry a sword, Sikh or not.
Henna is clingier than a wet lover
I went to a henna party nearly two and a half weeks ago and got railroaded into getting my left hand done. It’s still there, despite energetic scrubbing on my part, and it looks bloody awful. Sure it’s pretty for the first few days, but then it starts to fade in patches until it looks like a severe rash on the palms of your hands. At least you’re not the bride though. She has to endure the ‘Pithi’ where her face, arms and legs are covered in a thick yellow paste which is supposed to make your skin glow for your wedding day.
Someone will try to teach you the lightbulbs move
Nobody actually does the lightbulbs except when they’re teaching a non Asian to do bhangra dancing. Everyone knows bhangra is all about shoulder shaking, pointing skywards, and hoping for the best. It’s also true that Gujaratis can’t do bhangra and it should be left to Punjabis, Morris dancing being more our thing. But that didn’t stop them from rounding up the frightened looking English guests at my sister’s wedding and making them mime screwing a lightbulb until they looked defeated.
Not everything Indian is Bollywood, but weddings are
The worst people I come across are those who predictably shout “Ooh, I love a bit of Bollywood!” when anything remotely Indian is mentioned. Remember Narinder from Big Brother 2, who was referred to as a “Bollywood Actress?” She was an extra in one scene, in one film, in a dance routine featuring hundreds of extras. The truth is, Bollywood refers to the Mumbai film industry. Most of the Bollywood films my friends tell me they’ve watched, are actually South Indian B movies. I once had an argument with my boss who told me the Bollywood actors in Corrie were shit. These were British Asian actors. Putting that rant to one side, weddings are the one thing that Bollywood has stamped its mark on in the last 15 years. Outfits are now inspired by films, as is the music, and couples often learn a dance routine from a movie to perform at their reception. The settings are more elaborate now too, with Blenheim Palace being a favourite after a popular Hindi film was set there a few years ago.
Shoe stealing is normal
One of the most fun parts of an otherwise dull ceremony is the shoe stealing. The groom must remove his shoes before going into the mandap where the wedding ceremony takes place. If his best man and family are smart, they’ll immediately claim his shoes and hide them from the bride’s friends and family, whose job it is to try every trick in the book to steal them. If successful, they can then negotiate a price for their return. Only killjoys will bring a spare pair of shoes or refuse to pay up, most getting into the spirit of it and some actively encouraging the bride’s sisters to steal them.
Blubbing is a test
At the end of the religious ceremony, it’s time for the vidaai. Traditionally, receptions weren’t a part of the Hindu culture, so the ceremony would end with the bride’s departure. Because it was frowned upon for a daughter to move away from home before marriage, this would be the first time she would be leaving her parental home and therefore, the tears the family shed at this point were a measure of their love for each other. Sobbing was actively encouraged. There used to be a standard song that was played at this point, likening the bride to a cow “to go where she is led” which was everyone’s cue to start wailing. Things have changed of course, and women move away to uni or find their own place now and weddings have evolved so there’s usually an evening reception. One would assume this would signal the death knell for the vidaai, but no. Now it’s a test. Does the bride still love her parents enough to do big ugly crying? My sister did an excellent job at her wedding, but there were harsh words for me and my other sister who remained dry eyed throughout. The wedding video went international, with relatives as far as Kenya and India getting in touch to tell us how much they enjoyed watching it and shed a tear at the vidaai. Our scandalous lack of crying was the hot topic of conversation for at least a month until a divorce meant it was no longer a breaking news story. I’d found it hard to show my despair at my sister’s departure when I’d known they were just going for a drive around the block and returning for the evening reception where there was a free bar. I may even have smiled.