“This way” Mohita said. We followed her towards a shadowy passageway, where a couple of mud-caked stray dogs milled around an arched entry. Mohita pulled her five year old son in close, shielding him in the draping folds of her silk sari. The dogs looked diseased.
Then a sharp left; we entered a narrow staircase. The steps were uneven. Mohita’s father and I had to duck our heads to avoid scraping them against the low-lying ceiling, and halfway up we were intercepted by a pair of bumbling food caterers. They squeezed by us awkwardly with trays of empty tea glasses and many mutterings of “sorry sir”, “excuse me sir.” It seemed like an odd way to direct guests to a wedding.
But ten more uneven steps above, it all made sense. As we emerged onto the upper terrace, I saw that we hadn’t passed through the main entrance of the party at all; we had gone — so they say — the ‘back way.’
I approached the terrace railing, where I got a full view of the palace gardens below. My jaw dropped. Stretched before me was Candyland.
Flaming torches illuminated an acre-long red carpet that rolled from the garden entrance to a massive stage. Colored Christmas lights draped every tree and bush in sight. Reports of fireworks filled the nighttime sky in regular intervals. Fountains bubbled, musicians chanted, and feuding relatives gossiped. It was wonderfully over-the-top. I grinned stupidly; I was awestruck.
I was awestruck, if only because when I had accepted Mohita’s invitation earlier that afternoon, I had no idea I was being invited to a million dollar wedding.
December is India’s biggest wedding month (which has something to do with favorable omens and astrological signs in Hinduism), and Morgan and I had been invited to two that evening – one from a couchsurfer and one from Mohita, the secretary of a slum-education NGO we were working with. In fact, multiple wedding invites are not all that uncommon; some families go to three or four in a single evening. Morgan and I thought one would be enough, and decided to go with Mohita after she mentioned 800 people were going to be there. It sounded like the better bet. We just didn’t know how much we were in for.
“What should we wear?” I had asked her. My thoughts turned towards the wrinkled, Tommy Hilfiger button-down crumpled at the bottom of my bike bag. “Oh” she had said. “Anything you have should be fine.”
Standing at the railing overlooking the extravagant party, I suddenly felt self-conscious. I surveyed my dress shirt and noticed a few more stains. My pants were also damp because I hadn’t enough time to dry them. Morgan wasn’t doing much better. He had ditched his wet jeans and was wearing sweatpants.
“Come on guys!” Mohita called, descending a marble stairway into the gardens. There was some urgency to get to the garden’s main entrance. The groom was arriving.
It would take the groom a while to come through the door, though. First came a full marching band of blaring tubas and trumpets, then a troupe of whirling belly dancers, and finally a bunch of uniformed guardsmen carrying crystalline chandeliers on poles. The groom was no less extravagant – he wore a headdress sporting a full array of peacock feathers. Friends and family members mobbed around him as he passed, pelting him with flowers, sweets, and blessings. By the time he reached his velvet throne on the stage, he was so loaded with wreathes that he looked like a human flower bouquet. Behind him were the lighted domes of the Queen’s vacation palace.
By this point, Morgan and I were ready to turn our attention to what we were really excited about: THE FOOD. Having been to an Indian wedding before, we both knew how big the feasts could be, and had skipped lunch in order to bring an extra appetite to Mohita’s sister-in-law’s wedding.
Our sacrifice was more than rewarded; there were easily a hundred cooks at the wedding, positioned along buffet tables that extended a football field long. It was hard to know where to start. Should we go for the fresh-baked bread, the pasta station, the salad bar, the soup bar, the Indian food, the Indian sweets, or perhaps even the custom chewing tobacco? The one thing conspicuously missing was alcohol.
No alcohol – what!?
It was part of the temperament of the party which I found fascinating. It was the most sober, subdued million dollar wedding that I’ve ever been to. Like a Hollywood celebrity wedding without the rowdiness.
Throughout the evening, Morgan and I tried our best to pick up conversations (and chicks), but were largely blown off. Clearly not on people’s agenda was talking to the two Americans in damp clothes, sweatpants, and wrinkled dress shirts. A young, sassy 24-year-old who lived in DC asked us if we were trying to crash the party. But even she — the person we most connected with most culturally, left us hanging; she bid us good evening after two minutes. It seemed the only people who wanted to speak with us were the hired help. A group of six caterers crowded around us at one point, but when we struck up a conversation with them we drew angry stares from some of the wedding guests. The caterers were of low caste.
No, there were bigger things at play at this wedding. Family politics.
Across the gardens, we could see people making the rounds. This was a party to see, and be seen. To wheel and deal, show allegiances, and gather reconnaissance for all the gossip that would permeate the family living rooms later that evening. More than once, people made a special point to tell us the minister of Rajasthan was making an appearance. This apparently was a big deal. Until he showed, they seemed intent to fulfill a whole other list of people to see and be seen with. We definitely weren’t on it.
Also surprising to me was how fast people came and left. For the amount of cash spent on the party, the place was completely empty by 11pm. With 800 guests in Candyland, I would have expected an all-night, raucous dance party to go down in the gum-drop forest. It made me reflect on what I would want my wedding to look like. Nothing like this, I quickly concluded.
Even so, it was an absolutely enthralling look into the world of India’s rising number of ultra-elite. A world truly of its own.
“So what’d you think?” Mohita asked on the way back to the car. We were walking past the diseased dogs, and back through the shadowy archway back into a very different India.