My first big fat Indian wedding

My first Indian wedding experience was an insight into traditions that I struggled to understand

When my wife first told her family she was in an interracial relationship with a black man, it's fair to say it was met with some trepidation. Her community’s insularity had provided barely any exposure to black people beyond negative stereotypes and that in turn had served as the basis of culturally institutionalised prejudice.

But above all, their qualms were driven by a concern that relationships were difficult enough for a couple from the same community. To them, an interracial relationship meant espousing that commonality and not understanding each other’s culture. That meant an additional but unnecessary layer of challenge to a relationship.

In retrospect, they’d acknowledge all their concerns were unfounded. Although they were almost proved right when I was faced with my first big fat Indian wedding. I’d been to other Indian weddings. Yet this was the first where I was attending as a close family member and it gave an insight into an aspect of my wife’s culture that I just couldn’t fathom.

You see, this wasn’t just a wedding, it was an extravaganza. A series of events spanning over a week, both building up to the wedding and subsequent to the big day. None were on a small scale either. As a relative newcomer to the culture, it was sometimes fascinating to observe. Nevertheless, I just couldn’t get my head around what I was actually experiencing.

First, there was a ceremony where the bride’s family ‘officially’ invited the groom’s side to the wedding. This was despite the couple already being married (their civil ceremony, the only aspect of their wedding that was on a small scale, was weeks prior to the Indian wedding). Given the necessary planning, the fact a wedding was occurring wasn’t news to anyone either.

I was on the groom’s family’s side and there was a religious ceremony with our side prior to the wedding. It was quickly apparent that none of the groom’s generation (including the groom himself) had any idea what was going on and weren’t interested either. Meanwhile, the elders had no definitive version of what was supposed to actually happen either. As a result, it descended into somewhat of a palaver. The generation that cared couldn’t agree on what was supposed to happen and the generation that didn’t care became visibly nonchalant to what was happening.

There were more social and secular events, such as the mehndi party, that were a good opportunity to casually interact with guests from both sides and outside of the formalities of the wedding. But they also added to the layers of wedding festivities. With a big wedding, there was also increased wedding politics and increased stress for all involved with the planning. As the wedding approached, I’d never seen the groom, a jovial wind up merchant and happy-go-lucky chap, looking so stressed with the rigmarole of it all.

The week of festivities was enjoyable, as most weddings are, but tiring. As the number of events began to take their toll, still happy countenances, including those of the couple, were now tinged with and betrayed by fatigue.

I considered my own wedding as my main reference point and the contrast was stark. I don’t recall my wife or I ever being stressed throughout the planning and our wedding spanned one day. Ceremony, wedding breakfast and a party at the reception. Bish, bash, bosh. I felt we had a fair amount of guests (although my wife insisted that it was a small wedding by Indian wedding standards). Whereas the groom of this wedding jokingly conceded, as truth said in jest, that he didn’t know half the guests even on his own side. That’s unsurprising given one function had in excess of 800 guests in attendance.

Try as I might, I just couldn’t rationalise a series of events of this scale being a feature of a wedding of any culture. My wife largely shared my stance but being of the culture herself, she just accepted it; something I wasn’t able to do. Aside from my wife having to listen to my repeated incredulity, did it cause a problem? Not really unless you count her becoming fed up of listening to me.

It got me thinking about how these customs had managed to endure generations of the diaspora that were increasingly distanced from the land where they originated. There’s much of my West Indian culture that I cling onto, and will continue to do so, alongside my culture as a British born black man. I would support that for any diaspora community. Though within a traditional Indian or South Asian wedding, there doesn’t appear to be as much influence from British society and norms as one might expect. Which is surprising given how long the South Asian community has been present in the UK.

Any suggestion that the diaspora eschew their roots would be both foolish and culturally insensitive. But what of bridging the gap between British society, a culture that most are more au fait and wedded to, than that of their roots?

Take the duration. A week’s worth of wedding festivities is a huge imposition on a guest in considering leave from work and other commitments. Even with functions in the evening, that’s still an imposition on people’s time when it’s not just once but a repeated demand on one’s schedule.

The customary and expected effort made by wedding guests in just looking the part has to be repeated several times over for an Indian wedding. Ask any female attending a wedding of the endeavours that go into getting ready for a wedding of any culture and then multiply that several times. While my wife enjoys wearing traditional Indian clothes (as did I during the week’s functions), she and most Asian women can attest that wearing a saree doesn’t come close to the ease of wearing a dress or a suit so you can imagine the effort required when it’s for a series of events.

Then there’s the cost. In austere times, traditional Indian weddings are bucking the trend in pursuit of grand affairs but surely not everyone can afford it. Indeed, I’m sure many have provoked the ire of Indian Bridezillas in not sharing their enthusiasm for, or suggesting scaling back from, their ideal wedding scenario despite its accompanying spiralling cost.

I wouldn’t want to see the visuals and overall sensory experience of Asian weddings diluted and it’s important that it isn’t. The clothes, the colours, the music, the food and the nod to past traditions. They’re all part of the culture that need to be preserved and celebrated. However, as another generation of the diaspora are charged with taking these customs forward, I’m not sure how much longevity Asian weddings can experience in their current format.

While I would have been willing to have an Indian wedding had my wife wanted one, there’s no way I would have agreed to the endless number of guests, many of whom neither of us knew. Nor would I have agreed to the number of functions that has become standard practice. And I definitely wouldn’t have been happy with the bill for it all either.

As the Indian and wider South Asian diaspora becomes more removed from its roots and further connected to western ideals, I imagine Asian weddings will see a similar trend.

The next generation of the diaspora, whose then elders are now having weddings that they themselves are disconnected to, won’t share the desire for a big Asian wedding. And with a slow, yet visible, increase in interracial marriages within the Asian community, weddings are likely to reflect this too.

Preserving the diaspora’s culture is important and necessary. Though at what cost does manifesting that come when its conduit is a traditional wedding that’s out of step with everything else the couple know?