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Making merry on a curfewed night

June 28, 2010 17:23 IST

Yoginder Sikand partakes in an ostentatious Kashmiri wedding. 

A two-day general strike across the Kashmir Valley had forced me to put off my plans to travel up to Ladakh until later. Shops and schools would all be closed, and vehicles, if their owners dared to take them out, would be sure to be pelted with stones and sticks.

There was bound to be trouble in the city. I decided to stay on in Srinagar, at the home of my friend Tahir. Which was just as well, as it so turned out, for while the town was in a state of mourning marking the arrival of the Indian prime minister on a two-day visit,

Tahir's middle-class neighbourhood was bustling with festivities. His neighbour's eldest daughter was to be married, and the week-long celebrations had already begun.

Tahir's neighbour, a middle-aged man, worked as a carpenter in a government-run establishment. He and his family lived in a large double-storey, many-roomed house, the proportions of which were mansion-like. Yet, Tahir insisted, they were modestly lower middle-class. This was something that I have yet not been able to fathom, despite dozens of visits to Kashmir: How can many lower-middle families in Srinagar afford such splendid homes?

We watched the festivities from the balcony on the second-floor of Tahir's house. A colourful draped corridor, built over metal frames, had been set up, leading from the entrance to the alley, where the groom would arrive the following night, all the way to the bride's home, a good three hundred metres inside. It was festooned with fresh flowers, plastic balls, paper streamers and blinking fairy lights. In an empty plot outside the house, a vast shamiana had come up, under which a dozen massive potbellied cauldrons squatted on giant log fires and spat out vast clouds of acrid smoke.

An army of some 20 burly men went about their work in earnest: ladling the cauldrons, feeding the fires, pounding the meat with massive stone hammers into a fine paste, and rolling the paste into neat little kabab balls. In a fenced field behind the shamiana, I counted 32 woolly sheep playfully gambolling about. These hapless creatures would soon find their way under the hammers of the kabab cooks and into the giant cauldrons, to be transformed into a dozen varieties of dishes. They would be joined by no less than 200 chickens that had been stuffed inside a filthy makeshift pen nearby.

This was the second day before the actual wedding. Already, certain ceremonies had been held and a few feasts hosted. Later that day, the bride's family would organise two collective meals for relatives and close friends -- for a total of some 300 people.

At three in the afternoon, Tahir and I joined a long queue of men in the large hall of the bride's home for what Tahir promised would be a typical Kashmiri wazwaan lunch. We were seated in circles on white sheets spread over the thickly-carpetted floor, with four men in each circle. A man came around with a carved dish and a dragon-spouted samovar for us to wash our hands. Thereupon, a trami, a gigantic copper plate, was placed in the centre of our circle, containing a hillock of steaming boiled long-stemmed rice, of a fine, fragrant variety. Then appeared what seemed to be an endless round of meat dishes -- I counted 14 -- ladled out of immense copper buckets. The men ate in communal fashion, from the same trami, each bent over his own little corner. The only vegetarian dish -- a giant blob of paneer or cottage cheese, cooked in buttery tomato sauce -- was served at the very end. This meant that I, as a vegetarian by choice, assumed eating when the rest of the circle that had formed around my trami had almost finished, burping aloud and running their hands over their stuffed bellies.

The nikaah ceremony took place after lunch. Close members of the family crowded the room where the maulvi sahib from the neighbourhood mosque recited a short sermon, first in Arabic and then in Kashmiri, expounding on the virtues of marriage and the rights and responsibilities of spouses. Tahir and I peered in through the window. When the maulvi sahib switched from Arabic to Kashmiri, Tahir began to translate for my benefit.

The maulvi did not conceal his displeasure with the ostentation and waste with which this marriage was being celebrated. "There is no need for so much food, for so much dowry, for all these lights and show. It is all against the shariah. When will we Kashmiris stop all this? Do we have to wait for the Day of Judgment to fall upon us for that?' he excitedly declaimed, with a hint of irritation and anger in his voice. Accordingly, and true to his word, the maulvi sahib refused to partake of the lavish lunch that was set before him. All he accepted was a glass of fruit juice and a single walnut.

The would-be bride whispered the word qabul in acceptance of her husband in the presence of witnesses, and the marriage was sealed.But not so the celebrations. The night that followed was an excuse for another lavish meal, where 150 or so guests were fed with another elaborate wazwaan meal, which Tahir and I were dragged, almost against our wills, into partaking.

This time, the menu was another dozen or so meat dishes, which the groom's father boasted, were quite different from those that were served for lunch earlier that day. "Not a single dish has been repeated," he proudly beamed.

The men bent over their tramis and stuffed their mouths with steaming rice, chewing off bits of meat from oil-stained bones, and licking their fingers in evident satisfaction. 

The young men who sat around my trami beamed with satiation. Alarmed at the elaborate spread and the enormous waste (at the end of the meal, the tramis were left scattered about on the floor, half-full of mounds of uneaten rice and massive blobs of meat), I muttered something about the absurdity of it all. Could not the money spent on the meal have been given to the poor, or to the newly-wed couple instead? I asked

"This is nothing unusual in Kashmir," a man sharing my trami hurried to explain. "No matter how much some maulvis complain that our marriages are too lavish, and that Islam prohibits such wastage, we Kashmiris refuse to give up our ways!"

"They have served only a dozen meat dishes, because the groom's father is just a carpenter," chipped in the man's neighbour. "If he were a businessman or a government servant, we'd be treated to over 20 dishes."

"Don't be so crass," a third man interrupted him. "This poor carpenter has had to take a massive loan to have his daughter married. He will have to work an extra three years to pay it off."

The men helped me calculate what the two meals have cost the hapless carpenter. The professional caterers who had been called in charged Rs 2,000 per trami. A total of some 300 people guests had eaten that day. In the other words, 75 tramis of food have been prepared and charged for. The total expense for just the two meals amounted to Rs 1.5 lakh. A similar bout of feasting, probably on a grander scale, Tahir claimed, had been sponsored by the family of the groom in their own home, for their close friends and relatives -- and their expenses would certainly be even greater. In short, then, taken together, the parents of the would-be spouses would have splurged a whopping Rs 3 lakh -- and this was a conservative estimate -- just on food and just in a single day.

That, of course, is not what the wedding actually cost. The bride was showered with a lavish dowry (several lakhs, it was rumoured), and when I saw her step down and into a marquee in the garden for the sangeet later that night, she was dressed in a heavily sequined dress, dripping with jewels. All night long, a team of local musicians sang and danced. It began with soul-stirring Kashmiri Sufiana Kalam -- mystical verses in praise of God and the prophets -- but soon degenerated into Hindi pop and Bollywood cacophony, with a man dressed in a pink costume and masquerading as woman vigorously gyrating to the merriment of the awe-struck spectators. The music carried on all through the night, dashing any hope I had for even a snatch of sleep.

At mid-afternoon the next day, another elaborate, meaty wazwaan lunch was served for an army of guests, but Tahir and I wisely stayed away. We busied ourselves packing embroidered silk purses -- several hundred of them with walnuts and dried fruit -- and these must have cost a little fortune -- to be distributed to every departing guest.

That night, a little after nine, the groom arrived in a grand motor cavalcade. He was dressed in a three-piece suit, but his face was hidden under strings of flowers that trailed from the rim of his peaked turban. The women of the bride's family, dressed in shimmering outfits, stood along the colourful makeshift corridor to welcome him, showering rose petals as he passed by and into the house. A battery of men wielding video cameras rushed in after him, blocking completely my view from the verandah of the house.

An hour later, the groom emerged from the house along with his newly-wed wife. Her head was bent low, draped completely in a shawl that reached till her knees, while he walked straight confident and buoyant. The women of the bride's family, who lined the makeshift corridor, broke out into a plaintive sing-song bidai lament as the couple slowly made their way to the waiting vehicles.

The vehicles sped away in the eerie silence of the curfewed night, and Tahir and I walked back to his home. I could hear the bride's mother groaning and women trying to comfort her as I finally drifted off to sleep. And I dreamt that night of menacing mountains of food swirling about me -- of spiced, saffron-flecked chicken pilau, of rishta, kofta, roganjosh and kabab, and I cannot now recall how many other types of meaty Kashmiri dishes.

Yoginder Sikand