Monday, January 28, 2008

Here Comes the Bride

The Shoe-shine Man spreads a cloth on the pavement, and sits on it। In a neat row, in front of him, he arranges the tools of his trade: brushes, rags, pots of polish and wax. Then, cross-legged, he waits for business. You can’t help but notice, all the feet passing by are bare, or in flip-flops - this isn’t what you’d call a well-heeled area. It’s going to be a long day for the Shoe-shine Man. If he had clippers, and a nail-file... The busy road’s flanked by now familiar lock-ups, selling everything from bags of cement to glasses of milky tea. I still can’t tell whether the flapping linen’s for sale, or just drying. “Goat,” says Monu, emphatically, pointing. He’s worked out that I harbour a small penchant for local fauna. I see a goat, then another with a kid, then more. “Is Muslim area. Muslim like goat.” So that explains it. Not a single woman to be seen, and the streets are awash with goats. Some bone-rattling along the way (the roads, not the suspension), Monu breaks off crooning to the Indian pop-song on his tape, an octave above his comfort range, pointing again. “Is wedding. Hindu wedding. I stop?” So we pull over, and go for an unashamed gawp.

The bride’s on her mobile phone, bored. By her side, her future husband fidgets uneasily. He looks about twelve. The horses, with their golden bridles, toss their heads, waiting, and the carriage shifts. Everyone’s too busy having a good time, to pay any attention to the nuptial pair. Behind their coach, the women chatter and laugh, their wedding finery blinding in the midday sun. In front of the horses, the male guests dance and clap, wearing wedding turbans in cream silk, with crested cockades and Davy Crockett tails at the back. They circle, chanting and stamping, while a waiter in a bow-tie distributes glasses of water from a tray held above his shoulder. The bride closes her mobile phone with a snap, and stashes it in the sequinned bag on her lap. She lifts her face, to smile at the groom.
“Rich people?” I ask Monu, dazzled by glittering nosebands and festooned silk. “No, no rich. No rich people,” he says. Well, someone’s Dad’s definitely going to be “no rich” when they’ve paid for this lot.
I wonder how much arranging culminates in today – not just the mother-of-the-bride’s shoes, and what to serve the guests in the swagged pavilion, when the official ceremony is over, but the selection of this bride for this groom, and the negotiations over the dowry. Our society rails against arranged marriage, but are we the unenlightened ones? Here, it’s a business venture, rooted in common sense, rather than a sentimental undertaking. It suddenly seems naive, to base the most important decision of your life on what could be an adolescent impulse, or just chemistry. An arranged marriage is also an act of love, I’m told - the family’s love for their son or daughter. After all, you wouldn’t let a schoolboy buy a house, would you? And there is love, they say, in an arranged marriage, it just comes after. We leave the Hindu bride getting to know her husband, and climb back into the car.
On the way home, I fall asleep. Monu kindly wakes me up, to admire a passing buffalo, and there’s the Shoeshine Man, buffing black leather to a fine gloss, while the unshod owner wiggles his toes in the evening air. I wonder if he does a discount, for sandals?