The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, May 19, 2002
Time Off

The season of weddings... the season of excess
Manohar Malgonkar

FOR two years running, in 2000 and 2001, I was invited to join parties headed for the fun-capitals of the world, first class by air and lavish hospitality included. In 2000, it was to London, to stay for five days at the Hilton hotel, or, if I preferred it, in a room to myself in a Mayfair flat. In 2001, the trip was to Bangkok, also for five days, to stay in one of the city’s luxury hotels, but this time there was no alternative accommodation choice, and this, I discovered, was because the people who were treating us to this junket themselves owned the hotel in which we were to stay, and where, a whole wing had been set aside for our use.

I said ‘no’ to both, even though the people who were going on these trips were my relatives and friends and their friends, and among them there were a few whose company I enjoy. Some of them tried their best to make me change my mind but I remained firm. In the end they gave up and, I’m sure, wrote me off as having become cranky in my old age.

Which may be the reason why this year, 2002, there was no offer of a free excursion to some distant city even though I know that there was one: this time to Hong Kong. But this time no one tried to get me to join the trip. And for this I am thankful.

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Mind you, I have nothing against either luxury travel or five-star coddling. If someone has more money than common sense and wants to serve his guests pink champagne for breakfast — why not? Champagne is an any-time drink. Or again, to have the chromium fittings on your Rolls Royce gold-plated and then to draw people’s attention to such embellishments may be a display of unrefined taste. But surely, that should not take away from your pleasure of being invited to ride in such a car.

So what did I have against those free trips to London and Bangkok?

The answer is simple. Because both were invitations to join a baraat party, baraats are a special feature of all Hindu weddings. Each wedding has two baraats, one from the bride’s side, and the other from the groom’s side. They’re formed of relatives and friends determined to enjoy themselves and excess is the order of the day or, to be more precise, of the duration. They are marathon bouts of festivities in which lunches run on into dinners which don’t end till the small hours of the morning, so that no one turns up for breakfast even for that pink champagne on standby in magnums and jeroboams to serve as hangover pick-me-ups.

They’re not for the aged, or those used to a quiet life.

In India, the marriages of their sons or daughters are major life events for most parents. The poor actually dread these events as necessary evils: even one wedding for which they have to foot the bill will keep them poor all their lives — and god knows that they usually have large families. Middle-class house-holders who have skimped and saved all their lives to put by a nest-egg for their old ages find that even one wedding of a son or daughter will wipe out their savings. Mercifully perhaps, they’re diligent followers of the norms of family planning and as a rule don’t have more than two children.

That still leaves the rich class. People of this class can take the marriages of their offspring without facing the prospect of either financial ruin or embarrassment. And as far as the super-rich, are concerned, they actually look upon such occasions as God’s gifts; as opportunities for some blatant grandstanding. To dazzle their peers and rival by their ability to throw money around on ingeniously thought out trifles, such as the Madhvanis flying out London’s most fashionable men’s hair stylist to Mumbai to give the bridegroom a pre-nuptial haircut. Say, Rs 2 lakh for the round trip, first class, hotel charges and of course, professional fees. A mere trifle for the Madhvanis.

And, too, fully in keeping with the one-upmanship of the richest Indian industrial princes. Money must not only be spent lavishly; it must be seen to be spent recklessly. What is money for, anyhow, if not to spend at your son’s or daughter’s wedding?

Holding wedding receptions on the decks of large ships is possible only on the shoreline cities. Sprawling country clubs of the Raj made ideal locations for wedding receptions, but of late they have been replaced by the even more opulent palaces of our-ex-Maharajas which are so much cheaper to hire. Elephant transport for the groom from his hotel to the bride’s hotel to claim her in wedlock is still in fashion, and for this the elephant is brought from hundreds of miles away. Last year I saw one oscillating in the car park of one of Goa’s beach pleasure resorts. The baraat of the groom was scheduled to arrive a few days later — by air.

This year, 2002, must be particularly propitious for weddings. According to the papers, Hyderabad is to have as many as 170 of them, and most of the better-class hotels in the city are already booked for weddings. The first big event of the season was the marriage of Ramanand Rao’s son. Rao, a leading manufacturer of communications technology, is said to have spent Rs 3 crore on the wedding. That is nearly half a million pounds sterling. But the wedding season has only just begun, and some other business tycoon will no doubt top that figure before it is over.

But then it was always so, built into our way of life and deeply rooted. The puranas, the epics, our history itself, are full of examples of how the rich and the powerful have looked upon weddings in their families as status-denoting occasions — chest-thumping, if you will; and the sort of ways of throwing money at weddings they practised show up that Mumbai haircut worth Rs 2 lakh or that elephant in Goa which had been made to walk 500 km to carry a young man from one hotel to the next for 500 metres seen minor eccentricities. The counterparts of our rich business tycoons in days gone by were our rajas and maharajas. Weddings in their families were spending sprees and even the showering of coins and ornaments was only a part of the routine.

Here is Sir William Sleeman’s account of a wedding in the family of a minor Raja in the mid-19th century.

"The young chief of Balramgarh mustered a cortege of sixty elephants and about ten thousand men... to welcome the guests. The bridegroom’s party had to expend about six hundred thousand rupees in this visit alone. They scattered copper money all along the road from their homes to within seven miles of Balramgarh. From this point to the fort they had to scatter silver, and from the gate to the door of the palace they scattered gold and jewellery of all kinds."

On one of the elephants sat the son of the Maharaja of Patiala, who was ten years old, and with him he had "a bag full of gold mohurs of two guineas each, mixed up with an infinite variety of gold ear-rings, pearls and precious stones, which be scattered in handfuls among the crowd."


This feature was published on May 12, 2002