Udhaya - My friend and a gifted writer, flew from San Francisco to attend my wedding. My wedding is described in his words:
Part I: From Tracy to Durham
--Took a Delta red-eye flight from SFO to Cleveland, it was crowded like a slaughterhouse. Luckily I got the aisle seat from online seating. I was hoping not to rub thighs with a fat slimy bastard for 5 hours straight. Luckily it was a girl in the middle seat and thankfully her thighs weren't touching each other or mine. She fidgeted all night trying to get comfortable, while I fell asleep oblivious to cheap snacks and over-hyped soda runs by the crew.
--We landed in Cleveland in the wee hours. I ate a McD breakfast and window shopped for a while. Many Bengals and University of Kentucky wares were being sold. Tried to find the powder-blue UK cap to no avail (Just for my initials. I don't give two shits about Kentucky basketball).
--The connecting flight was like transitioning from the ocean to a wading pool. I had both the window and aisle seat as I sat single file. To my right was the bigger row with two seats each. The hostess was also considerably downgraded to a cover girl from the 60s (the 1860s). I could feel the grade and debris on the runway upon takeoff and landing. I developed a new regard for the wellness of my balls.
--We landed in Durham airport around 10 am. My eyes stung like I rode a scooter without shades on a country road. Rang up Bala, one of MS' many ilavampanju friends. I was splitting a room with this dude. Hadn't spoken to him more than once. He said that the ceremony was underway but the knot was yet to be tied. He conveyed his own and MS' eagerness over me making the wedding on time. So Bala picked me up in a modest Ford rental and took me straight to the wedding hall. Bala was, how shall I put this, sweet, soft-spoken, energetic, and delicate. He makes JR seem like P.S. Veerappaa.
The wedding hall was only 20 minutes away, about the time it takes me to go to the grocery store from my house in Tracy. We Californians are more spread out than a hooker's corpse on a police chalk line. Durham was not the Ku Klux Klan rally or a parade of pasty-faced white rat bastards that I had pictured. It was scenic and green. The roads were so thin with cars that a two-lane road seemed
Part 2: At the wedding hall
--The cold of the morning hadn't worn off yet. I set foot into what was an unassuming community hall on the outside. The inside was a typical makeshift Hindu temple that we have grown accustomed to in U.S. over the years. I noticed the bride and the groom seated Indian style towards one end of the hall.
The couple of the hour were flanked by a bilingual priest who explained the ongoing ritual to both sides of the wedding party. The wall behind the bride and groom was filled with pale-faced deities sparely decorated in silk and lit up in soft halogen lights. The length of the hall had a maroon-curtained stage on the far side. On the near side were chairs, benches, and a couple of tables with fancy South Indian breakfast –idly,vadai, sambar, chutney, and the like--still breathing. Several unknown elders ushered me to have breakfast.
I couldn’t eat right then. I was still enthralled at getting a good eyeful of MS and Lalitha. As I saw the contentment in Lalitha's face, the ease with which she handled all that was mandated by the priest and others around, the relief seeping through the fatigue in MS's face, I couldn't help getting caught up in the history behind that moment. The trials that these kids went through, the torment of desire and loyalty, responsibility and need; the risk of asserting oneself at the perils of alienating one's parents...and the lesser evils of academia and workforce that twisted and turned this already harsh path of love... I needed a cigar to manage a sigh of relief worthy of the occasion. So I stood there getting my fill of the couple some more.
MS had lost weight. Seated there in his panjakachcham and bare body he looked like fresh gay bait. On his head was a crown that looked like a hollowed and split flower coconut. Reminded me of the whale, Narwhal from my kid's whale book. The Narwhal fell from his head periodically as if to remind us of the human element in that celestial atmosphere. Going back to the panjakachcham, what an outfit! It looked pretty airy and transparent except around the privates where it layers up like the sari. I wonder how many priests walk around everyday with undetected hard-ons beneath this stealth outfit. I can't wait until the west discovers the panjakachcham fashionably. It looks not different from the M.C. Hammer pants from the 80s. Throw a designer jacket or full-sleeve top over it and it’s good to go.
Lalitha looked impeccable from head-to-toe. She was done up beautifully and accessorized with taste. As the ceremony progressed, I met Meera who guessed who I was and introduced herself. I had learned earlier that she lives not far from bb and Aruna. Then I saw Vijay, MS' roomie from his Berkley days.
Then this curly headed 30-something guy approached me and asked if I was doing anything with a camcorder. I plead innocence and made small talk before someone said that it was Srinath. At the same time Srinath realized who I was and he seemed a bit surprised and disappointed. He said later that based on my writing, he expected an 8-foot tall warrior type (not the undercard sumo wrestler that I am I guess). I had expected a piss-and-vinegar type full of energy and wrath in Srinath. He looked more subdued and at peace like an emasculated husband character in a Thamizh serial. Anyway, we discovered each other simultaneously. My first reaction was to pinch his cheeks and slap them while uttering, 'I adore this bastard' at which point this charming lady joined us, her face a bit curious. Srinath introduced her as his wife Bagya and me to her as 'The Udhaya.' We reminisced our history at which point this SL look-alike (well if SL were 10 years younger and had to shower, shave, and press his pants) joined us and introduced himself as PK.
Soon we were all clapping to substitute for the ketti mElam and the thali, ammi, and arundhathi phases were carried out gracefully. It was a done deal for MS and Lalitha. For someone as jaded and cynical about rituals, religion, and pageantry, I felt several shards of ice dissipate inside me. Perhaps I was dew-eyed, my heart was full and heavy with joy. There was so much joy in me that had I the mammaries, I would've breast fed the entire crowd willing or not.
Part 3: Lunch and chores
Around lunch time I met MSâ€™ dad and mom. MSâ€™ sister Aparna was busy running around getting things done. MSâ€™ parents both seemed to have heard of me and said so. Whatever trepidations they mustâ€™ve had before this wedding, they seemed absolutely at peace with the goings on. There was a sense of purpose and clarity in their demeanor that warmed me. MSâ€™ dad was so collected and dignified in speech and toneâ€”truly a throwback, old school soul; I wanted to hug the man and dwell in the comfort he represented. It is the comfort of childhood when all my uncles towered over me and imparted wisdom, wit, direction, and security. There are telling moments in my adult life where I have longed for such a figure of the past to guide and comfort me with wisdom unknown to me.
A bunch of us put out some more chairs and got the crowd ready for lunch. The food was excellent. I met Aravind, Mathi, Raj, and Ramanan (some more friends of MS) during lunch. Srinath and PK were discussing about getting the musical instruments and equipment set up at the Reception hall. Bagya sent her man to go get Ziplocs to save the leftover food. I wish I could go back in time and eat it now. Wonder what happened to all that food! We thought of donating the food to some shelter, but didnâ€™t know enough venues around for that.
MS pulled me aside and expressed regret about not being able to hang with the boys. I felt like reminding him that this will be the first of many occasions for him where he would have to unwillingly forego hangtime with friends; friends that donâ€™t have much to do with the wife. He was married now. Married men and their pre-marriage friends are in parallel universes. Any male who doesnâ€™t agree with this is either lying, has his wife reading this with him, or has his in-laws as friends. But I didnâ€™t feel that the day of the wedding was a time for the groomâ€™s disillusionment. Life will do it slowly and painfully, and before long he will be summing up the state of things with a non-verbal hand movement and shrugged shoulders that said, â€œYou know how it is. I canâ€™t go dude.â€�
MS hinted about a bottle of Rum that was saved for the reception. He mentioned that the reception would be a very relaxed affair. There will be singing and dancing and guaranteed merriment, he said. All my fires were stoked at this point.
We took a while to clear out of there. Everybody pitched in and cleared the place, folded chairs, emptied garbage, and all that. But somehow an organized effort to shoulder everybody to their fronts was missing. We really needed a Periyappa figure there telling everyone what the priorities were and what had to be done next.
After much dilly-dallying all the aforementioned friends of MS drove in two vehicles to gather all the equipment. PK connected his iPod and treated everyone with mid-80s IR music, replete with insipid Vaali lyrics, morose romanticism of KJY, and the suggestive singing of the AARP audio porn queen S.Janagi. The first depressive thoughts of the day arrived in my mind at this point, and by the time the nursery rhyme music of 'kELadi en paavaiyE' came on, I was deeply contemplating mass murder or at least the opportunity to go the way of Van Gogh to slit my ears off. The only solace was the angry Gutka sauce in my mouth.
Part 4: Spirits: Channeled/Bottled what have you
We waited at the parking lot trying to consolidate our efforts to knock out the remaining chores—gather the instruments, do a grocery stop, pick up some flowers, and some choice kavas am for MS' kundalam.
All through the day I felt the presence of all my missing friends from the chat room where MS and I frequent. When Ramanan invited himself and all of us to Srinath's house so that Bagya could make tea for all of us, I saw Raja G's socialism at work there. When Bagya and Srinath readily accepted and extended a warm welcome to our bunch of faux and bonafide bachelors to their pad, I saw Aruna and Balaji show up in their hospitality. When a perisu hugged MS and told him that God will take care of everything, Kitkat was there. While waiting for the wedding party to show up, Aravind noticed the flaw in our plan for not leaving one of us behind to drive them to the reception venue; I knew Ranga would've picked up on that detail right away. When someone remarked at the beauty of the evening sky, I saw JR's photographic vision there. When I was breaking down the beauty of the MSV's , 'ninaiththathai nadaththiyE mudippavan', I was channeling Sriram there. When PK was mesmerized in the beauty of ARR's ,'munbE vA', I saw Srikanth there. When somebody was air-violining along with an IR interlude with closed eyes, I knew Shankar was there. Whenever someone interjected another's comment with a better one and sent us all into hysterics, I knew inji was there. When Raj confided insider information on knowing actor Surya personally since childhood and proclaimed him as a 'flaming asshole', I could hear Arun's frustration with Kollywood. When Ramanan leaned over during one of the songs and said, 'That's in Revathi. A very expressive raagam,' I knew Ram was there.
We went to Jawahar's office to pick up amps, speakers, and mics. Jawahar was a local figure that everybody seemed to know. He loomed over the proceedings like a kind Tony Soprano. I got to meet him briefly and could tell he rolled with the heavy hitters. Somewhere on the way to getting the evening organized, I raised an important element that was missing in the plans—libation.
Between the shopping stops and missed phone calls from Bagya who was texting us with numbers of people who had to be accessed for some pickup or other, we landed at a spiritual place.
Ramanan magnanimously announced that whatever we got was his treat. Guys got excited and pondered over two 18-year old single malts that were ridiculously priced. Some of us thought of going Dutch but Ramanan wasn't having any of it. I wanted to ascertain that the objective was universal. Did we all want the best tasting Scotch that could be savored and worshipped or did we want something that went the distance without losing its essence from ice cubes and club soda? Srinath came out with the timeless nugget: quantity beats quality. I did a quick survey and determined for everybody that if the Scotch was to see cubes or soda, then an 18-year old was indistinguishable from a 12-year old. So we settled on a small barrel of 12-year old Glenfiddich and saved Ramanan's 401K money.
We ended up having to stop at Srinath's on the way to pick up his keyboard and the invitation to go in was revived again. Myself and a couple of others stayed in the vehicle to prevent any further delays. We were under the gun for the 6 pm reception and Srinath, who chaperoned us, had this sense of urgency about him that I last observed in an INS service clerk. He moved at a pace that suggested that the rest of us were either restless or in the wrong speed altogether. Srinath bitched and moaned about having to dress up for the occasion, he mentioned sheer discomfort at what Bagya had proposed for him to wear. I envisioned a 3-piece suit or a tuxedo with cumberbun and bow tie in the least. Upon seeing just a pressed pair of pants and a full-sleeve shirt on his hanger, I just had to laugh. I reminded him that his appearance was a reflection of Bagya and not himself, he knowingly relented.
Part 5: Paattu, Baratham, Punidha Neeroattam
At around 6 pm we reached the reception venue and rushed in to make up for lost time. Little did we realize that the terms lost time would gain new meaning that night. We marched in with our wares and an empty hall awaited us. Empty of humans that is, the tables were already set, and the buffet lines were in place. The concierge seemed happy that somebody showed up to honor the reservation. The guys got the equipment s set up in no time and we rocked some more to PK's iPod muscling it out through concert-strength speakers. Srinath's sense of timing had been wise all along as the only clueless punctual guests were an elderly white couple. Thankfully no seating chart was in place, so we picked the table closest to the music and tucked away in a corner at some distance from other tables.
A half hour passed and those of us who brought change of clothes went and got changed. The caterers brought the food and we helped them set up. More time passed and there was still no sign of the wedding party. We congregated at our table and got the event started in some sense with our plastic cup toasts aided by a bucket of ice from the ice machine. Even at 12-years of age, young GlenFiddich showed much of the promise and potential that will be achieved six years later. We enjoyed the Scott's company immensely, watered down as he was. Most of the guests were in by then and there was still no sign of the wedding party. Time was creeping into 7:00pm and slowly at 7:30 pm the kids were showing some signs of chaos. A general concern crept up about the wedding partiesâ€™ whereabouts. Calls were made and positions were ascertained. We discussed having the kids fed early, but the plates and utensils were stuck in the van with the wedding party. Jawahar and Srinath called and GPS-ed MS who shockingly was driving the group to his own reception. I felt very stupid for being oblivious to MSâ€™ side of the evening. One of us should've stayed back or gone back to lead them to the right place. Perhaps we should've done a trial run to ensure everybody knew the way. Many such suggestions came out in hindsight.
Around 8 pm the wedding party finally made it to the reception. MS got out of the driver's seat looking like the visuals of a country-western song where the guy lost his job, girl, and dog on the same day. I gave him a hug and reminded that it was his ascension from solo to duet; it was his night, he had to go out there and own it. I knew he needed to vent, but I was thinking of the plates and silverware that could keep the kids from mutiny. Later on, I was thankful to hear that Bala took MS aside to let him vent. What appeared to be a disaster was easily diffused to a trivial issue. As Raj mentioned before a toast, 'I'm already here and I'm not going anywhere else, what's the fuss?' Libation makes philosophers of us all.
The stars realigned themselves into perfection the moment the wedding party entered the hall. Despite our concern about the pliable carpet not being suitable for a sure-footed dance like baratham, Aparna was bent on doing her routines. The night was too big for her brother, and in her eyes she couldn't be kept from delivering her part that night. Bagya MC-ed and introduced Aparna to the crowd better than James Lipton does on 'Inside the Actors Studio'.
Aparna sprang into her first dance with vigor. Though I knew very little to appreciate the dance technically, I could tell that her moves were fluid and precise, especially when a move ended in a stance her mechanics revealed the extent of her practice and prowess. Her big expressive eyes complimented the dance ably as the crowd lapped it up. I kept turning to watch Lalitha's reaction, as I knew her to be a dancer too. I wanted to see an insider's appreciation of the art form. She looked like she was itching to join in, her face beamed the whole time that Aparna danced. This had me convinced that my uninitiated eyes had picked up on some of the expertise that was wowing everybody. At the end of her first routine, Aparna was almost out of breath; her eyes appeared to give out a little. We were worried and thought that at least she got to finish one routine. Her folks sat her down and rested her.
Ramanan got the mic. next and launched into 'Hey nath' a prayer song by SPB in Ravi Shankarâ€™s composition. MS had earlier requested that Ramanan begin the night with this song. Maybe Ramanan always had that ghazal singer timbre, but I was willing to bet that our Scottish friend lent a bit of Bass to that song. Both the song and singer were top notch. By then Aparna was ready with her second dance and so it went the rest of the night with a singer alternating with each of Aparna's dances. She danced at least four maybe five. Through it all the buffet lines moved from appetizer to main course to dessert, whereas the boys' were at various stages of the liquid diet. I kept filling cups like it was the victor's election headquarters in Tamil Nadu.
The other singers to take the stage were Meera, Swati, Sindhuja, Ramesh, Swarna?, and MS.
Meera sang idhazhil kadhai ezhudhum with MS. MS mixed some self-cooked Bengali into the song and the word Lalitha jumped out in it. A very romantic rendition it was (also with a little Scottish Bass). Special kudos to Meera for holding the mic. in one hand and a tired toddler in the other without missing a beat.
Sindhuja sang MS' own devotional composition, 'karaigindra megam'. Ramanan expressed surprise at hearing that MS also penned the lyrics. I told him that MS can't help but write formal Thamizh lyrics in the lines of Maruthakaasi. Sindhuja, for whom the song was composed by MS, sang it reverently with aplomb.
Ramesh and Swarna? sang 'thoongaatha vizhigal rendu'. The song, never one of my favorites, actually sounded better live with better pronunciation than the original.
Swati sang two songs that were just out of this world. One of them, 'Barse Badaria', an MS composition in Urdu was so good that I wept without realizing it. Srinath pointed it out and asked me if all was well. It is a crime that Swati is not a national figure. If you detect any hyperbole in this statement, just find out for yourself and listen to her singing.
MS took time to serenade Lalitha with several Hindi songs that oozed love. We dimmed the lights and made the two dance, or at least attempt to move in unison, hand-in-hand. It worked. MS threw me a surprise by singing a lullaby I wrote for one of his compositions. His dad pulled up a chair to the front to listen to it. MS paid homage to his dad with the song which after all is about a father showing the way to his son.
MS' dad was glowing with satisfaction. His cup was full. He later joined us at our table and chatted with everyone, remembering their families and other mutual friends. He looked at me and asserted that MS and all his colleagues were a bunch of great kids with stellar character and nary a bad habit. To that statement we all nodded as we shook the ice loose in the cup to have the Scottish kid lose some more color quickly.
As the night drew to an end, people dispersed slowly. MS said Jawahar had booked the honeymoon suite at the same place as his gift, so he only needed to travel 3 floors up. Some women had decorated the place and already placed some kavasams prominently on the bed. I still presented the one Srinath had bought, and said, that it had a decidedly male perspective to it.
The rest of the boys met at PKâ€™s Extended Stay room and partied into the wee hours. Bala who had been running other errands all day (dropping and picking up people) finally joined us to hang out. We finished the Scottish treat and topped off with some Heineken that Aravind brought on the way in. Then we discussed everything under the sunâ€”movies, songs, technology, NRIs, NRI parents, etc. PK looked about to collapse so we dragged his ass out and smoked some cigars. Mainly he and I did while the others stood around shivering or smoking cigarettes. We finally parted ways and hoped to stay in touch through MS' Facebook page or website.
On the way back to our room, Bala and I discussed the need for people, especially men, to upend their station in life, to test their boundaries from time to time. No matter how civilized he gets, man is still a hunter and gatherer, a wild beast on the inside. If that beast doesn't get to come out and butt heads periodically and bang itself on the chest in revelry, there is bound to be a severe price paid on the domestic front.