A Short Story
By Zahirra Dayal
Growing up, most of the films I watched ended in a lavish family wedding. It created an expectation within me that a story couldn’t end without a wedding. I remember watching 3 hour long Bollywood films with my grandmother, our mouths filled with roasted monkey nuts or corn. I never understood a word of those films but marvelled at the bold colours of the outfits that constantly changed, the dancing around trees and elaborate wedding ceremonies. Weddings in my father’s family were similarly huge affairs, an almost exclusive preserve of the women of the family. Excitement coloured our days in the weeks before. The visits to the material shops. The fittings at the tailors. Three new outfits each; for the mehndi night, the wedding night, and the day after. The more gold and sequins the outfit had, the wider the smile of the wearer. The women would come together to disjoint the baby chickens and dice mountains of onions that made their eyes burn and tear for the wedding meal. On the mehndi night, my aunts mixed the brown henna paste with tea and lemon juice to enhance the colour and rubbed it on our palms and nails. We weren’t allowed to dance until the henna had dried, so we waited impatiently for the edges to crumble and peel off. Then we danced in a circle around a tent in the backyard with a small stick in each hand. The men weren’t allowed anywhere near the vicinity of the dancing women and girls.
On the day of the wedding, we woke up early to decorate the hall and arrange the circular tables scattered with glitter and a little gift of pink and white almonds wrapped in a net for each guest as a keepsake. The tables surrounded the central stage where the bride and groom would sit in full view of everyone on gilded armchairs like imposing thrones. The groom’s family were meant to arrive earlier so the bride could make a grand entrance and walk slowly down the aisle on a red carpet strewn with confetti. The bride would come in with her face covered in a red veil with an intricate brocade flanked by bridesmaids and trailed by a row of flower girls with matching frilly dresses. After the guests were satiated with the wedding meal of sweet yellow rice, biryani and carrot chutney, my cousins and I balanced silver trays filled with sweets in shiny wrappers to serve the guests. Pairs of eyes pierced my skin, and aesthetic comparisons were made as we were instructed to twirl around to show off our outfits. My cousins’ cheeks reddened with affectionate pinches, and they were lavished with praise of their fair skin. When it was my turn, they didn’t address me directly but talked about me in the third person.
‘She looks just like the mother, very dark. Won’t be easy to find her a good match when she’s ready.’
‘Her skin might get lighter as she gets bigger.’
‘Yes, let’s hope so.’
I shifted from one foot to the other and waited to be released from the stares before running off with my cousins to the next table. The words still burning my ears.
The clusters of people at each table went around and mingled with each other before the final part of the ritual when guests went up onto the stage to congratulate the bride and groom and their close family. The female guests would kiss the bride on both cheeks. To console the bride’s mother, who was losing her daughter to the groom’s family, her hand was also usually kissed.
At Aunty Salma’s wedding, my mother climbed up the red-carpeted stairs to the stage and waited behind the long line of guests bubbling with excitement. When it was her turn, the bride’s mother turned her back and pulled away from the hand that my mother leaned down to kiss. The bride and everyone else on the stage pretended not to see. My mother climbed down and pulled the shawl around her shoulders closer to her body as tears slipped down her face.
The day after the wedding, it was the groom’s turn to entertain a smaller group of close family and friends. There was another lunch in a tent, and the women who had helped at the wedding could rest and be served this time. They also received gifts from the groom’s family. Usually, it was perfume, jewellery, chiffon scarves or material with shiny sequins to make more wedding outfits. For my mother, who had burns on her arm from frying the day before and scratches on her wrist from all the flower arrangements she did, it was a plastic bag bulging with second-hand clothes stained yellow with sweat marks under the armpits and turmeric stains on the sleeves. In my family, the ritual of collective silence shrouded all the words and feelings that went unspoken. They were buried deep and only showed themselves in flashes of anger, clenched fists or jaws, and teeth weakened by nighttime grinding.