Indian weddings have become a cliché, an occasion to display wealth and money. Where is the joy of the occasion?

Today, February 7, 2010, a young woman I have known since she was nine years old is celebrating her marriage. There will be no lights or bedecked thrones for the bridal couple at this wedding reception. There will be no band playing outside the venue. The young woman and her groom will wear what they feel comfortable in, as will the guests. And there will be good food, good fun and plenty of good will. And best of all at minimal cost.

Why mention costs and weddings in the same breath? Because in India, they are inseparable. Think wedding and think ostentation, heavy expenses, stress and exhaustion. Where is the joy of celebration? Where's the fun? Does having fun necessarily mean a heavy price tag?

Simple and joyous

My young friend and her husband have proved that you can have a joyful occasion without spending too much money. Their wedding, that took place two weeks ago, is one that none of us will forget. The bride came dressed in a nice, bright Kanjeevaram sari. The groom wore a silk kurta. A handful of family and friends turned up wearing an assortment of nice and ordinary clothes. Everyone met in a dark, barely lit corridor of the Old Custom's House in Mumbai leading to the office of the Registrar of Marriages. The dowdy surroundings, the persistent smells from the women's toilet nearby, the sight of a garbage dump in the small courtyard, or the general shabbiness of the environs did nothing to dampen the spirits of the wedding party. Even the dour clerk, whose job it was go get multiple forms filled and signed — each with a photograph stuck on it of the bride, bridegroom and witnesses — did not affect anyone. Mini crises, such as the lack of any glue in the registrar's office to stick the photographs, were deftly overcome, no one quite knows how.

Once the paper work was done, the fee paid, the couple and their hangers on were summoned inside a tiny room that was little more than an enclosed corridor. At one end sat a smiling woman, the Registrar, who had dressed in a nice silk sari for the occasion. At the other end was the dour clerk, him of the multiple forms. And in-between, in the non-existent space were two “thrones” covered in frayed red velvet, under dust-laden plastic flower garlands, awaiting the “just married” couple.

The bride and the groom signed various forms and registers, stood up with small pieces of paper in their hands and declared that they accepted each other as husband and wife. Thanks to friends who had a sense of occasion, they were handed garlands with real flowers that they put around each other's necks. There was much hilarity and noise as all this was happening. The Registrar seemed to enjoy it all. I'm not sure the expression on the face of the dour-faced clerk changed. All that remained then was for the newly married couple to sit on the “thrones”, wait for the sickly yellow light to be turned on, and smile and pose for wedding pictures.

That done, the wedding party of around a dozen trooped to the best known Irani restaurant in Mumbai and devoured vast quantities of its signature dishes. In a couple of hours, the wedding was over, the couple were unstressed and happy, the family and friends were satisfied, and everyone went home knowing that they had just witnessed one of the best weddings ever.

Clichéd

Why go on about this wedding, you might ask? I do so because the Indian wedding has now become such a cliché. There is something almost automatic about the way it is planned and performed. Traditions are all mixed up. North and South have merged in certain customs. And all parts are united in one thing — it is an occasion when vast quantities of money must be spent and put on display. The compatibility or future happiness of the couple involved seems almost incidental.

The wedding I describe above came to mind on reading that the government is trying to tighten the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 by making it mandatory for couples to inform the dowry prohibition officer about all gifts exchanged during the wedding. Such a measure will, some believe, help the woman to reclaim her “dowry” if she leaves or is forced to leave the marital home. But can such a rule ever be implemented in this country? Whether you call it dowry, or something else, the “gifts” exchanged during weddings — most often a one-way traffic from the girl's side to the boy's — are beyond belief. Officially, they are not “dowry”. Yet everyone knows that the girl's welcome in the marital home is closely tied to the quantity of these “gifts”.

And what about the expenses that the girl's family is expected to incur for the wedding? Again, this is not called “dowry”, nor is it a “gift”, yet if money is not spent according to the norms set by the boy's family, it is the girl who will have to pay the price. So parents have no choice, or so they believe. In the end, law or no law, the value of a human being is being quantified in crude commercial terms. What does any of this have to do with “holy matrimony” or women's rights?

The real tragedy of the increasingly consumerist culture in which we live today is that young people, who one would expect are capable of thinking outside the box, who should have the courage to assert what they want, are either going on unquestioningly with wasteful traditions, or are even endorsing them. As a result, any desire to curb expenditure that existed in a generation that came out of the National Movement is now so thoroughly buried that one wonders whether it will ever surface again.

That's why the wedding I write about was such a pleasant change and an example of how young people can think for themselves, can decide to be different, and can still create a joyful and meaningful experience not just for themselves but for others.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com