By Bhairavi Thanki
I went to my first traditional Indian wedding when I was 13. The whole experience was harrowing. It wasn’t the fact that this wedding went on for five days, that there were about 500 people there, or that I had to sleep on the floor of a crowded house filled with relatives I didn’t even know. It was how uncomfortable the bride and groom seemed, sitting by the mandap, looking confused about what exactly was happening. The whole ceremony went on for what seemed like hours with the priest going on and on in Sanskrit about God and union (probably). The only question running through my young teen brain was “why”? The traditions felt hollow to me.
Now I’m 25 and in a relationship that’s cozy and just right. I go to a lot of weddings these days, thanks to the fact that almost everyone I know is getting married. I take my boyfriend along, and he doesn’t hesitate to join in while I check off things that we absolutely should not do at our own wedding. And I finally came to the conclusion that I don’t want any of my own ethnic traditions in my wedding. None whatsoever.
I grew up watching Bollywood movies, playing dress up with my mom’s sarees, learning how to dance like those actresses and dreaming of my own Bollywood romance and what my wedding would be like. Somehow I never pictured myself in a red saree, walking around a fire pit and crying on my dad’s shoulder as I left to go to my in-laws.
Don’t get me wrong, these are traditions that I respect other people for following. When you’re far away from home, those traditions act like a trigger for nostalgic emotion – something that’s such a big part of weddings. But moving to Toronto and being exposed to so many different cultures and ideals has taught me to not hold on to one belief or tradition too strong. It’s also taught me that I can question cultural norms, and that traditions, like rules, are meant to be broken.
Over the last few months, as I have begun to get comfortable with the idea of a wedding, I have questioned what my big day would entail. It’s not the décor, the music or the photography that worries my otherwise easygoing mind, it’s the actual ceremony. Can you have a wedding that has no traditions? Are there people out there who don’t identify with their own cultural wedding customs and refuse to have anything to do with them? Did that go down well with their families? Did their old aunt almost die when they told them they’re getting married at City Hall?
You might say that I can have an Indian ceremony, but cut it short and remove any mention of God from the vows and the scripture. I can eliminate any of the traditions that go against my beliefs, such as “giving away the bride” or “following the groom around the fire.” I can wear whatever I want, and have the whole ceremony in English instead of Sanskrit. But will creating a bastardized version of the traditions that my parents believe in accomplish my own desire to have a perfect wedding void of the things I disagree with? No, and this is where my crushing Indian guilt enters the frame.
If I manipulate Indian wedding customs to suit my own needs, it would be an insult to what my ancestors’ beliefs are based on. Sure, I think that most Indian traditions are based on outdated beliefs, but they are still based on someone’s belief. Something that generations have held onto tightly as a means to secure their own identities. If I changed those traditions, my guilt would take me over and I would drown in it. You may say changing those traditions is a sign of a progressive generation of young Indians. I say, either stick with it or don’t use it at all.
There’s another reason bubbling just underneath the surface of my guilt. I want to be the bride that questions traditions even if it means coming off as selfish. Plus, I don’t want to give the old aunties in my community the satisfaction of seeing me in a red saree, sitting with my eyes down listening to some pandit say things I don’t understand because that’s the way it should be. There’s no “should” in “wedding.”