My first Nepali wedding was unforgettable. I spent all day first at the bride’s house, and obediently showed up early. I had absolutely nothing to do but be a token of adoration as “the American Doctor” and was carefully introduced to all the relatives on her side of the family and then and more importantly meeting all the relatives on his side (See whom we know!). When at last it was time to go to the wedding site (an open field with tents erected and a cloth barrier encircling half a football field), I was thoroughly bewildered, worn out, hot and hungry. There, the wedding ceremony droned on and on and I was too tired to stand in line to receive the feast, so I waited another hour for the line to work itself down. At last, I got some left-over chicken and rice. On the way home, I began feeling ill and chocked it up to the taxi ride, but as soon as I reached home, I was throwing up and expelling the tainted food that had been incubating organisms all day long. Years later I have yet to overcome my aversion to Nepali weddings, and so I always try to arrive late and leave early.
A couple of months ago, some of us on our Board started to get emails from our Country Director Som Raj (or Som) hinting that the time was now ripe for him to remarry. His first marriage was an inter-caste “love-marriage”: he of the Brahmin caste and his then beloved of the Chetri (Kșatriya) or warrior caste, just one step down the caste ladder from Brahmin. In some villages, such an affront to tradition would mean stoning if caught, even today, so such as association would require the couple to elope and live in the city, forever castaways. Som and his bride had relatively understanding parents and allowed it, but the marriage was wrought with problems from the start, exacerbated by in-laws and disappointed expectations. That was about 5 years ago, and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then, not the least of which Som, now 32 yo, has grown a lot via the school of hard knocks.
However, their divorce has tainted their “marriageability”, and finding a willing and understanding partner and family is not as easy as it would otherwise be. Since his “love marriage” failed, Som felt that he should respect his parent’s advice this time and opted for an “arranged marriage.” Som holds a number of impressive credentials. He is the director of an American organization, has traveled abroad with visits to the US and UK, holds a 5 year multiple entry US visa, and is now a householder. Still, he and his relatives were having a heck of a time finding a willing and “suitable” prospect.
When I arrived on the 11th of April, there was the possible prospect he was to meet, but by the 12th there was another submission, and on the morning of the 13th I was invited to meet that candidate Nisha and her uncle. This was their first and only meeting, and lasted about 90 minutes and all that remained was to set the date. That afternoon we picked up our 3 sponsors and a volunteer at the airport and explained to them that there was a slight change in our schedule as they were invited to Som’s wedding on the 15th, the earliest date that was in sync with the stars (there are astrologers that must be consulted for the most auspicious date). It was certainly understandable that Som couldn’t be at the airport to greet our incoming sponsors on the 13th as he had only 36 hrs to complete the wedding arrangements.
On the afternoon of the 14th Som combined trips to get a fresh haircut and to stop by the guesthouse to meet and make travel arrangements with all of us. He had dark circles under his eyes, his “Katmandu Koff” which had been resolving but was still holding, and it was clear that Som’s sense of mission had displaced his better judgment. Why Nisha assented to a marriage after only just two days is something no Westerner can understand. Why Som assented to a quick marriage is simple: expediency and over-dedication to the job: ANSWER Űberalles.
Nevertheless, the wedding went off as planned. All of us met at Som’s house the next morning and stood around taking photos of the wedding party. All our nursing students were “maids of honor” and, of course, they were “all-electric” to be there. The bride looked simply stunning in red veils, demurring her way through two hours of ritual and ceremony, kneeling, standing, circling, and kneeling again. Som looked dashing, proud and regal; and our staff who always wear t-shirts were transformed into Beau Brummels in their matching formal suits. Everyone, including the sponsors and I were all tika’d, blessed with a dab of red coloring of yoghurt and rice placed on our foreheads, and then we were all promenaded to the bus to go to the wedding palace. This was a last minute arrangement, so Som was lucky to find a place as this was the wedding season. The 22 members of the wedding party crammed themselves into a minivan like it was a clown car, while others got into their cars or onto the motorcycle to reconvene at the hotel. That left a dozen of us to board a great big tourist bus which was the only obvious miscue: The wedding party should have gotten on our bus to begin with, and we should have been riding in the minivan!
Som’s house is centrally located so it wasn’t but ten minutes until we arrived at the Maharaja Hotel. There was another wedding happening behind the hotel and we were situated on the eastside. Outside, there was a small layout with an altar, offerings, and sacred fire burning. The bride was kneeling there under the blazing sun and after a few photos we deserted her to suffer with the bridesmaids and sought shelter from the heat in the open auditorium just behind her. As luck would have it, the power was out so someone started up the diesel generator which was so loud that it finally drove everyone indoors into the cool auditorium. The rest of the ceremony was performed indoors away from the heat and din.
The critical point of the wedding comes after the exchange of malas (necklaced garlands) and we all rush to the chow line. There were a dozen different offerings of rice, daal curries, nan, fish, chicken, and mutton, a respectable entourage of servings. As sumptuous as this array appeared, it could not compare to the amazing banquet spread of a wedding that Mary Jane and I attended last year of the daughter of a prominent restaurateur family. There must have been 50 chafing dishes of Western, Nepali, Chinese, Indian, Tibetan and even a Mongolian stir-fry. The piece-de-resistance was ice cream sundaes! Considering that Som and Nisha had only a day and a half to throw this together, they did a magnificent job, and we were all stuffed to the gills.
Except for the wedding, we wouldn’t be seeing much of Som until the next week as he would be taking his bride back to his family’s home village to meet his parents. He would fly out to his home village immediately after the ceremony with Nisha and also Uma (one of the nursing students who was ANSWER’s first sponsored child). Uma was to serve as a chaperone and maid of honor to Nisha as is the custom. You can imagine how a new bride taken back to live with the groom’s extended family might have been immediately set upon, put in her place, and exploited from the opening….a chaperone thus would provide some assurance of good treatment. In this case they weren’t retuning to live with Som’s mother and father, but to introduce her to the family. It was a quick overnight and then a long car ride back to Katmandu, so that Som could stop at towns along the way to visit schools! Combining business and pleasure is not just Som’s modus operandi; it is his sine qua non. Of course, he made these arrangements without informing me, and the very thing I had warned him about: putting the job before his new bride was happening all over again. Unless his bride has the strength and flexibility of a Mary Jane, I have real fears that Som thinks “his limits” are still the operative guidelines. Let us hope for the best.