My Big Fat Non-Traditional Wedding

By Bhairavi Thanki

Screen shot 2013-07-17 at 2.14.17 PMI 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.”

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4 thoughts on “My Big Fat Non-Traditional Wedding

  1. Pingback: The Wedding Issue | The Ethnic Aisle

  2. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with changing traditions. A popular pre-wedding ceremony for Bengalis is the gaye holud, where the bride and groom have tumeric paste (haldi/holud) smeared on their faces. The ritual itself is based on the marriage rituals of Shiva and Sati. Yet despite the Hindu origins, the gaye holud is practiced by Muslim and Christian Bengalis as well in both West Bengal and Bangladesh. I guess everyone realized that the holud is usually more fun than the actual wedding and why not another excuse to get dressed up really fancy, eat a lot of food, and if you’re so inclined, get hammered. My very conservative Catholic grandfather actually forbade the ritual in the weddings of his children due to its Hindu origins only to change his mind when my father got married. I’m not sure why he did and neither does my father, but perhaps my grandfather realized that weddings, while auspicious and sacred, are also a joyous occasion. There’s nothing wrong with fun and there’s nothing wrong with a little compromise.

  3. I’m in the opposite boat. I grew up in a very WASP environment and dreamed of the poofy white dress, fancy bouquet, large wedding party, grand church wedding while growing up.
    Then I became an adult and realized I no longer identified as Christian.
    Through my (now) fiancee, I was introduced to an Ashram in upstate NY – that his father helped found – and (slowly) fell in love with Hindu culture. Though not Hindu ourselves, now that we’re getting married we both want a Hindu-style ceremony at the Ashram.
    I want the fancy red sari, the canopy, the garlands, the walking around the fire.
    Trying to explain this to my older (still very Christian) relatives is going to be tricky but I plan on getting married only once, and so I want it to be something meaningful and memorable.
    Because it’s not a part of our culture, we feel fine picking and choosing what elements to use and what to let slip by (yes on the mehndi party, no on the groom riding in on a white horse, etc.) Happily hardly anyone else attending will know the difference 😉

  4. I guess when you modify wedding traditions too much, you run the risk of not just bastardizing it, but making the whole wedding look a farce.

    I went to this one Indian wedding as a kid long long time ago. The couple was Indian and grew up in America. They didn’t want to do the whole ceremony gig, so they shortened it to less than an hour, the bride wore a white wedding gown, and they served alcohol at the reception. Ohh, and they did a first dance.

    Maaannnnn, people were talking…it was “blasphemy” and disrespectful of Indian traditions. Blah blah blah…lots of gossiping by guests after. As it turns out, the poor couple was ahead by 20 years on what’s acceptable today (who doesn’t have a first dance now?!).

    Point is, think of what you can do today that would be “you” but not so forward thinking that it makes everyone angry (unless you don’t care what others think, then kudos to you!).

    Like the saying goes, weddings aren’t for the bride and groom, they’re for the family.

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