LATE ONE NIGHT, IN a rare moment when it was just the two of us, Sayma told me her story. I had only heard pieces of it before. She was the most modern in her family: she wore jeans, went out in public with her hair down, and talked on the phone with boys who were her friends. She’d even worked for a year in Delhi at a call center.
At the time, she lived with her brother, who was then stationed in Delhi. When his transfer to Srinagar came in, she was called back home to Mussoorie. She pleaded to stay, but she was told Delhi was no place for a woman, a girl, on her own. Four years later, she still begged her parents to allow her to get another job, any work that would give her something to do, but she was losing hope.
For the last three summers, she arrived in Srinagar to the news that her brother had secured a job for her there. But Sayma was convinced that her family’s agenda was not for her to work again as she so desperately wanted, but to shift her to a city that wouldn’t allow the liberties she had in Mussoorie. They wanted, she said, to tame her. The process of marrying off the siblings one by one in order of age had begun, and there was only one sister left ahead of her now.
She mostly hoped that her future husband would be modern, too, or at the very least, not Kashmiri. She cried while she told me all of this, whispering in the dark on the floor of one of the front rooms. She’d seen a glimpse of another world in Delhi, and now she looked ahead and saw a different life waiting for her, one where she might not even warrant a place on the card that would announce its arrival.
I didn’t want to forget what she had told me, but I didn’t know how to sit with my anger at her plight. I knew I had to keep my judgment at bay, rising furious though it was, if I wanted to make it through the week. I took extra time in the bathroom, savoring the few minutes of being alone. And I turned my gaze with renewed focus onto the activities of the four rooms, trying to drown myself in the curiosities of the days.
Even if Sayma was the intermediary between me and this world, I still wanted to try to absorb it on its own terms. Sayma’s story was real and undeniable. But so was what was going on around me: this community in the midst of a colorful and elaborate celebration. They seemed happy.
Srinagar was quite distinct from everywhere else I’d been in India. Every time we went visiting, the host entered the room with a lacquered box filled with almonds and walnuts still in their shells and toffees and tossed handfuls of them over our heads. Then a woman carried in a round clay pot the size of a soccer ball with a handle on the back, cut diagonally across one side revealing a hollow filled with hot coals. In her other hand would be an embroidered and mirrored pouch holding a spice like brown asafetida. She threw a handful on the coals, filling the room with thick, bitter smoke. Someone coughed; someone reached to open a window. The smoke thinned and finally stopped, and the pot was taken away.
Later, the nuts and toffees (known categorically by the English words ‘dried fruits’) were gathered, bagged and sent home with us. All of this, I was told, was considered auspicious. Even the chai was different. There was the sweet, milky tea I was used to, and a salted version made with thick, dark tea leaves like cinnamon bark in the bottom of our cups. Nani always drank hers from a small bowl. She tore up round croissant-like pastries into pieces and floated them in the top like crackers in soup.
And then there was a wedding, not a singular event but a series of gatherings spread over two days. On the first night, a dozen young women from the groom’s side, myself included, went in a caravan of hired Marutis to the bride’s house. We were served canned peach juice, then birthday cake, and then a main course of piles of meat (paneer for me) with untoasted, unbuttered white bread as a side.
Sayma turned to ask me what she was supposed to do with the bread at the same time I turned to ask her. The bride’s mother and aunt took turns walking around the room three minutes into every course, chastising us one by one to eat more. After the meal, the groom’s oldest sister cut into a second cake, the one we had brought. The oldest sister, Sayma, and Sonia, the middle sister, all took pieces and fed them to the bride and the bride’s sister. Then she took their hands one by one and applied a tiny design of mehndi (henna), welcoming them into their new family.
The bride’s sister was also getting married to a man from a different family, but her visiting party couldn’t come because of the curfew in their neighborhood from the ongoing strife; at the last minute, she was integrated into our ceremony. I asked Sayma if it was a bad omen that she hadn’t been able to have her own mehendiraat. “Nothing like that,” she said. “Strikes are common here. It has nothing to do with the wedding. Everyone knows it’s just politics.”
Back home, we walked around the corner where a large tent had been erected in a neighbor’s yard. Inside, the canvas was an assault of color and design — the roof was covered in orange paisley, and the walls were split into contrasting panels of red, green, and yellow with a border of multi-colored diamonds. Across the ground were spread huge pieces of floral-printed cloth that I recognized from the front rooms of the Mir house.
A band of two singers, a harmonium player, and two drummers began to play. The groom entered and another cake was produced; his sisters, parents, and Nani fed him sticky pieces. After he left, the band members were the only men in the room. They were joined by a dancer, a man dressed in a sparkly pink and blue lehenga chunni, a woman’s dress. He wore kohl around his eyes and bells around his ankles like a bharatanatyam dancer. He started out slow, joining the band to sing a few songs and twirling in a circle around the tent, his skirts billowing out dangerously close to the crowd of women sitting at the edges. They reeled back, curious but shy and giggling in embarrassment.
Soon he picked up a yellow chiffon chunni (scarf), the sartorial marker of a woman’s modesty, and began to throw it around members of the audience, choosing as his victim whoever looked more uncomfortable than the next. He would keep coming back, dancing closer, throwing the chunni every time it was removed by the woman or her friends, who couldn’t decide whether to help or to laugh. He demanded money to leave her alone, but no small change would do. Sayma’s mother was the first to be harassed. He took the 200 rupees she gave him and tore the bills in half. He left her alone after 500 more.
Later, another woman tried to give him the same amount; he wiped the sweat from his forehead with the bills like a handkerchief and threw them in her face. It was all part of the act. I heard later he made 4000 rupees that night. For the first time in days, I wasn’t the only human attraction in the room; I had the company of another strange specimen worth gawking at. It was the most comfortable – the least out of place – I’d felt the whole trip.
We went to bed late. In the morning, I woke to see two girls, maybe ten years old, giggling over me, already dressed in finery. They ran off when they saw that my eyes had opened. The only person who slept later than me was an 8-year old boy, who’d stayed at the performance (which had continued straight through the night till 7 that morning) even later than me.
A few hours later, a lawyer came to the house to take word from the groom that he agreed to the marriage. The groom wore jeans rolled up at the bottom and the same cotton button-down he’d worn the day before. He gave his assent and took a call on his Smartphone as soon as the lawyer stood up. The lawyer went off with a party of the groom’s relatives to the courthouse, where a delegation from the bride’s family would also be waiting to legalize the union. I had yet to see the bride and groom in the same room. They were, in fact, in entirely separate neighborhoods, the wedding carrying on almost without them.
The women were fed in the tent around 5pm, after the men. Before the meal arrived, the groom was ushered in. Everyone fished around in her purse for an envelope containing a gift for the new couple. The groom was covered in garlands made from rupee notes and crepe paper. The women approached him one by one, offering their envelopes and kissing him on the cheek or the forehead to offer their blessings. He handed the envelopes one by one to a man sitting to his right.
A group of women hovered behind the groom‘s friend, looking on as he took careful accounts of what was given and by whom. I’d spent six days amongst the gossip of women and knew what fodder sat in front of them now for the days to come. At least, I thought, they’ll have more than hearsay to go on.
After dark we gathered outside the house carrying plates of rose petals and dried fruits to shower on the groom. The house was covered in strands of blue and red Christmas lights, strung from the roof and flashing frenetically. The baraat, the procession of men to the bride’s house, was underway.
The older women followed the cars for a block or two, arms linked, singing more sad songs. We went back to the house and drank chai. I asked Sayma what everyone was talking about; it had nothing to do with the wedding, which at that very moment was at its climax only a few miles away. Late that night, the bride was delivered back to the Mir house. She’d been officially married since the afternoon.
The next morning, as I was saying my goodbyes, Sayma told me I could go to meet the bride. I’d only seen her from across the room during the mehendiraat two nights before. She was wearing a heavy, sequined sari and putting the backings on her earrings. She invited me to sit and offered me some cashews. On her wrist were two gold bangles, a gift from the Mirs that I’d seen examined and vetted behind closed doors a few days earlier. I offered my congratulations; she smiled without showing any teeth and looked down bashfully.
Nani came in and hit me on the back. I turned around. She frowned. She wasn’t happy I was leaving so soon. Everyone else insisted I stay – I still hadn’t seen Dal Lake! – even as they followed me out the door while I was rushed off to go to the airport early.
As of that morning, the whole city was under curfew. Stores would be closed and roads kept free of vehicles and pedestrians alike. We didn’t know what security or other forces we’d encounter. The driver told me to keep my boarding pass ready in my hand. Sayma, who’d gotten quieter and quieter as the hour of my departure neared, was silent through the uneventful ride. She gave me a hug and left me at the entrance of the airport without looking back.
I wound my way through security slowly. My bag was scanned three times and my body four, but I finally made it into the waiting area. I bought a coffee, sat down, put in my iPod and turned it up as loud as it would go, finally able to tune out the clamor of voices.
I thought about the bride, waking up like I did to a house full of strangers ready to appraise her and welcome her. I thought about Sayma, my translator, my confidante, my go-between, my personal, skeptical Kashmiri cultural ambassador. Almost every time I’d asked her “why” about what I’d seen over the week – the open rooms, the dried fruits, the man dancing in women’s clothing – she gave me the only answer she knew, “That’s just what people do in Kashmir.”
I realized that the wedding, my reason for coming, had become a mere backdrop for a different story. I had been granted a window into Sayma‘s world, and she, too, into a bit of mine. Perhaps we were, in a way, asking the same questions. Before us was a daily life that was not our own, and we wanted to know what forces created it, how it became so that this was the way that people did things here. Sayma’s Kashmir didn’t come with a guidebook either.