In December 2005, I got married to diotina (referred to
as P here) in Kolkata (Calcutta), in West Bengal, India. I
recorded my impressions as I went, in writing and in photographs; the
latter are at http://oolong.co.uk/indiapics.htm - this writeup
appears with some photographs integrated into it at
http://oolong.co.uk/India.htm . A jamai is literally a son-in-law; tellingly, I think, everyone refers to me as the jamai, not the bor (husband).
Kolkata: First Impressions
I left the airport and stepped out into the midnight Kolkata mist, the
air caught in my throat like dry ice. Whether from the shock of the
Indian air, humid and heavy with dust and fumes, or from some noxious
airport air-freshener, I soon got my breath back and started to get my
The December night was London-summer warm, the
streets wreathed in a thicker smog than Britain has seen in my
lifetime, beautiful halos around the streetlights and roads
disappearing into haze. We ignored the perennial throng of coolies and tiny, insistent beggar-kids, loaded up the two waiting cars and set off into town.
things struck me at once during that first journey. For one, the
buildings are unlike anything I have seen in Europe or Canada (the
only places I have travelled, to date); more ornate than most, and
strikingly less flat - most have balconies; even those without seldom
have flat facades, and right angles are not taken for granted the way
they are in Europe. Scaffolding is made of stung-together bamboo which
envelopes houses in crazy, curving grids. The buildings are also at
bizarre angles to the airport road, which was built later and cut a
swathe through many of the existing developments.
which is quite alien to a British visitor is the
style of driving. Cars are forever honking, whenever they approach
other vehicles and often when they approach corners. At first I took to
be a symptom of aggression, but that’s not it at all. More than the
standard British usage of ‘Get the hell out of my way!’ a Kolkata horn
usually just says ‘Here I am!’ - largely, I suspect, to make up for
the lack of wing mirrors on the cars, kept folded away or removed
altogether to save them getting pulled off in the narrow, too-crowded
streets. Most of the large vehicles are painted in bright colours,
often with slogans like ‘My India is great!’ and the prominent,
curiously redundant request for the driver behind to ‘blow horn’.
few other things jumped out - quite literally in the case of several
stray dogs. We slowed down only slightly for a lazy road-block,
manned by police who sat warming themselves round a fire in an old
oil-barrel. The cars of the city are largely unfamiliar, often because
they are of makes discontinued in the West decades ago; most notably,
the city’s cabs are a fleet of old yellow Ambassadors, splendidly
grand cars with no suspension to speak of and ricketty windows. Many,
many walls are daubed with writing - almost all in Bengali, largely
political slogans, often accompanied by a hammer and sickle; West
Bengal has been officially communist for around two decades, although
capitalism has crept in in a big way these last few years.
arriving at the in-laws’ house, we were greeted by the closest thing
the family has to a matriarch giving three tremendous, resounding HWAAAWHs on a conch shell. This is a traditional way to begin a ceremony - in this case, boron-kora
- but probably not usually at two in the morning; we worried a little
about the neighbours. She continued by chanting, anointing my forehead
with sandalwood and daubing P’s red with sindoor, and waving a prodeep beneath each of our faces.
I felt very welcomed.
We then removed our shoes to be led into the main bedroom, where our mini-puja
continued at her father’s mini-shrine, with photographs and icons of
some religious significance, with matriarch-auntie reciting lines of
rapid Sanskrit as we stood with our palms pressed before us.
This was followed by a midnight feast - rice and dal and rotis and torkari:
a Bengali banquet to fill the hole left by British Airways’ failure
to provide the vegan food I had carefully chosen from their
impressively (but, it seems, misleadingly) extensive drop-down menus.
At home I’m a vegan, but most of the things that bother me about
Britain’s heavily-industrialised dairy industry don’t apply here; I
would also prefer not to turn down as much good food as I would need to
to stay vegan here, and I know my stomach can take it. I wouldn’t eat
eggs, but then Indian vegetarians generally don’t, so that’s not a
First Day; Wedding Shopping
In the morning
we awoke more than once to the caws of Kolkata’s ubiquitous crows, to wailing in the streets (distressed? religious?
marketing?), perhaps to the sound of a neighbour’s conch. When we
finally got out of bed, we had a little while to eat breakfast and take
in our surroundings now that the sun was blazing down on them - a
beautiful second-floor flat, her parents’ abode, adorned with many
lovely ornaments fom around the world, and with a pretty large,
plant-filled balcony looking out onto the street; a building opposite
our bedroom window with a tree growing around its drainpipe; those
unfamiliar grey-necked crows hopping everywhere.
Once we’d got
our bearings we set out to shop for our wedding outfits. This is a
relatively small Indian wedding, and there are only really three days
of official celebrations: The first day, with mehendi and a sangeet,
dancing girls, drinks and only around a hundred and twenty guests; the
second day, with the ceremony itself, more singing and dancing,
feasting and maybe three hundred people; and then the reception, the really
big event, with about eight hundred to a thousand people turning up. On
either side of this, there are parties of various sizes with friends
and relatives and amazing Bengali food. The day after the reception
there is a big, sort of semi-official wind-down party, before we escape
for a three-day honeymoon in Darjeeling.
So what this means
for shopping is that each of us needs three properly smart outfits,
with varying degrees of grandness. P and I are wearing Indian dress
throughout - three different saris for her, two kurtas and a sherwani for me, with a dhoti for the ceremony. My brother is opting for two kurtas
and a tailored suit, much cheaper to get made here rather than in
Britain. We pick these out surprisingly quickly, all finding gorgeous
things to wear, and even P’s are all chosen by the next day.
P has been teasing me for weeks about the dhoti
- sort of a giant nappy for men, as she puts it - but it’s not nearly
as bad as I feared, and everyone agrees that the remarkably
silly-looking hat I was warned of is not really necessary.
The Partying Begins
first party in our honour is a barbecue in a roof garden with beautiful
views out over the city fog, where we meet many charming Bengalis, a
close-knit group of friends of P’s parents, and eat rather too much
delicious food. Barbecued paneer turns out to be so tasty that I will try the same with tofu next time I get the chance.
night’s party is thrown by the parents of a guest from the night
before, a delightful and shockingly spry couple in their seventies or
older, who I know only as auntie and uncle. She was a famous beauty
in her day; a hit pop song was written for her a few decades back, but
nobody was serenading her on the night. She cooks amazing food and
performs another little welcome ceremony, largely consisting of me
eating rice with uche and sag. He tells
me about his adventures, visiting Antarctica last year, Africa. His
face is lined with eight decades of laughter and storytelling. Eats a
different breakfast every day, on principle.
The next night is relatively party-free, which is rather a relief.
Going to The Zoo
afternoon I head with my brother to the zoo, perhaps the only time
we’re going to see elephants while we’re here. A man manages to sell us
chickpeas at the gate - ‘for the monkeys!’ - but of course, all the
animals have signs saying ‘please do not tease or feed wild animals’,
and the monkeys are enclosed by three layers of cage, probably for our
Some of the cages are empty and have big holes in
- it looks like a few of the inmates have escaped. Others include
incongruous cats, like the one in the emu’s enclosure, clearly
stalking it, waiting for its chance to bring down a bird ten times its
Overall though, the zoo is not too badly maintained, and
apart from the skinniest bunch of bunnies I’ve ever seen, the animals
don’t seem especially unhappy.
Soon after we come in, I’m
stopped by a woman holding the hand of a small girl with a big grin and
a look of wonder on her face, who asks me about my hair, strictly on
behalf of the little girl, she says. How long did it take to grow? Four
years? Five? Longer, I say. A bit later we are chased by a young kid
with a camera shouting ‘Uncle! Hey, uncle! One
picture!’ so we stop for him and he takes a photograph delightedly,
something to show his friends.
‘We were the best exhibits there’, my brother says later.
day, we head out for the Royal Botanical Gardens, thinking this will be
a good chance to get away from people for a while. It is; the gardens
are wonderful, lush and peaceful.
The trouble is that we end up
taking a yellow cab there, and although we satisfy ourselves at the
outset that he knows where he’s going, it becomes clear when he drives
under, rather than over Howrah bridge, that this is a mistake. We
stop and ask for directions; the driver says ‘ahhh, BOTaNIC-al
Garden!’, performs a swift u-turn, and spends forty-five minutes in
dusty, near-static, ever-honking traffic, taking us back onto the right
We had already been quite stressed when we left, and when
we step into the green silence of the Gardens it feels like a rattling
fug has been lifted from us. We saunter past the lotus pond, gaze
at the shafts of sunlight beaming through trees to illuminate the
Kolkata dust-fog, make our way to the Great Banyan Tree.
banyan is without a doubt truly great, although there may be some
question as to whether it should really be considered ‘a tree’. Banyans
send down aerial roots – proproots - which given time and food become
tree-trunks themselves, send down their own proproots. This one ‘tree’
is more than two and a half centuries old and has 2,800 or more
proproots, enclosed in a perimeter almost half a kilometre around. The
original main trunk was destroyed a century ago by storms and fungus,
but the forest of offshoots is as healthy as ever. It looks like some
kind of elven paradise.
We only spend about an hour there, and
Leo has no time to draw, because we figure we’d better allow almost as
much time for getting back as we did for getting there. The taxi back
to the flat only takes half an hour though, and hardly gets lost at
all. It still costs more than the other cab, somehow, and the driver
short-changes me by a hundred rupees until I challenge him; all the
same, it’s such a relief to be back so quickly that I can’t be bothered
After one night’s respite, we
get back to partying, with a dozen or so guests - family, friends,
family friends - coming to the parents’ flat for a sort of
The next night’s party is where it
really kicks off, though. Spectacularly posh, it is held at a mansion
with a goldfish pond under the stairs, an ornamental waterfall in the
garden, and semi-live music played throughout the night in the
cavernous front room. The house is owned by one of the directors of the
company in charge of Kolkata’s electricity supply, the father of one of
P’s oldest friends, and I am relieved when he announces that our
wedding is only one of four events being celebrated that night. One of
his daughters has a newish baby son, his other (our friend) is in India
for a rare visit, and his niece - almost as close as a daughter - is
getting married next month. This takes the pressure off us somewhat, I
I am introduced to what seems like a dozen or so
middle-aged Indian couples in quick succession, while most of the white
folk we brought with us huddle in a corner and make tentative steps
Servants efficiently distribute alcoholic
drinks and tasty little spiced babycorncobs, chicken bits and fish on
sticks. Soon everyone is loosening up, less in awe of their
surroundings; my brother strikes up an enthusiastic conversation with a
fellow animator, a white-haired Indian living in Amsterdam, while I
debate astromony with Janet, Rebecca and an Indian whose name I
didn’t catch. Orion’s sword, he says, points south, but nobody is
quite sure whether he means the thing we thought was a bow, or the
little dagger-type thing hanging from his belt. We collectively puzzle
over whether it’s really possible for part of a constellation to always
point in the same direction, compass-wise, and what effect geographical
location has on the orientation of things in the sky. To a European,
the moon looks sideways here.
Later we settle down to a
delicious meal in the fairy-light-strewn garden, next to Ganesh, who
sits in the waterfall. Everyone seems to have a good time, and we are
sorry to have to leave early to get some sleep in before tomorrow’s
After a too-short night
we spend some time getting spruced up before setting off at around ten
thirty. The day’s events are taking place at the in-laws’ spare flat,
used at weekends and for parties, which has a roof terrace and an
amazing view over a well-sculpted golf course. My brother and our
friends are staying here on this visit, and are a little dismayed to be
woken even earlier than us at the other flat.
All the girls get
mehendi done apart from our actress friend, who’s spent too much time
getting married in two recent films to fancy going through it again.
Intricate patterns are picked out in chocolatey henna, P’s covering
her whole hands and staying on for longer than most. Hers conceals my
name transliterated about as closely as possible into Bengali, which
makes it something like ‘P’hargaash’; I am tasked with picking it out
among the flowers and curlicues. The henna stays on for a couple of
hours, periodically refreshed with sugary lemon juice, after which it
flakes off to leave the skin dyed a reddish-orange colour. The depth of
colour in the bride’s mehendi reflects the depth of her husband’s love,
apparently. It looks suitably deep and rich to me.
I eventually cave in and get a little mehendi myself - a small om on the palm of my hand.
Around this time my parents arrive at last, straight off the plane from Delhi, looking slightly dazed but happy.
the mehendi is the dancing; a troupe of young women and men perform for
us, with a star turn from a highly talented nine-year old who really
gives it his all, with an intensity of expression in his face and his
movements which is a joy to behold. The rest of the dancers are great
too. My brother joins in with the last dance; P says she can see a
great future for him in Hindi films.
The Wedding Day
I try to find out more about the ceremony in advance, but nobody handy knows very much about it; we are having a Vedic wedding, said to be less patriarchal and less over-the-top than the more usual brahmin-influenced ceremony. P’s oldest jethima
gives us a wedding script book from a previous ceremony, but we’re not
sure how much it has in common with ours. Almost all possible
preparations in place at last, I get to spend most of the day relaxing,
writing up my experiences and sorting through photos.
P, on the other hand, has to spend much of the afternoon getting made up and bejewelled by a beautician.
rest of us eventually set out, dispersed between several cars which
take close to an hour to crawl through the jam-packed traffic to the
club. I only manage to greet a few people on my way to the front row,
where I settle down with my parents to wait for the bride to arrive.
She seems to have had much worse luck than the rest of us with the
terrible traffic, and we start to get a little anxious sitting there
with no news.
When she finally emerges, as expected, she looks absolutely stunning.
ceremony begins on a round podium criss-crossed with marigolds. I
mount from one side, where I am joined by the mother of the bride
bearing the same ceremonial tray as we met on the first day; she waves
the prodeep in a motion of blessing, and daubs my forehead with sindoor.
I am then joined by my bride, and we both solemnly promise to adore
each other. At this point, the script book includes this glorious
(The bride and bridegroom adore each other.)
To my mind, this beats even the immortal
(Exit, pursued by a bear.)
We then exchange garlands, repeatedly - I place mine over her, she places
hers over me, then we each take them off and put them on the other,
then we do the same thing again two more times. At the end of this I
have no idea which of the matching garlands I have ended up with. I
figure that this is symbolic of the give-and-take of marriage, and
the difficulty of separating what was once whose in a
long-term relationship. Something like that.
After this we move
to the dais, where we are joined by both sets of parents. Hers give her
to me, and in turn mine give me to her, by placing our hands into each
The purohit sings a mantra,
accompanied by a three-piece band next to the dais - tabla, sitar
and flute; the entire ceremony has a beat to it, and an easy,
meditative musicality. We then place our hands together and repeat
another mantra after him; I realise only now that I should have been
spending some time brushing up on my Sanskrit pronunciation. Thankfully I’m not miked up though, and everything is explained in English.
The next part involves ‘drinking’ holy - but dangerously contaminated - water from the Ganges; I am vehemently warned not actually
drink it, and my mother-in-law gets nervous when I pretend too
convincingly. Then comes the first conspicuously vegan-unfriendly part
- really strict vegans just shouldn’t have Hindu weddings, I figure -
where I receive three trays, containing curds (for mildness), honey
(for sweetness) and ghee (for prosperity) . I first taste each
individually (‘delicious!’) then carefully mix them together, offer
some to the rest of the world at large (flicking it messily in each of
the four directions, and then thrice straight up in the air) and eat
some of the concoction appreciatively.
We start a fire by placing sticks of sandalwood into a brazier at centre-stage, and punctuate the purohit‘s mantra
by adding more to build it up. The fire - ‘voice of all the gods’ -
is witness to the ceremony, along with the assembled hundreds; that
makes a lot of sense to me. Next we bring the fire to a blaze by using
special long-handled spoons to drip a bowlful of ghee into the fire each time the purohit sings Swaha, chanting that one word of the mantra with him.
parents join us for some of this part, throwing handfuls of dried
flowers. Then P’s ‘brother’ (in an Indian sense) joins us with a plate
of tasty-looking puffed rice - for prosperity - which disappointingly
goes in the fire as well.
Next is the Tying of the Sacred Knot; I am not wearing a scarf, so our oldest jethima
takes my brother’s, drapes it around me and ties it to P’s sari. We
remain physically attached for several hours, and symbolically attached
for life. My brother isn’t getting that scarf back.
We are really officially married now. To mark the fact, the priest cuts a line of sindoor
for me on a specially-prepared mirror, and I pour it along the parting
in P’s hair. Later we hear a range of stories about the unsavoury
origins of this marking: When a tribe was defeated in battle, the
conquerors would mark their chosen women with blood to say ‘this one’s
mine’; or maybe it was just the blood of a groom or a sacrificial
animal marking the occasion of a wedding.
All that remains is the Seven Steps - seven lessons given by the groom to the bride, as instructed by the purohit:
For nourishment, for success, for loyalty, for ‘the source of Bliss’,
for the good of all creatures, for prosperity, and finally for her to
be my guide on the path of illumination.
Ceremony over, we get
off-stage at last for hugging, greeting, congratulations and blessings
from each of the three-hundred-odd guests. By the time we get inside
and sit down I am already feeling a little dazed, but we both manage to
keep smiling as we shake hands with and/or say nomoshkar to a stream of friends and relatives bearing presents. This is like a rehearsal for the meet-and-greet marathon that is...
the day of The Reception I wake up feeling rotten: My stomach is
churning, my insides are looking for a way out. My first thought is
that it must be the creamy food from after the wedding - after some
loose movements a few days before, I’d figured my stomach was having
trouble digesting the dairy, and cut it out; I had just about returned
to normal by now, but there was no avoiding the milk at the club. It
soon becomes clear that it isn’t just me, though - my brother and
father-in-law are both struck down by the same debilitating ejections
from both ends of their digestive tracts, and for a while a question
mark hangs over the whole event. Will almost a thousand guests be
greeted only by apologetic womenfolk?
Dosed with electrolytes, anti-diarrhoea meds and antibiotics, at last I set off shakily with P, leaving the baba-in-law - even sicker than me - to rest at home.
arrive in the enormous Tea Garden (or possibly the Tee Garden - this
is a golf club after all, and I don’t see any tea) where we are led
through the packed crowd to a brightly-lit stage crowned by two
outsized thrones with sofas on either side, like some kind of regal
chat show set.
The Reception soon begins, crowds trooping on
the stage in an orderly queue as we receive a dizzying quantity of
blessings and presents in an impressively efficient fashion, with the
help of two servants and a cousin. Everyone knows that I’m sick, so I
am spared standing up for every party of people. Instead I explain to a
hundred people - dozens of them doctors - that I’m feeling much better
than I was, thank you, but that’s not saying very much. To my surprise
I once again manage to smile politely at almost everyone. My
electrolyte-laden drink and periodic visits from bouncy friends keep me
from passing out or going insane.
Baba turns up after a
couple of hours, beaming convincingly at all and sundry, introducing me
with enthusiasm to workmates and old friends, shaking hands vigourously
and generally looking much further from death’s door than anyone
expected. It’s really a very impressive performance.
At the end
of the evening we manage to sit and chat with friends for a little
while, at least. Everyone tells me the food is excellent, but I am
prescribed a diet of rice and potatoes with lime, waiting for me at
home. Waiters constantly make the rounds with mugs of hot coffee on
little trays, but alcohol is only available at a bar hidden inside the
club. This is a source of some confusion for the guests, and
consternation when they are thrown out for violations of the
surprisingly strict dress code. For decades, like many of Kolkata’s
clubs, the RCGC simply wouldn’t allow in anyone wearing Indian
traditional dress; this post-imperial hangup has now been legislated
away, but evidently they still have some latitude in which traditional dress they allow in - my father, looking very dapper in a new blue kurta and churidar bought specially for the occasion, is ejected on the grounds that he is not wearing a dhoti.
spend much of the next day working through the enormous metal trunk
stuffed with wedding presents. It quickly becomes clear that we are
going to have most of the stuff behind, at least for now, however
In the evening we attend a small party spread over
two large roof terraces, one of which is carpeted with grass, the other
of which features not one but two waterfalls, each around thirty feet
high by forty feet long. Our hosts collect art, and it seems wrong to
visit their flat - more gallery than living space - only to use the
We are served tasty snacks throughout the evening, but
save some space for yet another delicious feast, this time of mostly
South Indian food; thankfully I have recovered enough to eat my heart
The end of the evening arrives shockingly soon, and
goodbyes are said with reluctance and great affection; tomorrow we will
be off to Darjeeling alone, and our guests will start scattering to the
rest of the globe.
We fly out at around
mid-day. It’s always interesting to see a city and its surroundings
from above; I’m a little surprised by all the lakes, woods and green
fields around the outside of Kolkata. The city itself is fairly green,
but extremely dusty, so I expected more dusty plains and less plant
life in its surrounds.
The flight holds other lessons in the
physical geography of the region; we have wonderfully clear views of
the meandering history of rivers below, attested by the shape and
vegetation of the landscape. Finally the Himalayas hove into view,
announced in English by a member of the cabin crew. Shortly afterwards
we begin our descent towards Bagdogra, the closest airport to
Darjeeling - which is not saying much.
We had wanted to take
the Toy Train all the way up to Darjeeling, but it takes a good eight
hours at the best of times, runs very infrequently, and tends to get
delayed somewhere along the line, so my father-in-law insisted we get
driven. To this end we are picked up at the airport by a
Nepali-looking guy with no English to speak of and not much Bengali,
so P talks to him in broken Hindi. This is a pattern repeated
throughout our time in Darjeeling; although it’s still technically in
West Bengal, Bengali is not a dominant language up here, and most of
the Bengalis we see are tourists. The English brought large numbers of
Nepalis in to work in the tea gardens, and several generations down
the line many still prefer to speak their own language, or else they
resort to Hindi as a lingua franca.
The drive there
is much more pleasant than we had imagined. Even on the main road the
air is breathable, a tremendous relief after the stuffy fumes of
Kolkata. The driving is more relaxed, the air less oppressively hot. We
pass colourful temples and villages making their way towards being
towns, as the distant mountains loom slowly larger. An hour or so into
the drive, we pass into woodlands and I see my first wild
monkeys, hanging around at the side of the road and trying to
look nonchalant. Eventually the road starts to slope upwards, and we
wend our way around a river and up into the foothills. All the way up
the hill roads, helpful signs have been provided featuring snappy
slogans to encourage people to slow down, honk their horn at every
turn, and generally be nice responsible drivers. These are mostly in
English, although sometimes with good grammar sacrificed for added
Although we come in via the town of Darjeeling,
passing the Toy Train on the way, we are actually staying in the
Barnesbeg tea garden, halfway down the mountain on the other side -
another reason why it made sense to get a jeep from the airport. So
having climbed slowly all the way up to around 2,000 metres above sea
level, we start descending rapidly down winding, ever-more-potholed
roads as the sun sets, the Kangchenjunga massif ahead of us catching
its last pink rays just before we arrive.
bungalow where we are staying is exactly like a fine old English
country house, apart from all the pictures of Krishna, a couple of
Ganesh sculptures, and the mountain range in the background. I love it.
are welcomed in with a wood fire in the hearth, delicious tea from the
plantation, alcoholic drinks and soon a very fine South Indian meal;
our hosts are originally from Coorg, so I get to try out a wide range
of very tasty food which I wouldn’t have had in Kolkata, as well as
South Indian coffee (powerful and aromatic, mixed with a little
chicory and brewed in a distinctive style using special equipment).
night we go outside for some fresh air, and see the clearest night
skies I have ever seen in my life. You just don’t see that many stars
in Britain; I’ve spent a lot of time in the British countryside, about
as far away from light pollution and city fumes as you can get there,
but that just isn’t very far. I come to a new appreciation of why the
ancients named so many constellations; the starscape is vivid and
Return to Kolkata, 2007→