Susannah and I were married two months ago! She wrote about it beautifully here. I’ve got my own thoughts about the day, that I’ve tried to figure out how to frame without my story turning into an epic poem. This is one chapter.
My wedding day was unique because I felt like everyone else.
I recognize that this is a strange thing to say, especially coming from the West, where your wedding is “your special day.” Traditionally the couple is worshiped through all parts of the production, beginning with the engagement and continuing to the honeymoon. Every moment and experience is a treasure.
As far as unique weddings go, it looked like ours would be the only one of its kind. Even how we got to the wedding was special: Susannah and I met each other as new teachers in our first international school posting. We became fast friends immediately, bonding through our similar experiences in our personal lives and in work back in the U.S.; eventually, we each realized there was more to the other than just a really great friend. Once we figured out there was something more there, things moved quickly. We started dating in March, got engaged in July, and were married in December. India has indeed been magical for us both.
Our wedding planning enhanced the idea that we were truly unique – I was told by someone who knows a thing or two about weddings in Chennai that there is no proof of another expat couple marrying in a Hindu ceremony in the history of this city. (And given the bureaucracy, no one is likely to follow in our footsteps). So, in other words, there’s never been, nor will there ever be again, a wedding like ours. Major unique points for us.
We got hitched in a Hindu wedding hall, down the street from Vadapalani Murugan Temple, in Chennai. Our date was chosen for us by the marriage hall officials – which was a surprise to us. They consulted the almanac for auspicious times and dates, and our date, a Saturday, was simply unacceptable to them. But look! – the previous Wednesday was a very auspicious day. So Wednesday it was. We even got the best time according to the almanac: 9:00am. I don’t know of anyone who got married on a Wednesday morning, so I thought this was unique, too.
Wednesday morning turned out to be an original thought for a lot of other wedding planners, too. We arrived at the appointed location ahead of time to find waves of happy people flooding down the street, past where the marriage hall was located, towards the big temple at the end of the block. Streets were blocked off, and from every direction small wedding parties slowly made their way to the same destination. I asked what was happening and I was told that the big temple at the end of the street would conduct ceremonies for fifteen hundred couples throughout the day; just in our little wedding hall there were 20 couples signed up to follow us. Everyone on the street, and on the side streets and allies connecting to it, was there for a wedding. All 1500 couples were there for their unique wedding day. Just like us!
1500 couples is a lot of brides and grooms. It’s even more unusual to see so many other married couples if you are one of them. I was struck by how many other grooms there were, and that despite the fact that we were obviously very different, and would never see each other again, we had this moment of being the same together. I made eye contact with dozens of these other men, and as I met each one’s eyes I felt a moment of recognition. They weren’t all in the same emotional space – there were a few guys who looked panicked, and others who were cool as cucumbers – but it was moving to be having an experience so unexpected and unlike anything I’d heard of, and to be sharing that with a lot of other grooms who were going through the same ceremonies as me on this morning. Instinctively, I knew that I was part of something much larger and important than just me, or me and Susannah. We were unique, just like all these other couples.
My special day with Susannah was sanctified by the presence of strangers in multitudes, helping me see that I’m part of a human ritual that’s both unique and quite common. India forces you to surrender to its will, and when you want to have things your way it’s really frustrating. My understanding of the power of God is similar, and my wedding day has helped me see this relationship more clearly. When I’ve asserted my own will, I’ve been alone and frustrated. When I’ve listened and surrendered, I’ve received what I needed in great abundance. Seeing all those grooms reminded me of that, and helped me savor a short ceremony at a crowded temple with the woman with whom I stumbled into when I got here, and with whom I’m thrilled to share so much time and love. I may not be the most unique newlywed in Chennai, but I definitely feel like the luckiest.
I recently sat in a beat-up rowboat on the River Ganges, watching the layers of contrasting and connected lives on the shores of Varanasi, thinking of Achilles’ Shield. (Yes, I use Homeric poetry to process intense experiences in my life). While Varanasi is not engulfed in war, it is as close to a real-life reproduction of the complete human experience that Achilles carries on his arm to meet Hector.
In Book 18 of The Iliad, the god Hephaestus forges Achilles a new shield before his fate-changing return to battle against the Trojans. Hephaestus creates a shield worthy of the epic, as it contains the human world and all the contradictions that come with it. Hephaestus captures human nature within the confines of a circle of bronze and leather. Homer uses 130 lines of poetry and the fortunes and destitution of two contrasted cities to show us the ebbs and flows of humanity.
Varanasi is a small city with an epic history. It was once one of the greatest cities in the ancient world. Visitors had to arrive by boat, and the 9 miles of city walls with nearly two dozen dramatic gates introduced a grandeur that it still emits in special moments. An ancient foreign emissary to Varanasi once wrote that this city surpassed all the great cities he’d seen – Athens, Sousa, Rome, Jerusalem.
Time did not treat this once great city favorably. It was destroyed several times by foreign invaders so that much of what exists today is not more than a few hundred years old. I found it to feel like a relatively small town with a big challenge: this city is one of the holiest places in the world. For Hindus, Varanasi is perhaps the most sacred place, and so, millions pilgrimage here each year. Bathing in this river during one’s life, or being cremated here after is believed to help achieve moksha, release from the painful cycle of human reincarnation. Untold numbers of non-Hindus, like me, come to see what the spectacle is all about.
Early mornings bring most pilgrims to the shoreline, and evening offers ritual ceremonies with bells and fire. As a result, dawn and dusk are prime time for boat tour hours. From my boat, I began to see the great divide that occurs in and around this holy water.
The poorest of the poor bathe at the steps in front of the great temples, which are called ghats. These ritualized bathing spots are believed to offer the best chance at achieving moksha. Believers are lined up elbow-to-elbow, and in rows three deep to get in the water. Men in their lungees and women in their bathing saris of varying vibrant colors dunk, splash, and scrub themselves. The bathing movements appear so similar to be routines, but they are done in different speeds, so while out of sync with each other there’s a near-synchronicity to the human actions on the river’s edge. Squeezed in between the bathers is the high-pitched chanting of pilgrims and the heavy brass tones of ringing temple bells. In the end, all the space is filled with movement and the senses are overtaxed with the beautiful chaos.
The worshippers appear to the viewers from the boats against a back drop of the ghats and the walled palaces that belong to the families of the great maharajas of old India. India has only been a single political body for six decades; before that it was a vast land of fiercely competitive kingdoms. The maharajas, or great kings, from across the subcontinent built testaments to their own importance along the shore long ago. Great walls of these mansions jut up vertically from the water line. The walls add to the dramatic flair of the structures, and they serve a critical function. Each monsoon raises the level of the river by about 40 feet or more. The abrupt walls literally keep water out of the palaces, thus keeping a clear distinction between land and water. But there’s another clear divide, too: the walls, with turrets atop and viewing plazas in between also delineate the stark contrast between lives of those at the foot of the walls and those who sit atop them. Perhaps the difference is only 50 feet, but the distance may as well be worlds apart, for the people in each location could never imagine existing in the others’.
The caste system is as vibrantly alive in Varanasi as the color variations and patterns of the elaborate saris for sale in the textile shops. As news of the rituals on display on the river bank spread outside of this region, travelers curious about Hindu rites or India in general, have come here in droves, adding a new caste to the ancient social layers. The short term visitors only stay a few days at a time, but rooms in the guest houses are never empty, and our (for I am clearly one of this horde) omnipresent existence is the source of wealth for a caste of denizens in this town that otherwise would have no options for financial gain. I interacted with dozens of people in my four days in Varanasi who called the city home. Every single one wanted me to buy something, rent something, or make a donation to some worthy cause. Each person was just one making a request like a single musical note, but taken together, each day was a movement by a full orchestra.
My favorite experience was around one of the Burning Ghats, which is where bodies are cremated on funeral pyres that burn for around three hours each. It is possible to walk right up to these ghats, as long as you’re not pointing your camera anywhere near them. In fact, upon arriving there (each time, for we walked past the ghat several times) we were told repeatedly “No photos!” That makes sense to me – I can see how the family of the deceased would want to preserve some privacy. At the same time – and I mean the exact same time – we were asked to donate to the hospice (that doesn’t exist) so many times that by day two I could predict the order of the sales pitch. And in the background, a goat is eating the remnants of a funeral shroud, the water buffaloes are pooping really close to one of the smoldering pyres, and there’s a generator running a water pump to power a water hose for spraying the caked mud off the walk-way that is adjacent to the pyre area.
It’s hard not to be mesmerized by the spectacle of these abrupt contrasts. It’s easy to forget that we are watching people in their most intimate moments. Much of my India is like this – on my morning walk I can see fishermen in the village a mile south of where I live defecating in the morning tide if I want to, and on the same walk I pass a movie-star’s housing compound – but in Varanasi there are no margins. I see people sleeping, begging, pooping & peeing, crying, laughing, hustling, and mourning their deceased loved ones as the funeral pyres burn brightly. And all within a few feet of each other.
The power of Achilles’ Shield is that it contains the fullness of the human experience within the two cities captured together in bronze and leather. Here, too, is the full range of humanity. The sacred and the ordinary, all smashed together.
It’s lovely this time of year. The mornings are cool – today, even, the off-shore breeze gave the water at the beach a glass-textured surface, and the waves broke uncharacteristically beautifully. As I took a break from playing pick-up Ultimate Frisbee yesterday, I noticed the dragonflies, zooming around about twenty feet off the ground. I use to think there were seasons here for dragonflies, and bats. That’s not how it works, as it turns out. The reality is that they each occupy different bits of airspace and during different times of the day. The dragonflies, for example, like it within an hour or two of when the sun is either rising or setting. Bats, of course, like the twilight and later. I wonder if the dragonflies and bats ever even see each other.
There are parts of Chennai I never see. The parts I do see I have grown very fond of in a short amount of time. I live in an apartment with a view of the Bay of Bengal that would make real estate developers’ Pintrest boards go wild. I get to walk down it every morning, engaging in a daily gratitude practice with the woman to whom I’m engaged. I see the beach life in the early part of the day – the dogs just waking up and chasing each other around with their morning friskiness. There are the regular cast of characters: the men doing calisthenics routines you’ve seen in grainy black and white filmstrips of PE classes in small town America, circa 1950. There are groups of gray-headed men who sit on the wall at the edge of the road, laughing together about the things that old men at the beach in the morning laugh about. A little ways down are old Indian ladies in their saris, discussing each other’s business with energy and gusto. My favorite character is a short, wiry guy who digs for crabs in the wet sand of the early morning low tide.
Last weekend was the end of the Ganapathy festival that I wrote about last year in Be Here Now. I knew what to expect this year, and I had a much easier time being present than before, but the event was just as joyous and cacophonous as ever. Hundreds of trucks lined up with their statues of Ganapathy in the cargo hold, waiting to deliver their patron god to his place in the sea. There are rules that govern this event, but Indian customs, as far as I can tell, often place emphasis on having the last word or the loudest word. And almost no one listens. So when everyone is shouting at everyone else, you’re really in India.
Ganapathy season ended last weekend. I imagine there are people who live in this sprawling city who don’t know that this even exists; to those who are present for it, there’s hardly an experience that rivals it. I think I may leave Chennai with this event chiseled into my top three India experiences: it would top number three, the road trip to the end of the continent that I took last spring with my best friend from high school, but be behind number one: meeting Susannah.
India is chaos sometimes, but it’s also lovely. I wonder if the dragonflies and bats feel the epic disorganization and contradictions. I doubt it. They’re probably just thinking, ‘hey, it’s time to eat.’ I can relate. There’s some butter masala paneer waiting for me in the kitchen.