Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Umes speaks! (also known as "the husband")

Do I hear ya babbling about cultural differences? Yes. I faced it. In the bathroom. In the first month of living with a white girl. Three months after we first met. She wanted paper and I knew my beloved little brown mug was in danger of being obsolete. So obsolete that she proposed we use it to collect the water draining out of the AC duct. That very instant I knew it. This was going to be decided the good old-fashioned way. We had declared war.

She won. I now use paper with glee. Crying out for more. Together as a couple, we run through reams and reams of it. But that's not the story you paid for. So, I will stop and tell you my story. An eye-witness account of 'what the hell happened to M in India'.

She came. That much you know. Carrying heavy baggages from the past and loads of expectations and she was caught. By the Customs. Even though her first brush with India didn't go so well (a dark swarthy lecherous Customs official brushed his hands against her), she was determined to put it behind her (the brush and NOT THE HANDS!) and seek out her Indian adventures.

So, keeping with her theme of making friends and enjoying her youth, M joined TEA. Do I hear applause? And well deserved too. Lovely lovely club it was. People in their 60's waltzing to slow music or espousing on diabetes. Some even talked of their bowel movements but what's a good club without diseases strewn around? It was a heartening sight too. On the weekly meetings. Such passion. Such gusto. And all that from wheelchairs. It made a man stand back and take notice.

But's thats not how we met. Before M met me, she had written down the 10 most important things she wanted in her man. Always a good idea if you actually want to meet the '10-qualities-guy' of your diary. Even though my mind wanders to what Dick Cheney's wife wrote before she 'happened' to run into Dickie, I can safely say that Adonis and Greek God weren't part of Martha's little note to herself. My favorite theory is that perhaps God couldn't really read her handwriting and made me appear or it might be blamed on the fact that Martha was a little drunk on bad Indian wine, but the fact remains that both of us were on an inevitable collision course. And we had no idea.

It all started with a little case of gas. M had it. So, she started slinking away to the rear end of the TEA party. But little did she know that someone right there was already at it. Eye met and M made friends with Aunt C, my sole emotional support in Hyderabad.

(to be concluded)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Oh Alanis

I've been surprisingly healthy during my stay here in India. I've certainly had my share of pollution headaches and head colds, but I'd never suffered from the serious stomach upset for which India is famous. My friends joked that I had a stomach of steel... I could travel anywhere and I'd never gotten food poisoning. In fact, the one time I've ever thrown up in India was when I was swallowing a Cipro for a minor infection and it hit my gag reflex inducing me to vomit. Nope, not food poisoning, and no, I didn't spend hours worshipping the porcelain goddess. Just a simple gag reflex.

Well, now that I've lived in India for a full year, eaten street food, drank tap water, and had full meals costing less than $0.50, I got sick. I got an intestinal infection after blowing $50 on cocktails and appetizers at the one upscale restaurant in the city that caters to foreigners. I'd eaten there before with no problem and had even hosted a party there for over 100 people. It was one of the "safe" restaurants to eat at in the city and I wasn't going to take any chances the night before my wedding. Oh how wrong I was. After 5 days of diarrhea, Umes insisted on taking me to the hospital where I was diagnosed with "normal intestinal infection from eating outside food" and given three different prescriptions to clear it up. I'm now on a restricted diet of yoghurt and parathas as my stomache recovers.

Vomiting from Cipro.
Stomach infection from food at the "expat restaurant."

Isn't it ironic. Dontcha think?

You Got Married!?!? Oh, that's nice.

As a typical American woman, when my boyfriend of ten months proposed we get married within the next few weeks, my reaction was "whoa, no way, this is way too soon." To me, the natural progression of a relationship was dating for a year or more, engagement for a year or more, and finally getting married. However, this typical American woman moved to India and fell in love with an Indian. Here, dating is unheard of, engagement is a brief period of a few weeks, and marriage means you're actually in a commited relationship. So, we compromised our cultures and had a Hindu wedding a few days later to be followed by an American wedding in a few years. While I knew our personal views on marriage were strongly influenced by culture, I didn't realize how much so until we started to tell others of the news.

My American friends' reactions came as no surprise to me. "Whoa, this is a big decision, are you sure you're ready for this?" "Isn't this a bit fast." And of course the undertone of "Have you gone off your rocker." I understood these reactions, they're what mine would've been. Had I not been the one discussing and debating the decision for the previous few weeks, I would've been equally shocked and probably quite judgmental. As a result, I've been hesitant to tell people about the wedding and am still having a hard time with the words "married" and "husband." Since this is the first of our weddings, I kinda feel like we're half-married; we're somewhere beyond engagement but until I have my traditional American ceremony, I just won't be able to feel like I'm really truly married.

In theory, I understood Umes's push for us to have a Hindu wedding. I know that anything besides marriage isn't really respected here and that it was important to him to have our commitment to each other respected as real and true by his community. However, I still thought people would be a bit shocked since it happened after only 10 months and some of my work friends didn't even know I was dating anyone. Oh how wrong I was. The other day he came to my office with me and I introduced him as my husband. Nobody batted an eye. They simply said "oh, that's nice" and "nice to meet you." There was no surprise at us being married and people who did know of us dating seemed genuinely relieved that we had (finally) gotten married. Here, marriage is just a fact a life. It's what you do. It's not a "big decision" the way it is in the U.S. When you get to a certain age you get married. You commit to someone (who you may or may not know) and build a life as a family.

The dichotomy of reactions and the different perspectives they represent was truly eye opening. I don't think anything in my year of living here could've prepared me for the realization of the vast cultural divide between India and the U.S.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Hyderabadi Shaadi

As the realization that I would be leaving Hyderabad in a few short weeks hit Umes and I, we decided that it was important to both of us to solidify our commitment to one another more officially than we already had. Because of our respective dating pasts and since the only real commitment recognized in India is marriage, we decided to have a traditional Hindu marriage ceremony. So, last weekend we started looking for priests and locations which would perform a shortened version of the ceremony for us (the real ceremony is about 8 hours long). After having our auto driver (who thinks we're Muslim) drive us to 3 temples all across town only to be rejected since I'm not a Hindu, we were starting to get a bit concerned. However, Umes had the business card of a local Oriya (his state) priest whom he thought would perform the ceremony. We called the priest and he was out of town, but would return on Monday morning. So, we put off wedding planning and went to a crafts fair where I found a gorgeous saree that I decided to buy on a whim as a potential wedding saree.

Later that day Umes found his March horoscope and read it as he does every month. He quickly turned to me and said "we have to get married on Wednesday." My reply was shock and confusion seeing as it was already Sunday night and we had made no preparations whatsoever. Moreover, we didn't have a priest and wouldn't be able to even talk to one until Monday night. Both our horoscopes made it very clear, however, that Venus was going to be in retrograde starting on the 6th (Friday) so getting married anytime after (or near) that time would be very inauspicious for both Libras and Sagis. We started to panic but realized there was nothing we could do until Monday night.

On Monday evening we met with the Oriya priest who confirmed that he would perform the ceremony no later than Wednesday afternoon and that it should begin sometime between 2:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon. So, we said okay and embarked upon 36 hours of completely chaotic wedding planning. That evening we went to get fabric for the petticoat and blouse for my saree and started desperately calling tailors to see if they could stitch my blouse within a few hours the next day. We then went home and emailed our family and close friends in Hyderabad asking them to join us for our last minute celebration. There was obviously a lot of shock but excitement in their responses. My parents quickly said they wanted to discuss it over Skype and since it was 9pm and we hadn't eaten dinner yet, we talked to them about it while I stirred pasta and chopped tomatoes. Luckily they were supportive and just disappointed that they couldn't be there.

Then a few phone calls were made to friends who were crucial to the ceremony. The most important being a close friend here who could stand in as a father figure and "give me away." Without him, the ceremony couldn't happen. We also wanted to ensure that a couple of our other closest friends could make it, particularly the woman who introduced us. Upon completing those tasks, we fell into bed exhausted and making lists of all the things that needed to be done on Tuesday to prepare for Wednesday's ceremony.

Tuesday was insane. The tailor who told us they'd get the blouse done had come down with a fever and was now unavailable; I officially had nothing to wear to my wedding. The florist started quoting ridiculous prices and we didn't have any snacks in the house to feed our guests on Wednesday. We asked our landlord for use of a spare room on our floor and luckily she offered it willingly. When it became clear around noon that the tailor really was not going to stitch my blouse I desperately asked my landlady if she knew of anyone. Luckily she did, so we went to the other side of town to get measured and have my blouse stitched. On the way back we stopped at the grocery store and the sweets shop to get nourishment for our guests. We then figured out a plan to rearrange the furniture so that the couch and chairs could go in our bedroom where there was air conditioning. We weren't going to ask our guests to stay in the 102 degree heat all afternoon! Anshuman and I both went out briefly with friends on Tuesday night so we could have bachelor and bachelorette "parties." We each had one cocktail with one friend and then ended up meeting up all together for snacks. Needless to say, we'll need to have genuine parties before our American wedding.

Wednesday morning came and we started our mad dash to the altar. Neither of us could eat per Oriya tradition, so we had lots to do and little energy or time. We rearranged the household furniture and our maid showed up on time to help get the house cleaned up and organize things. The florist showed up (late and after several phone calls) and things seemed to be on track. Then I tried on my blouse and realized that it was too small by about 2 inches. There was absolutely no way it was going to close over my ribcage. Umes realized that he had forgotten to buy his clothes for the wedding as he was supposed to wear a brand new kurta. So, around 10:30 he embarked upon a journey to get garlands, have my blouse restitched, buy his clothes, and pick up the samosas and sweets from the caterer. He was to be home no later than 1:00 or I would start to panic. I stayed home to supervise the florist and the maid and handle any phone calls.

I got into the shower around noon to begin to prepare myself to be a bride. Painting my own toenails and doing my hair and makeup alone were not exactly what I ever pictured on my wedding day, but I managed to accomplish it. Umes made it home (barely) by 1:00 and my friend had arrived by then to help me tie my saree (we figured we needed at least an hour to do this). Around 2:00, the saree was on (thanks to the help of the maid; we never would've accomplished it on our own).

I then realized in a panic that it was already 2:00 and my family was awake in the middle of the night in Maryland waiting for my call so they could watch the ceremony via Skype. I called them, told them that we weren't ready yet and the priests weren't there and to just hold on and wait and we'd make sure the connection was good when things actually started happening.

Since my face and hair were starting to melt off from the 100 degree heat at that point, I said goodbye and headed back to the air conditioned bedroom. Our guests started to arrive and we all hung out in the bedroom while we waited for the priests, who were about an hour late. Upon their arrival we discovered that there were a few items that they hadn't expressly told us we needed under the assumption that any Indian household would have them. These included images of a god and clean sheets to put on the floor to sit on. Luckily a milk-painted god image was a reasonable subsitute as were some of the old rugs sitting in a cupboard. Finally, the ceremony began.

We sat for three hours in front of a fire in 100 degree afternoon heat and went through all the important rituals of a Hindu marriage ceremony. The Skype session worked beautifully the whole time and my Dad was able to answer questions about his grandfather's name and could "give me away" virtually. Being able to look up and see my family online from time to time made the whole thing easier. By the time the ceremony was over, we were all completely exhausted and overwhelmed, but quite happy and proud of ourselves for making it through 48 hours of total chaos. We were finally (half) married and totally pooped. Here are some pictures of the big event.

Monday, March 2, 2009


My apologies for not posting. I'm feeling very apprehensive and scared these days. Nervous about leaving my fiance here in India, worried about the transition for both of us to the U.S., and upset by the state of the global economy and its implications for our career goals and futures. The next few months are going to be a huge transition time for me (and us) and while I know that in the long-run things are going to be fine, I'm experiencing a lot of self-doubt and fear in the present and about the near-term future. Posting will likely remain intermittent, but your love and support during this emotional period is appreciated.