Yesterday I went to the nikah, Muslim wedding ceremony, of my neighbour's son. It was held at a community hall around the corner from my house, so I walked. As it turned out, I sat for an hour and nothing happened at all, and the women around me spoke only Malayalam, which I do not. And then there was a huge cloudburst, and Ramesh -- who does not attend any ceremony -- decided that I should be saved from getting soaked. He drove over, I handed my gift to a relative and my good wishes to someone else -- no sign of bride or groom -- and went back home. I missed out on the mutton biryani which was sure to have followed ... eventually ... but it was lovely to drive home through rain. Which stopped the minute we entered the gate.
I have only attended one nikah, in Lahore, Pakistan, when an American Urdu student married a young Pakistani man. So I'll describe that. The names have been changed to protect the bad-tempered:
Mansur's family had accepted Mary, at least outwardly. They had accepted that she brought no dowry -- possibly her American passport was enough -- and they were ready to stand in for her own family in preparing her for the wedding. But they also expected her to act the part.
On the wedding day Mary was in a bad mood. She resented being treated like a doll, having to pretend to be a shy young stranger afraid to raise her eyes before her husband's family. She was being dressed up, and her face slathered with makeup -- Pakistani brides wore more makeup and more jewellry than other people, and continued to wear elaborate clothes for weeks after the wedding. Mansur's sister and two sisters-in-law surrounded Mary where she sat, secluded in a back room, and tried to put on the pink face, the red lips, the black-rimmed eyes, and to give her their own jewellry to wear. It was inconceivable that she would want to look ordinary on her wedding day. But she kept pushing their hands away, and when they were finished she scrubbed it all off.
The men of Mansur's family were traditionally embroiderers. Only Mansur was educated and had left the trade. A friend of Mary's, living in India, had sent her some Benares silk, and she gave it to the family to be embroidered and made into a wedding costume. When it was ready, a few days before the wedding, she found that they had embroidered it in flashy, clashing colours. She refused to wear it. It was too late to start over, and she didn't have the collection of ornate dresses that are part of a traditional dowry. So she bought more silk, had it tailored very simply, and allowed the family to provide the red, embroidered veil.
The family was unable to find anyone to perform the marriage unless Mary converted to Islam. She agreed reluctantly to do so. But when it was done everyone she met, except Mansur, wanted to reassure him or herself that Mary had really undergone a revolution of faith. They would look at her anxiously, and question her about Islam. When the mullah came to perform the marriage he went into the back room where she sat and went through the whole thing again. She was enraged. It was as much as she could do to be polite to him.
Finally, Mary in the back room, and Mansur in the main room with the guests, signed the nikah-nama, the wedding contract. Mansur wore a garland of money and looked happy. Everyone ate a meal and posed for photographs. Mary sulked in the back. Later that night, when they were finally allowed to be together and alone, they set up a camera and took a picture of themselves. In the photograph Mary looked happy for the first time in a week.