Priya Parker’s “The Art of Gathering” captures well the idea that a chill host is a host that hasn’t given their guests the opportunity to really rise to the occasion. This wedding feels like a perfect example of a gathering that invites more, joyfully invites high-level participation.
The haldi ceremony is a traditional purification ceremony. Dana and Gautam arrive in matching white kurtas and pants, with yellow dupattas draped around their necks. Our role will be to ensure, through ritualistic application of turmeric, oils, henna powder, and some other ingredients I don’t learn, that these garments will never be white again.
We’ve been told that this event is informal and starts at 10:30, but at 10:37, only the non-Indian guests are here: us, and the couple’s high school and college friends, in an outfit range from jeans to sundresses. Naturally, when the Indian side arrives, they’re in full glittering saris — every event at an Indian wedding is, as I’ve been told by a cousin, “an excuse to show off how badass you are.”
Every event is chaotic, which I’ve been told is normal. I have no idea what’s going on, but we get told what we’re supposed to do. Ryan gets called up to slide chuda bracelets onto Dana’s wrists. I’m called in to put on bangles with long trailing bell ornaments. I think we’re representing family members from Eileen’s side of the family who would traditionally perform these tasks, but couldn’t come.
Dana and Gautam are seated beside each other on stools in shallow tubs shaped like giant lotuses. Gautam’s seven married aunts each take a turn applying the ceremony ingredients first to Gautam, then to Dana. They use a little bunch of grass as an applicator — wouldn’t want to get their hands dirty.
Gautam’s face gets quickly covered in powders and oils, but they’re gentle with Dana, brushing what I think is yogurt gently over her cheeks and forehead. Then family members get a turn: both feet, wrists, face. We’re less reserved.
Finally, everyone is invited: family from both sides, friends of the bride and groom, we all scoop handfuls of a wheat flour paste, and hands from everywhere smear all over the happy couple’s faces, arms, scalps, clothing. We clean our fingers with their yellow scarves.
Last, the couple’s sisters hold sieves over each of their heads, and the brothers pour urns of rose water. Everybody gets handfuls of marigold petals to throw like snowballs until the pair is completely covered.
Dana and Gautam are finally released to go clean up — running up the marble staircase in their bare feet, dripping in the hot sun.
For the rest of us, there is a Rajasthani nail artist ready to paint miniatures on fingernails, a man making glass bangles, someone handing out paper cones of some sort of onion-and-flake chaat. Glasses of papaya and mango juice, Fanta and Coke are passed around on trays.
And there is a singing program. It seems to be open mic, and I wish I understood Hindi. It’s all a cappella, some pretty songs, some funny, a very messy group song, standup comedy by one of the aunts that is clearly excellent, but it’s all in Hindi. Just to represent, I go up and sing Wonderful World. I’m pitchy, but it’s clearly well appreciated.
This wedding has a lot of performance pieces sourced from the crowd, but the quality of the performances matters not at all. This is a big family, but it is indeed family: acceptance and petty silliness and lots of heart. It feels like living room charades night, writ large.
Our side of the family is a little lost, a little small for this event, but we’re here. We’re doing it. That’s what counts.