The Hindu and Christian weddings I wrote about earlier were the ceremonies of the more ubiquitous and integrated faiths of Kerala. If a visitor stays here for any length of time longer than a month, he or she will invariably be invited to a Hindu and/or a Christian marriage by some open and welcoming new friend, such is the ease of meeting and befriending members of both faiths. Kerala’s Muslims, on the other hand, live their lives largely behind closed doors – as a group they are both ostracised and withdrawn, generally living in segregated communities. Grand old mosques dot the landscape and announce their presence five times a day over a loudspeaker, but in public, their faithful tend to keep a dignified and impenetrable silence.
I am fortunate that my good friend Shibu, who works in the tourist trade on Varkala’s cliff, is Muslim, and has invited me into his life in every manner possible, including the marriage of his youngest sister last year.
In contrast to the Hindu and Christian weddings I have been to, where I was merely an observer, this time I was invited to be an active part of proceedings. Shibu’s family is not wealthy, so the function was to be held at his home in a small village near Varkala; this meant a full night’s work for almost everyone. A couple of cousins joined the catering team and made a massive batch of parathas, the bride-to-be (in her sparkling wedding sari) sat cross-legged and made flower garlands of all colours, and Em and I helped the older kids decorate a bedroom for the new couple. We spent hours taping paper streamers and bright plastic decorations to the walls.
All this was done with an overriding calmness and lack of fuss, even by Shibu as he flitted from station to station checking on progress and performing all unfilled tasks. This carried through to the next day, when I was asked to join the men of the family as they travelled to the groom’s house and formally invited them to come for the ceremony. Before that, however, came an important prayer to remind everyone that we owe all of this to Allah and hope that he will bless the occasion. A priest led our select group, sitting in a rough circle on plastic chairs in Shibu’s yard, his voice deep and barely above a whisper. As he gently intoned his words of praise, the other men quietly responded with ‘Insh’Allah’ and other phrases where appropriate. These were a few moments of near stillness and utter peace; all sounds in the neighbourhood seemed to cease.
We left, and 45 minutes later we arrived at the groom’s house to formally invite him. An economy of words were spoken on either side; everyone seemed to know their lines by heart. After a quick cup of pink water, we 12 piled back into our minivan, and the groom’s extended family clambered aboard four full-size, brightly coloured buses bearing slogans like ‘Total Travel Solutions’ and ‘Executive Coach’. Another 45 minutes and we’d arrived back at Shibu’s, where half of us were dropped and the other half – Shibu and a few seniors – headed to the nearby mosque to meet with the groom and his respected elders to carry out the marriage proper. Neither the congregation nor the bride were present, which I suppose makes the Muslim wedding the shortest of all I’ve been to from an observer’s point of view.
With both sides of the congregation together at Shibu’s, we milled about under a huge tarp drinking water and exchanging a few words, while the children played (mostly) nicely. As with the Hindu and Christian ceremonies, the women of the congregation wore saris of all colours and designs, while the men stuck to plain pastel dress shirts and starched white mundus. The colour that was so prevalent at the weddings of those other two faiths wasn’t the same here; it was in the trees that surrounded us in the open air. Looking at some of the elderly women sitting patiently, it struck me that perhaps the colour of this particular wedding lay not in the here and now, but in the pasts of their weathered faces.
A short while later the couple arrived, the bride having first gotten married in absentia then met her husband for the first time on the street round the corner. They walked slowly and silently past us, looking very young and uncertain, but a flicker of a smile crossed the bride’s lips as she glanced at her friends and family watching her pass. The couple were seated next to each other at a specially decorated table and served a helping of parathas and beef. As the rest of us moved to sit at the other tables, a chatter started up and grew into a happy, noisy ambience: the calm and dignified air lifted. At last, it was time to eat, to talk, to laugh and to celebrate.