Impressions of Singapore

My preconception of Singapore was of a very orderly, clean, rather boring place, very structured and controlled. I had heard that there were severe penalties for littering and chewing gum, and I expected to see watchful police on every corner making sure everyone behaved themselves. What I found surprised me. Getting off the plane was like being enfolded in a warm, wet blanket. Late November is in the middle of the monsoon season, and the weather is extremely hot and humid. Never have I been so thankful for air conditioning, which is in operation everywhere, including taxis and busses. Moving about the city is like alternating between a sauna and a refrigerator. Needless to say the refrigerator is the preferable state! During the four days I have been here it has rained twice, both times in the late afternoon, neither time very hard. Not at all what I expect of a monsoon. Actually since spending any time outdoors means going around soaking with sweat, the addition of rain made very little difference, so it was not much of a problem to get caught in it. People seem to use umbrellas mostly to protect against the sun rather than the rain. 

Apart from the two rainy spells the weather has been mainly bright overcast with occasional sunshine. I arrived late at night and very jetlagged (Singapore is 16 hours ahead of California) and took a cab to the hotel I had picked out pretty much at random from the list on the Singapore Tourist Board website. I was immediately struck by the excellently maintained road leading into town, The cab was clean and comfortable, and the driver very friendly. My room was very small, hardly bigger than the bed that filled it, with a small but clean bathroom attached. 

The next morning I took to the streets to find breakfast. I was in the neighborhood called Geylang, which turned out to be primarily Malayan in flavor. I found eating establishments on every corner, swarming with people, eating dishes that looked like nothing I had ever seen. This was not he somewhat antiseptic Singapore I had been expecting. There were people of every Asian ethnicity imaginable, and the smells were quite varied, but dominated by what I deduced was durian, a curious fruit that has the reputation (which I did not have the courage to test) of being quite delicious, but smells quite foul. So much so that it is illegal to take it on any form of public transportation, and there are signs in all the hotels forbidding it too. I was despairing of finding anything even remotely familiar for breakfast, when I s potted a menu featuring porridge! Finally something I recognized, and breakfast food at that. Pretty close to the oatmeal I am used to eating for breakfast, and something I have not eaten since I was a child, but I used to like it then. I was not sure of the protocol for ordering, but sat down hopefully at a table. Eventually I was able to attract the attention of someone willing to take my order, and asked for porridge. To my dismay she asked me whether I wanted fish porridge or pork porridge! By this time I was too hungry to want to resume my search, so I resignedly chose the pork, as I thought that sounded a little more breakfast-like than fish; after all, sausages are commonly made from pork, and bacon is closely related. But I found it hard to imagine what porridge with pork would be like. Well, it turns out that porridge means something quite different here. It was oatmeal-like in consistency, but made from some other, rather more slippery substance, and had lumps of meat in it. The taste was rather salty, flavored perhaps with soy sauce. It was, however, not unpleasant to eat, but definitely not my idea of a breakfast food. It did satisfy my hunger, but my stomach was evidently a little puzzled as to what to do with it, as I could feel it sitting there for some time afterward! No digestive harm ensued, but I determined to look for my breakfast in another neighborhood the following day. 

After this culinary treat I returned to my hotel to plan the rest of my day. I had heard that there was an area called Little India, so I asked directions to get there at the reception desk. They said that it was easily reached by bus, so I took to the street once more to catch one. The public transportation system in Singapore is absolutely excellent. Everywhere I wanted to go was accessible either by bus or by Metro, and both systems and point up one aspect of the country that I had not expected, which is that technology is extremely well implemented here. Everyone carries a card that is good on both systems, and almost nobody (except, of course, visitors such as myself) pays cash. On the bus the way it works is that on boarding they simply wave the card over a reader, which beeps and records where they got on. On alighting they do the same, recording where they got off. The fare is deducted from the card. There are several ways to replenish the value of the card, including putting it an ATM machine and transferring money directly from your bank account to the card. For cash paying riders you just drop the fare into a hopper, and it issues a paper ticket. I never had to wait more than five or ten minutes for a bus. The Metro is equally high tech; the same cards work for both, and here to pay cash you go to a machine and feed it money, telling it where you want to go to, and the machine issues a ticket and change. There are screens on all the platforms giving information about when the next train is coming, and where it is going. A pleasant voice announces each stop. The trains are clean and smooth running. 

Speaking of clean, the whole place is almost completely devoid of trash and graffiti. The importation and sale of chewing gum is prohibited (though you can bring in your own for personal use, but not sell it). There used to be heavy fines for littering, but it was found that many offenders could not afford to pay them, so instead litterers are sentenced to work cleaning up the parks and public places; they have to wear special uniforms with signs indicating that they are working off their offense, which is very shameful, which is a strong disincentive to breaking the law. For more serious offenses caning is used as a punishment. In spite of these restrictive laws I saw very few policemen, and people did not seem to be overly controlled. There are no laws against jaywalking, and traffic police were not very evident. Nonetheless the traffic moves pretty well, and I saw no incidents of road rage, and no accidents. Most horn blowing was legitimate warning signals, usually aimed at overadventurous pedestrians. People were generally very polite and helpful. 

Singapore is very racially diverse; you see all shades of color on the streets. English is the official language, and everyone speaks it (more or less!), but most people seem to speak other languages for theor everyday communication. The main ethnic groups seem to be Malays, Chinese and Indians. There are several neighborhoods that are predominately monoracial; Geylang, where my hotel was situated, is mostly Malay, and Little India and Chinatown are, as their names suggest, Indian and Chinese. These areas are quite visually and culturally distinct, with their own kinds of restaurants and stores, but large areas are simply mixed. Nothing I saw or read lead me to think that there is any significant degree of racial tension. Almost everyone carries a cell phone, and nobody seems to resent people talking on them. I found their constant ringing somewhat offensive to my musical sensibilities, but otherwise quite harmless. 

But to return to my wanderings: I found Little India quite charming, and found an excellent restaurant that I adopted as my main dinner destination each day, which I chose because the served Kheer, one of my favorite desserts. Breakfast I ended up eating the other days at an American style luxury hotel because I could get a reasonable imitation of an American style breakfast there. I could not bring myself to eat at Burger King, MacDonaldÕs or Starbucks, though I saw several of each. There are also several American-style shopping malls, very noisy and absolutely packed with swarms of young people; most of the girls are extremely thin and giggly with no discernable hips at all, dressed in tight jeans and t-shirts and have cell phones permanently at their ears. 

The standard of physical beauty, both male and female, is very high among the young, but people seem to age very quickly, and even the middle aged end to look quite careworn. Not to say that they seem generally unhappy, but there is a marked contrast between the seemingly carefree and exuberant youth and the much more subdued and seemingly inward-looking people of working age, with not much between. 

I also visited the Botanical Gardens, a huge and very serene park that contains a rain forest, a large orchid garden and a huge collection of ginger plants. I had no idea of the variety of gingers that exist; unfortunately the season is not right to find many of them in bloom, which is reputedly a magnificent sight, but I took many pictures of orchids of many sizes and colors. 

I should mention that Singapore Airlines is by far he best airline I have ever traveled on; the service is impeccable and the food superb. Even in tourist class you feel utterly pampered, with everything from hot towels (handed out as soon as you are settled in your seat, even before takeoff and again just before landing) to little packages containing a toothbrush and a pair of knitted socks! Each seat has its own video screen with a selection of 10 or so recent movies as well as a large variety of TV fare that you can watch at any time and start and stop at will. I was fortunate in that the flight was not by any means crowded, so I could stretch out across three seats, and felt quite luxurious. 

Being somewhat disoriented by the time change I miscalculated the number of days I was staying in Singapore, and arrived at the airport for my fight to India a day early! Since I had already checked out of my hotel I asked at the hotel reservations desk for a hotel near the airport for one night, and ended up at the Roxy Century Plaza, a fairly luxurious place but not much more per night than where I was, so for one night I have a comparatively huge room. Tomorrow I fly to India.

Impressions of India: Delhi

Arriving at Delhi airport from Singapore is like stepping back 50 years. Singapore airport is extremely modern and well-built, and the departure area looks like a shopping mall in the US, with clean, well lit, expensive stores and several seating areas with large flat-screen TVs and very comfortable armchair seating where one can sit and watch a great variety of TV programming. The walls are marble, as are the floors for the most part, and everything is clean and well maintained. Delhi airport, on the other hand, looks like a particularly run-down and seedy bus station from the 1950s. Everything has an air of being either unfinished or so old it is falling apart. The arrival hall is an echoing bare space with a few soldiers lounging around. Outside is a hallway lined with booths offering taxi service, hotel reservations and the like, each manned by three or four people all trying to attract the attention of the passing travelers. The din is deafening. Everyone is trying to grab your bag and steer you to a particular taxi. Having finally secured a taxi (by means of buying a coupon at the Delhi Police Taxi booth), and told the driver what hotel you want to go to, and insisted that you really did want to go there and not to another one that he assures you is much better and cleaner and cheaper, you are thrust into the maelstrom of Delhi traffic. 

This is an experience like nothing else on earth. The only rule seems to be that no two objects can occupy exactly the same space at the same time, and everyone is engaged in a constant struggle to test this rule to the limit at all times. As I have heard it said, what you need to drive in Delhi is a good horn, good brakes, and good luck. Everyone drives at the maximum possible speed at all times, and pushes and jockeys to occupy any space that open up. Nobody uses any kind of signals, and most vehicles do not even have outside mirrors, which after all only add to the width of your vehicle! If you are in the right lane (though it really makes no sense to speak of lanes; though they are marked in the street nobody pays the slightest attention to them) and you want to turn left, you simply drive that way and assume that everyone else will get out of the way. It is no use to wait for a break in the traffic; it is a solid mass at all times, but a constantly moving solid mass. If you have ever watched the motion of molecules in a hot liquid through a microscope, you have some picture of the situation. The variety of vehicles is huge, from fairly regular looking cars, mostly Japanese and Korean, through Indian-manufactured Ambassador cars that look like something from the 1950s, the most decrepit looking busses you ever saw, missing doors and windows and with large rust-holes in their bodywork, with so many people on board that they are bursting through the windows and hanging on the outside of the doors, or rather door-holes since there are no doors, swarms of three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, which are like motorcycles with bodies built to carry a driver and two or three passengers, but which usually have at least eight crammed inside, bicycles rickshaws, bicycles with merchandise of all kinds lashed in impossible piles, farm tractors pulling trailers piled eight feet high with vegetables, bullock-carts, huge trucks in similar condition to the busses, also often crammed with people, and with more hanging off the back, thousands of scooters and motorcycles, often with a woman in a sari sitting sideways on the back with a squirming baby in her lap (I even saw one changing a diaper while in motion) and another child in front of the driver, pedestrians and dogs dodging in and out, and everyone honking, yelling and cursing as they jockey for space, with either the accelerator or the brake pressed to the floor at any given time. The auto-rickshaws, trucks and busses are all decorated with a fantastic assortment of tassels, fringes, religious ornaments, metallic designs and painted slogans, many of which have the effect of obscuring the field of view of the driver. 

When I say that any of these vehicles will occupy any available space this includes the opposing traffic lanes; on more than one occasion I was convinced that we were driving the wrong way down a one-way street, since there was solid traffic coming at us on our side of the street. I eventually realized that there are evidently no one way streets, and that this was perfectly normal behavior. What amazed me the most was that all of this confusion actually works. I only saw two minor collisions in three days of fascinated and horrified observation, neither resulting in observable damage, and for the most part the traffic keeps moving without ever achieving gridlock. Of course many of the vehicles look as though they have already been in major wrecks anyway! The only ingredient I expected to see among the traffic but did not was cows. At least in Delhi (though not elsewhere) the cows seem to have the good sense to stay out of the traffic; they were plentiful on sidewalks and in open areas such as parks, however. 

Outside the city driving is hardly less hair-raising. The road the Agra, for instance, is a divided highway with two lanes in each direction. The divider between the two sides is a solid fence for much of the way, which means that farm tractors that wish to turn right onto the highway (India drives on the left, like other civilized countries) might have to go some distance the other way to find a gap in the fence and then do a U-turn. Since this would be altogether too much trouble what they do instead is to turn right anyway and drive against the traffic in the fast lane. This does not seem to cause any particular concern; the oncoming traffic just veers into the slow lane to avoid them, but for a passenger it is truly scary, especially after dark, since the tractors do not have lights. Even worse is when the lanes in the other direction are under repair or otherwise unusable for some reason, when the oncoming traffic is switched to your side. Just to make it more interesting the first warning you get of this condition is the presence of large trucks bearing down on you on your side of the road. Of course nobody (in either direction) adjusts their behavior to take account of this, so on one occasion the car I was in was passing another car going in our direction, face to face with a car and a truck doing the same thing in the other direction in the same lanes! I still do not know quite how everyone managed to get into their proper lane and miss each other, but they did. I suppose the lesson to be learned from all this is never be a passenger in a car driven by someone who believes in predestination! 

Everyone uses his horn constantly, and in fact most of the trucks have “Use Horn Please” or some variant painted on the back. This, combined with the aforementioned lack of outside mirrors, leads me to the conclusion that Indian drivers must navigate by sound, like bats. The general attitude to the use of headlights is illustrated by the fact that the trucks also often say “At night use dipper.” (In line with British English usage lights are dipped rather than dimmed in India.) This phraseology, in preference to something like “Flash your brights” indicates that the expectation is that everyone will be driving at night with their full headlights on at all times, which is in fact the case. The only time headlights are dimmed is to use them as an indication of a desire to pass slower traffic by flashing them up and down until the vehicle in front pulls over. This is not used in place of the horn, but in addition. Another interesting, and, to a passenger, disturbing custom is that trucks will signal their willingness to be passed by using their right-hand blinkers. Now remember that we are driving on the left here, so this produces the strange situation where the very same signal is used to mean “I am about to pull out in front of you” or “It is safe to pass, as I am going to stay in the left-hand lane!” The locals seem to be able to discern which of these opposing messages is intended, but I confess that I could not see how. 

After my first couple of exposures to traffic conditions I decided to take trains rather than busses whenever possible, which turns out to be most of the time. The Indian railway system is the largest in the world, and also employs more people than any other business in the world. Again, nothing seems to have been built, or indeed maintained or repaired, since about 1950. Trains chronically run late, and sometimes stop for long periods in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason. Usually the carriages are either unbearably hot or freezing cold, and very little attempt is made towards comfort. Indeed in India generally there is very little softness. Mattresses are usually no more than thin pads filled with horsehair on top of plywood, and sleeper accommodation on the trains is no different. A thin sheet and blanket are provided, but it is advisable to wear warm clothes as it can get pretty cold at night. Seating in the regular compartments is hardly better, even in first-class; I shudder to think what conditions are like in the cheaper classes; fortunately the fares are reasonable enough to make first-class travel quite affordable to anyone who is not earning Indian wages. One very pleasant feature is that it is never necessary to carry ones own bags. Every station boasts hundreds of porters who are only too pleased to hoist the heavies suitcases on top of their heads and forge through the crowds to your train, find your reserved compartment and stow your bags (waiting with you until the train arrives if it is late or you are early), and will thank you fervently and shake your hand if you tip them 100 rupees, the equivalent of $2. 

Another feature of Indian life that one quickly gets used to is chai. This is hot sweet black tea (as opposed to herbal tea), usually with milk, and often flavored with any combination of cardamom, cloves, ginger, ginseng and other spices, that is offered on every conceivable occasion, and is available everywhere at all times. While waiting for a train, for instance, there will always be two or three chai-wallahs patrolling the platform with a large pot of chai and a supply of small plastic cups. A cup might cost two or three rupees, or the equivalent of a nickel. It is a very refreshing drink. Any social or commercial transaction will start with an offer of chai, and refusal is considered quite odd, if not actually rude. The result is that one might consume 20 or 30 small cups of chai in any given day. Perhaps there is a connection between this habit and the fact that Indians feel it quite proper to urinate pretty much anywhere (out of doors at least!) 

Finding good food in India is very simple of one likes Indian food, which I do. Interestingly, in contrast to Mexico, for instance, it is much easier to eat vegetarian than to find good meat dishes. Beef, of course, is almost nonexistent, chickens tend towards the scrawny, and the staple meat, mutton, is often tough and stringy. The vegetarian dishes, however, are delicious. Usually they consist of some kind of curd-cheese and assorted vegetables cooked in masala, which is any of a variety curry-like sauces. One can specify the degree of spiciness, and an endless supply of chapattis, which are roughly equivalent to tortillas, is always at hand. Rice is also available in several forms. The result is a very nutritious and inexpensive meal that is available on any street corner, or in any restaurant. Eaten to the accompaniment of several cups of chai it is extremely satisfying. For breakfast I usually eat porridge (which, unlike my Singapore experience, is exactly what I expected) followed by toast and marmalade and accompanied by the sweetest orange juice I have ever tasted, and, of course, plenty of chai. For people of a more American taste, egg dishes and pancakes and the like are usually on the menu, but not having tried any of them I cannot pass comment on them. In the larger cities MacDonald’s, Burger King and the like can be found, and I am told that they vary their fare somewhat to suit Indian tastes, but again I avoid them like the plague. Coffee usually consists of warm water and Nescafe (powdered coffee, and English at that!) Definitely not your gourmet blend! 

Another pleasant discovery is lassi. This is a cold drink based on yoghurt, heavily sweetened (like everything else in India that is not spicy) and sometimes flavored with fruit of some kind. It is extremely refreshing and satisfying, and available pretty much everywhere, at least in Rajasthan. It has become a particular favorite of mine. It is fortunate that I have a sweet tooth; I imagine someone who did not like sweet things would find India quite trying.

Impressions of India: Jaipur

Taking a walk around a medium-sized Indian city, such as Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, is a sobering experience. India has almost a billion people, the vast majority of whom live below the poverty line, and at any given time most of them are on the street with you. It is almost impossible to be alone in India, except in your hotel room. Everywhere you go are people; people hurrying, people standing around in groups talking (two or three at a time, at the tops of their voices), people sitting on the ground, people lying on the ground (some of them completely bundled in blankets and apparently asleep, even in the middle of the day,) people trying to lure you into their shops, people standing around eating, people standing drinking chai, an endless swarm of humanity milling and swarming everywhere you go. As a photographer who enjoys taking pictures of people in the street I like to be anonymous, and fade into the background. This is impossible for a Westerner in India. Everywhere you go you are the center of attention. Indians are extremely aware of their surroundings, and are friendly and welcoming people. In many cases, of course, there is a commercial motive for their attentions, but often it is just a desire to say hello. Children can be a real problem. You are liable to attract quite a following, and they all want something. “One rupee, one sweet (candy), one pen, one dollar, one photo, what is your name? Where you come from? Where you going? What you looking for? You give me something?” endlessly repeated as they follow you down the street. The best response is to simply ignore them, and eventually they give up, but they could give an insurance salesman lessons in persistence. This is mostly the boys. The girls tend to cluster in groups, giggling as they steal glances at you from the corners of their eyes. A smile and a greeting will usually get a smile back before they hide their faces in their hands and turn away blushing. Adults will often walk along beside you and engage you in conversation, and are sometimes quite hard to get rid of without seeming rude.

Indian cities are noisy, dirty and smelly. Music blasts at top volume everywhere, people are shouting, radios and TVs blaring, horns are blowing, engines roaring and belching black smoke, bells ringing, hawkers with portable PA systems screaming their pitches; India has no concept of noise pollution. Curiously enough the only silent creatures are the cows. Though they are everywhere, getting in the way of traffic, rooting around among the garbage, they never seem to make a noise. One would expect a constant chorus of mooing, but I have never in all the time I have been here, heard one make any noise whatever. Garbage is everywhere. The normal way to dispose of trash is just to throw it on the ground, and of course the cows (as well as all the other animals that roam the street, such as goats and pigs) do perform all their other bodily functions, so one has to be very careful where one steps. The sidewalks, such as they are, which is not much, are also cluttered with the aforementioned sleepers and sitters, as well as vendors with handcarts and vendors with blankets on the ground. The gutters are minor rivers of foul-smelling black liquid. All of this makes walking quite hazardous, especially when you add the potholes and sudden changes of level and of course the traffic coming at you from all sides whenever you have to venture into the street to avoid some obstruction on, (or complete absence of) the sidewalk. 

The stores are mostly concrete boxes with shelves and racks and low glass display cases for the merchandise. The owner and usually three or four hangers-on sit around on mats or directly on the floor. Often there is a low padded bench for customers, and all business that extends beyond a simple purchase is conducted over a cup of chai. In a country with so many people and so little commercial activity, competition is intense, especially for the attention of any passing tourist. Everywhere you go merchants are touting their wares. Again, the questions. “What is your country? How you like India? What is your good name? Where are you going? Come and see my shop. No need to buy, just look. Looking is free. Best prices.” You will find a friendly person at your elbow engaging you in conversation that soon turns to “My uncle’s store, just around the corner” These are touts, who roam the street and get a small commission for each customer they lure into someone’s store, more if you buy something. Inside the store you are sat down, given a cup of chai, and merchandise is paraded before you. Endless shawls are unfolded on the counter with a flourish; “Which ones you like? What color you prefer? Very fine gifts; you have wife at home? Girlfriend?” If you express any preference at all, the rest are swept aside, and several more brought out similar to the one you liked. And it is hard not to express any appreciation, as much of the work is stunning. India excels at hand-made goods, embroidery, weaving, rugs, carvings, miniature paintings, exquisitely executed in very fine taste. All the while you are protesting that you just came in to look, and all the while more and more things are piling up on the counter. Of course you ask the prices of things, and then you are treated to a five-minute description of the work that went into the item, how many weeks of painstaking work went into the making of it, how fine the workmanship is, how much better this one is than all that rubbish you see in the other stores, what fine taste you have to pick this particular example, before a price is named. You reiterate that you are not intending to buy anything, you are just curious to know what is available and at what cost, and immediately the price drops by 20 percent. “You are my first customer of the day, not many tourists this year, I have to make money for my family, I give you special price, just for you.” “Thank you, I appreciate it, but as I say, I am not buying anything today, I told you that from the start.” “Well, how much would you like to pay for it?” It is all you can do to extricate yourself without succumbing. The problem with all this is that it makes window-shopping or comparison-shopping quite impractical. As soon as you show any interest whatever in something, even just by looking at it, you are set upon. This has the unfortunate result of putting many tourists off buying anything at all, since they cannot stand the pressure, and so avoid entering any store whatever. The best solution is to find someone you can trust who knows the best place to go, and then go there, but finding someone you can trust is not easy in a strange place where everyone is fighting for your attention. It is really quite a puzzle. 

There are also the actual professional beggars, usually disabled, often quite grotesquely. Here the situation is quite different. For one thing, they seldom do more than look piteously at you. In India begging is pretty much of a recognized profession, and since a large proportion of the population are practicing Hindus, who give alms regularly, beggars make a reasonable income, at least by local standards. Though some came by their disfigurements naturally (or accidentally) many were deliberately disfigured in infancy for the very purpose of eliciting pity. The begging trade is actually a fairly well-organized industry; they give a portion of their take to a beggar-master who performs much the same function as a pimp in the prostitution trade. An excellent book dealing with this subject is the novel A Fine Balanceby Rohinton Mistry, a well-known Indian author. However I would suggest reading it somewhere other than in a large city in India, as it has a very depressing ending, and seeing the actuality while also reading about the background does not make for a very good night’s sleep, as I discovered! The hardest beggars to deal with are the ones, mostly women and small children, that wait at places where traffic backs up, and look piteously at you through the car window, until the traffic starts moving again. They are very hard to ignore. 

All of this poverty and dirt makes traveling in India a decidedly mixed pleasure. On the one hand there are some stunningly beautiful places, and for a photographer the opportunities are endless. On the other hand one spends a lot of time wrestling with one’s conscience about the conditions in which so many of the people live. One cannot help realizing that he food that is thrown into the garbage every day by any restaurant in the US would feed a family here for a month. Spending time watching people literally scratching a living out of the dirt certainly gives one a heightened consciousness of the wastefulness of the Western lifestyle. I certainly have no answers to this dilemma; I tell myself that just by coming here and spending what little I do spend I am making a contribution, but it is hollow consolation. I have to make a conscious effort not to brood on the situation, since that does not help anyone either. The best solution seems to be to avoid such cities, and concentrate on the good parts, which are certainly plentiful. 

The Bride Wore Red — A Rajasthani Wedding

The wedding party

December is wedding season in Rajasthan, which means that on any given day in any town there might be six or seven weddings taking place, even more in the larger towns. I was fortunate enough to be invited to one, though actually no invitation is strictly needed, as anyone seems to be welcome! 

Weddings here are very much public occasions, and much of the action takes place in the streets. If your only experience of weddings is the American or European model, a certain amount of reorientation is in order. The most important difference is that in our culture the wedding day is the bride’s day. She is the center of attention, and the groom is pretty much of an afterthought. Here it is entirely the other way around. Everything centers around the groom, and it is the bride who is in the background. This of course reflects the roles of the sexes in India. Women’s liberation has made no inroads here whatever. In Indian family life the man is the center of the universe and the woman is little more than an unpaid servant. Although officially many of the old customs have been abolished, most of the attitudes live on as strong as ever. Every parent prays for male children. Modern technology such as amniocentesis is used not for reasons of health but to establish the sex of the baby, and it is far from uncommon for women to be pressured into abortions if they are carrying girls. I am told that infanticide of female children is still an accepted, if undercover, practice in rural areas. A daughter represents a considerable expense for her parents as they are expected to provide a sizeable dowry if she is to find a husband. 

Strangely the laws of supply and demand seem to be subordinate to cultural attitudes, since the result of these policies is that there are three men for every two women in India, and one would think that this would tip the balance in favor of the women in the marriage stakes, but this is not the case. In spite of the fact that a large percentage of the male population will never have the opportunity to marry because of the shortage of women, still the parents of the bride bear enormous expenses to see that their daughter is married, and still the wife is treated as a second-class (or maybe third class) citizen. The family hierarchy has the husband at the top, followed by any male children, then the wife, and then any female children. 

An additional burden for the young bride is that since housing is expensive and in very short supply, it is almost certain that she will spend at least the start, and maybe all of her married life living with her husband’s parents. If you think that the mother-in-law has a bad reputation in the West, in India the situation is far worse. Having herself been victimized by her husband and his mother, when it comes time for the mother of the groom to acquire a victim of her own, she is generally more than ready for the task. The daughter-in-law becomes the slave of the household, and the target of constant criticism, since of course no woman is good enough for her son, the prince. Of course there are exceptions to these rules, but this is the cultural norm, so it is hardly surprising that the wedding day is not much of a celebration for the bride. 

The proceedings start with the groom being paraded through the streets, starting some distance from the place the wedding is to take place. First comes the band, consisting of several drummers, a trombonist and a clarinet player, whose musicianship is considerably outweighed by their enthusiasm and volume. They are followed by the groom’s male friends, dressed in western style suits with the addition of colorful turbans, all of whom seem to have been indulging heavily in alcoholic sustenance ahead of time. Every fifty yards or so they break into wild dancing, pulling in any passers by that they can get to join them. Dancing is perhaps too generous a description, as much of it consists of joining hands and twirling around faster and faster until centrifugal force propels them pell mell into the crowd, or prancing around wildly with their arms in the air like a drunken imitation of a Hollywood impression of a Native American war dance. Dressed in feathers and carrying tomahawks they would be right at home on the back lot of Universal Studios! 

Prancers prancing

Next comes the groom, dressed in a magnificent Rajput costume consisting of a long golden embroidered tunic, embroidered shoes and a magnificent flowing turban, mounted on a horse. Since the chances are he has never been on a horse in his life, and the nearest he has come to his warrior heritage is on the screen of the local movie house, at this point of the proceedings he looks somewhat apprehensive. His movements are somewhat hampered by the fact that he has some twenty necklaces of marigolds around his neck; every few yards another one is added; every time he passes a business owned by someone he knows he stops and another necklace is draped around his neck. Soon most of his head disappears inside the mound of flowers, making navigation quite a challenge. Fortunately a couple of older male relatives walk on each side to make sure that nothing untoward happens such as the long-suffering horse deciding to bolt. On each side are two women bearing on their heads ornate double propane lamps, casting a bright and lurid light on all around. Behind the horse walk the groom’s female relatives, gorgeously bedecked in saris and masses of gold jewelry, and a huge crowd of other guests and people who just decide to join the parade. 

The groom on his horse

This whole caravanserai proceeds through narrow cobblestone streets, spraying the passers by with confetti and some substance that looks like shaving cream that is squirted from spray cans. Meanwhile regular traffic is threading its way in both directions through the parade, while the prancers prance and the band makes enough noise to waken the dead. Eventually the parade reaches the bride’s house, and after dismounting from the horse (not without difficulty on account of the mountain of flowers he is carrying around his neck) and performing an elaborate ceremony involving striking the door post three times with a long stick and intoning some kind of incantation, the groom and as many of his friends as can be crammed inside enter the house. Inside the relatives of the bride (who is herself not in evidence at all) welcome the arriving party, and a long and complicated set of rituals ensue, involving ceremonial trays of fruit and vegetables and small bowls of spices and brightly colored powders, more flowers and more incantations, all taking place in a tiny courtyard lit by the glow of the gas lamps and the lights of the videographer who is recording all of the proceedings. After twenty minutes or so, still with no sign of the bride, the whole party piled out of the door into street again, the groom mounted his patient horse once more, and off we all went down the narrow winding alleys, band thumping loudly, prancers drunkenly prancing, and all of the followers laughing and chattering as they went. 

Part of the procession

Eventually the whole procession turned down a side alley with a large pavilion-like tented structure covering the entrance, opening at the far end into a brightly lit space about fifty feet by fifty feet large. At one end was a raised platform lined with painted panels, with two massive ornate red chairs placed in the middle. Around two sides were long tables covered in brightly colored and patterned cloths that reached the ground, piled high with all kinds of food; huge copper and brass bowls full of rice, fruit, curries and other hard to identify meats and vegetables swimming in sauces, plates of sweets and pakoras and samosas, jugs of fruit juices and lassi, pots of chai. The center of the square was filled with people, milling and chattering, large groups seated on the ground, others on plastic chairs, small children in their best clothes running in and out, laughing and shouting. 

More guests

Every table was surrounded by people with plates that they were piling with food before joining one or other group and settling down to stuff themselves. The groom and his friends mounted the platform, and while the groom, by now relieved of his pile of flowers, sat regally in one chair his friends alternated occupying the other, sometimes two or three at a time, while the photographer snapped pictures. The rest of the procession melded into the crowd and joined the rush for food. Everywhere I wandered through the crowd people smiled at me, made me welcome and pressed food and drink upon me. Still the bride had not appeared. 

Children were eager to pose

Finally after half and hour or so, a relative quiet fell, and all eyes turned to the back of the square, where a small procession of women had formed, glittering with gold brocade and vividly colored saris. In a space in the middle of the group walked a beautiful young woman in a flaming red sari, even more bedecked with gold chains and jewels than her companions, her eyes, cast demurely down to the ground in front of her, outlined in glittering silver paint, and a large jeweled brooch adorning her forehead. Her companions bore large trays heaped with flower petals that they cast before her. Slowly the group ascended the platform, where the groom, now alone, waiting in front of the two chairs. The bridal group left the platform, and the bride and groom finally confronted one another, each bearing a single long garland of flowers. 

Finally the bride arrives

For a long moment they stood looking at each other, then with a sudden movement the bride stepped forward and swiftly placed her garland around the groom’s neck, and stepped back. The groom then repeated the gesture, in turn placing his garland around her neck. At this the crowd cheered and stamped, and the couple sat down in the chairs while their friends threw flowers and confetti all round. Sadly at his point I became aware that if I did not leave immediately I would miss my train, so I reluctantly climbed on the back of my friend’s scooter for a hair raising ride back through the maze of narrow streets (and, incidentally, through the middle of another wedding procession) to the railway station, where I made it to the train just in time. I still do not know at exactly what point the couple were actually married, but I can say for sure that everyone present was having a riotously good time (with the possible exception of the couple themselves, who seemed a little bemused by it all.) For myself I enjoyed a feast for the eyes as well as some delicious food, but I was not sorry to hear those deafening drums fading into the relative quiet of the evening streets.

Exchange of garlands