East Meets West

By Mandira Chattopadhyay    

e-mail: mchattopadhy@bsu.edu

Many years ago, Kipling remarked, “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”

Recently Priyanka returned from a wedding in New Jersey.  The bride and the groom met each other in the suburbs of southern New Jersey where shopping malls and highways connect the industrial and service centers of the metropolitan east coast.  Being the commercial hub, a significant number of Indian immigrant engineers, managers, and business people live in expensive homes.

Priyanka visited the wedding ceremonies as an outsider, to collect data for her anthropological research.  She reckoned that as an invited guest for the wedding, she could use this as an opportunity to perform an ethnographic study of this event and the people around it.  The son of a well-to-do Bengali immigrant, the groom was born in Calcutta but brought up mostly in southern New Jersey, chose a Midwestern all American girl who came to study at a nearby college and then became a school teacher.  The groom, after graduating from a local college, picked the prestigious location of Princeton, New Jersey to build up his business.

The wedding definitely embraced a bourgeois lifestyle as the couple appeared in an unmistakably Western manner in a Princeton Chapel.  The groom gazed with reverence and admiration at the bride, who with her blonde hair and blue eyes returned her glance to him on a beautiful sunny April morning.  As the bride walked down the aisle in her father’s arms, the groom appeared in his diamond-buttoned tuxedo.  It was definitely a sight to see how the new generation of Indians was melding into the American way of life. 

At the end of the American wedding, within a matter of an hour, the entire wedding party was transported to a Pennsylvania castle with its gorgeous sprawling lawn far from the maddening crowd.  Priyanka would notice how these Indian immigrant parents did not want to see their Indian traditions to be gone with the wind.  At the castle, the mood was totally different.  The bride and the groom instantly changed into traditional Indian dresses to get ready for the Hindu wedding.  The sprits were quite high.  The couple had put on Indian-style wedding hats, brought expressly from India.  The stage was festooned with strings of flowers suspended from bamboo poles.  An agency was hired to set up the Indian mood with beautiful pink silk canopy and gorgeous red gold-trimmed pillows on Indian rugs on the floor.  There was a throne for the bride and the groom and decorated armchairs on either side to accommodate their parents.  The bride soon arrived with a betel leaf in her hand adorned with a bright red sari.  One could hear the mainstream Americans quizzing in whispers, “Do the brides in India always wear red?”

 Some of the Indian women started to make catcalls, known as Uludhwani to mark the religious occasion, while some others began to blow soap bubbles.  The priest performed the wedding rites by first starting a small fire from the wedding kit he brought.  He then explained the series of events that followed as he chanted the Hindu religious verses in Sanskrit. 

Priyanka noticed how everything had become so readily available now for the Indian style wedding, with the priest literally appearing in the blink of an eye with all portable ceremony items.  The entire Indian wedding kit is now available in Indian bazaars in this country.  The weddings now seem to follow the same formula everywhere.  Even the facial decorations for the bride which were painstakingly done with sandalwood paste, are now replaced by stickers which come off easily, so that the bride can instantly emerge in her evening gown for the Western style First Dance that would immediately follow the Indian style wedding. 

Priyanka remembered her own wedding in Princeton, N.J., a number of years ago where she had met her beau, an Indian graduate student at Princeton University.  She had come from India just three months ago to visit her sister who lived near Princeton.  The priests were not easy to find then, the only one available was hurriedly brought from the Indian Consulate in New York City.  A traditional Indian wedding took place in her sister’s residence – a blazing fire was set up in the backyard with the flames rising up in the sky.   Wedding vows were taken with the fire representing the almighty as the witness, and the bride and the groom went around the fire.  Unfortunately the bride and the groom could not wear on Indian style wedding hats, because they were not available.  Indian food was served in her sister’s backyard.  The reception followed the next day at the Princeton University Graduate College, where everyone, Indians and Americans alike, dressed up in Indian clothes.  It seemed that East still remained the East. 

 But here at this wedding, the groom and the bride, right after the short Hindu wedding appeared in the tuxedo and lacey gown respectively to present the gorgeous ballroom dance.  The men at the congregation were dressed up in a mixture of clothes mostly Western but a handful was in Indian clothes. A dance sprang up in the ballroom with the DJ playing some rock and roll tunes as well as the theme music from “Slumdog Millionaire.”  The guests went home thoroughly entertained. 

Priyanka imagined how in her own wedding she was bonded to the people that worked so hard for her wedding, a bond that remained with her even to this day. 

Looking at this wedding, she concluded that Kipling was wrong after all.  The East and the West have truly met, and what a mingling it was, at this gala and lavish wedding.

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