The Achaar of life

The ‘Achaar’ of life….

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The Achaar of lifeI have always thought of what my late Mom did with those cast-off peels of green, unripe mangoes…. which were processed with spices in a big jar, then left the glass jar in open sunlight. This was a metaphor for how she had dealt with her arranged marriage. She transformed those peels, with palm sugar for sweetness and tamarind for tang, into something precious….the ‘achaar of life’

By Nazarul Islam

The elements of quirkiness add humor, fun and adventure to anything and everything in our wedding ceremonies across the subcontinent of India.

My close friend Jai’s daughter got married in late 2020. I had the privilege to view congratulations to field, gifts to open, thank you cards to send, lots of feel good moments to savor yes, but something to write about? Not really – except it was in the year of Covid-19. And the fact, they are traditional Indians!

The two just didn’t go together. Any Indian astrologer looking at the charts of Wedding and Covid-19 would have frowned on the match and declared ‘Jodi nahin banti’ (the match is not suitable!)

Quite rightly so! Most Indians are a sociable lot who love the following, in no particular order: touching, feeling, crowds, noise, group dances, loud music, food, relatives, distant relatives, friends who are as good as relatives, hugging, chaos, jostling at buffet counters, glamorous brides, make up, hairdos, designer clothes, wedding planners, alcohol, lots of opportunities to mingle, lots of (drunken) aunties on the dance floor, or so it would seem, lots of youngsters at room parties to get away from the aunties.

Then, they also thought of the coronavirus restrictions: social distancing, at least 2 meters apart, strictly limited guests at weddings, face masks, washing hands (how do you do that with just applied henna, huh?, and how do you get it applied anyway, with the mehendiwali holding a cone on a selfie- stick, absurd!), quarantine, seated meals, self-isolation… let me not repeat what has been beamed into every home for the past nine months. Perhaps, all the invited guests had the idea.

Coronavirus today….is the buzzkill that every good Indian shaadi dreads.

So, the parents of the bride had a difficult choice to make. Postpone the wedding to an uncertain date in the future or go ahead in its pruned down, sanitized, Covid-enfeebled city without the fun, the glamour and the guests. They opted for the Wedding-On-Ventilator. While there is life support, there is hope and we were hoping that one day all those present in the ceremony, would all revive and recover.

Live to party another day….perhaps, Jai’s family also wanted to respect the original date the astrologer had picked, after consulting the bride and groom’s charts.

What an inspired decision it turned out to be! In many respects a shaadi (wedding) during the pandemic was so much easier. The online shopping for instance – a boon for any harassed mother.

At the click of a key one could get to see sarees, zoom in if she wanted to check out a design close up, visit many more shops and outlets than a person could have done physically and share them on my phone with my daughters for advice. Of course, one would miss the unfurling of the sarees and the massive gleaming silk mountains my friend Jai’s wife created and left behind in actual shops. She had missed seeing the sarees draped on the salesmen (amazing how in India, the sales of sarees and women’s lingerie are almost exclusively done by men!).

Wedding moms love the way their fingers expertly pleat the saree into obedient folds, loving the way they suggest colors and designs, never ever running out of patience or ideas, even with the most difficult customers.

Actually now that one may think about it, having salesmen instead of women is an inspired marketing idea – a lady customer will buy anything from a man who is patient and gentle with her fickleness and never runs out of compliments.

The ease of finding a venue and a photographer at pretty much the last minute could not be discounted either. In an ordinary year, wedding venues get booked up years in advance and the stressful time between getting engaged and married is an endless round of viewings and disappointments. Not for Jai’s family though. They decided at the last minute, to select the Isle of Wight on the southern coast of England as a location since our daughter had lived there for the past few years and guess what, we found the perfect venue – available on the very dates they all wanted and before and after.

Miles of scenic coastline, endless rolling hills of green, all appeared deserted. No wedding parties in sight even on ground hallowed by Benedict Cumberbatch and his celebrity wedding. The family heaved a sigh of relief – in a year when most things did not go according to plan some unplanned things did go right.

In other respects, however, a wedding in the middle of a pandemic posed many challenges. The guest list for a start – With a strict 15 person limit in the UK, and nine of them, being immediate family, it meant they only had six places to play around with. Divide that between the boy and the girl and that left only three places each for relatives and a lifetime of school friends, university buddies and work colleagues.

Lists were made and cancelled, arguments were won and lost and finally three special guests were invited and told they had made the cut but their other halves had not! Because they were special guests and this was a special year, they understood.

Otherwise, imagine an Indian shaadi where the mama’s son is invited but the chacha’s son is not – or worse, where one bua’s daughter is asked to come without her husband – we would never have lived it down. But it was that sort of year, when unique circumstances created their own etiquette and our guests were graceful beyond compare.

Finding an Indian caterer, even for a wedding this size, was also very difficult in a place that has almost no South Asian presence. Since the families from India, are all fond of food and cooking, it was decided that the parents would cook the Indian wedding feast. So, saree pallus were tucked in, pots and pans brought out and the mothers of the bride and groom pitched in with their favorite dals and sabzis (lentils and vegetables)

The dads were not to be left behind and decided to have a go with their favorites too so before Jai’s loved ones knew it, there was a north-south blend of delicious home-made food on the wedding banquet table. It was a unique privilege to cook at Jai’s daughter’s wedding – again something, one did not anticipate, but like everything else this year, gracefully accepted.

And while the preparation for the shaadi had its ups and downs; once the ceremony was underway, the grace and solemnity of the occasion kept us all enthralled. As the different steps of the ceremony had unfolded in front of the sacred fire, all present had felt drawn into the sacred event – Unlike the social whirl that accompanies the traditional Hindu ceremony at larger weddings, there was a hushed silence.

Instead of a dash to the chai counter there was a rush of gratitude: that they had something joyful to celebrate in a year that has wrought havoc with so many lives. Instead of the admiring glances at sarees and jewelry, there was a celebration of the beauty beyond the material. Instead of the ceremony being adjunct to the fun and the frolic of sangeet and the colorful gaiety of mehendi, it was the prime focus and the piety was not lost on anybody who was there.

Well, it has been that sort of year – When the Jai’s have all changed in many fundamental ways. And as the groom’s Mom saw her ‘little girl’ take her first steps around the fire at her 15-person wedding, her head bowed under the weight of blessings, her every move followed by loving eyes around her—Jai thought, yes this is not the wedding he had imagined for her. This is bigger, better and far more meaningful than a mother’s humble imagination could have conjured.

Looking back in life…. Had my own father, loved my mother? He never spoke of her. I always imagined that the traditional marriage between them–was the one that was built with the strong bones of respect, but stripped of the soft skin of love.

I have always thought of what my late Mom did with those cast-off peels of green, unripe mangoes…. which were processed with spices in a big jar, then left the glass jar in open sunlight. This was a metaphor for how she had dealt with her arranged marriage. She transformed those peels, with palm sugar for sweetness and tamarind for tang, into something precious….the ‘achaar of life’

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About the Author

Nazarul IslamThe Bengal-born writer is a senior educationist based in USA. He writes for Sindh Courier and the newspapers of Bangladesh, India and America.