By Kahini Iyer Jun. 13, 2018
We live in a time when the nation has joyfully adopted Karan Johar’s vision of the ultimate shaadi. But when everyone else has boarded the party bus, the Tam Brahm prefers endless agarbatti-fuelled ceremonies, Bharatnatyam, and a lunch of rice and sambar.
ike many a young Tam Brahm, the approach of wedding season has me ricocheting between two extreme emotions. On one hand there is glee – say if the invite says a destination wedding in Bali – and on the other hand there is dread – an Iyer cousin’s wedding in Chembur.
We live in a time when the nation has joyfully adopted Karan Johar’s vision of the ultimate shaadi. They are now widely regarded as some of the most fun celebrations in the world, with every foreigner hoping to eventually be a part of the Big Fat Indian Wedding. But when everyone else has boarded the party bus, the Tam Brahm stands in the corner, turning his nose up at your richly embroidered lehenga-cholis, your stupid synchronised dances, and profusion of tharki drunk uncles. A good Iyer wedding, like most preferred Tam Brahm pastimes, is an exercise in the virtue of patience, not partying.
By and large, the Tam Brahm community tends to regard “fun” with suspicion, uncertain as to why such frivolity should be indulged when there is tradition to preserve. Even the sangeet is one big Carnatic music concert, with some Bharatanatyam thrown in to appease both the Nataraj and that one athai (aunt), whose kid just finished arangetram. Several hundred rituals then follow, with headline acts like the playing of Gowri Kalyanam, as women perform a ceremony with clay pots, and the Gauri Pooja that involves everyone wearing a lot of heavy silk. These endless, agarbatti-fuelled events take place in the run up to the actual wedding, and, depressingly enough, are considered the Tam Brahm version of a bachelorette party.
The actual wedding itself begins at a time most Tam Brahms call “morning”, but it is actually closer to midnight, when the bride and groom are bathed in oil. Don’t ask me why. Appropriately slicked down, they arrive in Chembur at 5 am, ready to receive guests, because the community is of the firm belief that the interminable hours of Vedic rites are best appreciated on four hours of sleep. The bride and groom, who are severely sleep-deprived (and very greasy), face their first test as a couple: They complete the oonjal ceremony without collapsing in exhaustion, while the priests chant loudly in their ears. Even if the hapless spectators decide to tune all of this out to catch a catnap, they can always count on a maami in a billowing Kanjeevaram to give them a blow-by-blow translation.
When Translator Maami finally leaves their side in search of more uthappam, the plaintive wails of the nadhaswaram takes over. It is a vuvuzelesque instrument that predates the oboe by a few millennia and has clearly not seen any improvements in the interim. A fellow Iyer friend accurately describes the sound as “really wrong”, and when you hear it, you will find it hard to argue with this logic.
Amid this cacophony, the priests drone on, undeterred from their mission. It’s only 9 am and there are roughly two dozen important rituals to go. There’s the smearing of haldi and washing of feet, tying of mangalsutras, and sprinkling of holy water, the bridal costume change (where getting a chance to use the washroom is the highlight of her day), and then finally, finally it’s time for the pheras around the fire. For the couple, this signals the beginning of their married life, and for the rest of us, it’s a signal that we have, at long last, entered the ultimate hour of the proceedings.
The end of the wedding ceremony brings the lively action of chucking flowers at the happy couple, so you can work up a good appetite for the wedding lunch that may not be very exciting, but at least it’s sattvic or something? It will be a sadhya of rice and various kootus, served on a banana leaf, and if you don’t eat vegetables, Tam Brahms believe you deserve to go hungry. Any renegade thoughts of a chaat station, a live pasta counter, or even an innocent dal makhani, are met with the kind of horror usually reserved for beef. Lungi-clad chhotus scurry between cafeteria tables, relentlessly doling rasam out of metal buckets, as you try to make your feeble “venda” (please stop) heard over the din.
If the ceremony is the domain of the maami, then the lunch is where the pot-bellied Tam Brahm mama comes into his own. He hitches up his dhoti, rolls up the sleeves of his button-down (or, if he’s smart, has worn a bush shirt), and digs in with all the decorum of a preschooler learning to finger-paint. This may be basically the same meal that Bhukkad Mama eats every day at home, but that does nothing to dampen his gusto, as he makes his way through mountains of thayir-sadam and avial.
By and large, the Tam Brahm community tends to regard “fun” with suspicion, uncertain as to why such frivolity should be indulged when there is tradition to preserve.
After a decadent dessert of payasam accompanied by a single, sad banana, the leaves are cleared and the sambar wiped down from the walls. This rapidly emptying hall will see no displays of heropanti like a jalebi-eating contest, no flashy aunties doing thumkas in a circle, no brisk tequila shot to take the edge off after two straight days of explaining why you are not a chartered accountant.
Instead, it’s all over, and the only thing sweeter than the sense of relief is the filter kaapi that, however hard you wish, will never turn into a beer, just like the hall will never be a beach in Bali, and the stoic Tam Brahm will never, ever learn how to have fun.