No big deal, right?
Well. Then someone started explaining how Hannah (the non-Indian bridesmaid) and I didn't need to worry about bowing at the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book that sits at the front of the Gurdwara (Sikh temple) in a type of alter, unless we wanted to. Hannah and I agreed it would be respectful to do so if that is customary but I queried what type of bow we were talking about - head, waist, genuflection or what. Turns out it falls into the or what category - kneel down, then bow with forehead to the floor. Hannah and I were a little concerned about adhering to the proper protocol and not offending anyone but were also a little concerned with the state of our pants. Sure, they were covered by the dress but the pants fit so oddly neither of us could be sure that the wrong type of movement might cause a tearing sound that would not be so respectful. We were reassured it would be fine if we did not bow but ultimately we both agreed it would be better to bow than not.
We all walked into the Gurdwara and I wasn't sure what to expect. Once inside the doors we were in a lobby area with rows of shoes lined up on the tile against the walls. We found a place a little apart from where the other shoes were strewn and Hannah asked me if I could remind her this is where we left them and I took note of the drinking foutain to the right as a landmark, then looked at the somewhat foreign image of myself under a veil gazing back at me from the mirror that lined the wall.
There was a bit of confusion and everyone was lined up and started walking into the temple. The first thing that struck me as I was told to start walking was how soft the light blue carpet was under my bare feet. Then I noticed all of the bright colors and a familiar face taking my photograph as I followed the bridesmaids slowly down the center aisle as one of Ruby's sisters whispered behind me to go faster. No one had mentioned pace and I was following the bridesmaids in front of me and I needed to pay attention to how they bowed and when and where so I didn't do it wrong. I knelt where they knelt and put my forehead almost to the ground. I meant to put it on the carpet but my nerves were kicking in and I didn't want to be slow so I think I rushed through that part. Then I was standing with the bridesmaids wondering where we were supposed to sit on the vast open carpet. We ultimately settled in amidst Ruby's aunts and sisters and I was worried because Ruby and her aunt had asked me to carry Ruby's bouquet as I walked in and there were points in the ceremony when I had been instructed to hand it to her but now I was sitting in a crowd out of reach. I furtively explained the problem to a sister and the bouquet was passed up to someone closer to take over my duties.
The main part of the ceremony is the reading of the Lavans in which the officiant reads the Lavan hymn of Guru Ram Das which is composed of four stanzas. Beforehand, the father of the bride places one end of a scarf or sash worn by the groom over his shoulders in his daughters hand signifying that she is now leaving his care to join her husband. I saw Ruby's father up next to the bride and groom but couldn't really see what was happening. Then the officiant starting singing the first stanza of the Laav. After each stanza, the groom would stand holding one end of the scarf with the other end behind him which was held by the bride. One of Ruby's aunts helped her stand up as she held her end of the scarf along with her bouquet (I think this is when I was meant to hand it to her but they clearly managed just fine with me acting as a simple spectator). When Ruby reached the nearest corner of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, her aunt passed her off to her brother who tenderly put his arm around her and helped her walk behind her almost-husband to the next corner where she was passed to a male cousin. At each corner of the alter she was met by another male family member who assisted her. It was so tender and what I perceived to be the symbolism of the family assisting her as she embarks on this new journey moved me to tears. And I really do not cry at weddings very often. I did not want to be emotional at this one either because at some point I knew I needed to stand up and speak, I just didn't know when.
As Raj and Ruby completed each circuit, the musicians performed haunting melodies. At the end of each round they would bow to the altar - forehead to the floor - before resuming their seated positions for the recitation of the next verse. I felt silly worrying about bowing in my simple outfit given the weight and complexity of Ruby's dress it must have been more than a little nerve-racking to make the journey and bow each time with all eyes on her.
At some point during the ceremony plastic baggies were being passed around filled with confetti that essentially looked like someone emptied out the three-hole punch in their office. Hannah and I shrugged at each other as we each took a handful and assumed we would know when and where and how to use it. As the couple completed their final round, the women started tossing the confetti on the couple and the flower girls threw the rose petals from their little white baskets. We tossed our confetti but were too far away from the couple to shower them.
Suddenly I realized I had no idea when I was to give my speech. I should mention that nothing that had transpired up to this point, or after this point for that matter, had been in English. Everything seemed to flow smoothly with interludes of music followed by chanting from the officiant but I wasn't sure how I would know when I was to get up and recite the words that were scrawled across the notecards spilling out of my clutch that was on the carpet next to me. I whispered something to the bride's sisters and they - along with the other women surrounding me - assured me they would let me know when it was my turn.
I wasn't the only speaker of the day but I couldn't really build off of anyone else's points because I couldn't understand them. A couple of different men stood up before me and there was more music and during the music men and some of the women would walk up to the stand where the musicians were and toss money onto the table. I should note that the men and women sat on different sides of the hall and for whatever reason we were on the men's side - primarily because we were seated behind the bride who was on the men's side.
I should clarify that while the other speeches were in a foreign language there was one thing I understood - my name. It was mentioned a number of times and that was not lost on me. Each time I heard my name I started and looked toward the reassuring faces of Ruby's family who told me "not yet" or "you're after the next guy." Did I mention I was also the only woman to speak? It was getting more and more nerve racking to just sit there and wait for my turn.
And when it finally was my turn to walk up to the front, I willed the sick knots in my stomach to stay down and not rise as high as my throat as they were threatening to do. This was absolutely the most intimidating public speaking engagement I have ever had - much harder than speaking in front of my own church's congregation, more difficult even than making an argument in court. I felt myself babbling a bit in the beginning and then confessed to my nerves and felt them vanish.
I spoke about my friendship with Ruby and how much I was drawn to her warmth and vibrancy. I shared a couple of stories and remember hearing tittering from the crowd when I mentioned Ruby and I sharing hypothetical visions of our then-ficticious weddings as we shared our different cultures with one another. I then shared a poem I love and attempted to parallel its beautiful words with the story Ruby entrusted me to tell of the spiritual journey she and her husband went through to find each other. A journey that inspires hope in my heart.
I did not look around the room as I spoke. I kept my gaze as fixed as possible on the couple. I saw Ruby's bright face beaming at me and I was filled with confidence and I made eye contact with Raj for the first time as I shared the story of his pilgrimage to India. I was relieved to meet a welcoming eye.
Somehow I finished the speech and soon the ceremony was over. But just before it ended, as I was relaxing back on the floor after what I believe was a final prayer (again, not in English, no amens, it is hard to tell), I followed everyone else's lead and held my hands together in front of me in a cupping shape and awaited my portion of the Karah Prashad - a sweet that was blessed by the guru. Prior to the ceremony, during my speech research I had read that this offering and receiving of this food is a vital part of hospitality protocols and that it contains the same amount of semolina, butter and sugar, to emphasise the equality of men and women. It is served by the Sewadar out of the same bowl to everyone. When the Sewadar (a volunteer who works at the temple) came to me, I raised my hands to receive the sweet and was surprised first by the fact that it was warm since it looked just like cookie dough so I guess that is what I was expecting and then by the greasy texture which is due to the high amount of butter. Startled, I rolled the ball from the center of my hands to the left hand as I inspected it and while I was doing so the Sewadar took that motion to mean I wanted more and dropped an extra scoop into my still cupped hands. Everyone around me started laughing and I was a bit horrified. What if I couldn't eat it all? What if it tasted gross? I had no idea what to do.
So I started eating it. And it wasn't bad - how could it be bad when two of the three ingredients are butter and sugar? I don't know what semolina is exactly but it made up the remaining 1/3 portion and it didn't ruin it. So I finished my two globs of it and stood up and started milling about with everyone else.
Before I had a chance to congratulate the couple or search out my friends, I found myself being thanked numerous times for my remarks. Turns out, this was a pretty unusual thing I did and friends and family of both the bride and the groom sought me out to thank me. It was really touching. Especially since the compliment I heard over and over was that it sounded as if I really spoke from the heart because that is all I wanted to do. That is why the speech was so difficult - how do you turn your innermost private feelings into words? And then speak them out loud in front of a room full of strangers - and, even scarier, friends? Sure I can type those types of words onto a screen and shove them out to be judged by the internet but there is a comfortable distance there where I don't have to look into your expectant eyes (although I am sure you all have very kind and welcoming eyes). I really was overwhelmed by the kindness of all the people who spoke to me after the ceremony. Especially the woman I saw the next day who was a cousin of the groom who emphasized how shocking it was that a non-Indian woman was up there speaking. So much so that she ran into the next room where most of her family was eating (because they were apparently either bored with the ceremony or sufficiently hungry to move on to lunch before the ceremony was over) and claims they looked at her like she was nuts for even suggesting I was up there speaking. That's me, breaking barriors or traditions or standards or something.
After the ceremony, the newlyweds remained seated as well-wishers lined up behind them to drop bills and cards into their laps and pose for a photo. This went on for quite a while and I marveled at their ability to sit so still and serenly since I was fidgety throughout the entire ceremony. After I caught up with friends and had met a number of friends and family of the couple, I finally had a minute to officially meet Raj and to congratulate the two of them. They seemed dazed and were unsure of what to do when they were nearly the last ones standing in the prayer hall after everyone had rushed to the vegetarian lunch awaiting them in the next room.
The luncheon was fasinating to me. But for some design differences, the adjacent room could have been a cultural hall in any LDS chapel. Volunteers from the local congregation had prepared a beautiful buffet of Indian food that was welcome now that it was well past 2 pm. Sprite was being poured into paper cups and long folding tables were set up and decorated with colorful paper table cloths and silk flower arrangements. Oh, the Relief Society would have been proud to host this luncheon with the only difference being the potatoes were used in aloo gobi as opposed to funeral potatoes and freshly baked naan replaced Rhodes rolls. It was comforting to note the similarities.
I ate with friends and then waited around during the confusion of when and where and who was to be photographed. The hot, dry sun was out in full force as nerves wore thin and ultimately we said goodbye to the couple as they climbed into the limo and we boarded the bus with the other guests and made the 45 minute drive back to the hotel. I was exhausted but the festivities of the day were not yet over.