BY JAN HAAG

POETRY + MUSIC + TEXTILE ART + TRAVEL + ESSAYS + FICTION

INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO





THE WEDDING IN MAHABALESHWAR

Her face, her hands and her arms were painted red.



In the late afternoon of a hot February day, I was sitting in a restaurant in Mahabaleshwar with a man from Pakistan. I met him on the bus from Poona when a whole crowded bus load missed death by one propitiously placed, huge boulder, which stopped us from plunging, when the bus lost its brakes, over a cliff. Having become friends, the Pakistani man and I had successfully gone guesthouse-hunting together and were now having supper. He was waiting to have his meat, and I was waiting to have my vegetables as we sat on an open veranda high above the street. Below us, the terraces of the Raj's once famous "hill station" descended step by step down the mountain. It was the time of year when many Indians take their vacations; the town was full. I was looking up the street which was crammed, as all Indian streets are, with people walking and sitting and living and being.

Suddenly the crowd erupted. People, who had been walking or standing in the middle of the street, scattered back. A band of men, leaping and hunched, straightening up and doubling over, singing, and playing drums, beating on pots and pans, indeed, pounding on anything that would make noise, came whirling and dancing along. As they moved down the street they circled around a prancing white horse. Astride the horse sat a man, hung like a Maypole with maybe a hundred ribbons on which were strung white flowers. The ribbons flowed down from his head and cascaded over the horse like streams from a fountain. The blossoms looked like stephanotis: little, waxy-white trumpet-shaped flowers with their maws facing downward. At points along the ribbons, the white flowers were interspersed with small crimson roses. The horse lifted its hooves high; the man sat perfectly still. His companions drummed, cried out, leapt, laughed and sang.

"What is it?" I asked my companion.

"A wedding," he said, "an Indian wedding."

"Is that the groom?"

"And his friends."

"And the bride?"

"She's at home. Would you like to go?"

"Go?"

"To the wedding?"

"Do you know them?"

"They would be delighted to have you."

I giggled. I couldn't imagine dropping in on the wedding of someone neither he nor I knew. Nonetheless, I had been wandering the subcontinent long enough to shed some of my American "cool," and had even began to develop some of the friendly nosiness and ravenous curiosity of an Indian. I watched as the beautifully flowered young man came by. His head was bowed under a crown, and the ribbons of stephanotis were so dense around his face that I couldn't see through them. "Yes, let's go," I said. But still unable to shake the Western ideas of decorum, I couldn't help adding, "If we may."

My Pakistani friend then assured me he couldn't go, but that I must.

"Why can't you go?"

"It wouldn't be proper."

I never did get quite clear on his reasoning. It might have been that he was unmarried, and, therefore, mustn't go to a wedding; or that he, a Pakistani, was in India somewhat illegally, and, therefore, musn't be seen at anything so public as a wedding; or that it was unseemly for a strange man to go to a wedding, but not for a strange woman; or that he, as a Muslim, musn't look upon a woman who was a bride. I never did quite understand his explanation, but my curiosity pulled me to see more of the ceremony that included this enchanting "knight" on the white horse: a flower bedecked version of the dreams of all Western maidens. I fancied that, above the scent of the street, the spice and dung odor of all Indian streets, I could even smell the flowers. I had never seen anything—anyone—so beautiful. In his long white satin tunic and his tight white satin pants on the white horse with the white flowers, he was a veritable vision of loveliness.

But we needn't, my friend assured me, hurry. The groom, he said, would ride all over town with his friends dancing and singing and drumming before the wedding began.

Then, though I wasn't aware of it at the time, my Pakistani friend must have excused himself or spoken to a waiter to find out where the wedding was, for when we had finished our meal, he directed me, without hesitation, down an immensely long flight of steps. Ancient and uneven, they flowed from the terrace we had been on to the level below between mud walled and stone buildings. Along with my tiny orange backpack and my shawl over my shoulder, I carried in my hands the small newspaper-wrapped parcel of black raspberries I had bought when we had strolled, at sunset, out to the famous waterfalls through the strawberry fields.

As we turned the corner from the step at the bottom into a wide dusty street, I saw a great crowd milling about. A hundred feet down the road was a large area covered with awnings attached to poles and to the surrounding buildings. Beneath the shelter at the end nearest to us was an empty platform, and on another platform, opposite the street side, were chairs. However, I couldn't see the far end of the covered area because one wall of a small building hid the view. On the street side, there were many rows of chairs, some sheltered by the awning but many out in the street itself.

My Pakistani friend was skittish. He didn't want to go beyond the foot of the steps. He said I must just walk over, that they would be delighted to see me, meet me. I was embarrassed, reluctant, shy. Nonetheless, my friend left me there, and I, as unobtrusively as I could, sidled forward. Someone greeted me, offered me a chair. I smiled, and, as my form of politeness demanded, declined. He insisted. I tried to take the least desirable chair in the back row closest to the street where I could barely see into the ceremonial area. My new acquaintance insisted I sit in the first row, an honored guest. He selected my chair, made sure I sat. Our exchange took place in bits of English, and I don't know what other language. The Indian tourists in Mahabaleshwar, I had already found, spoke more English than those who lived there.

As I gazed around, I saw I was the only seated guest. Most of the other members of the large crowd, which was composed almost entirely of men, were still milling around, talking. Once again I had to wonder if they or my Pakistani friend had mistaken me, a lone traveller who wore, unlike my saried Indian sisters, a plain long nunish gown and a closely shaved head—I wondered if they had mistaken me for a man. But not so. Leaving my red shawl on my chair, I got up again to do I knew not what. At that moment, a young man came pushing through the crowd, and, though he spoke no English, still, with a brilliant, welcoming smile and delightful enthusiasm, he managed to convey to me that he was the bride's brother. He wanted to take me to meet the bride.

Flushed and flustered, I didn't know if I should leave my shawl. Should I take my backpack? I still held the small newspaper wrapped package of fruit. I wasn't sure I did want to meet the bride. What would I say to her? I wasn't dressed for a wedding; I wasn't even invited. Though I guess I had been. Just now.

The brother chatted and chatted, and I understood not a word, as he led me away from the crowd down dark streets, into a tangle of alleyways, from which I knew I would never find my way out again. The houses were barely taller than my head. They were made of mud walls and some had stone foundations. The path was rough. There were no lights. It was very dark. If there was to be a moon, it hadn't risen yet. The crowd of people had been left behind. There were maybe one or two people I sensed more than saw, walking softly in the dark, hurrying in through a doorway, drawing water from a well. Surely not guests at a wedding. But I had made a vow long ago, on my very first taxi ride, that I Would Never Never Never Be Afraid of Dying In a Road Accident in India; now I amended the wording to include of "being a wedding guest" either. Besides, the young man was so solicitous, taking my hand occasionally to lead me over fallen rocks or away from a crumbling wall. It seemed that we walked for an eternity, but it couldn't have been far because we were still among the buildings of a town, and Mahabaleshwar is not very large. There were no lights in any of the buildings or houses, no fires. People cook outdoors on the dusty streets, but, as I recall, we passed no cooking fires either. Dinner is at twilight. It was now night.

At last we came to a rather wide cleared space. Across from it was a house, very low, certainly no more than six feet high, if that. From it, glimmered flickering light. The young man led me forward. We had to step up and over the threshold, and then stoop to avoid hitting our heads against the ceiling. The hallways and the rooms were tightly packed with women who, for the most part, seemed to be about my age, a very few were younger. Everyone was standing. Some of the women moved about, in and out of the warren of mud-walled rooms that seemed to extend in every direction. It was as if I had entered into some sacred rite in a cave beneath the earth. The whole interior of this extensive home was lighted solely by the golden light of oil lamps and flickering candles, perhaps one to a room. The atmosphere, thickened and dimmed by the drifting smoke from incense, was magical. I felt as if I were nodding in on a ritual of a time long passed. And it was quiet.

Some of the women were murmuring to each other, but no one spoke very loudly. No one seemed surprised to see me, which was surprising in itself, as Indians are usually uninhibitedly curious. The young man urged me forward. Turning me toward the right, he led me into a small room whose earthen walls were partly covered by elaborately carved wood. Between the carvings hung glittering pictures, sparkling with glass or mica, or was it gold? A young woman sat engulfed in a high backed chair. It was covered with layers of embroidered clothes and woven carpets and seemed to be the only chair in the house. Older women were gathered around the seated girl, doing things to her and for her. Immediately, I sensed she must be the bride—but she was dressed so plainly. I couldn't see her face because she kept it lowered, but I perceived she was very very young.

The young man introduced us. It was his sister, he indicated, and she was the bride. She said a few words, but spoke no English, and I did not speak her language. Her face, her hands and her arms were painted red. It must have been earth, for when I took the hand she timidly held out, it felt rough, as if it were covered with dried mud. She looked up. There were tears in her eyes, and moisture darkened the red earth on her cheeks. I smiled at her. I bowed. I did not know what else to do. It was as if all that crush of women, all older, and, who knows, perhaps wiser, had organized to create an image, an icon. They were busy painting it, dressing it and putting it forth for the wedding night. They were in no hurry.

I wanted to give her something. It seemed appropriate to give her a present. I only had the small newspaper-wrapped package of black raspberries. I put it in her hands, but, in the flickering light of the smoke filled room, it did not look as if she smiled. I did not know what else to do. I was no longer frightened, but I was terribly puzzled. Should I be happy for the bride? I had wished her well when I handed her the fruit. I folded my hands in "Namaste." I knelt, touched my lips to one of her hands. Then bowed my way out of her presence.

The young man had stepped outside by now. I had the feeling he was not supposed to be in here among the women, that he had only entered for my benefit. As I moved about a little among the women, trying discreetly to satisfy my curiosity, glancing in a room here and there, they touched me. Some smiled, some said words I did not understand, and soon, though it was like wandering about in an exotic temple sensing strange moods, peering at mysterious tableaux, inhaling the scents of, I think, heena, a sharp, pine-like scent, and sandalwood, I lost heart and retreated.

Ducking, I stepped back out across the threshold, away from the glittering array of saried women, from the golden candlelight, from the hieratic ritual and display into the darkness of the night again. The stars were out. I thanked my companion, "Namaste," and he led me—it was hardly any distance at all—back to the wide place in the road where the crowd still milled about. The young man showed me to my seat again, and left me, sweetly smiling, enthusiastic still. He had been very kind to me.

I sat. I stood and lurked about. I sat again. Several people attempted conversation with me, but there was surprisingly little English spoken, which made me surer still that these were townspeople who lived here on top of the Deccan plateau. Not far away, I knew, stood the fort near which Shivaji had used his "tiger claws."

A long time later the ceremony began.

On the empty platform to my right was a standing microphone, and someone had now placed a few chairs on the bare boards, the edges of which were decorated with flowers, swags and garlands of red and white flowers. Here the speeches began—many and long. Straight across from me was the raise platform with both folding and household chairs, all filled with men. I assumed these where the dignitaries, the honored guests, perhaps the fathers and brothers and grandfathers. The area to my left remained open. There were no chairs there, no platform, just the odd small structure I could not see around. Beyond its further wall, right over to the dignitaries' platform an area of bare dirt remained unoccupied. Sometime later, when I glanced that way, I was amazed to see a whole line of women, seated on the ground in front of the small building. They were the women, it was my guess, who had been in that house with the bride. Though I recognized none of them, still they had an aura of incense and candlelight about them. The bride's entourage. But I did not see the bride.

I never saw the bride.

The ceremony went on and on and on. Men spoke, men in turbans. People often glanced at me and smiled. I was treated with great respect and kindness. I believe I was even greeted from the platform. Perhaps I was a talisman of good luck. In India, I knew, the guest is God, Atithi Devo Bhava.

At last, the groom, still in white and partly draped with flowers, entered and came directly to the microphone to speak. He was beautiful, incredibly beautiful, veiled with the small white flowers, and, I now saw, crowned with white roses. Here and there his costume was accented with tiny crimson buds, like drops of blood on a field of snow. He looked across the room as he spoke. I followed his gaze, but all I saw was the line of older women seated on the ground under the dazzling florescent lights, their somber saris, shot through with metallic threads, glowed like a bed of coals—and still no bride. I thought perhaps it was because I could not see beyond the wall of the small mud and rock building that formed the corner with the street. The ceremony went on and on.

Later, when the ceremony was over, I stepped out into the large empty space in the middle of the ceremonial ground and looked beyond the little building. The awnings covered the space to the wall of the building behind, but there was no evidence that anyone was there, or had been there. There was nothing there.

No bride.

The festivities gathered momentum. There was much talking and laughing and eating, but I was too tired and too shy to join in. I drifted away, not quite knowing whom to thank or part with, and trudged back up the long flight of steps to where I had first seen the groom on the street above. There again I met my Pakistani friend. Accidentally? Waiting for me? I do not know. He asked me if I had enjoyed the wedding.

"Oh yes." But it had been hours and hours long and I was very tired.

As he walked me to the guesthouse in which we had both taken rooms, I asked him about not seeing the bride. I said I thought it was strange to have a wedding to which the bride didn't come. He said she had been there; he said she had been in that little house to the left, the one behind where the women sat cross-legged on the ground. She had been, he assured me, dressed like the groom, with a crown of roses and cascades of flowers. I wanted to ask how he knew, but I thought it might be a bit rude to challenge his statement. I could only assume that he knew what a bride wore to an Indian wedding, and where she would be.

He then assured me that I could see the bride the next day. At nine o'clock in the morning, she would come again to the area where the wedding had taken place to meet the groom's family and go home with them. She had gone home to her own family after the ceremony, he said, but would go home with the groom's family tomorrow.

"Wouldn't it be strange," I asked, "for a stranger to come and watch?"

"Not at all."


I got up before nine o'clock and found my way back down the main street, down the stairway to the wide dirt area below, and waited. I waited until 9:30, and then until 10:00, knowing that Indian time is far more flexible than American time. Then I waited until 10:30, but the street remained wide and dusty and all but deserted. The awnings had been removed from the square where the ceremony took place. It grew warmer and warmer. The merciless Indian sun rose higher.

I prowled around and looked into the little building where my Pakistani friend said the bride would have been. I had assumed I would see a back door through which the bride had entered, but inside the walls were solid. There was nothing in it, nothing at all, no windows, no doors. Four mud walls and a stone floor. The whole structure, thick walls and all, was only about six feet square.

But then again, I had had my back turned when the saried women had come to sit on the ground. I had not noticed their entrance. Could the bride, too, have entered when I wasn't looking? Perhaps. And yet, how odd. Odd that the ceremony had been so uninterrupted by her, the bride's arrival. I remembered the tears of the red-daubed girl, I thought of the beauty of the flower bedecked groom. And I wondered.

The sad young bride never came that morning. Whether my timing was off, or theirs, I do not know. Or perhaps she had come earlier—or had she declined to come at all?

I met my Pakistani friend and he escorted me to the edge of town to begin my walk to Wai, a temple town on the Krishna River. As we stood saying good-bye, a flock of goats gamboled in and out of a public building which sported a bold facade of columns surmounted by a Grecian pediment. I remarked on how delightful the goats were. He said they ate up everything, all the gardens and trees, and paper, too, if it was lying about. People, he said, had to chase them out of the banks.

The bride never came, I told him, but he could not tell me why. He had known so much, why not the ending?

"Namaste."

We parted.

Though I never learned what happened to the bride, I had learned, and am still reminded once in a while, that no Westerner should ever attempt to pronounce "Mahabaleshwar" until they have closely listened to an Indian say it. Closely. Maybe a hundred times. I have listened. But I still pronounce it so that no Indian ever understands where I have been. The name appears to have five syllables. They say it, as closely as I can tell, as if it were one.







Copyright © 2000 through 2015 Jan Haag
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail: jjhaag@gmail.com




THE WEDDING IN MAHABALESHWAR was first published in "Travelers' Tales INDIA," (O'Reilly & Associates, Inc., San Francisco, CA, 1995) under the title of A WEDDING IN MAHABALESHWAR along with A VISION OF VIJAYANAGAR and SICK UNDER THE BO TREE.



Jan Haag, writer, poet, painter and textile artist, first visited India in 1982. For a distillation of that journey see HOW I FELL IN LOVE WITH INDIA

Based on her many journeys and studies, Haag creates works which incorporate the beauty and complexity of Indian iconography and North Indian Classical Music into the intricacy of improvisational Needlepoints. A retrospective of Haag's textile art was shown during June, July and August, 1996 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum and the entire retrospective is now shown on this website.


Jan Haag is a writer, poet, painter, textile artist, and former Director of National Production Programs for the American Film Institute.





MUSIC + POETRY + ESSAYS + TEXTILE ART + TRAVEL + FICTION

INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO




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