I’ve graduated from the housefly halls–have my own rain story now, complete with bloated beast. It is 4:15 p.m., 11 hours since I left home to attend a second cousin’s wedding some 80 miles away. The trip took nine hours and the ceremony, less than half of one. Lunch, inarguably the high point, took two. A sliver of a state along the southwestern coast, Kerala is thick with beaches and hills, paddy fields and coffee plantations, laterite reds and glossy greens. (On another note, it claims India’s highest rates of literacy, rape, and suicide.) I’ve seen little of this part of the country, having grown up in the east. My cousin the bride, who lives in Pennsylvania, has seen even less. Hers was an arranged marriage–surprising perhaps, given that she’s lived in the United States all her life. But trailblazing expatriates can make conservative parents, and so we have this arranged marriage taking place in a rainy temple town worlds away from my cousin’s. She seemed completely at ease, though. And bridal and blushing and all. But more of that in a bit. First, the trip. Lowlights: Our car stalled in the mandatory 10 inches of slush, and was bumped by unidentifiable floating objects aplenty–spicate palms and spiculate rocks and one spreading white mass our chauffeur identified as dead beast; it stank. The road was pitted with potholes, bone-jarring potholes. Highlights: The car started soon, and the potholes were muddily puddly. We splashed passing cars with brown goop–a kick for someone more accustomed to playing splashee than splasher.
Reaching the temple, absorbed into a sticky crush of relatives, we watched the ceremony from a distance. Weddings in our community are short. This one, already in progress when we arrived, seemed even shorter. Trumpets and horns and drums sounded, the bride was led up to a flower-decked pavilion, the couple exchanged rings and garlands, circled the holy lamp, and that was that. Time for lunch. This was a small wedding by Indian standards–500 invitees–and there were prodigious quantities of food, all vegetarian, all native to Kerala. Olans and kaalans and avials and masala curries, crisp pappadams and pinches of pungent pickles, and whole rivers of redolent, runny payasams. I didn’t do a very good job with my plantain-leaf plate (in my defense, though, this is no plate–it’s just a leaf, thick-spined, flat, impossibly slick, about 2 feet long and a foot wide). There’s an art to eating these things, and the expert eater makes it look easy. You tuck the food toward the center of the leaf, then scoop a mouthful with the tips of the fingers. Move it to your mouth. Ingest. Chew. Swallow. Belch. Then start again. Tuck. Nip. And so forth. But that’s for the initiated. Me, I had moments–several moments–when things got out of hand and plate. My cousin, with whom I spoke briefly, was in the same boat but infinitely worse off, firmly placed as she was in the spotlight, video cameras going full speed. She seemed none the worse for it, being in that happy daze peculiar to overwhelmed brides and grooms. I watched her grin blankly at the reams of guests coming up to her with the standard questions: a hopeful “Do you remember me?” followed by a reproachful “I’ve known you since you were that [forefinger pressed to thumb to illustrate the length of the association and your fetal proportions when it began] high.” There’s no simple way out of this one–identifications are frequently wrong and are always taken to heart. Blank grin is definitely the way to go.