Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Lucknow - Part 1

Weekend before last, my friend Sharad and I took a train to Lucknow to see the city where he once lived and to see a Muslim wedding as they are very different from Hindu ones. They may be different in the actual ceremonies and customs, but one tradition holds true; If the wedding is in India, the country is invited along for the festivities. We grabbed the 6:15am train from New Delhi train station, which compared to 10 years ago when “train come in maybe one hour” or “maybe train come tonight” or even “train no come today”, was a completely different experience. The Shatabdi Express left perfectly on time, perfectly cushioned and fantastically air-conditioned.

Leaving Delhi station in the morning is unlike anything I have ever experienced. As we started our journey, the sun was peeking over the rooftops, saying hello and giving us the first signs that it was going to be another hot and sunny day. Those early morning shades of pink and orange provide just the right mood lighting for the next scene which comes into focus as the train slowly snakes through the still sleepy city and across the River Yamuna. See, not everyone in India has indoor facilities and so early morning often finds people in the fields and near the railroad tracks taking care of Mother Nature’s morning call. So there I was, taking in every detail of a part of Delhi I had not yet seen and suddenly my view was littered by the pooping masses. It is sometimes done discreet, sometimes not so discreet and for some reason, they all seem to be facing the train and very often give the very same look a cat gives when it is in the litter box that says “I’m not really here”, you know that one that looks like a combination of terror and denial. Others are far less concerned and just go about their business, smile and wave to the train like a squatting village greeter.

Fast forward a few hours and we arrive in Lucknow. Being a gora in Delhi, I am e pluribus unum or one of many. Lucknow was a completely different story. I did not see another non-Indian person in the 2 days I was there. I was it, the poster child for sun-block and bad bargaining skills. I take the approach of negotiating, knowing my BATNA or (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, - in other words, if you can’t get what you want for what you want, what do you settle for? A little something I learned working with Shell) and begging and pleading and flashing puppy eyes. Sharad’s way of bargaining is to just shove whatever amount of money he thinks is right into the hand of the seller. The tactic works wonders. I should have picked this up from one of my many excursions to Palika Bazaar, but had not connected those dots. It seems that once money is in the hand of the merchant, they would rather give you their nearest relative than to hand back any form of currency. So, in spite of all the protests, as soon as Sharad stuffed the money in their hand, it was a done deal. I will try that some day but not without an intimidating bodyguard, just in case.

But the day was to hold more surprises than merely effective bargaining tips. A lifelong dream came true that day. I have always wanted to see an elephant up close and personal. I have seen them in the zoo, I have seen them at the circus and more recently, I have seen them in traffic. As we were walking though one of the markets, there it was, this decorated elephant standing in the street. I could not let the moment pass by. Sharad was concerned for my safety as there have been recent events of elephants going wild and killing people, but I never once felt scared or intimidated. Maybe due to ignorance, maybe something else, but all I knew was that nothing was going to get in my way of getting up close. I handed Sharad the bags and camera and went over to the elephant. It was amazing. It (I am not sure if it is a he or a she – and no, I didn’t look for any dangling machinery - and I don’t want to be accused of incorrect labeling) started grabbing my hand with its trunk, which felt very different than I ever imagined. I got to pet it for a few moments. Sharad was not at all comfortable and while he snapped a few pics, he wanted me away from the elephant as soon as possible. I wanted to stay the whole day with my new friend. Even now when thinking about it, I get such a great feeling from the whole experience.

We worked up such an appetite during all the hullabaloo and when in Lucknow, there is only one place to go… Tundays Kebabs. I have to say they were absolutely amazing and melt-in-your mouth and I stuffed myself so full of them I thought I would burst. From there, we piled into a shared taxi and were soon singing along to Bollywood greats while bouncing our way to Sharad’s brother’s home, where we would be staying the night.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by the cutest little monkey in a small tree right outside the gate. I took some pics while Sharad told me to get inside and not stand around as monkeys can be unpredictable. I scoffed. I laughed. I teased him for his cowardice and went to the roof terrace where I could get a better shot of the little guy. Suddenly, cute little monkey turned and showed me all of his sharp teeth and hissed at me, all the while looking ready to pounce. It is a good thing I had gone to the loo in town, otherwise I wuld have peed my pants right then and there. I practically tripped over myself trying to get down the stairs as quickly and unharmed as possible without looking behind me to see how close monkey was. It was all very Jurassic Park. It turned out that monkey didn’t follow me, I spotted him still in the tree and gave him a few hisses of my own. Give a monkey a tree and they think they own the whole world. Typical.

When word got around the office, as word tends to do, that I was going to Lucknow, everyone kept telling me to get a kurta with chicken work as it comes from Lucknow. Everyone was so excited about chicken work, but frankly, it didn’t really sound all that appetizing for me and I just could not imagine what on earth it would be and why they would call it chicken work.

Well, imagine my embarrassed surprise when I learned it was not “chicken” but rather “chikan”. As alphabetical conservation is a topic now near and dear to my heart, I was delighted to see such conservational spelling. In this time of depleting resources, we all must do our part. Anyway, chikan work is a kind of embroidery and I was immediately sold. I’ll tell ya, if there is one country in the world that lets a gay man cater to his every stereotypical whim, India is the place. Where else can a man go around in beaded and embroidered clothing and shoes in colors ranging from vibrant to pastel and nobody so much as bats an eyelash. In fact, grooms wear at an Indian wedding is a Liberace wet dream. I myself am just back from ordering a kurti that has more beads than Princess Diana’s dress. It will be ready in 2 weeks so now need to search for the perfect place to show it all off… But let’s get back to Lucknow…

I threw on my new chikan kurta and was off to my first Muslim wedding. My second wedding in India and the second one I attended without knowing the bride or the groom. At least for the first one, I had met the groom long enough for him to say “come to my wedding” but this time, I met the groom in the full swing of the festivities. I was introduced to a man without a face. Well, he had a face, but it was obscured by a veil of flowers. We arrived at the venue with the veil clad groom and there was not a bride to be seen. The bride, I found out later, is not seen until the wedding is a done deal. Signed and sealed, she gets delivered. She’s his.

We arrived and I was immediately shoved to the front of the line, to walk in with the groom and just as I was about to sit down with the guests, I was led to the platform, took off my shoes and was given the seat to the groom’s right. I sat between a groom I had never seen and his brother I had just met. I thought it was for a photo op, but it was for the whole ceremony. I felt lost and extremely out of place. I have no idea what the traditions are and suddenly I am in front of everyone, everything I do on immediate display. I wasn’t even sure how to sit. Cross legged? On my knees? Lounging in that Buddha Bar kind way? Once again I felt extremely self-conscious and praying to any god that would listen that I would not make some sort of mistake and ruin the wedding for everyone, disgracing the groom’s family and alienating his up-to-that-point invisible bride. Even though I had never met the bride, it was no big deal. It turns out that the groom only knew the bride for about 5 minutes before the marriage.

After the signing of a few papers and a small speech (it was in Hindi so I have no clue if it was a speech, a quote from the Koran or something else) the bride was brought in, a bundle of red and gold, looking neither happy or sad, just going through the motions. That is the traditional look for a bride. I was thinking about what it must be like for her, knowing she was now joined with a man she doesn’t know. Even the looks or personality seem not to have any bearing for the bride and groom themselves. Whether they find each other sexy, funny, grotesque or coma-inducingly boring makes absolutely no difference. After the ceremony, she will leave her home, her family to live with someone she has never even had an extended conversation with. I am still trying to wrap my head around an arranged marriage and what it must be like to commit for life to someone you have not even had a serious conversation with. Unless a couple can make it through a visit to IKEA, how do they know they are compatible?


  1. hello Robb, i would like just to say you, big kisses and good work..Muchos besos Manuel

  2. Luckily, in India we're yet to have rampant IKEA stores ! :P

  3. Hi, just visited your blog first time, and found it quite interesting. Nice post indeed. Thanks for sharing it to all.
    Praveen singh
    Lucknow Chikan