The bride wore white. The bride wore red. It was an American wedding. The marriage of my cousin Christopher’s daughter Emily and Kunal, the son of Indian-Americans.
Family members of the bride and groom traveled to the little town of Roslyn on Long Island. We came from near and far, from New York City and Long Island, from Kansas and Virginia, from San Francisco and Washington State, from Maryland and England. We came to celebrate the union of two people, two families, and two cultures. The couple are both the children of immigrants, the bride’s father from England, of Irish heritage, and the groom’s parents from India. It was the old metaphor of America as a melting pot made true.
The morning wedding ceremony took place in the Catholic Church of St. Mary’s according to the bride’s family’s faith and tradition. As we gathered in the church, the bride’s family to the left, the groom’s to the right, the aisle seemed a dividing line between religions and cultures as well as between families. On one side colorful saris and kurtas, on the other suits and dresses. But on this day we were one. Catholics and Hindus and some of no religion at all united in respect for the Catholic ritual and in happiness for the couple. The officiating priest’s homily sounded welcome notes of unity and inclusiveness. All sang Alleluia! After the service we congratulated the newlyweds and their parents then mingled in conversation with former strangers. The photographer herded us about and small children mischievously clambered over the pews. Despite the rain still pouring down outside, inside St. Mary’s all was happiness and celebration.
The rain continued into the afternoon as we made our way to the Swan Club for a wedding ceremony according to the Hindu faith and tradition of the groom’s family. The bride’s family and bridesmaids had changed into traditional Indian dress for the event. The festive drama of the unfamiliar rituals was marvelous to behold even when we were not quite sure what was going on. First we learned that the groom would ride in on a white mare. So we all had to troop outside into the rain and wind. But we soon forgot about the discomforts of the weather as the beautifully decorated horse appeared. At this point turbans were handed out to all the men in the two families, one color for the groom’s family and one for the bride’s. (Yes, I got to see my husband wearing a turban). Accompanied by drummers Kunal led a procession to the site of the ceremony. By tradition a nephew was supposed to ride the horse with him. Two adorable little twin boys were chosen to share the honor but each cried in fear as their father tried to put them on the horse. When we reached the entrance to the ceremony pavilion a ritual took place in which pairs of men, one from each family, took turns placing a string of beads on each other and then lifting each other up as high as they could. Presumably some kind of ancient contest of manly strength. But this was done in good fun with smaller men and boys getting some help and all accompanied by whooping and cheers.
At last we were inside the warm pavilion seated for the wedding ceremony itself. Emily was escorted up the aisle, not by her father as at the Catholic wedding, but by two of her sister bridesmaids. She wore a beautiful traditional Indian red wedding dress trimmed with gold. When they reached the mandap, a raised covered dais trimmed with draped fabrics and flowers, they removed their shoes. The couple sat in throne-like chairs in the mandap, their parents seated on the floor on either side. Before them a Holy Fire burned in a brazier as the officiant chanted prayers. It was hard to see and understand every part of the ceremony but some moments had a clear symbolism that transcended cultural differences. At one point the couple’s clothing was tied together and they circled the fire. Some of us were afraid of all the draping fabrics in their clothing catching alight. But all was well, and the now twice-married couple processed down the aisle beaming with happiness. As we all followed towards the cocktail hour pavilion a man came running through carrying a pair of gold shoes. “I must get these to the bride” he cried, holding them aloft as the crowd parted to let him pass.
The cocktail hour and formal reception that followed were lavish fun-filled hours. The bride and groom, in white dress and suit once more, danced the traditional first dance to “Is That Alright.” Classic disco music followed and then Indian dance music. A group of us from our table got up to join in, a bit awkwardly at first. Then in front of me a young Indian woman in a bejeweled sari twirled around and saw us. She laughed in delight that we were giving it a try. She began to demonstrate the moves for us to follow and we danced on together. It was wonderful. Different cultures and religions celebrating together in peace and harmony. But it was not so elsewhere in America.
This wedding took place on Saturday October 27th. What none of us knew until we caught up with the news later was that at the exact moment we sat in the Catholic Church in the morning, in another house of worship in a city not too far away a gunman opened fire. He killed eleven people out of hatred for them and their religion. It was the worst anti-semitic violence in American history. The day we experienced was the best of America. The day at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh was the worst of America. Which will prevail only time will tell.