To wed or not to wed – such was the Shakespearean question. The rings had been exchanged, the bridal ‘joras’ were ready, the bridegroom’s sherwani was ready for delivery, the jewelry was selected and ordered, fancy invitation cards for the barat and valima had gone to the printers and house renovation was almost complete.
Then came Corona, quickly followed by the lockdown.
No marriage halls, no shops except groceries and pharmacies were allowed to open, not even the mandatory hair stylists and bridal make-up saloons. There were reports of wedding parties being apprehended (with the groom as the prime suspect), the number exceeding the number of kite-fliers and kites.
So what to do? Should we postpone, go-ahead or have an underground wedding? Scores of Whatsapp messages, hours of phone conversations. What to do? The answer to this intriguing question can wait for later. Before that, another question.
Is Marriage a social construct, or a sacred pact? This age-old question had always perplexed me. All the rituals of different cultures seemed strangely artificial to me. Fun, yes. Memorable, endearing, perhaps – but not something that best represented the deepest expression of Love that one can commit to; Marriage. From exchanging vows in some cultures, going around a fire in others to our own elaborate ceremonies.
Traditional Filipino wedding receptions involve the bride and groom releasing two doves into the air to represent a long, peaceful, and harmonious life together. In Kenya, as the bride and groom leave the village, the father of the bride spits on his daughter’s head so as not to jinx their good fortune. Bride-(kid)napping is common in Romania. Don’t worry, it’s a mock abduction somewhat like our own ‘joota chupai’, in which the groom must rescue and pay her (or her friends) a negotiated ransom. In the beloved Japanese tradition of san-san-kudo, the bride and groom take three sips from three Sake cups, after which their parents do the same, bonding the families together, perhaps in a half-drunken state.
Are elaborate ceremonies really an essential, nay compulsory part of starting a new life with someone? Also, why is two people signing a pact to live together something for everyone to get so excited about?
Back to my story.
After my engagement, preparations were started on a war footing for the coming wedding. I had hardly ever been concerned over the brand of clothes I wore. I had thought I looked good in whatever I wore, whatever car I drove or watch I wore. I knew for the person I loved, the size of the diamond, carat of the jewelry or designer of the dress hardly mattered.
But slowly I began to feel the invisible, unsaid pressure. Comparisons on who got married in such and such insanely priced dresses. Friends who had booked huge halls with trees imported from God-knows-where, with jewelry to put the fabled El Dorado to shame. My own sherwani turned out to be worth almost a year of a poor man’s pay.
I did start to enjoy the festivities though. Renovating the house, preparing the wedding songs and dances for the ‘mehndi/shehndi’, the decorations and the invitations. Then came Corona.
Living in different cities, Whatsapp was the primary form of communication with the Mrs-to-be. I was to visit her city, probably the last time we’d see each other before the wedding. I, like many others, wasn’t too worried about Corona at first. Slowly that started to change, and the lockdown hit us hard in the two days before my departure, and things got real.
My sherwani was ready, and I had to go for a final fitting for the dress that I would get married in. My exquisite suit for the valima, the cloth carefully selected, was in the final stages. I had been called for a fitting the day before. After scouring half a dozen different halls, I had finally sat down with the decorators just a week ago, and the jewelry which was selected through considerable vetting by both my Aunt and through video call with the bride to be, was waiting to be picked up.
A separate section was being constructed for us, with me seeing my old, small but beloved room of the past 20 years being torn down and merged with another. The outer walls of the house were to be rebuilt, new entrances created and paint applied. I had half become a construction worker myself, selecting doors, lights, tiles and what not. I was praised for my exquisite taste and great sense of design. Unbeknownst to everyone, there was a hidden hand involved in almost every decision. No not my Dad. Guess who the boss in the marriage would be!
After the lockdown was announced, all those plans came to a standstill. It was decided to hold somewhat limited functions at our houses. Alas, after things got even worst, even that was of the table. There was talk of delaying the wedding. Only, no one knew when dear old Corona would leave us alone. It could be a couple of months, or even a year, and both of us could not video chat for a year on Whatsapp with broken connections and bad camera angles (thank God she loves me, I looked horrible). The wedding was on.
We at Ajoka have been familiar with the doors of theatre halls being closed for us in times of dictatorships. This was the time that the doors of marriage halls had also been shut in our face. At Ajoka we found house lawns, factory yards or street corners for our performances. Now we had to think of an ‘underground’ wedding. The show must go on, as they say.
But where would the Dulhan stay? There was just a week’s worth of work left for our portion to be completed. But it might’ve been months. The Cantonment’s lockdown was especially strict, and even residents were being let in with difficulty, let alone any workers. The workmen had tried and failed to enter. But then a new problem arose: what will they do? There was no material available! No bricks, cement or paint. One day workers, wearing masks, might succeed in entering but the material would not be allowed. The next day, we were able to bring in cement or bricks but there would be no workers. It was like a weird “Beat the Lockdown” game. It was necessary not just for the general construction, but security as well; there were no walls! Imagine looking out your door, right into the street. Albeit, I thought, it might be nice waving to people passing by while taking out something from the fridge.
The opinions of relatives and friends was divided. There were plus and minus points on both sides. How could there be a wedding without hundreds of people having a feast and bringing gifts and ‘salamis’? “What about the dance numbers we had prepared?” asked my eager for a dance cousins. After all, how could two people in Love get married without huge amounts spent on food and décor, dresses and shoes?
I had seen movies where nothing else happens except preparations for a wedding (ranging from My Big Fat Greek Wedding to Monsoon Wedding, umpteen Bollywood movies and TV soaps, and the TV morning shows built around weddings). It seemed so uncool to have a simple, small, silent wedding. No mehndi ‘halla gulla’, no Barat with Band Baja, no food wastage despite the one-dish rule. In a battle of nerves, everyday there would be a new development. From negotiations on the wedding location to possibility of delays. One night the wedding was on, the next it was delayed. From us not being able to travel to Islamabad to them not coming to Lahore. Once that was finally settled, a new challenge glared at us: how to subvert the motorway rule of two people in a car.
Finally, everything was sorted, and the Nikah was conducted in a small but intimate ceremony, with close relatives joining from Pakistan and abroad: through Zoom! It felt surreal, a 21st-century Corona Age wedding. One of the most memorable images was that of the mask-wearing Qari sahib, lowering his mask, asking “Qabool hai?” and quickly putting it back every time! It will indeed be amusing to look back at the photos after many years and see everyone in masks and 6 feet apart. I was reminded of Ajoka’s play Burqavagaza in which everyone was wearing a mask or niqab, including a minister, street vendors, terrorists and Mullahs. I played the role of “Khoobroo” along with my beloved “Haseena”, both wearing colourful designer masks. The play was banned (twice) on objections from the Jamaat-e-Islami. And now the nikah was being conducted by a masked mullah! Let me point out that the whole under-cover operation was being recorded for posterity by a masked cameraman.
I have just started a newly married life. Having been a single child for many years, and used to living alone, it is indeed a major change. I am now concentrating on the things that actually matter. Adjusting my personality to another, fine-tuning your daily routines, lifestyle, changing your priorities and goals. For the first time thinking of another’s needs over your own. That is something I can call being a sacred part of this ancient institution that is marriage. I look at my parents, who got married in the most simplest of manners all those years ago, (under the cultural lockdown of General Zia-ul-Haq’s time) and it turned out to be an inspiring partnership.
I did not have to worry about which designer I wore, how many tolas of Gold my family gave or how many lacks were spent on makeup. I did not need to boastfully show everyone the expensive videographers I had hired, nor showcase all the important people who would be attending.
My dream wedding had always been a small intimate ceremony, secluded, romantic and about just the two of us. Maybe this was God’s way of making both of us and our families focus on what really matters. Maybe it was to showcase, that you do not need millions to marry someone. You do not need to spend what for many is their life’s savings. Save for your daughter or son’s business or future needs. Marriage does not need designers and carats. Marriage just needs two people to proclaim their infinite Love for each other, for better or for worse. The rest is just noise.
So the answer is that I, Nirvaan Nadeem, did get married in the age of Corona, defying the Lockdown and massive waste of money and food. When Fizza, the bride, arrived at her new home (with the half-ready living portion), she was most pleasantly surprised at the flower-gates outside the main door and on the banisters. Her happiness at the socially-distant welcome was worth millions of rupees and tons of gold.