“Hey, I just don’t think Operation Wedding is a go. I’ve been to three shops and everything is way too expensive,” I texted my friend feeling pessimistic. The wedding was at 4:00 p.m. and it was already past noon. Someone suggested I try Shoppers Stop, the budget Macy’s of India, but as I walked down the hot roads of Mumbai, I felt my hope dripping to the concrete along with my sweat…
Arriving to Mumbai
After spending a little over six weeks in Goa, I didn’t want to leave. The Bangkok Fiasco left a bad taste in my mouth and traveling seemed unappealing to me. My mom wanted me in Rome, and I wanted to quit, but I thought about a good friend of mine who spent a year traveling the world solo, and I wanted to push myself to continue growing (Go check out his the Savvy Vagabond Blog for some major travel inspo!!!). Thus began the search for the next adventure.
I didn’t really know much about Mumbai, but most flights connect through there, and I wasn’t ready to leave the magic of India, so it seemed like a logical stop along the way. I found somewhere to stay in Bandra West and packed my bags without doing any research on what to do or see. When I arrived to my room, my host was waiting with humus and pita chips. I took this as a good indication of what was coming.
Within minutes of arriving, I felt an ease of familiarity with my host, Sajal, a 23-year-old photographer from Jaipur living on his own in the city. We became quick friends, swapping stories about our travels and mutual interests.
“So what plans do you have for Mumbai?” he asked.
“Honestly, all I know about is the Gateway of India and some Elephant Caves, but that’s it.” I responded with a laugh.
“Well, if you have any interest in Indian weddings, I’m shooting one tomorrow and you’re welcome to tag along.”
“Yes,” I responded instantly, almost jumping out of the couch with excitement.
“There’s just one small thing, don’t tell the family that you’re my Airbnb guest. They’re close friends, and I don’t want them to feel like I’m bringing stranger to the wedding,” he said with a chuckle.
We concocted an elaborate backstory – I was a teacher at the institute where he was taking Spanish classes. Now all I needed was to find something to wear. The appropriate attire for women is a saree, a garment that is five to nine yards and is draped artfully around the body or a kurta churidar set, an elegant long blouse paired with silky pants. The wedding would begin at 4:00 p.m. on, but he would have to arrive much earlier, so the next day he dropped me off on a street with a bunch of stores and said, “I’ll see you back at house by 1:30 p.m. Don’t spend more than 2000 rps ($30) on a saree. Good luck!”
Finding the Dress
“Hi! I know I look Indian but I’m not and I’ve been invited to a wedding and I don’t know what to wear and I need help please,” I ranted to the sales associate. With a chuckle, she instructed a sales woman to help me. She took me to the rack of sarees, and I was in awe. I had seen sarees before, but these fabrics were so rich in pigment and textures. Without even looking at the prices, I picked out three beautiful fabrics in bright magenta, candy apple red, and deep emerald green. The girl, probably younger than me, called her mom who was managing the store, and her mom wrapped me up like a beautiful piece of art. I felt like a burrito, but the end result was stunning.
“I love this so much, but I have no idea how I’m going to put this on for the wedding. If I came back at 3:00 p.m. with my hair and makeup would you be able to help?” I pleaded. They took a moment to think about it, and with a big grin they said yes. I thanked them profusely, and said I just had to check the price. 8000 rps, over $100 – that’s a plane ticket. On top of that I would still need to buy the petticoat that goes under, the appropriate top, safety pins, and matching jewelry. I was disappointed to say goodbye to the beautiful magenta and gold saree I had fallen in love with, but I still hadn’t lost hope quite yet. There were lots of stores along the street, surely one of them would have something.
I walked into the next store and asked if they had wedding attire, but the associate said the store only carried casual wear. She pointed me in the direction of another shop. I plugged it into Google Maps and after a grueling 15-minute walk in the Indian heat, I walked into a blast of fresh air conditioning. Again I explained my situation to the sales woman, and she asked me to wait a few minutes while she finished with her other customer, then disappeared to the back of the store. While I waited, I examined the price tag of a kurta, and when I saw a staggering 8500 rps, I quietly bolted out of the shop before she could come back.
I was running out of options now and feeling the time crunch. I texted a girlfriend who lived in Mumbai for suggestions and told my Airbnb host that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to attend the wedding reception. My heart was starting to sink, so when my friend suggested Shoppers Stop, I crossed my fingers and hoped the Universe would bring me some good luck.
On the way to the store, I saw a shop with bright mannequins, and I felt a slight pull towards it. I thought to myself, “Well, it’s on the way, might as well see what they have.” This time, when I told the sales woman my dilemma I added in an important detail, “I have a very tight budget. I’ll take anything that might work. Also I should add that the wedding starts at 4:00 p.m. so I’m on deadline.” “No problem miss, we can help you,” she responded. The look in her eyes wasn’t pity, but rather compassion, as if a dear friend had come to her for help. The still shop became bursting with life as every team member moved with lightning speed pulling fabrics and dresses and tops and catalogues.
“This would look beautiful on your skin tone!” and “This one is right under your budget,” and “What do you think about this one?” We raced into the dressing room and from the outside she yelled, “Let me see the dresses, so we can measure for alterations.” Finally it came down to two options: a bright pink kirta and churidar set or a flowy peach dress that wasn’t quite a kirta or saree, but still appropriate for a wedding. After a bit of discussion I went with the second option because it made me feel like a princess and it was significantly more budget friendly. I paid for the dress with a knot in my stomach knowing that I had just blown my budget for the next few days. And I still needed jewelry and a bag. The sales woman said the dress would be ready by 3:15 p.m. at latest, so now I would need to find the key accessories.
Fortunately Mumbai is full of street vendors, and I quickly found a cheap set of bangles, earrings, and bindis to pull the outfit together. I decided to go home to get ready, then look for a clutch on the way back to the shop.
I literally ran the twenty minutes from the shop to the apartment because I knew my Airbnb host needed to give me the key before he could leave I was a madwoman in a summer dress and sandals running on broken concrete trying to beat the clock. I made it back to the apartment with five minutes to spare.
Before leaving, Sajal gave me detailed instructions on how to lock up and added, “By the way the water’s in shortage, so you’ll have to take a bucket shower,” pointing at the full bucket in the bathroom. This was an entirely new concept for me. However in India, it’s extremely common and even encouraged because it conserves energy and water. Meanwhile in America most of us still haven’t mastered the simple act of turning off the faucet while we brush our teeth.
The cold water hit me like a shock. My entire time in India, I had been taking hot or at least semi-warm showers, but this water was icy. I scrubbed and scrubbed, trying to remove the dirt of Mumbai off of me. The average girl probably takes over an hour to get ready for a wedding. I had less than thirty minutes. In 25 minutes I managed to transform myself, adding a beautiful bindi as the finishing touch. When I got to the street, I realized I forgot to get the name of the shop. Luckily I remembered the name of a store nearby, so I plugged that in instead.
I went to three different shops on the way looking for a clutch to put the makeup and phone I was currently carrying in a plastic shopping bag. I found one that was just slightly over my budget, but with a big smile I convinced the shop owner to wiggle the price down.
When I arrived to the store, everyone greeted me with enthusiasm. “You are looking very nice! So pretty,” said my sales woman. She gave me the dress and followed me into the dressing room to help me put it on properly. “No lipstick??” she asked, and then instructed another sales woman to get me a comb. “Everything matches so perfectly!” one of them said, “But what about those shoes?” asked another, pointing at my beaten sandals. I explained I didn’t have money for heels and they looked at me sympathetically. I thanked them all over and over for their help, and they all wished me luck at the wedding. Then I called my Uber and hoped I wouldn’t be too late.
While I was waiting for my ride, the shop owner, an older Indian man, came out and said, “You need better shoes.” I told him, “I know, but I just can’t afford to spend anymore.” He responded, “Don’t worry, we’ll buy them for you.” I almost burst into tears. I was Cinderella getting a pair of glass slippers. Another sales woman led us to a stand slightly hidden along the street and instructed the merchant to pull out two different shoes. She placed them on the floor, and said, “Here. First option, second option. You try.” They both fit too small, so we went up a size, and the third one fit like a charm.
The shop owner paid the merchant, and we walked back to the shop. Everyone came to the door to see. I was running late, and the Uber driver was lost. “Call him,” said the shop owner, but when I explained I didn’t have an Indian sim card, he took my phone, and plugged the number into his own. The driver was on the opposite side of the street, so he grabbed my hand and walked me over. He opened the door to the car and said, “Now everyone will be looking at you the entire wedding! You are looking very beautiful dear. Please come back before you leave for the US for lunch or tea. You are welcome anytime.” I resisted the urge to cry as I thanked him for all their kindness.
Cinderella at the Ball
The wedding was supposed to start at 4:00 p.m., I got there a quarter past 5 p.m., and the rituals didn’t begin until after 6:00 p.m. – Indians much like Latinos are perpetually running late. I walked into the reception feeling every bit the wedding crasher. I didn’t even know the name of the couple, but I was taken aback by all of the colorful clothes and decorations. I was in for something special.
True to our story, Sajal had told all of his friends that I was his Spanish teacher, but there were some minor flaws in our story.
- I didn’t know the name of this Spanish school.
- I didn’t know how much classes were.
- I didn’t know where exactly I lived in Mumbai.
- People in India are surprisingly very interested in learning Spanish.
When I entered the banquet hall, I went straight for a plate. At that exact moment, the brother of the bride walked over and said, “Yes! Please be our guest, don’t be shy! Sajal said you’re his Spanish teacher, right?” I immediately jumped into how this was my first Indian wedding and switched the subject. From there everything went smoothly. He introduced me to his girlfriend, and I sat with her and their friends in the third row taking in the ceremony.
The rituals were hard to understand because the priest was speaking in Hindi and not using a microphone, so it was more of a private affair between the bride and groom, and their families. I heard soft chanting, saw a holy fire, and during certain times felt the intensity of what was going. Absolutely beautiful.
Although the rituals people perform at a wedding vary region to region, by Indian law and tradition, in order for a Hindi marriage to be complete and binding, the bride and groom must perform the ritual of seven steps and vows in the presence of fire. When we approached the final steps, everyone came up to the stage to surround the bride and groom. At first I held back wanting to be respectful of all of the other guests, but someone pulled me up right next to the stage and put rose petals in my hand.
The bride and groom were linked together by a chain wrapped around them, and together they walked around the holy fire four times while the priest chanted and we showered them with rose petals. They were officially bride and groom
Although the actual wedding day is a time for celebration, typically there is no alcohol at the reception. Instead it is considered a holy day of rituals, followed by food, and everyone gets in line to greet the newly wedded couple. I stuffed my face until I couldn’t anymore and exchanged laughs and stories with my new friends. They had welcomed me in like family, and I truly felt honored to have been allowed to come into such a special day. However, throughout the night I got a lot of questions about my teaching.
“What’s the name of this place you teach at? I’m interested in taking classes.”
“You know that’s a great question. I’ve been there for two weeks, and since I bounce around so much, I keep on forgetting the names of where I’m at.”
“Oh of course, no worries. I’ll ask Sajal. Do you know what prices are like?”
“I have no idea to be honest, I’m just there as a guest lecturer to give more authenticity to the program.”
“Wow! That’s great, how long will you be in Mumbai for?
“Honestly, who knows? Could be two weeks, two months, two years. It depends on how the program goes or where else I find teaching opportunities.”
“Do you do private lessons?”
“Not yet, but I’m considering it!”
After almost everyone had come to greet the bride and groom, I was waved over to the stage to join into the picture with all the close friends of the couple. We took a few serious ones and some goofy ones, but the entire time I just couldn’t believe how quickly this group of strangers had taken me in. At the end of the official reception came a second dinner for the family and the couple since they hadn’t been able to eat the entire time. Once again I stuffed my face, as I joined in on the conversation. We gossiped about the wedding and the guests and the food.
After the final dinner ended around 1:00 a.m., came the after party. Although there was no alcohol and it was only 20 of us, it was still one of the most fun parties I’ve been to. It should be noted that Indian weddings go on for days and there’s definitely lots of alcohol involved – just typically none on the wedding day. Old and young danced enthusiastically to upbeat Bollywood tracks. Bollywood music is a unifying force in India because each song has its signature dance moves, so when it comes on, everyone breaks into the same movements. I did my best to keep up and enjoyed every song from start to finish. Unlike Cinderella, I didn’t have to come back by midnight and the party went on well past 2:30 a.m. I ended the night on a high, happy to have been allowed to experience such a central part of Indian culture. The brother of the bride and his girlfriend are up next, and they promised to invite me for their wedding.
Before leaving for my next flight, I wanted to stop by Soch, the store where I bought my dress, to drop off a box of sweets as a token of my appreciation. I felt so grateful to everyone who helped me make it to the wedding. The saleswomen loved all of the pictures and told me I was would always be welcomed there. Although my time in Mumbai was brief, I feel like I had the experience of a lifetime. There’s something so absolutely magical about India and its people. I have a feeling in my heart that I will return sooner than I think. I look forward to returning to this country of wonder.
Home is where the heart is, and I purposely left a piece of me there, hoping to come back for it soon…