It was past four in the afternoon, yet the late-April Sun was quite hot. Grandfather and Sitapati were at the chess table on the main verandah. The game was extremely tight. All of us gathered around too, each calling out some clever move or other. Just then, Subhadram and Sankaram arrived on bicycles.
Mr. Narasaraju addressed the young men, “Why travel in this hot sun?”
All of us momentarily forgot the game and turned our attention to the new arrivals.
Grandfather inquired Subhadram in particular, “What news, young man?”
However, I was sure, Grandfather knew very well why these two had come now.
“Looks like they came to announce the marriage,” Mr. Ramabhadraraju commented drily.
Subhadram must have seen no point in keeping mum, so he launched into a recitation – “My elder uncle’s daughter, Lakshmidevi, is betrothed to be married to Mr. Varahalaraju M.A., son of the Great Lord (1) Kalidindi Niladriraju. The wedding will take place at my uncle’s home in the morning the next Saturday, the auspicious time being fixed at 6:32 AM by the knowledgeable elders. Therefore, my uncle humbly requests all of you to grace the occasion, and prays that you arrive by Friday” – he finished almost gasping for breath.
“Why this formality? We will certainly be there,” Grandfather assured Subhadram on behalf of everyone present.
“How many goats did your uncle keep ready for the wedding feast?” the epicurean Mr. Bangarraju wanted to know.
This time, Sankaram replied at once, “Sir, with your kind blessings – there won’t be any deficiency on that front!” We all burst out laughing.
I got both of them seated in the shade and served them some snack and cool water. They took the refreshment. After repeating their invitation individually to each and everyone, Sankaram and Subhdram left on their bicycles.
Pointing to the retreating form of Sankaram, Mr. Narasaraju said, “This boy Sankaram is the bride’s paternal aunt’s son, isn’t he? Right from their childhood, everyone thought that Chandram (Bride’s father) would get his daughter married to Sankaram, didn’t they? I wonder why now her grandfather picked this match from far away!”(2)
“Sankaram appears quite a fine young man to me. Can’t imagine why they (the bride’s family) didn’t prefer him?” Mr. Sitapati commented, even as he pointed his rook at Grandfather’s knight on the chessboard.
“Soooo, what does this brand new bridegroom actually do?” Grandfather casually inquired no one in particular, as he pushed the bishop forward to support his knight.
Mr. Varahalaraju provided the answer in his peculiar style, “Ah, what is there to do? Apparently he’d completed M.A. So, he must be doing something or the other in Madras. What I heard is that the family is extremely rich. So, Chandram must have picked this match with the hope that his daughter would be very comfortable.”
But nobody seemed to have heard what he said. All of us were drawn back into the game by Grandfather’s bold move – the consensus was that Mr. Sitapati is now on the defensive. As we scratched our heads for a way out on Mr. Sitapati’s behalf, Grandfather rolled and lit a cigar leisurely. Blowing out a cloud of smoke, Grandfather said, “I suppose all the groom’s side would be there in full force. I feel that I should attend this wedding without fail.” Now addressing a young man, he said, “What Pedababu, is your cart ready for travel? Are you done painting it?”
Pedababu answered in the affirmative, “Yes, Grandpa! I was just going to distribute soaked beans this very afternoon to celebrate the occasion (3). Certainly we shall go to the wedding.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Sitapati came up with a move and we all got back to the game again.
On Friday, once the afternoon sun had cooled down a bit, we prepared the ox drawn carts and set out on our wedding trip. The bride’s place is about two kros (4) from our village. Grandfather and I sat in the lead vehicle, Pedababu’s newly painted cart, with the chess set and board. Pedababu climbed into the hammock-like seat in front and took hold of the reins. With a throaty shout, he set the oxen in motion. As the servant ran in front, the carts followed one after another.
It didn’t take us long to get there. The carts were halted right in front of the main gate and we all got down. It looked like the wedding arrangements were being done in grand style.
The vast yard in front of the main gate was covered by a massive palm-leaf tent. The tent was decorated all over with fresh mango leaf strings, colored chains and paper globes. As the decorations fluttered in the gentle breeze, the whole scene looked pretty impressive.
The bride’s father and uncle came out in a hurry and invited us in respectfully. Pedababu instructed the servants to unload the sleeping bags and other luggage into the guest house reserved for relatives of the family.
“So, where did you arrange for the groom’s party to stay?” inquired Grandfather.
“Sir, we arranged it in Hastabal hall. Had it all cleaned up and covered the floor with cotton rugs and grass mats, sir.” The answer came from bride’s uncle Appalanarasimha Raju.
“Why in Hastabal? Either Motimahal or Lakshmivilas would have been more suitable!” Grandfather observed.
“Everyone felt, in this season, Hastabal is better … lot of fresh breeze and all … so, I said okay to that, sir,” humbly replied the bride’s father, Mr. Chandram.
“Can’t imagine anything better!” was the quip from Grandfather with a twirl of his mustache. All of us were a bit surprised at the sarcasm in Grandfather’s tone. Silence held sway for a couple of minutes. Suddenly, everyone remembered their specific duties, and dispersed quickly on various errands.
Grandfather sat down with the bride’s grandfather, Mr. Pedaraju in the front yard and both of them were quickly immersed in a game of chess.
Apparently the train arrived on time that afternoon, so the groom’s party arrived at the venue in the carts sent to receive them at the train station. It looked like the party was not as big as expected, so several carts returned empty. While the groom’s party unpacked, showered, dressed, and also prepared the bridegroom in all his wedding finery, a good time elapsed and the clock struck six in the evening. In the meanwhile, the bride’s people had to run here and there and perform all kinds of services for them.
They brought the groom to the venue (5) in a pearl-studded palanquin to the accompaniment of loud fanfare. Once the groom was properly seated, the men-folk from bride’s family entered the venue. All the men-folk from groom’s family stood up and respectfully invited them to take a seat. The bride’s family returned the polite gesture, as they are the actual hosts. So, in this fashion, they carried on for a bit, exhorting the other party to be seated first, in a grand display of honor and respect. Finally, all the assembled gentlemen, resplendent in their colorful headgear, regal in their bearing with holy marks on their foreheads, patting their luxuriant mustaches, slowly settled down along the edges of the beautiful carpet spread in the center of the hall, careful not to crumple their crispy ironed clothes, and careful not to intrude on their neighbor’s space.
Mr. Bangarraju now brought out his cherished upper cloth which he had wrapped very carefully for the journey, straightened it out and draped it proudly on his shoulder.
The priests started to recite the details of the nuptials. They described both families and their ancestors in glorious detail. They praised their valor and generosity at great length. They recited sacred Vedic chants. All the villagers, young and old, packed tightly around the venue to see the groom and his family, and expressed their appreciation. The groom reclined easily against the pillows while admiring himself in the mirror – his long shirt and headgear sparkling in the brilliance of the petromax lamps (6), he was resplendent in his princely attire. Many sweets and special foods made from pure ghee were piled in many silver plates and brass plates all around him, filling the air with their mouthwatering fragrance. Two young men, dressed as best men in matching suits and parrot-green headgear, sat on either side of the groom.
“Food is ready. Please come to dinner,” the invitation arrived from the bride’s home. As soon as the word came, we all set out to the dining hall, surrounded by the petromax lamps. All the items were quite tasty, but apparently, Grandfather did not like this vegetarian food.
“The wafer rolls are very nice,” Mr. Padamati Raju commented with appreciation. Once the dinner was done, we all took the betel-nut-leaf (7) and proceeded to our rest house.
“Somehow, the groom’s side seems a bit lacking in strength,” Grandfather observed flatly. I could not detect any hidden barb in his words.
“Their place is quite far. So, I guess only the most essential people came,” I said.
“What nonsense? We made long distance matches in our days too, didn’t we? For Chinababu’s wedding, we went to Koppaka which is all they North on the district border. We traveled on thirty cars and twenty buses. What service those people provided and what respect they showed! Those were the days!” Grandpa reminisced even as he yawned.
“Need to wake up early in the morning, Grandpa! We need to proceed to the wedding venue on time.” I alerted him and then went away so as not to disturb his sleep. There was a game of cards going on in the hall with Subhadram, Sankaram, et al., so I too joined the game. I laid heavy bets in the first three rounds and lost.
“Why do you play beyond your means? Stupid move!” Sankaram made insulting remarks about my game. So, I was offended and left the game.
As planned, Grandfather woke up at four AM and woke me up too. Though drowsy, I got up and finished the morning ablutions. In the open courtyard, the butchered sheep were being skinned. Bangarraju and Virabhadra Raju sat on the side with sharp knives to carve the meat. I chuckled to myself at Bangarraju’s eagerness about food, and proceeded to the bath house. I got dressed, gathered up the chess board and accompanied Grandfather to the wedding venue. The venue was already packed with all the relatives. The priests were rhythmically reciting appropriate benedictions. The band was blaring music without stop.
The bride’s grandfather, sitting there puffing on his hookah, invited Grandfather and his chessboard. Both of them were renowned players. They promptly started a game; I sat nearby keenly observing their moves. Soon Sankaram came and called me, and I went with him. Subhadram, Sankaram and I carried silver plates piled high with fragrant betel-leaf rolls and camphor sticks and distributed them to all the assembled guests. The traditional honors like sandal paste and paan leaves were offered to all the guests as usual.
The aviredu pots (8) were set in the south room which was closest to the wedding site. So, the room was packed to the brim with womenfolk and their kids. Hiding behind the door, the women were trying to catch a glimpse of the proceedings on the wedding stage. Impossible to step out of the room – the courtyard was filled with lords! (9)
The groom sat at the altar and performed the fire sacrifice. They held up a curtain around the bride. (It’s improper and considered indecent for the princely bride to be seen by the men). The family barber added his might to the proceedings, waving a huge fan. The auspicious moment drew near. Mr. Suraparaju, the maternal uncle of the groom, twirling his mustache and tossing his headgear with flair, approached the dais and started to whisper into the groom’s ear. The groom whispered back.
Sankaram’s father called Subhadram over. “What’s it, young man? That gentleman with burly mustache seems ready to bite off the groom’s ear!” he inquired jovially.
“What’s the big secret? They must be planning how to escape with the Gouridevi (10),” pat came the reply from Pedababu.
“Oh no, no chance of that happening! I ordered my brother to keep a close watch on the grindstone (10),” Sankaram said with a straight face.
Sankaram’s father chimed in too, saying, “True, true. Ask them to guard that yoke, that coconut and that pounding stick also. Not even a blade of grass is to be allowed to depart with the groom, so be careful!”(10)
By then, Mr. Suraparaju detached himself from the groom’s ear and roared, “Stop it, priests! No more chanting!” The music band stopped as well.
“This marriage can not proceed. Do you take this Suraparaju for an idiot?” he started jumping up and down. Everything froze. Everyone was puzzled. Nobody understood what was going on. They all looked at each other with blank expressions.
The bridegroom, though he wore the oath bracelet (11), got up from the altar.
“What is the point of any pomp and show without cash? Traditions, they say! What nonsense! We too have loads of it. TRADITION! Bullshit. All our ancestors have been lords! This is not going to work. As per the prior agreement, the fifteen thousand (rupees) must be paid. IN CASH! If you can’t pay, let us know – we will go away,” he proclaimed to no one in particular.
Grandfather, who had been immersed in his game so far, looked up in surprise at the commotion.
“What thousands is he talking about? Dowry, perhaps? Did this kind of thing ever happen during a marriage in our time? A bridegroom opening his mouth while sitting at the sacred altar? There doesn’t seem to be any limit to this atrocity. Moreover, he blabbers about tradition. They say he’s well educated. What’s the point? So shameful!” he exclaimed.
Bride’s father Mr. Chandram approached Mr. Suraparaju with his hands folded in supplication, “Sir, please forgive me. The sum could not be gathered in time. I will definitely pay, without fail. Please, let the ceremony proceed.” He pleaded.
“It is said that it’s better to object right up front. Later payments will not work. If you can’t pay, you shouldn’t have arranged the match at all. Only if payment is made, the ceremony will proceed,” so saying the groom got down from the wedding platform altogether.
Behind the curtain, the bent bride’s head seemed to sink further down into the earth. A tear glistened in the corner of the mother’s eye.
“Is this fellow born into a lord’s family at all?” Grandfather wondered aloud.
“This idiot son of mine never mentioned that he offered to pay dowry,” exclaimed bride’s grandfather, getting up from the chess table in great agitation. There was a great commotion among all the relatives. The people who had accompanied the groom’s party stayed quiet.
The bride’s father was sweating profusely. What did that groom say? Now the family honor was at stake. What to do?
He went rapidly inside the residential area. He found the little savings box and wrapped up all its contents into a little bundle. He handed over the bundle to Mr. Suraparaju and said, “Sir, Please accept this five thousand for now. As soon as the remaining amount is gathered, I will ..”
“Don’t accept that, uncle. Gathering – not gathering – doesn’t matter to me. If they had the sense to inform us in time, we’d have arrived only when the amount was gathered. They must pay the full amount as per the agreement – not a single paisa less.” said the groom.
An old gentleman from the groom’s party tried to pacify the groom, “They are promising to pay at the earliest. Why are you being hasty?”
Mr. Suraparaju responded with great ire to the old gentlemen, “Better you shut up, sir! Enough of your interference!”
The old gentleman got offended and directly left the wedding venue and went off directly to the train station.
Subhadram was upset that his sister’s wedding was fast turning into a fiasco. However, all the elders were right there – what to do?
In the inner rooms, the womenfolk were perplexed and disgusted.
As the bride’s father was struggling like a mouse caught in a trap, he sighted his younger brother. He asked him hopefully, “Do you think it is possible .. to get the money somewhere?”
His brother was extremely angry. His eyes were burning like live coals. “Enough of this,” he told his brother. He caught the eye of his brother-in-law and made a subtle sign to him. Turning to his brother Mr. Chandram, he said, “Oh yes, It is certainly possible, why not? You just stay here!” Saying this, he approached the bridegroom.
His brother-in-law roared, “Oh band fellows, start playing the wedding music. Oh priest, you proceed with your chants. We shall see how this marriage is going to be prevented.”
Bride’s uncle spoke to the bride groom, “Sir, better come and sit at the wedding alter. Otherwise, it’s not going to be pleasant.”
The groom was not to be shaken so easily. “What if I don’t? What are you going to do? This coercion will not work!” he retorted.
The uncle called out to his son Subhadram, “Close all the doors! The groom wants to see what we can do! Let’s show him!”
The four main doors to the venue were immediately closed shut. The groom’s party was stunned. They were all shaken by this turn of events. They came only as a small party, not in full force. Didn’t come equipped with arms either. Now, the local force was too strong for them.
The lords came from afar. Now, though quivering with anger and indignation, they sat quietly in their places. They couldn’t even move. On the one side, the groom did not look like he would listen to any one. Nobody really seemed to have a clue what to do.
The priests continued with their loud recitations.
Both the uncles of the bride pushed Mr. Suraparaju aside and caught hold of the bridegroom on either side. They bodily lifted him high and deposited him on the altar with considerable force. The whole altar shook. All the kids that had gathered around scattered away. The priests’ chants grew louder. The sacred fire in the ritual fire pit shot up high. Anger and valor played in equal parts on the faces of the lords.
The musical instruments played many tunes. All the invited guests were staring in awe at the spectacle.
Grandfather thought, “What fiasco!”
Suddenly, there was a tremendous furor in the aviredu room. Four of us ran in there in haste. Subhadram was trying to come out of the room holding a shot gun. The women folk were trying to block him. He held the gun high in one hand so that the women couldn’t reach it. He was very agitated. I was afraid he might do something hasty. So, I accosted him and grabbed the gun away after a little struggle and locked it up safely in the armory. All the women heaved a sigh of relief and offered mute thanks to God.
The vedic chants sounded authoritatively from the wedding altar. I came back to my place and sat down. Then, there was a new commotion at the altar. This time, the curtain around the bride was jerked away with one tug.
The band and the chants stopped. The bride stood up. She grabbed the silk cloth curtain, rolled it into a ball and threw it in the face of the groom. The shy bride, who sat patiently all this time under the weight of all that heavy gold jewelry, now stood proudly and surveyed the whole assembly of lords without any fear. Once she was done, she vanished in the blink of an eye. She materialized in the aviredu room, and collapsed amongst the women folk. Her mother too followed in her wake.
Grandfather could not follow what was going on. Among all the assembled lords – the family’s honor and pride were now in shambles!
“What a vulgar show? Stupid nonsense! Is this even a marriage?” Grandfather murmured.
The groom’s party was shocked and stunned.
Fine minutes passed – no one spoke – nothing came up.
The chief priest cautioned then, “Sir, any further delay and the auspicious time will pass.”
It was the maid Chittemma who came out and made the pronouncement – “Let it pass, holy sir. My lord (bride’s father) can not speak now. The bride is not willing to marry this groom – so, the lady wanted me to inform you all. Holy sir, please get her married to Mr. Sankaram in this auspicious time.” She spoke quite confidently too.
“Oh, what is this! This move is too good. Very interesting!!” Grandfather observed, with a keen eye on his chess board.
Pedababu got all the doors and gates opened. The groom’s party vacated the premises in haste. No one knew how the groom had left the village, but apparently, no one in the groom’s party could get a cart either for love or for money.
Sankaram, as the groom, did not arrive amidst pomp. There was no fancy lodging made ready for him, nor was he adorned with a glittering coat and headgear.
He wore a simple hand-woven panche. He went inside and escorted the bride himself to the wedding altar. No curtain was raised around the bride to hide her. The priests chanted the mantras suitable to the occasion. Everyone blessed the couple.
All the goats cooked by Bangarraju for the wedding feast vanished without a trace.
We returned home by evening.
Grandpa kept complaining all along the way that he had lost two pawns from his chess set.
Translator, S. Narayanswamy’s note:
The caste of Kshatriyas was once famous as rulers and military officers. The Telugu Kshatriyas are colloquially known as raajulu, literally meaning, the kings. The author of the story hails from that community. The story was written around 1950s and recounts a wedding that happened in the author’s youth (assuming that the narrator of the story is the author himself), so we can reasonably conclude that the story takes place around 1940 or so. It takes place in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh where the Kshatriya community is strong. Even though the community in general and the families described in the story in particular had not discharged royal or military duties for many generations, they used to maintain the old feudal customs and outwardly grand appearances. The story is rich with fascinating details of customs and traditions of the community. It also paints a vivid and amusing picture of changing times (India was awakening) and unchanged old attitudes.
(The Telugu original, rendu bantlu poyeyi, has been translated by S. Narayanaswamy and published on thulika.net, July 2012.)
(1) Great Lord. This story revolves around families belonging to Kshatriya caste, colloquially known in Telugu as raajulu, a caste that was traditionally rulers and military. Though none of the characters in the story are rulers of anything, they still maintain the old forms of titular address as a sign of respect. The word “lords” is used throughout the story to indicate the men folk of the family, as a collective caste name. It is also indicative of the past feudal glory and the vain attempts of the present day to relive the past glory.
(2) It is culturally acceptable and even preferable in South India for a girl to marry her father’s sister’s son. Such matches are often sealed right at the children’s birth, even if the marriage is performed after they come of age.
(3) distributing sanagalu, soaked garbanzo beans, is done at any auspicious occasion, such as arrival of new furniture, etc.
(4) kros = approximately two miles.
(5) vididhi = The temporary quarters of the groom’s party arranged among the properties owned by bride’s family, or rented for that purpose.
(6) Petromax lamps – portable lanterns, lit from pressurized kerosene, that cast brilliant light and frequently used in weddings and processions until recently.
(7) Betel nut-and-leaf (also known as paan) – A traditional item offered by the host to guests at the conclusion of a meal. Chewing this combination after dinner is supposed to aid in digestion. However, the symbolism of betel nut-leaf runs very deep in Hindu culture and is a very necessary feature of honoring a guest, even today.
(8) Aviredu is a set of new earthenware pots brought from the potter straight to the bride’s home and set down in a special room for worship. Symbolizes fertility and prosperity.
(9) This custom called purdah or ghoshaa, is a carryover from feudal times. Women folk could not come in front of men, especially in an assembly. The word “lords” is used here as indicative of caste name, rather than as actual rulers.
(10) Gouridevi – A grindstone symbolizing Goddess Gouri, the presiding deity of the wedding, and several other materials used in the wedding ritual. This is a ritual game between groom’s party and the bride’s party.
(11) Oath bracelet – A special string worn on the right wrist at the beginning of any sacred deed. Once the sacred string is tied, the oath taker should not get up until the task is complete.