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Malayalam Hymns

I am going to pause in my journey of scheduling posts and jump straight to the now. The clock has just passed 12 here and it is officially Christmas Day in Kerala. Merry Christmas! It is the first time that I have spent Christmas abroad and we could not have picked a more diverse place to celebrate it than here. If you are reading this from any Western country, then you will probably already have your plans laid out and your Christmas tree stacked. The only trees that exist here are of the palm variety and it is actually hot outside…it doesn’t feel like a traditional festive season at all.

Knowing that the day is about to come, let’s have a chat about Christmas Eve. I should say that as a family we do not celebrate Christmas in the form of gift-giving or eating a large meal that means you fall asleep at 4pm. However, we have been going to Midnight Mass since I was 6 and we always try to read a bit of the Bible or learn a bit more about Jesus – yes, we are weird enough to celebrate it as Christ’s birthday and try to open our minds a bit.

The picture of a church and hymns has been etched in my memory ever since I can remember. My Dad has always had respect for Christ and believes that the levels of his sacrifice transcends religion – it is something that we can all take something from. Therefore the agenda was to find somewhere where we could attend Mass. What transpired was finding a church in the town that we have just arrived in, Thekkady (I will get to how we got here later on), and working out when it was a good time to come to the Church.

It turns out that they don’t really do Midnight Mass here. It came as a surprise considering 50 percent of the population of Kerala is Christian, which is possibly the highest proportion of the faith across India. If we were going to celebrate Christmas, then it was probably going to be best to do it here. However, the service consisted of a number of plastic chairs in the courtyard of the church, with the service starting at 9:30 and finishing before midnight (I don’t understand why) and it consisted of a number of hymns completely in Malayalam with a homage to Santa Claus on a banner in the background. We lasted about 45 minutes before we realised that our seats were probably best left to those who actually understood what was going on.

Having said that, it was not a complete washout. The hotel/heaven we are staying in at the moment, Greenwoods, is a small village in the middle of the bustling town covered in greenery and blessed with tranquillity. It reminds me very much of the university in Mumbai. I will get back to the hotel situation in the post on Boxing Day, but for now let’s focus on this resort. For the festive season, they had put on a full Christmas dinner combined with a cultural show to highlight the fantastic talent that existed in Thekkady.

Everything was utterly marvellous. From a beautiful ensemble of classical South India music to the pounding passion of the local drum band and tribal dance, it was a real insight into the reality of Kerala. There was no commercialisation (other than a creepy Santa costume) and it was all outside in the open, surrounded by the beautiful ecosystem of trees and flowers that they had created for guests. It was nothing like we had every experienced before, but we felt comfortable in our skins and Christmas jumpers. It felt much more like a celebration than at home.

When you do the same thing every year, it is easy to lose the excitement. Hell, if I was sitting in my living room watching Shrek 3 for the seventeenth time after a big Christmas meal, then I imagine I wouldn’t feel inspired to open my laptop, let alone write anything down. But I guess that is a missed opportunity even if you don’t celebrate the festive period in the same way that everyone else does. Maybe doing something different might open your eyes to what else is out there.

I am not saying you can jump on a flight here tomorrow (or today – the timezones are still a mystery to me) but maybe there is something back home you can do to get in the Christmas spirit. Maybe it starts with Jesus, I don’t know.

However you are celebrating, all of us are wishing you a warm holiday season from South India! I only hope the weather where you are is as gorgeous as it is out here.

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The Cost of Faith

I wouldn’t say I am religious, but I would affirm I am spiritual. I do not like doctrine and I find the word religion to be incredibly loaded. The practice of religion is very much a currency in India – every place of worship, especially the ones that we have been to, will be surrounded by shops and attractions that require money. It is impossible to estimate how much this brings in, but you can assume it is a hefty amount and it is inevitably mostly cash in hand.

When my parents brought me up, they were not afraid to admit that they did not have the answers to my questions. Whenever we conducted anything religious, there were always holes to be found in meanings and understandings, but it was a challenge to find out the answer – it was not something to be ignored. This inquisitiveness has never left me. In fact, it has probably permeated into every part of my life.

Our last day in Mumbai was important to my Mum. The school of thought within which my family has learnt about Hinduism is based in a small insitution in Mumbai. Early on a Sunday morning we made our way to the lecture theatre and sat in the room where the teaching had first begun over 80 years ago. Having seen it on videos and in pictures, it was like de ja vu when we walked into the courtyard and took to the benches at the back.

The man who started the movement demanded that it should not be outwardly publicised, but instead should be passed from person to person, so I will not name him here. However, this weekend would have been the celebration of his 95th birthday and so there were people present from all over the world. My mother had actually met him when he had been alive, and their first meeting was when she was only a girl, a little younger than me, just 20km away from where we stood.

He was responsible for the development of the first university in the world that was built on the ancient tapovan system of education – focusing on the development of the individual, rather than their future aspirations. This unassuming campus was tucked away in the suburbs of Mumbai and it was the beginning of my Mum’s faith. It would also be the birthplace of mine.

It is difficult to describe. There were very few buildings, but the place itself was inundated with nature. It was completely green and you could barely hear the sounds of the noisy highway once you were through the gates. The intention was to create tranquillity. To remove the impurities of the mind by purifying the landscape around them. It had a profoundly uplifting quality.

The students were mild mannered and wore simple white clothes. There was not much talking and people from all walks of life trundled barefoot through the landscape. It was only open to visitors on a Sunday afternoon for a few hours and so this was a chance for the outside world to creep in and take a peek. There was a point in my adolescence when I thought this could be my destination, but that seems like a long time ago now.

Before we left, Mum stood standing in front of the flowered gateway. She was crying and looking forward in silence. She told me how she remembered the last time she was here and spoke to the man who made this place a reality. He was sitting on a bench and greeted her like a distant uncle – she remembered seeing a twinkle in his eye but was too naïve to understand the impact that he would have in her life at that point. Years later she stood in the same spot and imparted that knowledge to us knowing that this was where it had all begun, where it had all started to make sense.

A stranger looking onward came over to ask her why she was crying. She said they were tears of longing joy. He smiled warmly and introduced himself and his wife. They made polite conversation and reminded us of the reasons why he was there – to reinvigorate his faith. Mum smiled back and looked at me with the same expression. She was not upset anymore. He took his leave and I never learned his name, but I remember his warm smile and the way his eyes lit up when we spoke.

That probably doesn’t mean much, but it made all the difference to me. There are many places here that will measure the size of your faith by the thickness of your wallet. They will try to fool you and capture your belief. However, I am forever grateful for the fact that my faith was presented to me as my decision. I was not told what to believe and not vilified for what I thought. It has always been a healthy process of re-assessment and contemplation.

I am happy to be a part of something that recognises the kindness and dignity of complete strangers. For a man to look at us and offer conversation as a means of solace, with no ulterior motive. When you can instil a thought like that, there isn’t the need for expensive prayers. Humanity is enough.

Congest-jam

I was very, very wrong about Mumbai. My first impressions of it being a spaced out haven were thrown out of the air-conditioned window at 10am when we got stuck in one of the worst traffic jams that I have ever seen in my life. In fact, Mumbai is a huge traffic jam. The drivers here add on 30 minutes to every journey between 7am and 11pm to account for being stuck…that is basically all of the hours that we could possibly be awake! No wonder that the air quality is so poor here – they actually have meters to measure the quality when the smog gets critical – but if you looked over the bay, you could probably work this out all by yourself.

When I came here for the first time and spent time with my cousin Pooja, I had made a list of all of the things that I wanted to do. As soon as she saw that list, she laughed at me and then crossed off all but three – you can only do things very slowly in Mumbai. It may be one of the fastest paces in the world, but nothing happens quickly. One great example of this is the bank. It took a total of 1:45 hours for my Dad to check the balance of his account and make a deposit in the government Bank of India – think about the kiosk in your local Natwest and be grateful for your waiting times. In all this time, I was baking in the noonday Sun, realising that I should have eaten breakfast rather than frying outside.

However, things were about to change. Walking past an unassuming restaurant, Gokul Lite stood out with its menu as a takeaway next door. I saw falafel on the menu and decided that my stomach would finally be able to take it. I can only describe it as the best thing I have ever consumed in India. An unassuming roti roll, I wasn’t expecting much, but it was just indescribably amazing and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is in South Mumbai any time soon. Another thing worth seeing is the Colaba Causeway. It is the first time I have seen Europeans in India, and I imagine a huge tourist attraction.

Turning right on the corner of the famous Café Mondegar (the same bar that Pooja and I had visited until the early hours last year) it is a canopied stretch for a couple of kilometres of the best wares that you can get in Mumbai for the cheapest price. If you can live with the constant pushing and the fact that the walkway itself shouldn’t be able to accommodate anything more than a single file line, you can find a good bargain here. Within the space of an hour, we were able to cover the gifts for more than half a dozen of our friends and I managed to nab myself a beautiful wallet. I don’t think we spent more than twenty quid in total and we bought some drinks along the way.

Leaving the Causeway, we made our way to the famous Juhu Beach. Considering how chaotic the city is, and even how busy the beach itself is, there was nothing that compared to looking out over the horizon just before sunset. I am not a beach holiday sort of person, but feeling the sand beneath my toes and the waves lapping up against my ankles, I realised how much I had missed this sort of thing. There was no need to do anything but just stand and admire what was in front of us.

Although as you can imagine, the quiet didn’t last for long. It wasn’t too long before men in red trilbys were asking us if we wanted a photo taken, showing us albums of previous happy customers. Waiters from the nearby street stalls were dragging us away by the arm and telling us how good their food was. Strange men were selling questionable snacks from mobile clay ovens that were strapped around their neck. Indians seem to know a business opportunity when they see one.

Rather than being harangued by the local street sellers, the family we had come to see invited us to the Shiv Sagar restaurant, a five minute walk from the beach. It served the best pau bhaji I have ever had, and I don’t even like the stuff. This is the sort of thing that has started to become quite frequent now. Every time we sit down to eat, it surpasses my expectations and I am shocked how the smallest of places can produce the most incredible food. Shiv Sagar itself is world-renowned and it can’t sit more than 30 people at a time.

I guess that is what I am starting to like about Mumbai. Regardless of it being busy, there are so many nooks and crannies with fantastic things on offer. You just have to be willing to brave the congestion and find them.

The Very Last Adventure

Mumbai is a completely different kettle of fish. It took us 12 hours (yes, 12 hours) to drive from Baroda to the busiest city in the world in our not-so-little campervan. I am starting to get a little tired of these long car journeys bouncing on the road, but there isn’t much more travelling to do. Along the way there was some beautiful natural landscapes that made the crucial few hours of the journey more than bearable.

You can hear Mumbai before it comes into view. The sound of horns and engines as the traffic signals the start of the city boundaries. The natural light of the sky gives way to headlamps and neon billboards that line the way like road signs. There isn’t a place in the world that could rival this, as well as being inundated with shacks selling some of the most delicious food you will ever eat, it sits near some of the biggest slums that this country has to offer. India is nothing if not a place of contrast.

Once you get past all of the advertisements and lights, you realise how well structured the city actually is. To house 21 million people is no mean feat, and regardless of the fact that the place is a huge traffic jam, it is fairly well spaced out. Compared to other places that we have seen, from a first glance, Mumbai seems to be a pleasant and welcome surprise.

This is the first time that we are staying in a lavish hotel as well. The Lalco Residency has floors of apartment style hotel rooms so that we can stay together as a family. It is the first time since we left that we have sat down on sofas together, as just the five of us, and talked about our day. I suppose we sometimes forget in all of the running around that this could be our very last family holiday. The last time that we sit around a coffee table and decide what the next day will bring.

It is not always easy to sit in a luxury apartment knowing how difficult it is outside this walls. I make no bones about the fact that we are living in a cocoon that we have built for ourselves. It has been really interesting to speak to and meet so many people already that have shown us that it is not the money that we have that brings them any more pleasure than our company. In fact, as much as many of you might think that having a few bucks is helpful here, what you get for free is far more valuable.

We are going to enjoy ourselves no question. This isn’t a hollow enterprise, neither is it a spiritual epiphany. It is a holiday. But we are always mindful and grateful for what we have. My parents have brought me up with the intention of sharing this wealth (whether materially or otherwise) with everyone that has the capacity to receive it. You cannot take it with you.

It is now 2am and I fear that any more writing, or thinking, will lead to rambling so I will stop here. If this appears to be the very last adventure, then we might as well go out with a bang.

The Idolatry of Man

Gandhi is a morally ambiguous figure. Here, he is everywhere you turn. From bank notes to sweet shops to statues, the familiar small face and round glasses are an icon around the country. The big surprise was that there is very little that you can actually learn about him that you haven’t already seen in pictures. His childhood home, in Porbandar, is adorned with a number of obscure paintings of him in various stages of life with a few photographs scattered around for good measure – it was incredibly disappointing. The second stop, the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, is a much more detailed memorial, but again focuses on perceptions of the man rather than the man himself.

There are growing factions of people that highlight that he was a walking contradiction. A quick Google search will highlight opinions of archaic misogyny and very questionable sexual conduct especially in relation to his nieces. It is unclear whether these accounts are true, but the Gandhi estate has never formally commented on the allegations. Not to mention the fact that the following generations of Gandhis (although not through direct lineage), notably Sonya, Indira and Rajiv have been mired in controversy. Rajiv Gandhi is himself involved in court proceedings at this moment. When you look at this in context, it paints a very murky picture of India’s young history.

There is always going to be an element of idol worship here. Hinduism is built on the idea of concentration on the vision of God in order to sharpen the mind and allow it to build its discipline for the next stages of spirituality. However, when the person in question is unable to see this divinity, it is easy to confuse this worship with men, and therefore imperfections. Whether it be Sachin Tendulkar or Mahatma Gandhi, once you blindly follow and believe everything they do, you become a slave to their own indiscretions. There is no man that is above scrutiny or questioning.

As we move away from Baroda and leave our family, I realise that my faith has taken a knock. When you are growing up, you do not have the instruments to analyse and weigh up the evidence that come with worship and belief. You blindly look up to those that are written about favourably in history books and by your teachers. It is only when you look up from your textbook that you realise how political the words are, and how it has been written with a purpose. The image of Gandhi has been perfectly formed to prevent anyone from questioning his behaviour. A sweet, old man who used non-violent means to tear down an empire – that is quite a story in itself.

However, my judgement of the figure remains reserved. As with my faith going forward, I am tentative to blindly believe anything that is put in front of me. It requires research, asking the right questions and trusting the right answers. The principles that Gandhi himself advocated has resonated with a number of people that may never have had contact with these Vedic principles (they are all taken from the Bhagvad Geeta) and this is positive. But the meat of the man is in practice, and despite whether he hand-loomed his clothes or not, if he did not practice what he preached then he does not deserve the idolatry that he is so readily given.

Everything must be considered in context. There is nothing to say that Gandhi was not one of the greatest men that ever lived. But I don’t think there is any such thing as a saint.

Free Wifi

The lack of connectivity is starting to get to me. I am becoming more and more sceptical of these “Free Wifi” signs that I see outside hotels, because the connection that we have here is very slow. It is almost worse than having nothing at all, because you are tempted to use it and then are frustrated by the fact that you can’t do what you need to do. Part of the problem is that I was hoping to update this blog every single day and now writing more and more posts in retrospect, and then having to schedule them for the future, is quite demotivating.

I am so used to writing them down in a book, as I don’t ever carry my laptop with me, and so I never usually feel the need to press publish. This time it is different. I am making mental notes of everything as we move forward and trying to capture them as best as I can from mind to keyboard. Now Mum knows that I am writing the online journal, she is reminding me to write things down and telling me I need to remember this and that. She’s right of course, but I am trusting my brain to remember only the things that I want to matter when I look at these in a few years.

The accounts of my old visits to India still sit in camera reels and old diaries. I haven’t read back over them yet, more out of laziness than anything else – but a part of me wants the rawness of the first trip to stay with me. I was a frightened little boy deciding to take this mammoth country on my own – it seems impossible now that I even conceived I could do that. It wasn’t a heat of the moment decision, and everything was planned out, but it was still a huge challenge.

I never used to be good at things like that. My brother was always the one that took these leaps of faith – by the time I had set off to India, he had already conquered half the world on his own and much of it in a much more spontaneous and braver fashion than myself. He was and is a traveller in the true sense of the world, and some of it is starting to rub off on me.

I don’t mean it in a negative or cliché way. He chose not to travel with a backpack, whereas I found it extremely useful. We both volunteered first and then choosed to stay on – for me, I just needed an excuse to get out here and see this place on my own first. And then it just continued. Once I realised that I could survive on my own, the wanderlust decided to make a home in my head. And for the last few years, it has been amazing to find my place somewhere that never really meant anything to me before I became an adult.

However, the real truth is, it is nice to be looked after for once. I don’t really remember what it is like not to stress out about where my passport is, whether I have enough money to eat for the next few days and making sure that I have all of my valuables with me at all times. I don’t have to worry about bunk beds or budget meals or bugs. Everything is catered for and someone else is doing all of the worrying. I know it sounds selfish, but whilst exhilarating at the time, this sole responsibility is extremely tiring and it does burn you out.

The one thing I don’t take for granted on this trip is making decisions as a group and not having to worry about getting mugged. Don’t get me wrong, I have always made good friends when out on my own, but it is always a thought in the back of your head. You can never totally trust anyone when you are travelling – you have to be smart. However, being here with my family, and having that level of trust, means that I can have some real thinking time and not have to worry about anything at all.

When my mum said that this was going to be my 21st birthday present, I thought it was wildly expensive and over the top. However, I can see that true relaxation and peace is priceless. Whether or not the wifi is working, I think this is the first time that I have actually heard myself think in years. And connectivity, as well as all of the work that I need to do, is not going to get in the way of that.

The “Fixed Price” Myth

You would think that after the wedding, all of the gifts had been given and it was time to move away from incessant shopping. You would be wrong. Whenever you are in India, there is a need to buy a gift for everyone there, back home and some people you don’t even know. As soon as you walk past something, there is a committee meeting with three distinct questions: 1) can we make use out of it or give it away? 2) is it something that we have seen before or unique? 3) can we afford it? If two out of these get an overall yes, then the process begins. If you didn’t know it already, Indians love a bargain.

We decided to stay in Baroda for a few more days after the wedding considering we hadn’t spent enough time with our family. It had been so hectic that we hadn’t really had the chance to relax with them. However, part of this bonding experience meant exchanging gifts as well as finishing off any last minute shopping. And if you walked around any market, you would be surprised what you can walk away with for 350 rupees (about £3.50 at this current moment).

The most laughable part about the process is the “fixed price” signs that they put in each of the shops. It is an unwritten rule that there are absolutely no fixed prices in India, unless it is unlucky enough to have a barcode – although to be honest, the most persuasive person could probably do the job. If you are trying to buy a sari, for example, then you can assume that they are charging you 20 percent more before you have even sat down and it has been unfolded in front of you. The so-called NRI (non-resident Indian) or foreigner tax. Then you can probably shave another 20 percent off if you have a little more chat, and the more items you buy, the bigger chunk you can get off the overall bill. By the end of it, the original figure seems like a fairytale and however upset the vendor looks, he or she knows for a fact that they have got as much out of it as you have. Just be ready to walk away if the price isn’t right.

When prices are so flexible, you start to get an eye for quality. The street markets in India are generally better than those in the UK, but you have to be careful, and it means shopping around. Whenever you enter any showrooms here, with stacks and stacks of clothes delicately placed behind the counter, it is no mistake that there is a huge mattress on the floor. You don’t look through the clothes here, they are presented to you. A salesman will get our sari after sari, shirt after shirt, until the entire white surface is covered in a heap of colours and material. If you are lucky, he (all of the sari vendors seem to be men) will try on the sari in front of you so you can see what it would look like. The first time it happened, I can’t tell you how many glances were exchanged between my brother and me.

As much as I hate shopping, especially in the intense heat, it is interesting to see the performance every time. It is always the same routine as I have described above, and it is amazing the effort that each vendor will go to in order to sell his wares. Everything is in fashion, a good material, with some sort of quality certificate and an absolute steal…whether it be 100 or 10,000 rupees. We seem to be spending a lot of money out here, but I can see why.

There aren’t many good shows in the world that are cheap.

A Dozen Or So Lanterns

There are many things about the British influence in India that I find abhorrent. The way that the old Maharaja were treated is one such circumstance that makes me feel sick. The loss of wealth, the pandering, the lack of respect, but most of all, the idea that everything should be made into a theme park. Suprisingly, the Laxmi Vilas Palace in Baroda, the venue dedicated for the reception did not live up to any of my preconceptions. It was still lived in (albeit as a hotel – you can’t win them all!), but it was understated, elegant and absolutely beautiful.

Four times the size of Buckingham Palace, it was unmistakably one of the biggest residences I had ever seen. Considering the temple yesterday had absolutely overwhelmed me, I was starting to realise why people choose to get married in India. You don’t need to hire any decorators because every venue is furnished as if it were welcoming royalty. We were dressed like kings and queens when we arrived in the early evening – everyone else seemed to have gone for smart casual – and we went for this-is-the-only-Indian-wedding-we-are-going-to-so-let’s-turn-up outfits. I was told that the suit I was wearing was supposed to be for a lagna; I smiled politely before quickly scurrying away and taking a seat. There is still plenty of time to arrange my marriage. Not today please.

It was the first time that I saw Pooja, the bride and my cousin, at ease. She was spending time with her new husband, walking through the grounds before everyone started to arrive, and it seems like she could finally relax and enjoy herself. The culmination of three weddings in one week had obviously taken their toll. When we bumped into each other during dinner, it was so bizarre to see her as a fully-fledged adult when only a year ago we were traipsing around Mumbai in the early hours, looking for a café that would serve us. She made one of the busiest cities in the world so manageable (and now writing this in retrospect in Mumbai, I am so grateful I got to spend that time with her).

The garden banquet took most of the crowd’s attention. When we were stood outside, there was everything from a live pasta station to a coffee bar being replenished constantly under the lights of a dozen or so lanterns. You can see a glimpse of how it looked in the picture above. My stomach was still recovering so it was a case of window shopping when it came to most of the food. Like the famous Goodness Gracious Me sketch, I ended up with the blandest thing on the menu and a free reign on the desserts. I wasn’t complaining.

As the night started to draw to a close, our Indian wedding seemed to be drawing to an end. I had missed half of the festivities due to illness, had made the most of the wedding and now stood in a groom’s suit at the reception – it was fair to say that it hadn’t been the conventional way to do things. Nevertheless, it was a wedding that I wouldn’t forget soon. It was probably going to be the last time I saw Pooja for a while as she was moving to Malaysia, probably the last Indian wedding I would attend in India, and most probably one of the last that we would attend as a family (that wasn’t hosted by us). A sobering experience in a state that has banned alcohol.

I thought back to the amount of weddings that must have taken place here. The lavish receptions and bountiful food. For over a hundred years, these walls and gardens were the boundaries of so much happiness and hope. I have noted before how assumable marriage is an institution of progression and prosperity – in fact, someone noted that on these occasions that big weddings are inevitably worth it.

Although, finally the confetti hits the floor and it is time to start the rest of your life. Pooja and Eldan will be walking around Paris now enjoying the first steps of theirs, as our own journey continues. The wedding, the reason for our coming, is now over – but this is the start of a new chapter.

This is the start of our holiday.

Lagna

“Lagna” is the Gujarati word for wedding. Whether you speak Gujarati or not, everyone knows the meaning of this word. It culminates the entirety of all awkward conversations with older relatives in your twenties as they unsubtly hint at the fact that you still don’t have a ring on your finger until you finally tie the knot; the showcase of your summers in your thirties as every week is another journey with your spouse to a stately home or temple for another cousin’s ceremony (or usually string of ceremonies); the laborious chore of your forties as you introduce your children to the various rituals that you yourself have been getting to grips with for most of your adult life; the expense of your fifties as the time eventually comes to give away your daughter or welcome a new one to your home; and finally in your twilight years it remains the rare opportunity to bring your family together and celebrate the beauty of such a union. This may be the longest sentence I have ever written. However, it reflects the nature of lagna. It permeates each stage of life and is a centrepiece in Hindu tradition. Fair to say, it is kind of a big deal.

Weddings in India are the stuff of film and legend. Growing up watching Bollywood films, I imagined that it would be thousands of people all adorned in their finest clothing, steel cast after steel cast containing delicious food and an intensely traditional ceremony that would give me an insight into how weddings should be done. It wasn’t…quite like that. The bride, my cousin, and the groom had decided to go for something much simpler and so it remained close family and friends – they didn’t want a big fuss. Go figure. The one time that we spent all of this time and effort to see a ridiculous Indian wedding and they had chosen to “keep it basic”.

However, the venue was absolutely amazing. There are a few extremely ornate temples in the UK, but it was absolutely nothing like this. This was on the level of a palace in the middle of a busy city. Domes of marble and coloured statues filled the grounds with large open platforms that lit up a sparkling white when the sun finally came into view. From the very finest detail in the pillars, to the huge carved tiles that made up the ceilings, it looked like someone had gone through this place with a microscope. I had never seen anything like it.

Unlike back at home, the weddings are conducted in the late afternoons here because of the intense heat. Even though this was technically the winter, it reached the mid-twenties when the ceremony started and we all started to sweat into our outfits. Because lagnas are such a big part of Hinduism, both practically as a means of legitimising marriage and spiritually to move forward to the next stage of life, it is important to understand the rituals. It is said to be the bride’s occasion, the very last event before she leaves her parents’ house and moves in with her in-laws. The more lagnas you attend, the more you start to pick things up – I guess this is part of the point so you know what you are signing yourself up for when it finally happens to you.

But that is just it, isn’t it? This preparation and celebration comes with the frightening expectation that the seconds are ticking. I don’t think I really feel it at my age, but I can tell that my brother can. Every wedding we go to now, he can’t escape without another distant relative promising him that they can find him a girl. It doesn’t matter what his current situation is (they never ask that) but they are determined to make sure that he gets married. It has become a running joke that I get to tease him about, but I am fully aware that my time is coming.

The prospect of arranged introductions is promised with love. It is 50 percent inquisition and 50 percent well-intentioned. However, it is 100 percent pressurised. There are a very few cultures where the narrative is so direct and continuous – there is almost no question that an Asian man and woman in their twenties should get married against all of the odds. Homosexuality is never discussed and the concept of staying single must mean that there is something inherently wrong with you.

I can’t imagine the prospect of not getting married. Yet, I don’t know whether I have been conditioned to think this way in all of my relationships or whether this is what I actually want. I am sure it is what I want in the end, but there has never really been any other option. It is scary how the lives of most Indians are already mapped out until their 30th birthday.

I don’t know whether tradition has saved or shackled us in this regard. We don’t question marriage like we do other institutions. It just is. Maybe the big weddings are worth it then, hey?