It was the beginning of a new year. The Banerjee family, living in a small town in northern Colorado, was excited to attend a wedding in the family, after many years. For quite some time, Nina Banerjee had missed the energy, grandeur, and enjoyment of an elaborate Indian wedding. It was especially exciting for her impressionable kids, ten and eight-year-old Rohan and Niki, who were going to attend a wedding in India for the very first time. Even though the wedding would happen over a week, Sujoy, Nina’s husband added in an extra week to the trip in order to meet other family members and hopefully recover from the long flights and jet lag. The kids felt lucky to get two weeks off from school.
On the day of travel, all four of them got up early, washed and got dressed for the journey, overseas. There was some leftover Chinese food in the fridge from the previous night’s dinner. Everyone gulped it up with the plastic forks from the paper boxes in which they came. Around 7:30 am, with a full stomach, an empty refrigerator and clean dishwasher, the Banerjees started driving to the Denver International Airport. There was a relatively short line at the ticketing counter, early in the morning. After checking in the luggage and getting through the security check, they took the subway to the gate. There were attractive shops and restaurants lined on both sides of the walkways. The kids wanted to buy a pair of sunglasses. Niki took her time to choose some cool ones. They had over three hours to spare as their flight was to depart at noon.
Dumping their carry-on items on a couple of empty seats near the gate, they ambled around and made the usual visits to the restrooms. By 10:00 am everyone felt hungry again. “Let’s eat at a nice sit-down restaurant,” Sujoy suggested. Looking around, they decided on an upscale Mexican restaurant called “Mesa Verde”.
Sujoy ordered a “Pueblo Pork Carnitas”. Rohan ordered a “Naked Chicken Burger” with sweet potato fries. Niki went for a smoked bacon and cheese sandwich. Nina settled for a Mesa Verde Cobb salad. The silverware set on the table was shiny and steel colored and before touching them it seemed they were made of stainless steel. Actually, they were made of plastic. When the waiter brought the food, it smelled very appetizing. Nina thanked God for the tasty meal and reminded others to do the same. The kids looked at her funny but said the prayers anyway. The food was indeed delicious!!
From the place where they sat, Nina could see a wall to wall picture of an archaeological site that showed the remains of a group of Native American dwellings built out of limestone at the edge of a natural cliff. Several times she looked up from the food plate and stared at the beautiful painting. She wondered in her mind where that place could be. “This picture is of the Manitou Cliff Dwellings,” blurted out Sujoy, as though he had heard her silent question. Nina had visited the Manitou Cliff Dwellings, a few years ago, with her family visiting from India. She remembered the dated native dwellings carved out against the red rock cliffs near Colorado Springs. It reminded her of the old times when men grew their own grains and pounded them in mortar and pestles made of stone. The carved limestone houses in the picture had similar features but the color of the limestone was different. Even the arrangement of the houses was quite unfamiliar. Nina had a feeling that it was not the same place. So, she uttered a confused “Maybe” to Sujoy’s remark.
After the sumptuous brunch, the four of them waited patiently at the gate to board on the Alaska Air flight to Seattle. Their flight connections were at Seattle and Dubai respectively, on the long flight to Kolkata, their final destination. It was then that Nina saw two middle-aged men in light gray sweatpants, walking together towards the gate with one of their hands, joined together in a hand-cuff. They were accompanied by two other men in tan suits on both sides. She stared at them puzzled as if it took some time to sink into her brain. It finally hit her that they were convicts being transported to another penitentiary. Sujoy looked at her and sighed, “That must be pretty humiliating.” The men were led to the back of the information desk near the gate to wait. During the two and half hour flight, Nina wondered a few times if the civilian passengers were safe, traveling with the two dangerous criminals. Luckily, her fear did not take the shape of reality.
When the plane landed at Seattle, the sky was a light gray haze. At first. it was hard for Nina to imagine how someone could put up with the cloudy weather over long time periods.
“Nina, get some sandwiches that we can eat during the flight. I am not sure when they will serve us food in the flight,” Sujoy remarked, waiting at the gate. When Nina and Niki were waiting to pick up the sandwiches at Runway Grill, they noticed that the sitting area had an artistic model of clouds hanging from the ceiling. There were pale greenish gray translucent discs arranged with slight overlaps to depict the clouds. Nina laughed inside. The people of Seattle had accepted the gloom in a good way and made it part of their identity.
From Seattle, it was a long fourteen-hour flight to Dubai. At Dubai airport, they had a seven-hour layover. The airport was clean, modern and glitzy. A unique feature of the Dubai airport was the numerous shops selling gold jewelry. Nina bought a couple of earrings for herself and Niki. She also bought an ornate pendant and chain. She thought it would be nice to wear it at the wedding.
From Dubai, it was a short three-and-a-half-hour flight to Kolkata. Nina’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Dasgupta, had come to receive them at the airport. On the way home, Nina’s mom told her about the two expensive saris she had bought for her to wear at the wedding. Nina smiled and hugged her. Her mother had an excellent choice in the matter of saris. She had nothing to worry.
Nina’s eldest uncles’ grandson, Hrithik, was getting married. Her uncle’s house was a ten-minute walk from her parent’s house in a planned residential complex in the outskirts of Kolkata.
In the afternoon, a lady arrived at their house with a big bag. Nina’s mom had asked her to come specially to groom Nina for the marriage festivities. Nina practically had to strip down and wear a towel and lay on the bed with a sheet covering her. The lady took her time applying facial, waxing her legs and arms and applying henna on her hair. It was so relaxing that Nina was dozing off. When the lady was finally done, Nina had no trace of tiredness from her long journey. She looked just like a freshly bloomed flower.
In the evening, the ladies draped their colorful saris and arrived at the wedding venue, the Biye bari for a traditional dance ritual. This took place on the evening before the day of the marriage. The ladies formed a circle on the terrace and performed the Dhamail dance, clapping their hands. A lovely middle-aged led the song. Everyone else joined her in the chorus.
Early next morning, Nina, her two cousins, and the groom’s mother went to fetch water from a nearby lake, for the auspicious Gaye Halud ceremony. Fresh turmeric root was made into a paste along with mustard oil. Five married women put the turmeric paste on the tall and handsome Hrithik, in the midst of jokes and giggles. Nina put some on his nose and everyone laughed. It was followed by a token ritual of bathing. Afterward, he took his actual shower in the bathroom to wash the paste off.
Several gifts or tattwa were prepared for the bride decorated with colored cellophane paper. The rest of the turmeric paste was delivered to the brides’ house along with the elaborate gifts. The groom’s side also carried a big fish decorated by red sindoor as an auspicious sign. At that point, a similar ritual of Gaye Halud was carried out for the bride, Anika.
In the late afternoon, the Dasgupta house was full of excitement as everyone was getting ready for the wedding. Niki and Nina’s niece, Soma, wore matching red silk dresses with flowers embroidered on them. Nina, her mother and her sister-in-law, Tithi, wore gorgeous silk sarees and heavy gold jewelry. The menfolk wore the traditional sherwanis. At 6’oclock, the Dasgupta and Banerjee families, dressed up, joined the big group of family members, Bar Yatri, on a bus, heading to the bride’s house for the marriage ceremony. It was a blast for Rohan and Niki. They got to sit with their cousins, who joked and made them laugh all along the journey. A separate car decorated with flowers took the groom along with his father and his uncle towards the same destination.
The bride’s family welcomed the big group by offering drinks and snacks. At the appropriate time, Lagna, the groom was taken to a gazebo, Mandap, where the marriage rituals were performed under the guidance of a priest, in presence of a sacred fire, Agni.
A large excited gathering of crowd formed when the bride was carried to the Mandap on a wooden seat by her cousins, covering her face with a green betel leaf. Shubha Dristi, as this ritual is called, was supposedly the first time the bride and groom get to see each other when the bride removes the leaf and looks at the groom. Nina, saw beautiful Anika in her grand red Benarasi sari and gold jewelry, looking shyly at Hrithik. He had a subdued smile but his eyes belied the attraction. It was shortly followed by the exchange of flower garlands, Mala badal.
Of course, in this modern age, Hrithik and Anika had dated each other for a year before they decided to marry. The best part of the wedding, by far, especially for the guests, was the elaborate sit-down dinner arrangement. Several delectable entrées were served as many times as any guest wanted. It was truly a feast.
After dinner, a large part of the groom’s team boarded the bus and came back home. The Banerjee family joined them as they did not want to overdo and spoil the rest of the fun. A small team, along with the groom remained at the brides’ house for an overnight stay.
Anika and Hrithik sat close to each other surrounded by their friends and cousins after the ceremony was over. They chatted and played games till the wee hours in the morning. This was a traditional way to break the ice between the two people who were getting into a relationship without prior interactions. It brought up several funny stories and conversations from their childhood.
That afternoon, after another lavish lunch, Hrithik and Anika departed from the brides’ house amidst a tearful goodbye. Anika was leaving her home for the first time to set up a home with a new family.
The family at the groom’s house was ready to receive the bride. The bride had to carry a small pitcher full of rice and dip her feet in milk and red alta, before entering her new home. Hrithik’s mother touched a spoon of honey on her ears and mouth. The idea was that the bride will hear sweet things and say sweet words.
This was also an opportunity for the family to get acquainted with the bride. Nina like most of the other relatives brought gifts for the bride and groom. She gave them a pair of expensive “His and Hers” wrist watches.
In the evening, everyone gathered together for song and dance and mouth-watering snacks. Nina and her mother sang some popular songs that everyone loved. Rohan did his energetic funky dance and became Hrithik’s the favorite cousin. The bride and groom had to hold their horses for one more night. For Kaalratri their sleeping arrangements were made in separate rooms.
The next day began with a family lunch Bou Bhat, where Anika served rice with ghee to all the relatives of Hrithik.
This was preceded by the formal vow, Bhat kapor, of the groom to take care of all her needs, henceforth. In the evening, there was a big reception at the community hall near the groom’s place.
Finally, after the elaborate gathering and dinner, the bride and groom were sent to their bedroom for Phool sajja. The bed was decorated with lovely flowers, which was apt for the romantic first night.
After the marriage reception was over, the Banerjees went to stay with Sujoy’s parents for the rest of their trip. It was a comfortable house and had shops and movie theaters close by. Nina felt nostalgic leaving behind all the fun. She missed her cousins, brothers and sisters and her parents. She could feel for the bride who also left her parent’s home, a few days back. For Anika, it was the beginning of new relationships and letting go of the former ties.
One day, Nina went to a shopping mall located close to her in-law’s house. She was looking to buy a notebook. Nina liked to write, especially when she had a lot on her mind. She briefly looked at the rows of stacked notebooks. A picture on the cover of one of the notebooks caught her eye. She thumbed through the pages quickly and decided to buy it. When she showed it to her husband, Sujoy smirked at her. He read the title on the cover. It said “Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, USA”. “Seriously, are you coming all the way from Colorado to India and buying a notebook with a picture of a National Park in Colorado?” Sujoy asked.
Nina nodded her head and smiled “I am really missing my Colorado home.” On the cover was a picture of a group of limestone formations that looked like tall towers with small windows. These were remains of Native American dwellings, carved from the cliff wall, several hundred years back. The limestone cliff had greenish watermarks and had lush green vegetation all around it. It looked like a beautiful picture but she hardly understood the answer looking at her in the face. Several hours later, after she was writing on that notebook, it suddenly hit her. She actually made the connection that the picture she had seen at the cafe at Denver International Airport was in fact of Mesa Verde National Park.