Planet Bombay

India's City of Dreams through the eyes of a Brit who calls it home

Traveling to Delhi During a Covid Surge — Part 2 of 3

Love in the time of Corona: bride and groom on the way to the post-wedding photo shoot.

Note: Part 1 of this piece can be read here.

November 21st — The Wedding

It was my first pandemic wedding and it took some time to get used to the sight of guests dressed up in their finery with faces half-hidden behind surgical masks. A few guests were already milling around in the hotel’s events hall when I got down there to help with last-minute arrangements. Wedding-themed bottles of hand sanitizer were strategically placed at the entrance to the hall — a whimsical acknowledgement of the dystopian reality the world has found itself in.   

A few members of the bridal party were on the scene applying the finishing touches to the wedding décor. A floral arch had been set up at one end of the hall with chairs either side of it for the bridesmaids and groomsmen (of whom, you may recall, I was the only one physically present). Framed pictures of the groom’s recently departed father had been laid out in a place of honour.

The decorating was being overseen by M, one of the bridesmaids and an alumna of the same boarding school that the bride, groom and I had gone to. She had established a wedding decoration business in Hyderabad not long ago.

There were three bridesmaids in total. The other two were Americans who worked at a school in Delhi where the bride was also on the staff. Some students from the same school were handling all the technical stuff, like the sound system and the livestream for invitees who were unable to be there in person.  

The groom’s mother was also in the hall, pitching in wherever help was needed. She would be heading back to Australia on the first available flight after the wedding, having come to the end of a career in India that spanned nearly two decades. She and her husband had been in their final term at my alma mater when the latter passed away following a cardiac arrest. She wore a sky-blue sari and her demeanour conveyed no sense of the immense grief she must have endured in the preceding weeks. She was exactly as I remembered her from my school days — unassuming, kind-hearted, good-humoured, and full of quiet strength.   

The minister showed up shortly after me, while I was helping to put electric candles into ornamental lanterns. He was sporting a linen shirt, Nehru jacket and chinos, fairly typical attire for weddings in India. But, as per the email sent out the previous night, his face was covered by two cloth masks and a plastic visor on the off-chance that he had caught Covid from his landlord — a reminder that the circumstances in which the wedding was taking place were anything but typical.

The ceremony was delayed slightly while some technical wrinkles were smoothed out. While they waited for the livestream to start, the groom’s Australia-based friends began posting selfies of themselves, besuited and grinning, some with celebratory beverages in hand, on a WhatsApp group created especially for the occasion.

Once the ceremony was underway, everything went remarkably smoothly, minor technical glitches notwithstanding, despite the fact that there had been no time for a rehearsal. I fulfilled my best man duties satisfactorily — that is, I didn’t misplace the rings and I didn’t miss any of my cues. Not that my role was at all demanding. All I had to do was present the rings, participate in a symbolic marriage registration (the official registration had already been done), and hold up three strings to be woven into one cord by the bride and groom. The latter is a tradition at some Christian weddings wherein the cord represents the union between the bride and groom (two of the strings) with God (the third string) binding them together.

The bride, PD, was dressed in a traditional white gown and the groom, PI, wore a navy-blue three-piece suit. Like the guests, they remained masked throughout the ceremony, unmasking only for the kiss.  

After the ceremony, a number of us headed to a nearby park to pose for photos in front of some picturesque Mughal ruins. Delhi’s air pollution levels had been excessively high throughout November even by the standards of one of the world’s smoggiest cities, but on that day the sky was relatively haze-free. A number of people were relaxing in the park, enjoying the temperate weather, including a foreigner who was reading in front of a large domed mausoleum, the spot chosen for the photo shoot, until he noticed the bridal party approaching and obligingly moved along.

It was a pleasant spot — tall leafy trees cast dappled shadows on the mysterious medieval ruins. A few park visitors were taking in the view from the rooftop of the mausoleum, peering out over the crenelated parapet. I wondered briefly how they had got up there, but I wasn’t intrigued enough to find out. I was too busy thinking, with a mounting sense of dread, about the speech I would soon be called on to deliver. I didn’t even take any photos of the extraordinary monuments scattered around us (though this excellent blog contains some good ones if you’re interested).

The mere thought of public speaking of any kind can make me almost paralytic with terror. But when the time came for the toasts my nerves were sufficiently under control and I was able to share a few memories of PI from our school days, eliciting bursts of laughter and nods of agreement in all the correct places. It helped that it was a relatively small audience and the reception was not being livestreamed.

The bride and groom had changed into traditional Indian attire for the reception — a blue-and-gold lehenga for PD and a saffron kurta for PI. After the lunch and toasts they performed a Bollywood-inspired dance routine. And shortly after that we had to vacate the hall as the allotted time had come to an end.

November 21st — After-Party

I’ve been to quite a few lavish wedding events during my time in India, all of which have been fun, but there is something uniquely special about a small-scale celebration like the one we had just experienced. Covid-related planning constraints had ultimately made for a more intimate occasion. We were all able to spend a good amount of face-to-face time with the bride and groom, whereas larger weddings usually don’t allow for much individual interaction with the couple beyond a quick photo.

It was late afternoon when the festivities came to an end. Immediately after the reception the newlyweds went to the home of the bride’s family to spend some time with them. They made arrangements to hang out with a few of us later in the evening at the Radisson Blu, where they had a room booked for that night.

D and I had already checked into the same hotel so we headed straight there to get changed and freshen up. J came with us and checked in for the night, somehow scoring a complimentary room upgrade upon doing so.  

D didn’t stay long at the hotel as she had arranged to meet a friend who had moved from Mumbai to Delhi before the pandemic. The friend, L, sent her car and driver round to pick her up. With time to kill, I took a shower and then put my feet up to read the news, sip tea, and listen to a Future Islands album.

The newlyweds arrived at the hotel around 9pm with the bride’s sister, P. I met them downstairs in a plush, softly-lit bar with black-and-white photographs and a large oil painting of a rather imperial-looking white man on the walls. We were joined by J and, later, A and his wife, R. The whole school gang was there, apart from M, who had had to catch a flight back to Hyderabad right after the wedding.

Over drinks and finger foods, light-hearted chit-chat quickly veered off-piste when we somehow got onto the topic of mass incarceration in the US. P had an academic background in criminal psychology. She spoke eloquently about America’s prison-industrial complex and kept the rest of us engaged. Most of her research focused on the fundamentally flawed American and British criminal justice systems. Research in India was not as straightforward, however — she described the criminal justice system here as an impenetrable “black box”.

We continued down this rabbit hole after moving to a kebab restaurant within the hotel. P told us about a schizophrenic cannibal she had once interviewed at a maximum-security prison in the UK and the bizarre delusions that lay behind a string of murders he’d committed. We talked about the Jonestown massacre and the Rajneesh cult as well. But the bride, understandably, had little appetite for this line of conversation and we moved on to more cheerful topics.

We spent the rest of the evening reminiscing about our school days, our conversation growing more spirited as the night wore on until the handful of other diners in the restaurant became visibly annoyed by our presence. But a band of folk musicians performing in the restaurant seemed to enjoy our liveliness and they dedicated a couple of numbers to our group and solicited requests from us.

It is always refreshing to be in the company of old friends, but this mini reunion was especially uplifting since it came towards the end of a year of isolation. I had not seen PD in person since 2005 and hadn’t even heard from A in just as long. But, as is usually the case when former boarding school classmates get together, it felt almost as if no time at all had passed.  

D joined us midway through our conversation and patiently endured story after story of boarding school high jinks, along with P and R, the other non-schoolmates in the group.

We only called it a night when restaurant staff informed us that it was closing time. It was sometime after midnight but there was a wedding party in full swing in the outdoor pool area.

We said our farewells in the hotel lobby, resolving to meet up again the next time we found ourselves in the same city. A and R planned to spend the following day sightseeing in Delhi before heading back to Bangalore. D and I, on the other hand, had to catch a morning flight back to Mumbai.

J had booked onto the same flight as us with the intention of spending a week or so at our place before carrying on to Bangalore. We told him we’d see him at breakfast before heading to the airport. And on that note, we all retired to our rooms.

The third (and concluding) part of this inexcusably long piece is available here.

Sam Northcote

“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” — L Smith

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