7 June 2019 – Today a childhood memory of mine suddenly re-surfaced – that of a wedding I had attended in early June 1983.
It was the wedding of one of my mother’s cousins – and I remember it mostly because of the bride! Her name was ‘Chumki’, and true to the name, she sparkled! Honest to God, I’d never seen any creature as beautiful as her! She was my first love! Married to Ma’s brightest younger cousin, she became an instant favourite with us – and Ma’s darling. And for her, Ma became a cross between an elder sister and a mother figure (Ma was much older than her husband, Goutam). In the huge new family that she got married into, with its army of doting relatives, Chumki maima somehow clung only to Ma. Felt safe with her, could be herself with her.
We were super excited when Ma’s ‘chhoto kaka’ and ‘kakima’, youngest paternal uncle and aunt, came to give the wedding card. The bride-to-be was just 18 – a first year Philosophy Honours student at Bethune College. But more interestingly, she was a Kathak dancer whom we had already seen on TV. Who knew she would become our aunt? The groom was 24. He was our golden boy. Fresh from IIT-Kharagpur. With already a foreign work stint in Japan. He was short, slim and fair. So was she. They looked like two dolls together. But she was beautiful! I’d seen marriages galore on Ma’s side of the family – but the kind of excitement and anticipation that this one had generated, was unparalleled. Chumki maima was married in her own house in Baghbajar – on the terrace – on the 4th floor. We had lost our breath by the time we reached up. The rose water with which we had been sprinkled as welcome had already evaporated by then and we had started to sweat. But we forgot everything the moment we entered the terrace. People were jostling to see the bride, with ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ and ‘bah-bahs’ all round. ‘Eki pori na apsara’? (Is she a fairy or a celestial nymph?) Boro-mama, my eldest maternal uncle, asked – a middle-aged man whom everyone respected, now struck with wonder. I stared at her with an open mouth. She smiled equally on everyone – very much Browning’s Duchess! And like the Duke, I already felt jealous about the others!!
This is a Beng-lish song that a maternal cousin of the groom (nicknamed, ‘Babuji’) composed. It was a huge hit, and we all sang it with gusto:
Babuji-দা is Engineer,
বৌদি the great Kathak dancer,
Engineer আর dancer মিলে করে ফেললো বিয়ে,
আমরা সবাই কামনা করি – থেকো তোমরা সুখী ।
Babuji-da Japan-e গিয়ে, একটি Japan-i কে নিয়ে,
Ballroom-e dance করতে গিয়ে, পিছলে পড়লো তাকে সাথে নিয়ে,
হায় রে পোড়া কপাল Babuji-দার,
Promise করলো করবে না সে dance আর,
মনে পড়লো Chumki বৌদির কথা,
শোনো শোনো শোনো শোনো শোনো – Babuji-দার কান্ড।
Ma belongs to a huge brood. Her father was the eldest of 19 siblings – 10 brothers, 9 sisters. And all of them had at least 3/4 children. The youngest – the groom’s father – had 3. The groom being the eldest. These boys were nicknamed ‘tin ratna’ (3 jewels) – by which was meant that all of them had gone on to study engineering at JU and IIT, the ultimate destination for any Bengali boy of merit.
This wedding was special, and people had gathered not only from all parts of West Bengal – but also from Delhi and Dhaka. It was huge fun for us children. I generally lapped up all the fun – except for the inconvenience of the bathroom. I’ve always been finicky about it. Relatives filled up all the three floors of Ma’s ancestral family house in Ballygunge. And three huge buses were rented to take the ‘bor jatri’ (marriage party) – from one end of Calcutta to another, from Ballygunge (in the south) to Baghbajar (in the North). That was an adventure in itself! The bus stood waiting as the women kept on with their ‘sajgoj’ – their Benarasi saris and gold jewellery and flowers on their elaborate ‘khopas’ (buns). There was a budding romance among a pair of close-relatives that was much whispered about… the young aunt in question took the longest time to dress!
After the wedding, all the nights were devoted by Ma and her huge gang of cousins to major trips down memory lane. They would sit up late into the night – all lying on each other in one huge loop – and talk and laugh till the wee hours of the morning. Teasing each other and making the children listen to all their stories – collective memories of their ‘desher bari’ in what is now Bangladesh, with dozens of cousins growing up in the lap of nature… they would reminiscence nostalgically about this tree, that pond, a particular maid or servant, uncle or aunt. And above all, about their beloved ‘Thakuma’, paternal grandmother – far more than their grandfather. I’ve heard a lot of stories about her from Ma: she was a true matriarch, who kept the whole family together and managed to love and be loved by everyone. Daughter of a jail super and a matric of that age, how she managed to bear 19 children and yet live healthy till a ripe old age, surviving some of her own children, is an enduring mystery to me.
That wedding was perhaps the 5th full-scale wedding that I was attending in my 9 years of life. Hence, by then, I knew all the rituals associated with Bengali weddings, the most painful of which was of course the ‘kone bidai’ – farewell to the bride as she left her natal home for her husband’s. Ever since a small girl, I cried in every ‘bidai’, though I understood little of what it meant. An uncle of mine, totally flabbergasted by all the crying that was going on as he took his bride home, said: ‘You feel as if you are stealing away the daughter’. He was right, of course!
In this wedding, however, the bride was coming into our house. So, we were filled with joy and anticipation. We had all fallen in love with her beauty – and her spontaneous sweetness. She was polite and yet warm to old and young alike – with just the right mix of deference for elders and affection for the young. No artifice. No putting on airs. No arrogance about her beauty. She carried the weight of all that attention and admiration with admirable ease; was very comfortable with her beauty, and unassuming.
Her furniture arrived before her. The usual stuff that all brides’ families were supposed to give and which both the parties took for granted, not deeming it as ‘dowry’. Just essential stuff to start off one’s domestic life with – bed, almirah, dressing-table, alnah. In her case, things were a little different: she had been given two single beds by her family instead of a big one (which were then joined as one); and two almirahs, one each for the bride and groom, which was rare. The best piece of furniture, however, (to my eyes) was a triple-faced mirror, with two half-oval glasses closing in on a rectangular one.
All the young men of the house worked the whole day to get the furniture together – looking just a bunch of well-fed mistris in their white bunyans and lungis! The temperature was soaring high and they sweated as if they had a bath. The biggest room of the house had been given to the new couple. It had been freshly painted and had new satin curtains. The room was completely transformed by the time the bride arrived.