Going to an Indian wedding these days is like re-watching your favourite 90s Bollywood film as an adult – lured in by the nostalgia and familiarity, you expect it to be fun, but once you look closely, you realize that it’s fraught with benevolent sexism, homophobia, and way too many problematic elements. I, a single queer woman in her 20s, am yet again its chosen victim.
I came for the free food, I tell myself as I am forced to smile and make small talk with relatives who are as nosy and unrelenting as ever. “You have grown up so fast,” says an overzealous auntyji (a sentiment that never gets old, even though you’re 23), “But you have put on some weight, no? Maybe you shouldn’t eat so many pakoras.” She follows this up with laughter, although the scrutiny in her eyes is clear. She’s sizing me up as a potential candidate for rishtas (ironic, considering how surprised she was at my having ‘grown up fast’) and is testing out the extents to which I fit into her version of ‘ideal sanskaari woman’ – but to her dismay I haven’t even ticked half her boxes. I’m not ‘conventionally’ thin, I have body hair, I have male friends, I drink and smoke, I live away from home…you get the drift. Considering that I’m one of the few women in my family who do these things, these auntyjis are perennially stumped when it comes to me. It’s not their fault entirely because it’s ultimately patriarchal society that has conditioned them into glorifying a certain ideal of desi womanhood, but I like to quietly rebel anyway. “But aunty,” I say with mock surprise as I very visibly pile up my plate with more food, “the pakoras are the best thing about this evening, don’t you think?”
“Do you have a boyfriend, beta?” another aunty chimes in even though the first one has been barely quelled. This is the trick question to end all trick questions, because there is no right answer. If you say yes, word will spread in the entire clan and aspersions will be cast upon your moral character, but if you say no, they will despair your impending spinsterhood and push you towards rishtas with renewed enthusiasm. But considering we’re at a wedding after all, I saw this coming, so I’m ready to maneuver this curveball. “What if I have a girlfriend?” I ask, tongue firmly in cheek, but also simultaneously trying to gauge their reaction to me possibly having a same-sex relationship. As expected, they take it as a humorous rhetorical question and laugh along, but the laughter is somewhat uncomfortable. Yep, the internalized homophobia is showing.
As I finally extricate myself from the horde of aunties and head towards the mandap, where the bride and groom are halfway into getting hitched, some of the rituals I observe don’t really sit well with me. Kanyadaan for instance, seems really archaic and patriarchal, almost as if the daughter is an object the father is ‘giving away’. The mangal sutra also disconcerts me, because why should only the woman bear these physical markers of the marriage while the man doesn’t have to? Is this, yet again, a patriarchal invasion of the female body?
My thoughts are interrupted, however, by the loud uncles behind me who, under the influence of alcohol, are merrily cracking sexist joke after sexist joke. I have enough sense of self-preservation not to engage them in conversation, but that doesn’t stop me from overhearing the things they are saying. They are passing judgement on the bride’s physical appearance (we are from the groom’s side), talking about how she’s “too chubby” and “too short” and is wearing “too much makeup”. For the thousandth time that night, it strikes me how the women are almost always getting the sore end of the deal. No matter however many sacrifices they make, society still finds a way to put them down, whether it’s because of their choices or because of something as trivial as physical appearance.
I walk away from the mandap and on my way, encounter my cousin and her boyfriend. They are trying to sneak away for some private time, and try to enlist my help because of course, the family can’t find out she’s dating a boy of her own volition because they’re dead against it. After all, shareef girls don’t date, do they?
My cousin’s five years younger than me, and (other than having a secret boyfriend) fits into the standard definition of sanskaari pretty well, and yet, she’s a kindred spirit – a rebel in her own right as she tries to brave patriarchal policing and claim agency over her own sexuality. As I help them avoid the prying eyes of the countless judgy relatives around us, I wonder for the second time that evening how my family would react to a relationship of my own. If consensual heterosexual relationships like my cousin’s get rejected because they are outside familial permission, whatever will happen with a same-sex relationship?
Thankfully, the rest of the wedding goes by without much ado. The wedding vows are complete and the requisite amount of tears have been shed, the food and alcohol has all been consumed and the dances have been danced, and it is finally time to wrap it all up. Though this particular ordeal is now over, the rest of the wedding season is still ahead of me, and there will be lots more of this to endure. Weddings may be the celebration of the coming together of two people, but for people like me, they often are about fending off sexist and homophobic relatives and helping fellow young women challenge the patriarchy. But hey, at least the pakoras are great!