The 'Thotho' is a uniquely Bengali ceremony performed on the evening before the wedding. Representatives from the bride’s house visit the house of the groom’s in their best clothes, their arms laden with gifts. They cascade inside in endless cheerful waves, laughing, joking among themselves and loudly calling out greetings to everyone from behind the towering piles of gifts. A happy buzz fills the house. Compared to the formal, sober Tam Brahm wedding ceremonies that I was used to attending my cousin Prashant’s wedding seemed to be a riot of laughter, colour and noise.
A room was specially allotted to them to place their gifts. Within minutes every square inch of the floor was completely covered with cellophane wrapped trays carrying a bewildering range of gifts. I saw a brand new suit, formal shoes, deodorants, perfumes, imported soap, a shaving kit, an Ipod, two digital cameras, a cell phone, assorted nuts, a fruit basket, dozens of Bengali sweets, Swiss chocolates and even a foot massager.
“And where is the groom?” one of the ladies turned to me and asked with an evil smile.
“He’s just getting ready. He’s changing in his room” I replied.
They laughed and exchanged knowing smiles. I couldn’t quite figure out why. Did they want to tease him? The bride to be hadn’t come anyway. She wasn’t supposed to see her future husband on the day before the wedding. So who could they embarrass him in front of? Little did I know of what was in store for him.
When Prashant emerged from his room, the entire party fell on him and dragged him as he kicked and protested loudly to a chair placed specially in the center of the hall. Quick as a flash they undressed him, leaving him clad only in a skimpy pair of boxers. With boisterous encouragement from the crowd, a few of the bride’s aunts began smearing vast quantities of moist turmeric on his face, torso and legs. Within a few seconds he was totally unrecognizable as a human being.
I was mystified by the ritual. One of the bride’s cousins turned to me and explained how the same turmeric would be smeared on the bride on the morning of the wedding. I wanted to prod him for more details but he returned to the crowd to cheer his aunts on.
The elders from our own side gazed at the spectacle with horrified fascination. The groom was never attacked in our own weddings. He was revered and practically worshiped, whereas here the groom was being stripped and manhandled by the ladies of the house.
I for one found the whole thing hilarious. Now this was the atmosphere a wedding ought to have. I envied the Bengalis for the easy camaraderie that they demonstrated. A wedding was a simple, joyous affair, a time for happiness and celebration, not a time to worry if the groom’s side was happy with the arrangements. I took out my digi cam and began snapping pictures from every possible angle. Standing on a chair as I was unable to penetrate the frenzied crowds, I called out to Prashant and asked him to smile. He bared his teeth in my direction.
“Dinesh!” my uncle called out. I reluctantly abandoned the chair and pushed my way through the crowd towards him.
Smiling, he reached for me and placed his arm around my shoulders. “This is my sister Praveena’s only son” he introduced me to a family consisting of a middle aged couple and a grandmother. The family had been nodding and smiling as he introduced me but their smiles vanished the moment my mothers name was mentioned. Instantly their faces assumed a troubled expression and they gazed at me gloomily. I didn’t know what to say. I was caught up in the festivities and I didn’t really feel like raking up the past. I was in no frame of mind to discuss their deaths. Besides, I felt vastly uncomfortable receiving the sympathy of strangers.
I was uneasy because I made them uneasy. I didn’t want to make them to feel like I was writhing in pain inside because it made things extremely awkward. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. Was I supposed to assume the suffering expression of an unfortunate victim or was I supposed to pretend like it was no big deal? In the embarrassing silence that ensued, I kept my eyes glued to the floor and hoped they would go away. A stranger could never be privy to my feelings.
It wasn’t just that I couldn’t how to express grief in front of those I didn’t know. There were times when I didn’t have a clue to how I felt about it myself. The hurt and suffering swam somewhere in the murky depths of my consciousness but I could never reach out and touch them during the day. I would ask myself how it felt to not have parents and never get a reply. The answer was too complex.
When the people I sat next to on trains and buses struck up a polite conversation to help pass time on a long journey asked me what my father did, I would tell them he was no more. They would immediately express their sympathy and after a brief silence hesitantly ask me what my mother did. Over a period of time I learnt that it was unwise to reveal she too had passed away because it threw them into confusion on how to react. The rest of the journey would be ruined. The bolder ones would ask me for details – something I resented but could never convey while the quieter ones would mumble their sympathy and hide behind their news papers, giving me a sad peek from time to time. To avoid the embarrassment I began to pretend that everything was just the same as it used to be: That my father was a University professor and my mother a school teacher. It helped avoid complications but I felt hollow inside as I gaily narrated these true lies.
As I shifted uncomfortably on my feet, I felt a hand reach up and caress my cheek. It was the grandmother and she smiled sweetly at me as she looked deep into my eyes and murmured a few kind words. She spoke in Bengali but I understood what she was trying to convey. Somehow her touch made all the difference. I didn’t try to move away.
Still smiling she patted her knee and beckoned. Unsure of what she meant, I turned to my uncle for help.
“She wants you to sit on her knee” he whispered.
“Just do it.”
She patted her knee again and gave me a radiant smile. I had no idea how to respond. How could I possibly sit on her without crushing the life out of her? Besides I was twenty five. I couldn’t possibly clamber onto her lap; I’d lost the right to such behavior more than a decade ago. The idea of a full grown adult sitting on the lap of a sweet old lady seemed patently ridiculous. Yet there she was, smiling and gently encouraging me to do just the same. Even her son and daughter in law didn’t have any objections. The entire family was nodding and smiling, wanting me to paralyze her from waist below. Unable to protest, I lowered myself gingerly onto her knee, expecting to hear her bones crack any moment. Her knees held. I sat, rigid, blinking, immobile and afraid to breathe. I was fully conscious of the spectacle I was making.
She laughed softly and patted me on the head. Holding my chin, she looked into my eyes and whispered in Bengali. I fell silent and listened.
We were strangers. We belonged to different times and different cultures. Five decades stretched between us. She spoke only Bengali and yet she connected with me like no one else had. Maybe it was because of her age, or the light of understanding that seemed to shine in her eyes. I knew that she knew how I felt deep inside. Slowly, I felt my inhibitions melt away. Sitting on her lap, my heart suddenly wanted to tell her how much I missed my parents, of how I dreamt of them every night and woke up disoriented, unable to bridge the gap between my past life and my present. I wanted to tell her how I hated hospitals, of how the sight of an ice box paralyzed me, of how unreal it was to watch their bodies roll towards the roaring flames of the crematorium.
But of course I didn’t actually say anything. I knew I didn’t have to. She would know anyway.
I don’t think I spent more than a minute on her lap. But it was enough. She smiled again as I rose. I smiled back and returned to the crowd feeling at peace with myself.
I think she knew that I needed a lap to sit on.