There is much to worry about these days, so that occasions for unalloyed rejoicing are to be fully indulged. I just returned from one in Birmingham, Alabama, and despite the torturous circumstances of the returning flights, I’m stoked with optimism about our country’s human capital. I was last in Birmingham in the late 1950s. I seem to remember a rather dull and shabby small southern city, though it had not yet fully achieved the infamy soon enough to be bestowed upon it by its racist police chief. What I find now is a biggish metropolis with biggish buildings, and lots of “multis” — multi-lane highways, mutiplex theatres, multi-million dollar suburbs, and a multi-cultural population moving if not at a gallop at least at a canter.
I was in Birmingham to attend the wedding of my friend and one-time student Sanjiv Bajaj (Princeton, ’02) and his gorgeous bride Snehal Desai. Sanjiv has been the head of the ultrasound section of the radiology department at a New York teaching hospital. (Incidentally, somebody needs to get the word to Garrison Keillor that many of the nation’s top doctors were English majors.) He will now pursue his bourgeoning career in his hometown of Birmingham in proximity to his close-knit family of origin.
The venue for the wedding was exquisite — the Birmingham Botanical Gardens–and the weather, in refutation of Mr. Google, bright and sunny, very. For this special occasion, the benign, elephant-headed Ganesh, atop a small column, greeted guests as they entered the area of the reflecting pool. All the principals in the wedding were spectacular in their apparel, though some of the guests were merely magnificent.
There were many parts to the wedding, but I was able to follow pretty well with the help of an enlightening printed program. So far as I was concerned, the real action started with the baraat, or ceremonial arrival of the bridegroom on a walkway some seventy yards or so from the reflecting pool enclosure, where the ceremony and feasting were to take place. Amid a throng dancing to an insistent drumbeat, his face masked by a veil of pearl-beaded threads, the groom began his slow ceremonial progress toward the distant bride. Both of Sanjiv’s highly cultivated parents are physicians, but they sure know how to boogie. (His mother told me that ceremonial purity would have demanded that the groom have a horse. Unfortunately the only horse in the state of Alabama specially trained to the loud drumming had recently expired.)
Driving in a strange city, I had given myself lots of time, and arrived rather early. So I entered the gardens and sat down to read a bit on a bench near an imposing sycamore tree. Soon I was joined by an amiable elder, out for his daily constitutional, who engaged me in conversation. It turned out that we were exactly the same age and fellow Episcopalians — which is the sort of thing that seems vaguely portentous when strangers are talking on park benches. He told me that the tall sycamore was a “moon tree” — that is, that it sprang from one of the seeds taken by Stuart Roosa into space on the Apollo 14 Mission to the Moon in 1971. It later seemed rather poetic to me that the groom’s dancing procession should start in its shade.
This was my first Indian wedding, and I cannot avoid the kind of comparisons that are the necessary recourse of the unsophisticated. The liturgies of all the Christian sacraments, certainly including matrimony, reflect the old Roman legal mind. In this connection a student of comparative religion must notice both striking similarities and significant differences. In this Hindu ceremony the contractual theme was obvious, but it was only one element of a rich spiritual allegory that honored those material and domestic realities that actually define married life. There was a good deal of emblematic feeding and eating. The bride’s mother greeted her new son-in-law by washing his feet. The father-in-law crowned him with sindoor, rice, and flower petals. The showering of flower petals, indeed, was extravagant, and by the end the floor was a floral carpet.
Amidst the impressive solemnity there were delightful playful moments. For instance, at one point the bride and groom must “lasso” each other with flower garlands. As though to impede this process, their family members make them more difficult targets by raising them high on their shoulders. One feature that struck me is what I will call the reverent nonchalance of most of the numerous guests. The actual nuptial ceremony, as distinct from its marvelous ritual preparations, took more than an hour. Joined by several friends, the close family members, all of whom played important ceremonial roles, gathered in a square around the havan, the relatively small space in which the wedding couple sat enthroned and in which the priest presided. The large majority of the guests were scattered about under the tents or around the reflecting pool. They chatted happily but quietly. Some were snacking and sipping tea or ice-water, from time to time directing their attention to what I will call “center stage.” There was something of the vibe of an Eastern Orthodox Eucharist. Everybody recognizes that something transcendental is going on, but the level of active participation is to some degree optional. At the moments of ceremonial emphasis, of course, the entire crowd joined in the applause and communal blessing.
The overwhelming feelings communicated by this event are not hard to summarize. The first is the power of love, so beautifully expressed in many parts of the ceremony. A second is the solemnity of the marital state, the awesomeness of which is not however compromised by frequent interventions of the ludicrous. A third is the affirmation of the indispensable social context of human marriage. Sanjiv and Snehal come together in all their unique individuality, but powerfully inspired and supported by ancient tradition and cohesive community. This is a context that aligns the achievement of individual fulfillment with the broader social good, and it is something our country desperately needs. My warmest best wishes to this delightful couple, and my warmest thanks to their generous parents, the founders of the feast.