Reza's Travel Blog

Travels to Bombay and beyond...

January 30, 2005

Bombay 2001-02

Two Homes, One Heart and a Hopeful Mind

I returned two weeks ago from my annual trip to Bombay. Like previous trips, I spent time with family and friends and visited many of the same places, but each year is a new experience. (Here are some photos of my trip.)

A highlight of my trip was Bharat and Mamta’s wedding. Bharat is a good friend who was my roommate when he was a student at UT Austin. His brother Vikram and I have been friends since we swam together at Otters Club in Bombay. Bharat and Mamta met a few years ago when they worked together in the same office one summer.
A Hindu marriage is an involved and multi-day affair. It is an important social occasion with family traveling from all over the country and world to be part of a rich cultural tradition. Rites and rituals are performed which originated thousands of years ago in Vedic times. There are many variations in these ceremonies depending on the part of the country and the community one belongs to. Bharat and Mamta are Punjabi’s – from the state in northern India bordering Pakistan.
I arrived the day of the Sangeet (music) party, the day after the mehendi ceremony where the bride’s arms and feet are decorated with a henna paste in the most intricate and delicate designs. The sangeet is a celebration with music and dancing where everyone enjoys themselves in a somewhat less formal setting. That evening the Bhangra (regional Punjabi style) singers and dancers made sure all of us joined in the dance circle and they carried Bharat around on their shoulders. If we were not dancing, we were eating – enjoying typical Bombay snacks like pani puri, sev puri and ragda patties. After gorging on snacks as well as appetizers carried around by liveried waiters on silver trays, there was still dinner to eat. December is the wedding season in Bombay, which fills your social calendar as well as fills out your belly to where your clothes start taking on a more form fitted feel. We still had two days of functions to go!
The next evening Bharat’s brothers hosted a dinner party in the compound of their home. The highlight of this party was the “wedding band.” I put that in quotes because they were the most hilariously rag-tag outfit picked deliberately by Vikram and Karan to add some real local flavor to the night. They were dressed in ill-fitting white coats with red trim and they recklessly played out-of-tune instruments. The trumpet player was a sight – he sat holding the trumpet in one hand and his other rested on his generous paunch. They played an eclectic set of songs – old western standards as well as Indian film songs – including a hilarious rendition of Jingle Bells. We danced to them all.
The main event was on the third evening – the actual wedding ceremony followed by the reception. Bharat and Mamta’s wedding ceremony was at the perfect location – the Sun and Sands Hotel – with Juhu Beach and the Arabian Sea as the backdrop. Before we entered the wedding area, there was a ritual welcoming ceremony. Each family member from the bride’s side welcomed their counterpart on the groom’s side with a garland and an exchange of hugs and greetings. It was a very moving event and it beautifully conveyed the Indian tradition of marriage as the union of two families and not just of two individuals. We walked out to the mandap (a four pole canopy where the actual wedding takes place) which was decorated with flowers. Behind it the sun was setting into the sea. Bharat and Mamta sat on two chairs – Mamta on his right - with their parents on each adjacent side and with the two pujaris (priests) there to conduct the ceremony. Bharat was dressed in a simple traditional Indian outfit of a cream kurta with a gold colored turban on his head. Mamta was dressed in a traditional wedding outfit, which was red, with real gold embroidery on it. She was adorned in gold jewelery and her large eyes and beautiful features made her look like a princess out of a Mughal miniature painting.
The wedding rites lasted about an hour with each ritual having a symbolic purpose to signify the union between the bride and groom. When they arrived on the mandap, Bharat and Mamta exchanged elaborate flower garlands signifying the unification of their marriage. After the chanting of prayers by the pujaris, the sacred fire in the center of the mandap was lit. Fire in Hinduism is considered the sustainer of life and it is believed that the gods and goddesses sit around the auspicious fire to witness the wedding. Mamta’s parents put the right hand of their daughter into the Bharat’s right hand and bestowed blessings on them. A number of offerings like rice and ghee were put into the fire by the couple to emphasize their joint responsibility in maintaining the love and dignity of their union. They exchanged vows pledging to be loyal to one another. Then Mamta placed her foot on a stone and was reminded that the stone goes through all kinds of weather – hot, cold, wet and dry – but it remains steadfast and strong. Just like that a marriage has its ups and downs, prosperity and adversity, sickness and health, but the couple remembers to remain steadfast and true to one another like a solid rock. Two long pieces of cloth were placed around their shoulders and Bharat’s cousin tied these two pieces of cloth together to signify the marriage knot and the acceptance of Mamta as Bharat’s bride. Bharat and Mamta then walked around the fire four times. Mamta’s brother and cousins initiated each of the circles around the fire signifying their consent to her marriage to Bharat. Bharat lead the first three rounds and Mamta the last one. Prayers and invocations were chanted throughout asking for blessings from God. Bharat and Mamta then took seven steps together, with each step asking for blessings such as health, prosperity, children and long life. When they returned to their seats, Mamta sat on Bharat’s left so that his right side is free to take on the world. With the wedding over, the guests recited a hymn and showered fresh flowers on the couple to wish them good luck, prosperity and a long and happy married life together.
This was followed by the reception, which at an Indian wedding means, invite everyone you know or remotely know and have a feast prepared for them. Bharat and Mamta spent the rest of the night being congratulated by three hundred people, which must have been exhausting. (And this was a relatively small wedding reception by Bombay standards). We ate out under the stars while the moon slowly set into the sea. It was a beautiful and memorable evening. My parents came for the reception and my mom was dressed in an antique, peacock blue sari that she got from my grandmother and she was definitely the most elegant and beautiful woman there.

After one day of recovery, all the Khanna brothers and their wives, two other friends, Rohan and Diane, and I traveled up to Beas where our meditation group has a retreat center. Unlike in previous years, this year’s travel was relatively uneventful. Relatively. The first glitch was that the train from Delhi to Beas was delayed by a few hours, but those hours were spent happily at Bharat’s sister-in-law Arundhati’s house. The other hitch was that Diane and I had second class tickets and for the first hour of the journey sat on a hard bench in a crowded compartment near the toilet, with the doors and windows of the carriage wide open and dust settling on us like ash from a volcano. Fortunately Rohan got the ticket conductor to “adjust” our ticket and move us up to A/C first class with them, and the rest of the trip was enjoyable as we shared food and stories to bide the time.

In the background during this whole trip to India, was the military buildup on the India Pakistan border. Beas is about a hundred miles from the border and we did see tanks being carried by trains to the front. Although friends in the US and Diane’s family too, felt like we were in the jaws of imminent trouble and warfare, we did not feel the danger so keenly. I think the fact that CNN and the other media sources cover news with such zeal, that they distort reality to various degrees. The tension between India and Pakistan has waxed and waned over the last fifty plus years after they gained independence from Britain and were partitioned. More than a million people were massacred in communal fighting as Muslims fled to Pakistan and Hindus fled to India after partition in 1947. This was the beginning of many years of hatred and distrust between these two countries. The main bone of contention is Kashmir, which is the sole Indian state with a Muslim majority population. It has never known peace with many there wanting to be part of Pakistan or be an independent country. India and Pakistan have fought two full-fledged wars over this state, and a civil insurrection has been festering for over a decade with thousands killed. India sees these Pakistani backed militants as terrorists. Many in Kashmir and Pakistan see them as freedom fighters.
All of these previous wars, skirmishes (which occur with regularity on the border) and heated verbal battles have not been covered extensively in the western media. It is only in the last couple months that the media has focused on it since the US is fighting a war in the region in Afghanistan with Pakistan’s backing. Add to that the fact that India and Pakistan now have nuclear capabilities (although I would be shocked if either one used it). When India’s parliament was attacked by terrorists on Dec. 13th, India felt justified to put pressure on Pakistan to stop the militants that use Pakistan as a base to fight a devastating proxy war in the state of Kashmir. The military build-up is the way India chose to exert this pressure. In the last couple weeks, the US has been working hard to diffuse tensions between these two countries and I sincerely hope this posturing and brinkmanship by India and Pakistan will end soon.

Relations between the majority Hindus and the minority Muslims in secular India have also been tense and have flared up over the years. I was in Bombay in December of ’92, a few months before I was going to finish grad school, visiting my family, when tensions between these two communities erupted into some of the worst communal riots Bombay has seen.
The night the riots began, my parents, my mom’s sister (who was also visiting) and I went for a social function in the suburbs. On the way to the function, as we passed through the mostly Muslim area of Mahim, there was tension in the air that was palatable and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. By the time the function was over the riots had begun and it was no longer safe to head back into town through Mahim. Eventually we decided to drive by another route and hoped for the best. As we sped through the streets, they were eerily empty and quiet, unlike the constant street activity I am used to seeing in Bombay twenty-four hours a day. We get home without incident, but I have never been so racked with tension and worry before.
I spent the rest of my trip in my house, not daring to venture out. A shop on our street, Warden Road, known to be one of the nicest residential areas, was burned. It was like a punch in the stomach that takes your wind. When the time came for me to leave, I chose to go to the airport with a Hindu friend, denying my parents of their annual ritual of escorting me to the airport, since we had to drive through troubled parts of town to get to the airport. There had been unsubstantiated but troubling reports that cars were being stopped and people being hurt and some killed based on their religion. We got to the airport safely but I remember my friend saying many years later that he had never seen me so frightened. Although riots had occurred in Bombay before and there has been years of communal violence elsewhere in India, I had never been so directly affected and shaken by them.

What always shocks me about violence between religious communities whether it is in India or anywhere else in the world, is that no religion that I know of advocates violence against other humans. Like many great teachers and wise men remind us, each religion may refer to God with different names and each may have different traditions for prayer and ritual, but their ultimate goal is the same. Whether you are a Muslim, Hindu or Christian, you are ultimately a human being and have a responsibility to respect and recognize another, whether they are from a different caste, creed or color. Think of a marriage – it takes two very different humans – a man and a woman – who are different physically, emotionally and mentally. This diversity, this difference is what creates and supports the bringing of new life into this world. The very idea of civilization and nations is to bring peoples together, to build something greater than your own small village or community. I hope in the future we can all build a better world together on the common ground of diversity and resist devolving down into fighting over differences.

I left to study in the US when I was 17 and have been here for over 15 years. I have had the good fortune of being able to go back to Bombay regularly. This helps me retain my link to the past and gives me strength to build my future. Last year I wrote about how by visiting Bombay, I try to integrate my experiences from the past into the present life I have. And I have tried over the years of living in the US to integrate my eastern – Indian (and Iranian) self with the western self that has developed, as I have spent almost half my life and grown to be an adult in the US. This year a friend from Austin, Diane, was with me in Bombay for a few days. Instead of immersing myself completely in my eastern persona that normally happens when I go home, I had someone who I could share a western perspective with. I saw Bombay with different eyes. Not the ones that I am used to seeing out of when I am there, but ones that had some of my western experience too. On one hand it made me appreciate more the warmth and love of my family that I have there and the rich color and diversity of cosmopolitan Bombay. But the poverty was harder to ignore, the chaos was harder to accept and the constant din was harder to tune out. The city that I grew up in and that is nostalgically etched in my mind, no longer matches the city that I visit every year. This helps me wipe away some of the glow of nostalgia and form a more realistic picture of why I like and dislike Bombay.
My visit every year is filled with wonderful moments of connection with my family and friends and many familiar as well as new experiences in the city of my birth. The annual tennis match with my dad took place at the Bombay Gymkhana where once again he narrowly defeated me. Almost 77 and still going strong – I should be ashamed, but rather, I feel proud of him and inspired to live young, disregarding what my actual age is. I spent time with my brother Mimo who remains his unique life-loving, direct and happy self. Hanging out with him is pure pleasure for me – bantering about cars, gadgets and exercise, or reminiscing about the silly things we did as kids. I spent quality time with my mother and we visited some of the same favorite restaurants and shops I frequent every year as well as some new ones. I also got to meet many old friends including one that was my best friend in school and whom I had not seen in five years. I spent New Year ’s Eve with many of my school friends at a party one of them hosted. We caught up on what everyone from our class was doing now, and it was fascinating to see how many different paths we have taken from the common experience of our school days. All in all, the trip was rewarding, relaxing and very enjoyable.

Going home is a touchstone that reminds me of who I was, who I am and who I hope to be. This year more than ever I realized that I have two homes – one in Bombay and one in Austin – and a heart full of love from family and friends from all over the globe. Even though during this trip there was the tension of war in the background, and on past trips there were other troubles, I am hopeful for the future. If I can learn to integrate the diverse lifestyles and cultures of two different countries, hopefully others can come to understand one another and learn to live together in harmony.