Monday, February 12, 2007

Three funerals and a wedding

A couple of weeks ago, I was in my room in the guesthouse when I heard the distant sound of firecrackers (it could have been gunfire, and I considered the possibility). The sound was sporadic, a quickfire burst of bangs every minute or so. The sound was getting closer, till it seemed so close I decided to check it out by sneaking a peak out the window from the safety of my room. Eventually a slow-moving procession passed along the road in front of the guesthouse gate.

It was a funeral. Leading the way were two men carrying a bag full of firecrackers. Every 20 yards or so, they lit a round and dropped it in the road.

Following them was a tight group of mourners--all men, some beating drums. Next came a team of four men carrying on an open, wooden-frame bier the body of the deceased. The body was draped in cloth and covered with flowers.

Immediately following the body were more mourners and an autorickshaw full of garlands and loose flowers. Men were strewing the flowers on the road as the procession proceeded to the cremation grounds.

A long line of about a hundred mourners, women as well as men, straggled along behind the bier, everyone on foot.

Since then, I've watched two more funeral corteges pass by. For one, I went outside and stood by the roadside to pay my respects. I joined my hands flat together in front of my chest in the prayerful Hindu gesture of respect.

Whenever I see a funeral, I recall John Donne's poignant words: "Every man's death diminishes me; ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."

Last Sunday, by contrast, I attended my first Indian wedding. It was a vibrantly colourful and elaborate affair. Whereas the funerals reminded me of the passing and fleeting nature of life, a marriage in India is all about the promise of new life, birth, and rebirth, in the cycle of life and death.

Most marriages in India are arranged by the families of the bride and groom. This does not appear to be a bad thing, judging by the marriages of the people I've come to know and love during my short time here. I still have a lot to learn about married life in India, but I have a sense that the making and rearing of children, with its contribution to the extended family, is central to the enterprise. Love may, and no doubt often does, come later. But the parents and close relatives of the bride and groom match their offspring up with very practical considerations in mind.

In the "West," love between the couple is the central issue before the marriage is etched in stone. It's the couple who decide the match and predicate it on the love they have for each other. Children also are often the issue, if you'll pardon the intended pun, but not necessarily, by any means. It doesn't really matter whether they have children or not.

In India, a childless marriage is a sad situation as far as I can tell. But it is not a broken marriage. I am amazed to learn that only one or two percent of marriages in India end up in divorce.

But things are changing as the mores of the developed world seep into Indian life. Apparently, more and more marriages are patterned after the "love match" model. One wonders, as one wonders about any change, if this is a good thing.

The sure thing is that change will happen, and only then will we find out.

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