At Pakistani weddings, family isn’t the most important thing‒ money is

At Pakistani weddings, family isn't the most important thing‒ money is
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One of our neighbours is in the wedding business. For this reason, it is nearly always wedding season at their house. The workday does not begin until sometime in the afternoon and it does not end until deep into the night ‒ after the guests have left the brightly lit venues, and the chairs and tables and lights and stages have been dismantled, to be set up again the next day for the next wedding.

Over the years, their wedding business has grown to gargantuan proportions with attention being given to the most microscopic of details. It is not a surprising development; as Pakistan’s cities have swelled with newer arrivals and the progeny of old inhabitants have grown to adulthood, betrothals are numerous and more resplendent.

There is, however, another reason for the ever-expanding numbers of businesses catering to the soon-to-wed. As the rate of rural to urban migration rises, and the expanding labour export market leaves many in a constant revolving process of arrival and departure, the family structures that sustained the marital celebration have all but disappeared.

The consequence, of course, is that weddings (and not simply the matches made) are transactional affairs.

Dark secrets

It is far easier to pay someone to make the food, provide the music and set the stage; indeed, with money one can guarantee mirth and merriment of a sort that family relations never could. Those that are paid to be joyous and accommodating, after all, are much more reliable than the relations scarred by deceptions past, by inheritances denied ‒ all the dark realities that those hosting weddings are eager to forget.

And forget they do, thanks in part to those that have made weddings a business. With the once-loved ones duly sidelined, wedding organisers and planners will happily take over, ensure that the mehndi is arranged in glittering trays, the offerings for the bride, the perfume and the bangles, the shoes and the chocolate, are all arrayed on trays and wrapped up in tulle. Whatever gaps are left unfilled by the paid can be made up by friends enlisted over the years, whose weddings the now bride and groom have dutifully attended: the cashing in of favours past.

If the now marrying have been lackadaisical in attending the mehndis, mayuns, nikahs and rukhsatis of others, the effects will be visible, usually on the dance floor. As all urban Pakistanis know, the number of dances to the latest Bollywood numbers, remixed rap anthems and revitalised oldies are all testaments to the popularity of the bride and groom.

The sweaty, dancing, hapless souls, happy on demand and desperate for a bit of the limelight, must participate in the mandatory merriment; it may be their best chance to snag a wife or husband of their own. A second rank may constitute the recently married, eager to exhibit the dribbles of youth that marital drudgery has not bled away, exhibiting the triumph of still fitting into the garments of one’s glory day.

The great feast

Nearly everyone who reads this article will participate in such a spectacle in the short cool months, when large crowds are more easily amassed, fatty foods more easily consumed. Old saris will be dragged out per the retro themes of the day, itchy suits and over-garnished sherwanis stuck over bodies grown large between now and last December.

If the hirelings that have been employed to produce the wedding feast are well paid and honest, there will be biryani and korma and only mild heartburn. If not, the vapid consumption of grease-laden food will end with a long night, solitary payment for communal gluttony. Those are the physical risks, the psychological carnage of forgotten sisters, ignored cousins and so much else that has a cost all its own ‒ that accrues invisibly but inflicts its own mortal wounds, whose blood and gore lie just beneath the enforced joy.

The wedding is an emblem of culture, and the Pakistani culture, battered by decades of war and demographic change, stands changed. The Pakistani wedding, with its hollow adherence to custom and tradition, largely aped from television dramas and Bollywood sagas, is an attempt to patch up the holes and gaps of now with hired hands and self-serving friends. Underneath the mandatory merriment lies a torn social fabric that is not what it used to be and has little idea of what it wants to be.

The smokescreen

A sincere commitment to maintaining familial relations requires more than attendance at weddings; it necessitates respect and a desire for love to mean more than the public proffering of hugs and kisses at nikahs and rukhsatis.

If the increasing numbers of monetary transactions involved in arranging a wedding, from the florist to the DJ, from the caterer to the venue manager, are any evidence, then it is money and not family that is of primary importance. With the former, the pretence of a happy family untainted by sibling cruelties and parental favouritism can be magically recreated at the wedding venue: a glittering bride and groom, a backlit stage, thumping music, all making up for the love and closeness that is no more.

The big wedding has long been a South Asian boast, and urban Pakistanis have begun to enact its grandiosity and faux sentimentality with the artifice of Bollywood productions. There are actors and actresses, some better than others; there are set designers and scriptwriters, choreography and music and, of course, heroes and villains.

There is one crucial difference though: the unreality of the Bollywood production is well known but the chicanery of the urban Pakistani wedding, its glittery gloss over frayed families, its garish re-enactment of cinematic scenes, insists that it is, in fact, the real, joyful, thing.