Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Part 3 - Imbedded behind the lines at an Indian wedding

The car ride to the final phase (four) of the wedding went via the bar of the local golf club. It was a decision taken by the driver, another relative. Experience told him we would be arriving way too early. Early – India, really? The groom was set to appear at about 11.00pm and enter the venue on a horse. The bride would join him sometime after he had dismounted and been led to the stage.

This non-descript façade hid any suggestion that a 9 hole golf course was located behind it. Had someone asked me to guess what was behind this bar – guess 74 would have been ‘a golf club?’ Whisky and Kingfisher beer were on offer with tasty pre-dinner morsels. After an hour we left and arrived way too early at the local badminton centre. Yes, the location for phase four and it was only 8.00pm.

This was not any badminton centre – this was the largest, in the biggest city (Lucknow) in the most populous state of India, Uttar Pradesh. The wedding was set up in the grounds between the main road and the centre, a building that stood as high as three or four stories. Our punctual arrival allowed me ample time to survey this wedding wonderland.
Whereas the previous evening’s event was themed blue, tonight was gold. Discussion had taken place between some family as to whether it was possible to match the blue in terms of quality and lavishness. The consensus - it was unlikely. On walking in through the elaborate gold pillar entrance with fine ribbon and dazzling light, the consensus was wrong. This location, set up as it was, could be seen from Mars.

The stakes had been raised yet again. Does Indian wedding opulence and grandeur have no boundaries? Yet, singer ‘Harry’ from phase two assured me when we met again at phase three, that as impressive as ‘theme blue’ was, it only rated in the ‘average to good category’ in terms of what was possible and at other wedding ‘phases ‘ where he had sang.  
The entrance stage for the couple was a replica of Persian/Mogul palace. No world leader would have felt out of place here. The almost married couple’s view, once on the luxuriant couch, would have been the dream of a young girl wanting to be a princess, the boy her prince.


Looking straight ahead were four gold draped pergolas each standing about fifteen metres high and about thirty square metres; complemented by flowing ribbon. A red carpet made its way more than a hundred metres down the middle to a water fountain. Behind that and off to the left side were the seating arrangements for the close family dinner set to commence at around midnight. To the right what looked like the inner sanctum of the same replica palace, with carpets and more gold cloth, coloured cushions, ribbon, jewels and lights elegantly hanging half way to the floor – the place of ceremony.
With a lazy three hours to kill before the action started, I felt like a child in an exotic candy shop but one only a vivid imagination could possibly conjure. Around the sides were golden food annexes cooking up a storm from different regions of this great and diverse nation. Teenage boys had scrubbed up to become waiters attired in black suites and white gloves. They offered guests drinks, more exquisite tasting morsels and a whacky array of non-alcoholic beverages about every 24 seconds. Yes, this was a dry wedding ceremony but that was ‘inside’ the venue. Outside were the ‘car boot bars’ where those unable to refrain was alcohol would be catered for; a perfectly Indian solution.

Father of the bride had earlier sung an emotional farewell to his daughter on the stage where elite musicians were plying their trade during the build-up. Security guys doing their best ‘wild bandit’ impersonations milled around, mostly in a pack, making sure the look of thirty rifle toting men with the capacity to shoot at any minor indiscretion guaranteed good behaviour. It did! Mind you I felt no threat until I noticed them and from my perspective, they became it.

At around 11.00pm the arrival of the groom was announced by music, lights and fireworks. A throng of well-wishers gathered and danced. Team Groom was leading the pack with its the men adorned in white silk scarves. Awaiting them, before the entrance into the badminton grounds, were the red scarfed men of Team Bride. In front their gorgeously resplendent, saree sparkling women began mixing with dancing and cheering compatriots from Team Groom; a swirl of colour and movement in front of the groom bearing horse. Both families came together in a delirium of moment and occasion fuelled by adrenalin, emotion and the celebratory beating of drums.
The groom dismounted and dressed, maharaja like, entered the stage where he would spend time greeting well-wishers and being photographed by the assembled media pack. Sometime later the equally well adorned bride entered from stage left with what I expected would be great fanfare. Instead, accompanying her were just a few of her closest male family in a low key approach. Together the couple met many guests.

A quick glance suggested the anticipated 1,200 invitees were indeed all here. Food was flowing and the place was pumping. The salad bar featured animal and bird figures delicately carved from enormous pumpkins. I had awoken from a dream; into a dream.
How time flies! It was past 1.00am and only the inner core from both families remained in a picnic like atmosphere to watch a Hindu priest prepare concoctions, chant holy mantras and ask the couple to recite prayers of guidance and spiritual connection.

Many of the 1,200 were making their way out as the grounds started to resemble the end of a large sporting event. The clean and pack up crew were already on task as the ceremony continued.
As it concluded a solid hour later, more subdued rejoicing and mixed emotions from the proud parents of the bride, for she was switching places to join Team Groom.

The now (finally) married couple made their way back to the entrance; soon to be driven to the groom’s family home where they would spend their first night. Next day would also be there but the day after would entail a ritualistic return to the bride’s parents’ home for lunch. Then it was honeymoon time in Bali.
The remarkable host (the bride’s father) was generous and hardworking to the end arranging, as he was, for all the guests to be driven home. Casual workers then approached him for tips. His wad of rupees lightened significantly as he recognised jobs well done. 

At around 3.00am, having experienced an overwhelmingly joyous wedding, we were whisked away into the still mild Lucknow night. The roads were almost clear. I was momentarily tempted to ask the driver if I could get behind the wheel. The white Brahmin cow that ghosted from nowhere was as nonchalant as it would be in peak hour - which was pretty much all other times.
I swear the ambling beast winked at me. I pinched myself.


Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Part 2 - Behind the Lines: Imbedded in an Indian Wedding

As the still Lucknow evening unfolded, I was only partially comforted by the saying, ‘life is not a destination, but a journey’. There were moments on our way to wedding; phase three when it appeared my destination could be the premature ending of the journey – badly.
There were two reasons for this. The first was the traffic. Despite a glance in any direction at any given moment that would have alarm bells ringing, I never once felt a tragic road accident in Lucknow would befall me. Making our way through its litany of main roads, roundabouts, laneways and dirt tracks, there was evidence that flew in the face of such confidence. These included the volume and array of vehicles, people and animals near, beside, behind and unseen for almost the entire one or more hour journey. Yet, somehow, I trust the phenomenal skills, patience, awareness and experience of every person (and animal) that enters a roadway of any description each day. Most survive unscathed.
The second was starting out at 6.30pm and not arriving until after 10.00, via two other venues. This made me think life and phase three Indian weddings were, in fact, endless journeys.

Once we had passed the colossal framework of the soon to be ‘Hi-Tech Townships’ as these towers stood like haunting sentinels in the darkness, we immediately turned left into a dusty, bumpy dirt road. Fortunately it led to the grounds of the ‘Black Dog: Life is worth the wait; life is in the pause, Genesis Club.’ Whatever and wherever, this was about to finally unfold and I sensed the wait was  going to have proved worthwhile.
One reason for such a delay was coordinating the convoy of the many family guests who attended phase two – our team (of the bride to be). Once we had assembled we were armed with gifts to take in. The instruction was given and we moved forward through the ‘tunnel of trust’; a one hundred or so metre tented corridor festooned with vertical lines of light. For awaiting us on the other side was Team Groom and they were amassed in their many hundreds.

We had to arrive at once to show greatest respect and make the greatest impact and place our gifts in the designated area at the same time. At one point in India’s history, we may have borne gold, goats or swords. We instead would woo them with sweets.

If I had thought phase two was as glam as it gets (and I did), that tunnel of trust had actually come out on another planet; ‘Planet Indian Pre-Wedding Phase Three’. This place was so vast, so audaciously lit, so well set up and so generously catered, I feel sure it could have be seen from the moon despite the colour being almost exclusively blue.
We were in strutter’s paradise. But all class. This was about laying it on the line to prove both families were worthy of each other. I don’t think any member of either team presented as anything but civilised, friendly and eminently worthy. The ‘whitie’ from Team Bride was a possible weak link as he wore the same suit, though a tie and different shirt than during his phase 2, well… phase!

There were subtle and time honoured protocols that only a full Ph.D. in such matters would come close to deciphering. There were photo opportunities for all relations with the bride to be, with the groom to be, then together. More small ceremonies and greetings and then… the dancing again.
Both teams were there for the bonding boogie and no one left disappointed, most at about 2.00am! Tomorrow I will be attending the wedding bit – the actual ceremony. Apparently it’s huge…


Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Behind the lines: Imbedded in an Indian Wedding - Part 1

I am smack bang in the middle of an Indian wedding. Remarkably perhaps there is stillness, a lack of colour and music. There are almost no people. Not the image Bollywood or the usual stereotypes would have us believe. Why so?

The four night marathon wedding fiesta in the north central Indian city of Lucknow; an hour’s flight from Delhi, has reached the end of phase two with last night’s celebrations. Day three marks the start of the official program. For those invited guests on the outside of the extended family circle, there is a small window of opportunity for sleep before the next event begins, generally in the early evening. So we are pacing ourselves. Each day, however, dictates what activity happens on the periphery. Relatives could be summoned at short notice to be involved, meet someone in particular or help out in a directed way.

I have been invited by Rajiv whose wife, Sonia, is from the inner sanctum; the aunt of the bride to be. Rajiv is much happier away from the intrigues that take place in location central; the apartments of family and neighbours. Yet when any proceedings are underway, he throws himself into the fray with gusto. His main game is greetings with relatives, warm hugs and laughter and though he’ll deny it – the dance floor. Being back in his land of birth is reflex and he rises happily and naturally to every occasion, small and large. For Rajiv is gregarious and jocular. A smile is never far from his lips and an ability to make light of all that goes on around him is one of his many endearing qualities. It is an attribute that serves him well in both his native and adopted lands. He is helped by an astute people and situation radar and a desire to learn from life itself.

So far the wedding phases have felt like instrumental music building to a distant crescendo as each note bares some integral connection to the theme. The assembled ‘orchestra’ of guests increases each evening so the Indian equivalent of the ‘wedding march’ develops resonance and gusto. This may be rehearsal for the final phase but as events in their own right, each is bigger and bolder than most main ticket shows I have seen in other countries.
Phases one and two have not even made it to the official program. Nor has the groom. Intriguingly, a small group of his anointed relatives (not parents), siblings and close friends, many about his age, were invited to the house of the bride where her family were on show to welcome them with drummers, petals, food, drink and dance. Importantly chosen members of Team Groom came bearing a vital gift – the bride’s wedding outfit! As the music started in earnest, the dancing appeared to be the most potent symbol of the families coming together.

When the guests left no more than a few hours later, they did so with big smiles and  gold packaged boxes of sweets. They would also tell a story of how well they had been treated and entertained; a minimal template for some reciprocity in phase three that draws much larger numbers as both extended families (including remote cousins) will come together for the first time and where the hosting is incumbent on the groom’s side.

In a set up any movie wanting to depict grandeur and opulence would be proud, over 200 bride related family showed up for the second phase the following evening. Fortunately so too did the caterers and the bar staff. Suited waiters in white gloves would serve a raft of choice offerings including fish tikkas and kebabs that melted in the mouth. A drink of any description was available at the bar. Most local males displayed a strong preference for whisky.

Red carpets spread hundreds of metres up lanes complemented by elaborate decorations on the fences alongside. Extending high in corners were camera flash umbrellas fit for a huge photo shoot. Each contained globes allowing the myriad of photographers to bounce shots off the artificial light to capture the intended nuance.
Yes, there were speeches but brevity seemed the order of the night. Delightfully, the most important messages were sung. At one point three generations sang a superb number in unison; grandfather, father and son. And they did so with no shortage of panache, emotion and obvious talent.

Then pop star ‘Harry’  appeared. He made young female hearts flutter. Unfortunately a throat infection had reduced his quality and output. This did not stop him giving it his best shot as he returned to the elevated stage several times so as not to let people down. Forced to take a break I was assured by the man himself, and his sizeable entourage as it passed, that he would keep going; evoking the Punjabi spirit of never giving up.

The lively dancing, via a band initially and then the sound system, was instigated by the young but crossed generations. The music belting out from ground level floated sounds of joy and celebration high into the neighbourhood air. By now it was rich with the aromatic smells of yet more food being served from the portable cookers under the guiding hands of the tented caterers.


Such infectious energy generated by a loving crowd gyrating to popular local tunes was hard to deny. Sure the white guy couldn’t dance but he received a hell of a lot of encouragement from those present and had all the fun on offer in India’s most populous state; Uttar Pradesh.



Thursday, 27 November 2014

India 1980, India Now; the India in me

No sooner had I taken a solitary step from the barely manageable chaos of Delhi airport into the heaving uncertainty beyond, than I parted company with about ten Australian dollars; the equivalent of at least a full day’s living. A conman had successfully spruiked a bus allegedly city bound that was, in fact, fixed to the spot. This experience shaping occurrence was 34 years ago, almost to the day.

As all good salesmen do, he recognized his customers. The ‘lame duck – never been to India’ label was clearly pasted across my forehead in all the languages I couldn’t speak. He knew the going rate for the bus to the centre of the city, so offered me a figure clearly within the guide book’s ball park.

Handing over my money, he scrawled something on what looked like a ticket and told me to wait ten minutes. I waited longer having heard about ‘Indian time’. I could have waited ten years. That bus was going nowhere. In the meantime my money served to confirm his accuracy in spotting innocents abroad. As such I’m sure he was back at work perusing arrival flights bearing foreign backpackers just as gullible as me.

After cursing my own pitiful naivety, I got it together enough to negotiate myself onto the right bus and later found some accommodation. Once I had caught my breathe I quickly realised I had to wise up. My lame duck persona was a beacon to the street smart. If unable to take heed my three months of funded travel around the country was likely to last me about a week.
My second visit six years after my first happened to coincide with the last year an Indian Prime Minister visited Australia; 1986. And not stopping there; on the same trip I journeyed to Dharamsala, the north Indian home in exile to the Dalai Lama, and he was touring Australia. What the...?

Now I am back in India and the newly elected Indian PM with a pop star following, Narendra Modi, has just been to my homeland.  Meeting the Australian PM, Tony Abbott, would have presented him with its own challenges regarding Australian values and idiosyncrasies.

India is the first country I visited on my own. It is where, while on the back of an elephant, I proposed to the beautiful woman who became my wife. It is the country our second daughter’s middle name bares. It is where my ideas on life were confronted; my values challenged. The safe boundaries that had defined the suburban boy were now porous. Never again would my upbringing be the key shaper of my outlook. The horizons of my world had expanded tenfold in this very place. Indeed India had taken some of the Australian out of the boy - and I never got it all back.
It was from this land I learned to open my eyes and my heart. It started me along the road of my toughest juggling act; the contrary arts of toughening up and opening up. Almost twenty eight years to the day, I have come back to a place where part of me was re-born, so in this regard it is a homecoming.

PS. As an interesting aside, the same Australian PM told the media and assembled throng of Modi admirers that he had backpacked through India. As it happened his time coincided roughly with mine. He too said his values and attitudes had been challenged. It seems we went through similar experiences yet our attitudes headed in opposite directions. A line from former PM, Paul Keating, comes quickly to mind. The major difference he said existed between his lot and ‘the other mob’ was that they have ‘miserable hearts’. Mine appeared to open, the Australian PM’s appeared to close. Asylum Seekers - I rest my case.

A kids take: toking on a smoke

When I was a kid most people older than me smoked – including my mum and dad. Mum smoked cigarettes until into her late sixties and dad smoked a pipe until he was diagnosed with kidney trouble that required dialysis. Some nurses, as mum was, could smoke with the best of them. But journalists and writers, such as my dad, well they needed to smoke because it apparently helped them with their work.
The natural connection between the great outdoors and reflection could only be fully realised with the assistance of a pipe for it undoubtedly enhanced the writer’s creative process. If you don’t agree, have a look at this photo of my dad walking along a Melbourne beach in the 1950’s, taken for a newspaper article promoting one of his books.

I distinctly remember the aromatic smell of pipe tobacco. It was pleasant and alluring and it meant I was around dad, so comforting too.
Curiously no under-age smokers appeared to smoke a pipe. Maybe smoking cigarettes was an apprenticeship for the pipe.

I was about ten or eleven when I considered it time to start my apprenticeship. I had observed lots of people smoking and all the smoke it produced. It just looked so stupid. Yet, it was clearly the thing to do because my neighbour, Bruce Shorland, had started. He would have been about a year or two older than me while his brother, Alan, was a year younger. We hung out together.
There were also lots of guys on the TV smoking. Mostly they were good at doing men things like lassoing cattle, driving trucks, using tools and talking to women. The last had the least appeal to me. I had two older sisters and I avoided speaking to them unless strictly necessary. The Marlboro Man was definitely the coolest of all despite the women thing.

Bruce knew stuff. If I followed his lead my pursuit of knowing stuff would come quicker. He was even prepared to risk the consequences of telling an uncomfortable truth. I realised this a few years earlier when the three of us were playing under my house when he suddenly challenged the sacred cow of the Christian child’s universe. ‘Guess what?’ he blurted. ‘Santa’s not true. It’s your parents.’ Alan and I stared at him and each other in amazement, shock and disbelief. Bruce may have known stuff but this was a preposterous claim and Alan and I held tight. Later Alan, holding back tears, told his mother what Bruce had said. Marjory was outraged so big brother received a hiding and was sent to bed without any dinner.
This served only to enhance his appetite for being a rebel. Bruce arranged for us to go with him to meet a group of other kids under the bridge by the creek near Warrigal Road. On arrival there were six or seven boys, some older, some my age or younger and they were all smoking. There was not a lot of talking. One of the older boys blew a smoke ring. How amazing was that. ‘Do youse guys smoke?’ came the question from someone. This appeared a challenge of sorts, like ‘prove it’. Bruce had already told us to tell the others we smoked. Maybe by doing so he would accrue brownie points in front of his new mates.

So some cigarettes were offered around and Bruce, Alan and I all took one each. Bruce lit his first (from someone handing their lit cig) and then lit ours. He could do the draw-back which meant he could really smoke and was possibly on the way to being able to do smoke rings. Alan looked nervous. I drew on the filter and coughed. In the same breath I said, ‘must have gone down the wrong way’. The other guys could see through me and laughed, but accepted my feigned bravado with tolerable grace.
The part of my brain tuned in to good and bad sensations clearly registered this as non-pleasurable. Sucking smoke into my gob – why? I masked it and said, through my coughing ‘yeah, I like to smoke’. This was my first big venture into being one of the boys and I was seriously conflicted.

Sometime later I ended up paying for a packet of Escort 10’s. I guess Bruce got them from somewhere. I realised they were a badge of honour. I also knew that I would be much happier giving them to others than smoking them myself.
I had been able to avoid a return to the creek since the earlier episode. This was mainly because, though unspoken between us, Alan was on the same wavelength and we found excuses not to go. This turned out to be fortunate for it led to my first epiphany.

For Bruce had then introduced us to another taboo – ‘naughty magazines’. We soon had heaps of these stashed in our various cubby houses. There was something about them that was exciting and adult. Looking at them entranced me in ways I had not previously known. The sense of anticipation and awe at flipping through the pages because it was ‘wrong’ made this secret pleasure even more tantalising and addictive.
I still had my Escort 10’s tucked into a hidey spot of the cubby. One day a friend of Bruce’s visited. A few minutes later I was offered an incredible deal - to swap the cigarettes for a stack of these mysterious and exciting magazines. From that moment on I learned a couple of perplexing truths which throughout my life would require attention and good management.

The first: Marlboro Man was onto something after all by talking to those women. They clearly liked him because of his cigarettes and even smoked themselves. I hated the cigarettes but began to like women (girls) as I grew up. My conundrum was that I would not smoke another cigarette. I therefore had to spend a lot of time thinking about how to overcome this distinct disadvantage in attracting female company as clearly smoking was a magnet. Secondly, could I be liked for who I was and not some false image I projected? Then, in what was appalling timing, I became a teenager.


Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Fog, dog and father's weird machine

The mum of the 3 year old smoking the pipe wasn’t his mum then. He hadn’t made it into the world at that point so neither was he a glint in his father’s eye or Chadstone’s youngest pipe smoker. He was literally nowhere or no one.
Had there been no dog, maybe his mother would never have made it back that winter’s night in 1957 from the outside dunny. If she hadn’t, the father’s glint would have amounted to nothing. Life’s evolution and how moments decide whether someone is born and to which parents is so random.

Had the yet to be mother of the 3 year old Chadstone pipe smoker married the American serviceman she met while he was stationed in Sydney during WW2, then instead of smoking at 3 this boy may have been chewing tobacco or learning how to use firearms. But because of other events beyond the control of her American fiancé, (such as Japanese military might in the Pacific) he wasn’t able to come back and pick up where he had left off, marry and take the Sydney girl back to the USA.  No, he was strafed while in the water and died a horrid death.

Maybe the woman, who ended up the mother of Chadstone’s youngest pipe smoker, was thinking about whether she would have been out in the fog on a winter’s night going to the toilet had she ended up in America. She doubted this and it made her slightly peeved because it was dark and freezing and she was busting. As a result she lost focus.
Whatever she was thinking about, it wasn’t useful in helping her gain her bearings after she had been to the toilet and tried to make her way back to the house. That the toilet was some 10 metres from the back door was not ideal. 

She would not have been happy that her bladder had decided to give her a sign so late at night and it gave her no real choice but to go outside in the pitch darkness and the fog soup. It wasn’t ideal either that the woman’s baby daughter (the only child at that time) was asleep in the house when the woman started heading out through dense fog in the black of night across paddocks and away from her house and daughter. The woman became slightly panicky that she had become so disorientated. The outside porch light and the whole house were lost in the eerie evening fog.
Instead of walking around in circles the young mother from Sydney, whose only association with fog was related to Sherlock Holmes novels where he would peer out his window to look down at the freezing streets of London, stopped and considered what to do. Wisely, she called the dog’s name ‘Kim-Bo, Kim Bo’.

She called it twice. So that means he didn’t have a first name that was the same as his family name or just a first name, or just a last name like some Brazilian soccer players.
Being a loyal and smart dog he was upon her in a couple of minutes sniffing about and wagging his tail. He may have been curious but would not have asked questions for dogs back then were outside and this was unexpected company. (Also, though smart, he couldn’t talk). Now there was a woman and a dog lost in the fog. However, the woman was confident the dog would be able to help her find the way home and she was right. He did. Fog is apparently not an issue for dog’s and directions.

Had the 3 year old been born and in the house with his sister, he would have been chain pipe smoking, worried that both his mum and his dog were outside and lost in the fog. He may well have got bored with the typewriter because whatever reason his dad sat by it for so long as if playing the piano, the boy could not fathom. He was up for a short play and a photo shoot but beyond that there was nothing going for it.

His dad happened to be a journalist and writer and not that the boy knew at the time but in the 50’s and 60’s there was a definite link between writers, beaches and pipes.

Monday, 17 November 2014


That’s the little guy in the photo. He has a story - as all little guys and girls do. Provided they are fortunate to grow into adults, they have seen a lot including a lots of changes. That photo was taken in about 1964 in a suburb of Melbourne called Chadstone. Somewhat surprisingly for those who have ever been there (not the shopping centre, the little piece of suburb around it) this suburb could possibly rate highly in a range of competitions:

·        The most non-descript suburb in Melbourne - Chadstone

·        The suburb with a shopping centre taking up the highest percentage of square metres of its total land area - Chadstone

·        The suburb known for nothing but its shopping centre - Chadstone

·        The only suburb in Australia where its shopping centre's expanding car park took over a Catholic teaching college - Chadstone

·        The suburb newer residents with an eye on property value like to call Malvern East, or perhaps Malvern East East - Chadstone

·        Where mother's stopped their kids from playing down near the creek as it had become too dangerous on account of the creek being turned into a freeway - Chadstone

·        Where one mother measured the arrival of her third and final child, a son, (said 3 year old) by the fact that he arrived either just before or just after the completion of the shopping centre - Chadstone

·        The suburb given the name 'Chaddy Beach' for an end of year student party because a student from Campbellfield asked if Chadstone had a beach - so for that one night it did - Chadstone
Yet when the parents of the little guy in the photo settled there back in the late 1950's it was not considered a suburb - it was the Back of Bourke. They had moved from South Yarra and their friends were stunned to learn they had bought a block of land so far away.

In order to allow builders onto the block to start building the house, the little guy's parents spent weekends chopping into the gorse (sort of prickle bushes). Back then the creek at the bottom of the unpaved road was a creek. Freeways were modern objects of awe on black and white television from America. Creeks were safe here!

There were so few houses in the vicinity when those parents moved in that it was possible to get lost. And one of them did. That's a story that involves thick fog, a dog, an outdoor dunny and darkness.