By Firoze Hirjikaka
The main theme and the true raison d’etre for a Zoroastrian wedding is food. Zoroastrian wedding banquets are definitely for the weight watchers. Demurring protestations to the contrary, food is the reason most invited guests show up at these events. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Owing to some archaic promise my ancestors made to an ancient Hindu king, who gave them refuge after they had to flee their native Iran – where they were being persecuted by the conquering army of a newly born Islam – all Zoroastrian weddings in India take place after sunset. Generally, the wedding is followed immediately by the reception and both take place at the same venue.
The venue is usually a spacious, walled in compound, with a small building housing changing rooms and toilets. Some of the larger ones – like the one I went to – also contain a Zoroastrian temple on the premises.
Like I said, the actual ceremony normally starts around 6:30 in the evening, but the two families land up at least an hour beforehand. The family car is decked out with fresh flowers which, if nothing else, ensure permission to park inside the compound. The bride, having spent the morning at a beauty power, is dressed in an elaborately embroidered sari; white if it’s her first time; colored if it is not. The groom is always dressed in pristine white, even if it’s his third time (don’t shoot the messenger – I don’t make the rules). The traditional costume is white trousers and a white shirt, over which is worn a white muslin tunic held in place with a string of bows.
The wedding ceremony is performed by two priests, one senior guy and a younger one. These high priests have an ego as big as a house. He’s not going to drive himself to the venue, no sirree. Someone from the bride’s family has to go pick him up and chauffer him – and both families line up to receive him, with dutiful reverence. This particular worthy had a flowing white beard and was the spitting image of the biblical Abraham. The priests are dressed all in white too (white is big at our weddings).
The actual ceremony takes place on a stage; really just a raised platform with a backdrop decorated with flowers (some boors put up tacky flower hearts). There are two fancy chairs on the stage where the couple sits during the ceremony; and two family members each from the bride and groom’s families stand behind as witnesses. The groom takes a seat first and waits for the bride to be escorted by her father. Speaking from personal experience, it’s pretty scary sitting there on your throne with a thousand eyes staring at you. You have no clue what you’re expected to do. After the bride is seated, Abraham solemnly makes his portly way to the stage, with his underling following sheepishly behind. They stand in front of the seated couples and intone the wedding vows, throwing rice at regular intervals – particularly nerve wracking for the bride who’s wondering how she’s going to get half a pound of rice out of her elaborate coiffure. The only saving grace is that the ceremony lasts for just over a half hour. The priests are presented with bouquets by the bride’s parents and Abraham is personally escorted to the car to be driven home.
The ordeal isn’t over, however. The departure of the priests is the signal is for the guests to start lining up in front of the stage, clutching their gifts. The couple is stuck on the stage, fake smiles plastered on tired faces, while accepting congratulations and gifts. The latter are promptly passed on to waiting family members and disappear into large suitcases specially brought for this purpose. The savvy guests try to get first in line, so that they can get the chore over with and start attacking the starters (it’s all about the food, remember). White gloved waiters start circulating, handing out hot samosas, shrimp cocktails, pieces of tandoori chicken and cocktail kebabs. Other waiters carry out trays with glasses of wine and Scotch whisky.
You have to understand that all this is merely a prelude to the main event. All this while, still more waiters are spreading white linen tablecloths over long dinner tables. Regulars have learnt to focus their attention on this vital activity. They know that as soon it is completed, dinner will be announced; and they are well prepared for the stampede to get a seat in the first sitting. The smug, triumphant expressions on the faces of the lucky ones are a sight to behold.
There are no place settings, as is normal at formal functions in the West. In fact, there are no plates at all; just large banana leaves – and glasses stuffed with cutlery wrapped up in table napkins. Nobody knows how this tradition of banana leaves started, but it sure saves a lot of dishwashing afterwards. The waiters start moving along the tables in a well rehearsed and choreographed ballet. First come the buckets-with-sodas guys taking orders for soft drinks. You point to what you want and the bottle is plunked down in front of you. Other waiters follow with the pre-banquet preliminaries like pickles and potato chips. This is just the warm up, of course. Salivating diners crane their necks towards one end of the long tables where two waiters are poised to pounce. One of them carries an enormous stainless steel tray brimming over with goodies. At some unseen signal from the caterer, they begin their quickstep. The guy with the tray holds it out at waist height in front of him, while the other one deftly scoops out a serving and deposits it on a waiting leaf; with an assembly line precision that would have made Henry Ford proud. I have seen a table with over 30 diners covered in one minute flat.
The main courses tend to be fairly traditional. Some innovate hosts who tried something different have been rewarded with silent boos for their efforts. The first course is almost always fish; lathered with green chutney and steamed in banana leaves. This is followed by eggs broken over sliced potatoes; and fried chicken. Next comes mutton with straw potatoes in spicy, thick gravy. The final course is mutton pilaf smothered with think lentils. All main courses go round twice, so, if you have the inclination, you can really pig out. When you are finally sated, you fold the ends of the banana leaves over the leftovers; which are the signal for the waiters to sprint down the tables, whisking them away. Dessert is usually kulfi, a sort of ice cream made from condensed milk.
Some weddings can run to over a thousand guests, which necessitates three to four sittings. The unlucky ones who missed out on the first sitting have to remain on red alert for the second one. Slackers are consigned to the last sitting, which may not commence till almost midnight. Being alert requires keeping track of the courses. The serving of dessert is the signal for latecomers to line up at the starting blocks. The seating transfers take place in the blink of an eye. Soon as a first sitter pushes back his chair, it is magically occupied by a hungry guest. Only then can the lucky ones relax and smirk at the klutzes who did not make it. Of course, the unfortunate hosts have to wait till the last sitting – noblesse oblige – but the savvy ones have made arrangements with the caterer to keep them liberally supplied with starters in the interim.
For most guests, the end of dinner also signifies the end of festivities. A few perfunctory air kisses (and satisfied belches) to the hostesses and they start waddling back to their cars. An evening well spent. All that remains for the harried hosts is to start counting the loot that has accumulated in those suitcases – and the dreaded chore of sending out hundreds of thank you cards the next day.