A Parsi wedding is cause for celebration. To start with, it suggests that the community’s population may increase, and given their diminishing numbers, any Parsi nuptials call for applause. Then, and almost as important, for the guest it means a Parsi lagan na bhonu, a wedding dinner fit for a king. So when a friend’s son got married the other day, we didn’t need to consult our diaries to see if we were free. We were free, even if we weren’t.
By now one knows the ropes pretty well. Enter the venue, grab a glass (Parsis like to drink, and they like their guests to drink too) and then head to the stage where the bride and groom and their families stand. Hand over you envelope and then quickly shuffle across to the rows of dining tables.
Over the years, one has perfected the art of this shuffle. You greet friends, who stop you with extra warmth, which you hope will excuse the very brief moment you want to spend with them. Finally with an air of feigned disinterest, you find the best seats and stand behind their occupants.
My very first experience of a Parsi dinner was years ago when I had come back from England burdened with an excessive politeness. I was talking to a group of people when I noticed everyone around suddenly disappearing, some of them at a brisk trot. Where were they going? They were rushing to the dining tables for the first sitting. When I reached there, there wasn’t a single vacant place anywhere. I got left out of the second sitting too. Then a kindly acquaintance took pity on me. “Go and stand behind one of the chairs,” he told me. “But they are all eating,” I protested, “Isn’t that rude?” “Alright,” he said, “You want to be polite, stay hungry.” My Parsi wedding lesson number one.
Russi Mistry’s son’s wedding was different, though, in some ways. First of all, he firmly said, ‘No gifts or flowers’. I do see this happen more and more in today’s weddings though. ‘Blessings only’ is a phrase you come across very often nowadays. It’s good for the guests, of course, but what of the young couple? Why should they be deprived of gifts? I think the British system is best. The couple specifies a store; say Selfridges or Harrods or John Lewis, depending on their social status. The selected store is given a list of things the couple wants as gifts: cutlery, tea sets, iron etc. You select what you can afford; that item is then struck off the list so the couple doesn’t get one dozen irons).
But the really unusual thing about this wedding struck me when we finally sat down for dinner. On the right side and across, there was a row of familiar looking faces I recognised, but couldn’t place. Who were they, and why were they all beaming at me? Then it struck me: they were all waiters at my club (Bombay Gym). Russi had invited them all, and the entire Gym staff — librarian, office clerks, tennis markers, you name them — was present. That’s democracy in the true sense of the word. After all, we may be a democracy, and a thriving, practicing, rambunctious one at that, but social hierarchies are preserved as rigidly as possible. You may extend all possible courtesies to your domestic servants, but they will not sit in your presence, and if they do, never on a chair. They might eat the same dinner as you,
but never with you.
These distinctions are more fiercely observed the better off you are. That, I suppose, is why the rich give their drivers and all their domestic, uniforms to wear. The ostensible reason is to make them look smart, but another reason — perhaps even more important, and perhaps in the subconscious, so not articulated – is that they should look like servants, thus ensuring no ambiguity in the social hierarchy. Just suppose they weren’t given uniforms, and they came dressed in jeans and tees.
In the west, they achieved this kind of democracy quiet a while back. Yet… On a recent trip to Italy we were invited to lunch at the house of a young Comte (like a Count). Ours was a small group, so everyone around the table looked familiar, except for one face. Then I realised he was the coach driver. All of us soon got animated, but the driver didn’t take part in the conversation, keeping generally to himself. All the outward trappings of democracy then we
re surely here; at the same time, class distinctions we
re neatly observed: the driver was at our table, yet he knew his place.