Ejo #74 – An Indian Wedding In Dubai (Part 2)

OK, so long time readers of mine will remember how much I loved going to an Emirati wedding a few years ago.  I mean, it was pretty amazing.

BUT…

… Indian weddings are better.  I’m just telling it how it is.  Apart from the visual spectacle, there is a tangible and incredibly intense sense of joy that permeates every aspect of an Indian wedding festival.  It’s a celebration, in the truest sense of the word.  A carnival of feasting, dancing, eating, singing, loving and laughing.  Following is an account of our first (but hopefully not our last) experience of a wonderful Indian wedding, the union of Deena Mansukhani & Bhavin Asser.

DAY ONE – THE SANGEET

We arrived at the sangeet at 9pm to find the party in full swing.  The event was held in the grand ballroom of one of the city’s finest hotels, and was beautifully decorated with gorgeously adorned tables for all the guests.  But the first thing I noticed was that all the tables were empty.  Everyone was up on their feet, socialising and dancing, chatting, eating at the buffet, drinking at the bar and having fun.  We spotted our friend, Love, at the bar and greeted him with hugs and kisses.  It was so great to see him again after so many years.  He introduced us to his friends and organised some drinks for us.  The rest of the party, to be honest, went by in a blur.  But here are some highlights.

  • The food: Oh, the food. So much glorious food.  We piled our plates up high and went back for seconds (maybe thirds??).
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Tasty, oh so tasty, chicken

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I could happily have drowned in this huge vat of daal. It was amazingly delicious.

  • The people: Everyone was SO friendly.  Like nothing I’ve ever experienced in Dubai before.  People just happy to chat and dance and laugh with us as if they’d known us for years.  The social anxiety I usually feel when I go out here completely melted away in the presence of such warmth and acceptance.  We instantly felt like we belonged and it was a wonderful feeling that I will always cherish.
  • The dancing: Apart from the dancing free-for-all, there were many choreographed performances from both the groom’s and bride’s sides of the family. Traditional Indian music was interspersed with more modern western music so there was something for everyone to enjoy.

A choreographed dance.

  • I met a LOVELY woman on the dance floor towards the end of the night who gave me some impromptu lessons on Indian style dancing (it involves a lot of hand twirling and hip shaking).  She didn’t speak much English and the music was loud anyway so we communicated using the international languages of dance and smiles.  It was an incredibly fun experience and the next day my cheeks hurt from smiling so much (though, to be frank, my cheeks weren’t the only things that hurt – which leads me to…..)
  • The booze: OK, so Love had mentioned something about a free flowing bar when he’d invited us, but he never said anything about the bartender going around pouring shots directly from the bottle into people’s mouth (with a courtesy towelette to catch any spillage, mind you – this was a classy affair, after all). Everybody knows, once the shots start, it’s game over.  I don’t remember a lot after that, though I do vaguely recall catching a taxi at around 3am.
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Uncle insisted on being in this picture.

DAY TWO – THE CEREMONY

The invitation stated that the ceremony would begin at 2pm in the gardens of another five star hotel.  So, hungover as hell, we dragged ourselves out of bed at 11am, got ready in our kurta and sari and crawled into a cab.  Traffic was bad and we started stressing that we were going to be late.  Hahahaha!!  When we arrived, the hotel staff hadn’t even finished setting up the stage and chairs.  In fact, it would be several more hours before most of the guests would all arrive.  Our bad.  We didn’t realise that a 2pm Indian wedding actually meant 6pm.  Next time we’ll know better.  It wasn’t too bad though.  We got to chill out by the pool and drink lots of coffee and water and wait out our hangovers with a few more of Love’s friends who had also, foolishly, turned up on time.  One great thing about being there so early was that we got to see everything come to life.  The red carpet was rolled out and strewn with marigold petals, and the bride’s guests started arriving in their brilliant saris and kurtas.  In keeping with tradition, the groom’s party would be joining in later.

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I doubt I’ve ever looked so glam whilst also feeling like I was dying.

One of the awesome marriage rituals was that the close male members of the bride’s party had their heads wrapped in beautiful dusky pink turbans.  I tried to convince David to wear a turban but he lay down the law on that one.  Plus, it may not have been appropriate as we weren’t actually close to the bride, so I let it go.  Still, I’m sure you’d all agree that he’d look pretty fabulous in a sexy pink turban.

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The brother of the bride, our friend Love in his gorgeous pink turban posing with Lulu.

Apart from the turban wrapping, there were plenty more traditions and rituals.  One of the major ones is the Baraat – the arrival of the groom’s wedding party and guests.  Their imminent entrance was heralded by the rhythmic commotion of a couple of dhols (traditional double-headed drums) which had, in fact, been playing softly all afternoon but which became louder and more persistent to mark the Baraat.  We could hear the groom’s orange turbaned posse before we could see them, cheering and whooping in time to the fervent, tribal drum.

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The Baraat. Pink turbans meet orange turbans. Everybody looks fabulous!!!!

And, as they descended upon the venue in a whirlwind of dancing and flourish, Bhavin, beaming from ear to ear, made his grand entrance on an elaborately decorated rickshaw.  The entire performance was a joyful cacophony of high-spirited merriment which was impossible not to get swept up in.  I did wonder at the difference between what we were witnessing and the sometimes somber aspect of western weddings.  Yes, a wedding is a serious affair but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun too.

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Usually the groom makes his Baraat entrance on a white mare, but for practical purposes this rickshaw made do.

Once the elders from both families had formally greeted each other, the entire congregation moved back into the venue, where the shindig continued.  The wedding ceremony turned out to be a lot more subdued than the night before (thank goodness!).  There was no alcohol served and all the food was vegetarian.  When I asked Love about it, he told me it was Jain food, made by a ‘Brahman’.  In terms of the Indian caste system, Brahmans are the highest of the bunch, the priests!  The others are Kshatriyas (warriors), vaishyas (farmers and merchants) and shudras (workers).  Food cooked by a Brahman is considered to be pure, and since a wedding is a religious affair, the symbolism of purity is of the utmost importance.  Let me just say though, that as pure as the food was, it was decidedly delicious (the best pappadums I’ve ever had).

The wedding ceremony itself was a series of rituals that took place over the course of a few hours beneath a canopied altar known as a Mandap, which was ablaze in colour, flowers and decoration.  Unlike a traditional western wedding, the guests at a Hindu ceremony don’t sit and watch the entire thing but instead check in from time to time, interspersing those viewings with social mingling and grabbing a bite to eat.  So, in between eating those delicious pappadums and chatting with the other guests, every now and then we would sit down and watch the priest conducting his formalities with the two families in attendance.  Arguably, the most important of these were the four pheras, the bride and groom circling a fire four times to signify their desire to fulfill the purpose of their lives, together.  Intense.

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The bridal party in the background prepare for Deena’s role in the ceremony. The priest has already started the proceedings with Bhavin in the Mandap.

At one point I noticed that Bhavin was barefoot and wondered about that to Love.  He explained that four of the younger girls from Deena’s side had stolen Bhavin’s shoes during the ceremony.  What????  Cheeky!!!  This was yet another of the quirky wedding traditions.  Negotiations to return his shoes continued during the course of the evening until at last, near the end, they wore him down and he relented, giving them each a gold chain and pendant for their efforts.  What a nice memento!  At this point of the evening, exhaustion was starting to set in for us and we made our way home for an early night in preparation for the final day of celebrations.

DAY THREE – THE RECEPTION

As I mentioned in last month’s ejo, we had a dinner party to attend first, which happened to be retro-themed.  David and I got dressed up in our finest 50’s and 60’s glad rags and went along to a lovely dinner before heading out to Day Three of the wedding, the reception.

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50s and 60s stylin’

Once more, this was set in a hotel ballroom, and once more everything was beautifully decorated and everybody was beautifully clothed.  And of course, just like Day One, we started the night off with a couple of welcome shots.  How easily hangovers are forgotten.

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Welcome shots. Trouble.

The reception was another night of celebration, the difference being that this time the bride and groom were hosting as a married couple.  There was the Indian version of a bridal waltz (much sexier!!!) and a very cool chaise lounge upon which Deena and Bhavin sat to accept guest’s good wishes.

Like no bridal waltz you’ve ever seen before!

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Love doing…. reverse, one-arm push-ups??? Or pulling some pretty impressive dance moves, Saturday Night Fever style!!! Bhavin and Deena greeting their ardent fans.

It was all very regal (except for the fact that the party was raging on around them, boisterously).  There was more dancing, more drinking, more fun.  In fact, I haven’t had so much fun in ages.  It was very exciting to be part of something so exotic and interesting and exhiliarating.  I want to thank Love for inviting us and Deena and Bhavin for having us at their amazing wedding.  It was a fabulous three nights I will never forget.

 

Ejo #73 – An Indian Wedding In Dubai (Part 1)

I have two buckets lists. A reality bucket list – with just one item on it. And a fantasy bucket list with lots of items on it. The difference between these two lists, if you haven’t been able to glean it from their descriptions, is that one of them is achievable through my own action and will. Here is a copy of my current reality bucket list:

Achievable.

Achievable.

The other is basically wishful thinking. Here is my fantasy bucket list:

Dreams.

Dreams.

As you can see, these are things that aren’t really very probable at all.  They’re not impossible.  Just not very likely.  They are things that I have a very low-level, background, desire to happen – with the complete understanding that they probably won’t.

So, something happened recently that got me rather excited.  I got a message out of the blue from someone that David and I had met when we first moved to Dubai (way back when), a great guy called Love (yes, that’s his real name).  It had been a few years since we’d caught up, though I’d maintained a friendship with him on social media (yay Facebook!!!).  Here’s the message:

“Hey, u been to an Indian wedding before?  I’d like to invite you & David to my sister’s wedding in December.”

Imagine my delight!  I literally jumped for joy.  Fantasy bucket list, bitches!!!!!!  Naturally, the first thing I did was start researching what to wear.  Love had said that we could just wear regular western style clothes to each of the events, but that’s not my style.  If there’s an excuse for dress ups, I’m going to get dressed up (hell, sometimes I like to do it for absolutely no reason at all).  And I’m lucky enough to be married to a man that doesn’t mind getting into it either.  Damn, we were going to an Indian wedding!!!  Of course we were getting dressed up.

The parts of the celebration that we’d been invited to were the three main events, held over three days.  The first event was the sangeet, a pre-wedding function where the bride’s and groom’s respective posse’s have the chance to mingle and get to know each other.  It’s basically a monster party full of music, choreographed dancing, tonnes of food and loads of drinking.  The second event was the actual ceremony itself, a more subdued affair, but no less colourful or joyful.  And the third day was the wedding reception, the bride and groom’s first event as husband and wife (which is basically just an excuse to throw another big party – did I mention that Indians like to party?!).

So, my hours of meticulous research led me to the conclusion that I would be suitably attired if I chose to wear a ghagra (which consists of a long, embroidered skirt, a cropped blouse and a dupatta (or shawl) draped over the shoulder) to the sangeet party, a sari (which you’re probably more familiar with) to the ceremony and western clothing to the reception.  Perfect!  Now all I had to do was get myself a ghagra and a sari.  Lucky for me, we live in a city where more than 40% of the inhabitants are Indian so there is no shortage of places to shop.  It’s just a matter of knowing where to go.  Too bad for me, I had no idea.  But, I do know a lovely Indian woman at work called Dayini.  So I asked her if she could recommend somewhere to buy these exotic threads and to my delighted surprise, she offered to take me clothes shopping herself.  How wonderful!!!

We ended up at Karama Centre, a small mall in old Dubai which houses a number of Indian clothing and jewellery stores.  When we walked into the Silky Calicut shop my eyes widened at all the beautiful fabrics lining the walls, creating a jewelled rainbow of colours.  Crimson, purple, aqua, sapphire, chartreuse, gold, magenta.  So much beading, so much embroidery, so many sequins.  How on earth was I going to choose something?  My friend asked the assistant to show us a selection of ghagra fabrics.  He fanned out a golden lace skirt with green accents, and bright red fabric for the blouse.  I fell in love with it instantly.  But I couldn’t possibly choose the first thing I saw, so we insisted he show us a few more options.  Wouldn’t you know it, none of them dazzled me like that first golden skirt, so I tried it on (with a sample gold blouse for sizing).

Check out that shit-eating grin.

Check out that shit-eating grin.

The tailor came out to measure me up and, with Dayini’s help, asked my preferences for buttons, zips, edging, sleeve length, blouse length etc.  I was so grateful that Dayini was there to translate and help me make these decisions, or it would have been a lot more difficult to convey what I wanted – or to even know what I wanted at all.  I mean, I know what I like, but I’m no expert on Indian attire.  So, thank you Dayini, for all your input and recommendations.

With the ghagra sorted we returned to the shelves to select a fabric for the sari.  Once again, I chose the first one I saw (hey, when you know, you know).  It was a beautiful magenta and gold number that I just couldn’t say no to.  Now, for those of you who aren’t aware, wrapping a sari is a nightmare of an ordeal.  There are several YouTube video tutorials about how to do it but it’s difficult as hell AND there’s always the chance that it will come undone at the slightest provocation.  So I’m more than happy to admit that I chose to have my fabric sewn into a “cheat” version of a sari.  Basically the tailor stitches the yards of fabric into a skirt which buttons up (thus preventing an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction), leaving the rest to be draped around in the traditional style.  Unless you’re looking very closely, I think it’s pretty hard to tell the difference.

A week later, Dayini and I went back to the store so I could try on the finished product.  I was thrilled.  Looking in the store mirror, I felt like something halfway between an exotic princess and a character at a themed costume party.  I am quite conservative in my day to day dress.  I wear a uniform of jeans and t-shirts, in predominantly dark colours (Melbourne girl alert!!!), which might be why I like the opportunity to exhibit a little fashion flair when the occasion calls for it.  But wearing those sparkling, colourful clothes, even with just the shop assistants as my audience, I was transformed into a different person.  I felt regal and glamorous.  I felt amazing.

But hey, I hear you ask, what about David?  I was sorted, but now we had to find something for him to wear.  Male guests to Indian weddings have their choice of kurta, a posh sherwani or a suit.  The store that had made up my clothes didn’t do male attire but they recommended a few shops in the area that did.  Unfortunately, while we did find a very reasonably priced kurta in one of those stores, it was one size too small so we had to keep looking.

Just a little small around the shoulders and the calves.

Just a little narrow around the shoulders and tight in the calves.

We bade Dayini farewell and went strolling through old town Dubai.  After a well-earned pit-stop at an Arabian teahouse, we set out on foot again and serendipitously happened upon a clothing store that looked like it might have what we needed.  We explained to the assistant what we were looking for and he pulled out a kurta that not only perfectly matched my outfits and fit David like a glove, but which made him look like he was born a Raja.  Why are men so much easier to buy clothes for??!!!  Too easy.  We were ready for the wedding.

Tune in next month to hear all about the actual event itself.  I promise you, it’ll be fun.

Ejo #72 – Do You Have What It Takes To Be An Air Traffic Controller?

I very often get asked how I became an air traffic controller.  It certainly hadn’t been a lifelong dream of mine.  I’d never even considered it.  When I was younger I’d wanted to go into medicine.  I was a straight-A student and a total nerd and everyone assumed that because I was bright and motivated, I’d easily fulfill my potential and become a doctor.  I thought my high IQ and the simple fact that I wanted it would be enough.  Fools, the lot of us!  I didn’t become a doctor, thankfully.  I don’t think I’m actually equipped to help people in that way.  But that’s not what prevented me from fulfilling my dream.  Nope.  It was good old-fashioned hormones.   And boys.  (I blame the boys.)  Anyway, suffice to say I didn’t get good enough grades to go to medical school.  I barely scraped into a Science degree (that I didn’t particularly want to do), and went to university for two and a half years.  I didn’t go to many classes, but I did spend a lot of that time playing poker in the community hall.  I didn’t finish my degree, but I reckon I’m a pretty good poker player as a result so it wasn’t a complete waste of my time.

Anyway, after it dawned on me that finishing my Science degree WAS going to be a waste of my time, I decided to take time out from studying to earn some cash and try to figure out what I really wanted to do.  I spent the first whole year unemployed because I considered myself overqualified to do menial jobs, when in fact I was underqualified to do anything else.  Life lesson: learned.  Eventually I got a government job at the Department of Defence doing payroll and HR for civilian personnel.  Not very thrilling, and certainly not how I’d imagined myself at 22 years of age.  Let’s face it, I was a bit of a disappointment.  But, I was earning money for the first time in my life, I had a great group of friends and a wonderful boyfriend so I was happy.  Every now and again though, the disappointment would seep through to the surface, and I would ask myself the difficult question of where I was going.  A deafening silence would usually ensue.  I was adrift.  I actually started envisaging myself slaving away in a government office for the rest of my life.  That was a low point.  My colleagues were certainly happy enough with the easy hours, job security and slow but steady climb up the government ladder.  I was not.  The thought terrified me.  I needed to get out but my options were limited.

While most of my workmates saw their jobs as a career, I saw it as just a way to make some dough and enjoy my life.  Which is what I did.  It was during a weekend trip to a Sandy Point beach house in April 1994* (and I remember this moment like it was yesterday) that I was lounging around reading Cosmopolitan magazine.  I flicked the page and there it was.  The gauntlet.  Thrown.

 

DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO BE AN AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER?

 

I jolted upright, as if a flash of lightning had slammed into me, my hair standing on end.  I felt awakened, after years of being asleep.  I had never read words that were truer for me before in my life.  They struck into my very soul.  Did I have what it took to be an air traffic controller?  You bet your fucking life I did.  I ripped the page out (I still have it to this day) and when I got home, I called the number which would send my life hurtling into a completely different trajectory to the one it had been on before I’d flipped that page.

Australia’s Air Navigation Services Provider (ANSP) at the time was the Civil Aviation Authority, and they had placed that ad in Cosmo, in the hope of recruiting more young women into the very male dominated and aging workforce.  It worked.  A lot of women responded.

The first step in the selection process was a questionnaire determining people’s suitability for the job.  Ten thousand people applied.  The next stage was a three hour written exam conducted at the old Crown Casino.  I think around 400 people sat the exam.  The feeling I’d had when I’d first seen the advertisement – that I was so right for this job – was reinforced as I breezed through the exam.  My brain was wired for this stuff.  I had, sadly, stopped thinking of myself as being smart over the years because… well, I hadn’t exactly proven myself in that arena.  Suddenly the neurons were firing up again.  It was magical.  The exam consisted of several sections, each testing aptitude.  There was a memory test, reflex test, spatial awareness and complex reasoning tests.  Some parts required you to do mathematical calculations while being interrupted from time to time to answer a comprehension based question before returning to the first task, testing mental agility.  Time was constrained.  It was a high pressure exam and I flourished in its embrace.  I was in my element.

Of the 400 applicants who did the test, I think 50 got through to the interview stage.  There had been a long wait (about a year) between testing and interviewing because, in the interim, the CAA had split into what is now known as CASA (Civil Aviation Safety Authority) and Airservices Australia (ASA).  The interviews were conducted on behalf of ASA by a business consulting firm hired to select the best people for the job.  I was one of those 50 people.  I couldn’t believe it.  I was so excited.  For the first time in my life I had real focus.  I had a real, attainable goal.  A future.  I couldn’t afford to fuck it up.  Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I did.  The day of the interview, I got up super early and mapped the route to the office where I would be meeting with the consultants.  An hour before I left the house I got a phone call saying there had been a change of venue, and I was given directions to a portable office in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere.  I got lost.  I started panicking.  I was going to be late.  I eventually found the office and was greeted by three burly men festooned in ill-fitting suits, pointing at their watches.

“Not a very good start is it?” they intoned, haughtily.

I was shaking, nervous and short of breath.  Their questions confused me.  They belittled me, saying I’d already failed the first part of the interview by getting lost, so we were all essentially wasting our time.  And they finished me off when they told me that the creative streak exposed by my psychological evaluation was not a very useful attribute in air traffic control.  They destroyed me, and then they sent me trudging through the mud back to my Honda Civic.  I sat in my car and cried for the next ten minutes.

Two weeks later, I got a letter in the mail.  There it was in black and white.  I did not, in fact, have what it took to be an air traffic controller.  To say I was devastated doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of my despair.  I died a little inside.  That part of me is still dead.  I allowed grief to engulf me for a suitable period of time.  And then, I fought back.  I called ASA’s recruitment department in Canberra and asked for a second chance.  I called every day.  They stopped taking my calls.  So I started writing letters.  Every week.  I offered to make my way to Canberra, on my own dime, for another interview.  I begged, I grovelled, I pleaded.  My letters were probably passed around the office for a laugh, and I probably made a complete ass of myself, but I didn’t care.  This was my LIFE!  I knew this was one of those times when you would look back years later and wonder if you had done enough.  I had to do everything possible before I could allow myself to give up.  After about 18 months they told me to please stop writing.  That my best chance would be to re-apply “next time”, though they couldn’t give me any idea of when that would be.

I wouldn’t say that this was the point that I gave up, but my glimmer of hope shrunk to a microscopic dot.  I decided to leave it behind me and start living again.  I had to, once more, figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life.  My job at the Department of Defence was becoming untenable.  I had been shown AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL and I found it difficult to give much of myself towards subtracting people’s leave balances and fielding questions about superannuation.

In 1997 I decided I needed a break.  I took two months off work and travelled to the US to spend time with a friend.  The day I got back, my Dad casually told me that I’d received a phone call from Airservices Australia while I’d been on the plane.  I thought he was joking.  My microscopic dot of hope throbbed painfully in my chest.  Why would they be calling????  Turns out (and this really is a tremendously wonderful part of the story), the consulting firm they’d hired to recruit air traffic controllers had absolutely no fucking idea what they were doing.  All the people they’d selected as suitable had failed on the job.

They asked me if I was still interested?  I said…. well, we all know what I said.

Because so much time had lapsed between the last selection and this one, I had to do the battery of aptitude tests again.  Also because of the time that had lapsed, they were now computer based.  I spent two days holed up with 8 other applicants staring at a computer screen, proving that I did indeed have what it takes to be an air traffic controller.  Beyond any shadow of a doubt.

Then, the interview.  Compared to the seventh circle of hell interview I’d had to endure in the cow shit-ridden fields a couple of years earlier, this one was conducted at the airport (what a brilliant idea) and was a cakewalk .  The interviewers were air traffic controllers (another genius decision) and asked me relevant questions that I was able to answer with ease, thanks to my painstaking preparation and research.  I got through to the final stage of selection, which was somewhat of a social experiment.  Airservices Australia thought it would be a good idea to gather the “chosen ones” for dinner at a restaurant, ply us with alcohol and take notes about our behaviour.  I got drunk, and promptly went to the top of the class.  ;-)

The next letter I got from ASA advised me that I was one of 16 people who had been accepted into the ATC training course (which is a whole other ejo).  It was the letter I’d been dreaming of for five long years.  I was so proud of myself for achieving my goal.  I still am, really, and I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant.  During those many years of waiting, I would sometimes boastfully pretend to strangers that I actually was an air traffic controller.  Now, that I am one, I hate telling people what I do because I worry that my pride will come across and that it’ll seem like I’m bragging.  But I’m not.  If I wasn’t an air traffic controller, I have a feeling I wouldn’t be very much at all.  I just love my job, and I’m grateful every day for the chance to do it.

 

 

* This all happened a while ago, so some of the dates and numbers might be approximate.  I’ve done my very best to remember it as accurately as possible, but I can’t guarantee it 100%.