The neighbors haven't stopped talking about it. The groom arrived at the wedding atop the traditional white horse and escorted by an Indian version of a ragtime band. He was late, but nobody cared. He wore a pink turban, garlands of flowers, rupee notes pinned to his suit, a long, curved sword and a slightly embarrassed smile. The bride wore a shimmering sari and a jewel in her nose.
Afterward, her dowry was loaded up on top of a bus, which then lumbered off to her new home. Everybody cried -- and not least the bride herself, who until that day "had never exchanged a single word with the man she was marrying. Her happiness was now in the hands of God."
"In India," said one wedding guest, Seraj Fatima, "one can only hope."
The Sikh wedding of Swarnjit Singh, an auto rickshaw driver, and Harvinder Kaur, a former social worker, took place one recent Sunday under mild, sunny skies in the alley behind the embassies and big bungalows on Prithvi Raj Road, one of the nicest streets in New Delhi. The bride's father, Pritam Singh, is the driver for the Vietnamese Embassy and lives in a small house behind it. He has seven daughters and no sons, and can only think that God must have meant it that way.
"He has given me all daughters," said Pritam Singh. "I have to accept."
His youngest is not yet 2. His oldest, Harvinder, is 23. Hers was the first of seven weddings -- and dowries -- that he would have to pay for over the next 20 years.
A wedding is the single biggest event in the life of an Indian family, but this particular wedding represented even more. After the riots following Indira Gandhi's assassination last November that left perhaps 2,000 Sikhs dead and 50,000 more homeless, this was a return to what passes for normalcy. These are bad times for Sikhs. They are still bitter and fearful, and many continue to live in refugee camps. This wedding, like others over the centuries, marked the beginning of a bride's difficult new life, the loss of a daughter to her mother-in-law and the culmination of the dowry negotiations.
A wedding is also one of the best Indian pageants around -- and the largest expense that a family must bear. The father of the bride makes the equivalent of $800 a year, a good working-class salary by local standards, but the wedding and the dowry cost him $3,200. He got friends, relatives and the Vietnamese Embassy to help him out, but he was loaned money, too.
And there are still six more to go.
"We have to pay back the money we've borrowed," said the bride's mother, Harvinder Kaur, speaking through an interpreter, the son of a cook at one of the big houses nearby. "And then we have to start paying for the next."
The wedding began at noon when the band, improbably named the Disco Band, and advertising itself with a sign that said "located near bus stop 228," played an odd mix of marching music and ragtime as it led the groom from Prithvi Raj Road back to the alley.
The groom wore a traditional headpiece, a hat with sparkling streamers that covered his face and fell to his waist. After a slow half-hour processional, he dismounted and was surrounded by relatives who sang a Punjabi devotional prayer. Then he and the bride faced and put garlands over each other's neck as a granthi, or priest, read from the Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred book of the Sikhs. That was it for the ceremony. The party lasted five hours.
"I'm so happy," said the bride.
"She's happy now," said her mother, speaking more philosophically about the realities of arranged marriages. "Later, we can't tell."
The Sikhs are a breakaway Hindu sect, founded in relatively modern times for India, the late 15th century. They theoretically outlawed the caste system, although it is arguable whether they really have. Nonetheless, all the men use Singh for a last name, a nightmare for telephone operators, and all the women use Kaur, regardless of marriage.
The men are not supposed to ever cut their hair, and so wear it in a tight topknot under their turbans, which come in a variety of colors to suit their clothes. A good Sikh also never cuts his beard, so he deals with that by parting it in half at the chin, twisting each side into a tight strand, then pulling it taut up into his turban. One recent morning, when Pritam Singh, the father of the bride, was recounting the wedding, he wore a three-inch-wide piece of cotton fabric around his chin that stretched into his turban, as if to strap in his beard. "I'm setting it," he explained.
The Sikhs have their heritage in the Punjab, the state northwest of New Delhi, and although they comprise only two percent of India's 700 million people, they are generally an upwardly mobile group considered so entrepreneurial, athletic and aggressive that there are numerous Sikh jokes that paint them as big, thick-witted and dangerously mad in the noontime heat.
After the two Sikh bodyguards shot Indira Gandhi, setting off the riots, many Sikhs shaved their beards to literally save their lives. The father of the bride insisted that wasn't the case with his clean-shaven son-in-law. Instead, he said it was more a case of the new generation rejecting the ways of the old.
The wedding lunch was served at 2, a catered meal of mutton, rice, lentils and fresh tomatoes and turnips. The food was served buffet-style under a bright red, blue and green tent. When guests were finished with their plates, they put them neatly under the table.
Outside the tent, servants stooped in the dust over big wash basins, cleaning the dishes and then handing them back in. It was noisy and chaotic. There were about 200 people there, many in brightly colored turbans and beautiful saris. The day had the feeling of a festival. Guests gave the mother of the bride their wedding presents -- a generous gift was 100 rupees, the equivalent of $8.
The bride, meanwhile, looked a little dazed. She was silent and demure, casting her eyes down as expected and only allowing herself the barest of smiles. The groom had a bit of a swagger, and was widely considered to be a good catch. The women called him ubzurah, or good-looking.
Dowry negotiations between the two families had begun in December. The father of the bride, though, was careful not to call them that in an interview. Formal dowry arrangements are against Indian law but are so ingrained in the country's social fabric that is virtually impossible to stop them.
The middleman in the wedding negotiations was a friend of the groom's parents and also a relative of the bride. The families met five times -- but only twice with the prospective bride and groom, who saw each other from across the room but weren't allowed to speak.
Several days after the wedding, the father of the bride was praising his new in-laws. "We didn't bargain," he said. "His family is very nice. Nobody said, 'We want this, we want that.' "
He was also pleased with the choice. "There are many boys in India," he said, "but you have to search for the good ones."
Still, the "wedding gifts" were considerable, particularly for this family. Bride burnings -- that is, when a husband and mother-in-law murder a young wife by setting her afire because her family hasn't provided what the in-laws consider a sufficient dowry -- are a growing problem in India, particularly here in Northern India where there are flexible, post-wedding dowry arrangements.
The wedding gifts included a double bed, a dressing table, a couch, a trunk, suitable suitcases, a complete kitchen, plus clothes and jewelry for the bride. Harvinder Kaur will need all of this in her new home, which won't be hers but her mother-in-law's. Although circumstances often differs among the upper and professional classes, many young Indian brides have a tough life at first. They have the lowest status in a new household, where the mother-in-law traditionally serves as the disciplinarian.
Harvinder Kaur won't work now that she's married. As one of the younger wedding guests put it, the groom's family says "no go." "But I don't want to work," said the bride herself a few days after the wedding.
During the first year of marriage, many brides see their families only on special occasions. This bride returned the day after her wedding night, as is traditional, then went back to her in-laws that evening. Everyone in her own family was glad to see her -- everyone, that is, except her sister Surinder Kaur, who is next in line for marriage.
"Only I cried the next day," she said. "Everybody else was happy."
The bride says she plans to see her family once a week. "She's a very good lady," she said of her mother-in-law. "She loves me."
The wedding ended at 5 p.m. as sadly as it had joyously begun. The Disco Band was playing another number and guests were shouting as they helped load the bus. But the bride was sobbing. She hung on to her mother, who was clutching her daughter as the tears streamed down her face. The bride's sisters were hugging her and crying, too, as was her father, whose face was red in the afternoon sun. "Everybody's sad," he said. "She's gone and so far away."
Soon a taxi pulled up and the bride climbed in back symbolically seated between her new husband and mother-in-law. There were a few last hugs from her family and she was gone.
Now that things have quieted down a little on Prithvi Raj Road, life has retured to its daily routine. As always, Pritam Singh is driving for the Vietnamese Embassy, and as always, his wife is watching over their six daughters. But they have a careful eye out for the next two of marrying age. "Now we're searching," said their father, "for two more good boys."