NEW DELHI -- Like most weddings in India, it was a bittersweet occasion.
Rinku Roy, The Washington Post's New Delhi bureau assistant, an independent young woman with a winning personality and an occasional sharp word for recalcitrant bureaucrats, walked with the man chosen to be her husband seven times around the sacred fire as millions of Hindu brides have done for centuries.
The first hint of the impending event had come early last summer from Rinku's cousin, met during an assignment in Dubai to cover the Gulf war.
"They are looking for someone for Rinku, you know," she said.
At the time, Rinku herself said nothing. However, one day in late fall, she came into the office and sat silently at her desk, shuffling papers. Suddenly she turned and said, "I'm getting married."
The groom, found through an ad placed by his family in the marriage columns of the Sunday papers, was to be Debashish Ray Choudhry, a 36-year-old entrepreneur making his way in India's nascent computer industry.
From then it was only a matter of weeks until the families' priests determined that Feb. 8 was an auspicious date according to the horoscopes and family traditions.
Although it was Rinku's wish to marry, she grew apprehensive as the wedding day approached. "When all is said and done, it's going to be totally new, no matter what people say," she said. "For me, after 28 years, it will be all new."
Not only would she move abruptly from single to married life, she would be making the move most difficult of all for the Hindu bride -- from the home in which she has grown up and been nurtured to becoming a member of her husband's family.
Nowhere is the separation between the Western world for which Rinku works and the Hindu world in which she lives more evident than in the customs surrounding a wedding. In India, it is the families that most often make a match, perhaps with a nod of agreement from the couple, perhaps not. The fact that the young woman is marrying not only a young man but also his family often weighs heavily in the decision.
In Rinku's case, her family had looked for a professional man, someone who had roots in Delhi as Rinku had, and a family that was socially progressive. As Bengalis, they naturally were looking for another Bengali. One ad looked particularly promising.
Rinku's mother and her brother Niloy, a doctor and a newlywed himself, contacted the Choudhry family and went to see them for the first time last April.
"We liked them," said Niloy, who had taken on new family responsibilities since the death of his father more than a year ago. "They also liked us. It turned out that one of their main goals was to find a professional woman who could be economically independent. This is a big change in the last 10 or 20 years."
Once the families had agreed, the prospective groom and his family came to visit Rinku at her home.
"They talked and had good vibes right away," said Niloy. The two families went ahead with the wedding plans, consulting priests and family horoscopes for the best day. While dowries play a major and often contentious role in negotiations for many marriages in India, they were not an issue in this marriage; a reformist movement among Bengalis in the early part of this century all but eliminated monetary dowries.
Rinku and Debashish met often and got to know each other, but for the most part it was tradition that took over.
In ritual and custom, much that followed, and especially the wedding itself, underscored the importance of Hindu life and of the shift for the woman from her own household to that of her husband.
After the wedding ceremonies the couple stays one night at the bride's house, a night of teasing for the newlyweds, and especially the husband. "A last reminder from us married girls to take care of her," said a cousin as she plotted the night's pranks.
Then, at dusk the following night, the bride and groom go to the husband's home, where she is welcomed formally by her new family and acknowledges her place within the household. It is all done symbolically at a dinner that follows ancient custom. The groom first serves food to his wife, symbolizing his pledge to support and provide for her, and she serves the other members of the groom's family, symbolizing her entry into the new household. She then spends the first night in the house not with her new husband, but with her mother-in-law.
It is only a day later, after these rituals, that the marriage is consummated.
The role as a new member of a different family weighs heavily on a bride-to-be.
"Here, we marry an entire family," explained a cousin of Rinku's. "A daughter-in-law is never everything that is expected. At home, you were everything. Here, you have to prove yourself. It takes a long time for them to accept you for what you are, not what they expect you to be."
Rinku and her fiance' had discussed this at length. Still, as the hours counted down, she admitted to being a bit ill at ease.
"I'm worried to some extent about acceptance by his family -- in the sense of being treated like a daughter rather than a daughter-in-law," she said. "He is always very reassuring that there won't be a problem."
Rinku's family had anticipated this when they began the search for a husband. "Rinku has a mind of her own," said her brother. "Some time after Dad died, she thought about it and said she was ready for marriage, that she was ready to start life with someone else."
More than once Rinku would come into the office and grumble in jest about being put under "Section 144," a reference to a virtual martial law provision in India's internal security regulations.
By the day of the wedding, life was in the hands of aunts, cousins, sister-in-law and all-pervasive tradition. From early morning to late at night, ritual ruled the day -- and Rinku.
During the ceremony, Rinku clutched a symbol of Laxmi, the Hindu goddess of abundance and fortune. Why? "I don't really know," she said, "but I'm to hold it until they tell me I don't have to anymore."
The big day began with each family holding a ceremony at its own house during which the family priest invoked the blessings of the family's ancestors on the new marriage, a linkage of past to present. Then, the women of the groom's family brought gifts of saris, clothing and other symbols of welcome to the home of the bride, a ritual that was reversed later in the day when the young men of the bride's family went to fetch the groom to begin the marriage ceremony itself. Each offering was accompanied by a fish, either real or symbolic, in a reminder of that great source of sustenance for the Bengali.
Later, the couple sat under the marriage canopy, built with the limbs of the banana tree and decorated with coconuts, symbols of richness and fertility. They walked seven times around the sacred fire, as couples have done since Vedic times thousands of years ago. As the rites ended, Rinku fed a sweet to a young boy who sat on her lap, invoking her society's emphasis on male children, and then she and Debashish gave sweets to each other in a common hope for the future shared by brides and grooms everywhere.
For the elders in the families, there is reason for all this, reason that says much about the essentially conservative and family-centered nature of Indian society.
All the use of symbols and rituals has "one concept behind it: to wish them happiness for their new life. It is mental preparation," said one of Rinku's uncles. "Our marriages are arranged, so the boy and the girl do not know each other. Convention and ritual take the place of getting to know."
More than a week and a half after the ceremonies, Rinku and Debashish were seeing off the last of the relatives and trying to get themselves settled in a small apartment. The place was very close to Debashish's family house, where they visited much of the day.
And they had begun to build a life together. Debashish has encouraged Rinku in her discussions with Indian newspapers about her career. But more to her liking, linking up her interest in journalism and his in computers, he also has spoken of a computerized news feature service that she might run, an idea that would be a technological leap for India.
And they were beginning to work on the "getting to know."