Few letters — well, packages — can rival a pukka Indian wedding invitation. For a start, there were the 17 stamps on the envelope, which was lined with gold-embossed paper rather like a fabulous jacket. Inside was not just one invitation, but six, asking for our attendance at different events spread out over nearly three weeks. There was even a glossary to help us navigate our way through the dress requirements: Traditional’, ‘Trad-itional/Formal’ and ‘Black Tie/ Bandhgala’, and even the dreaded ‘Smart/Casual’ (surely the most unsettling phrase in the English language). The first serious mistake was to leave the whole boiling lot on our mantelpiece.
Delhi in the winter months is as close as I know to urban heaven. There is a slight chill in the mornings, well-behaved mist over the tombs and ruins and clear sunny days for weeks at a time. Then, of course, there are the never-ending social events and parties. In the higher realms of ‘Old New Delhi’, everyone is somehow connected to everyone else, so there is little sense of change, no matter who claims to be running the country.
Indian weddings are an art form in themselves. They provide an opportunity to show off big time. A recent one in Delhi boasted cameo appearances from Bill Clinton, Naomi Campbell and Puff Daddy. Our celebrations didn’t go down that particular celeb route. Instead, they began with a mehfil, which is shorthand for a gathering of friends to have a good time. It began with kilted Indian soldiers blasting on their bagpipes while hundreds of people gathered in a vast tent. This was not a marquee home-counties style; it also had to incorporate the overhanging branches of trees.
It was Delhi at its best. There were inter-connected groups chattering away — visiting cricketers Imran Khan and Wasim Akram; the Doon School Set, which was formerly Rajiv Gandhi’s powerbase; the Maharaja of Jodhpur’s intricate tribe of Rajputs and Etonians from all over the globe, plus English residents who’d gone native. Added to this were six-foot Sikhs in regal robes looking as if they had been plucked out of the 19th-century court of Ranjit Singh.
The parents of the groom, Malvika and Tejbir Singh, are from the cultural elite, so their way of making an impression for their son Jaisal was to gather together the most renowned musicians and chefs in the subcontinent to perform and cook. It took six months of planning to get chefs from Lahore, Amritsar and Lucknow. The quail (served over hot coals with yogurt, garlic and chillis) had been bred for the occasion by a French farmer on the outskirts of Delhi. And various diplomatic strings were pulled to bring in Pakistan’s finest nautch girls, none of whom had ever set foot on Indian soil before. The first night’s entertainment went on until dawn. Then it was time for the celebrations to start at the bride’s residence.
This was a rather good venue for a bash as it had its own Mughal ruins in the grounds. The trees had been draped with strings of marigolds. I was also put right about the car-parts nature of the bride’s family business — it was the main provider of air-conditioning units to Mercedes and a raft of other big-time car brands in Europe and Japan. After this, there was a daytime mehndi ceremony for Anjali’s friends to paint her limbs and place turmeric and henna on her hands and feet.
The next day was the formal wedding on the private estate of her family at Gurgaon, Delhi’s new Virginia Water. We’d managed to avoid total disaster without our invitations (although we discovered too late that ‘smart but casual’ in India means ‘heap on the emeralds’).
By the time the Sikh wedding ceremony had been completed (30 minutes, briefest of sermons, bit of singing, slice of cake: the C of E should take notes), I had managed to renew acquaintance with virtually every friend I ever had in Delhi — as well as making a few more.
To crown it all, just before our flight home, we ended up dining with a publisher friend who has become one of India’s leading writers on food and wine. He has developed the winning habit of drinking only first-growth Bordeaux, so before we stumbled on to our flight to London, he treated us to a youthful Haut-Brion and voting-age Latour. If ever I am asked to name my groundhog week, I shall merely have to say ‘Indian wedding — please!’
Bruce Palling travelled with the Ultimate Travel Company (020 7386 4646; www.theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) who arrange tailor-made journeys across the subcontinent by road, rail and river.
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