Within an hour of our arrival, someone had tightly tied a turban around my head and I was told to hurry up and join the procession. I found the groom, Professor James Tooley, looking shell-shocked, which was not surprising. Far away from British academe, he found himself wearing shiny gold robes and an enormous gold turban, sitting in one of those extravagant American cars from 1960s gangster TV shows. A band nearby was loudly performing Indian music while, behind him, a troupe of women in elaborate and gorgeous costumes was dancing. Nearby were two white horses wearing red and gold, two camels and an elephant. A troupe of male dancers with orange turbans and red skirts was at the ready to do a stick-clashing dance once we got to the gates of the palace. The purpose of the procession — one small part of two days of wedding rituals and entertainments — was to bring James in a suitably grand way to meet his bride, Ekta Sodha. When we finally got to see her, she looked stunning in a heavy red dress, elegantly smothered in a jangle of gold jewellery. In fact, just assume everything is red or gold unless otherwise specified.
The wedding ceremony itself was radically more realistic and honest than a British one. British weddings are mostly about love, often with a reading of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (‘and the greatest of these is love’). All very nice but the ceremony avoids mentioning other regular aspects of marriage such as sex, money, conflict between the couple over who takes the decisions and potential dislike between the two families. All of this is acknowledged in a Hindu wedding. James was expected to hand over notes as part of the ceremony but first, he and I, as his best man, had to bargain vociferously with the bride’s family. ‘£10,000? You must be joking!’ I shouted. ‘That’s outrageous! How about 10,000 rupees? Rupees are a fine Indian currency and you should be happy to get them!’ There were two ritual struggles for marital dominance. In one, the couple played a game of hunt-the-ring. A ring was put in murky water in a large plate and they raced each other to find it. It was the best of five and whoever won would be the boss in the marriage. For the record, James won 3-2 — not that it will make any difference in reality of course.
I found similar honesty in the ‘Grooms’ and ‘Brides’ wanted advertisements in the Sunday Times of India. The adverts are divided into sections so you can seek a spouse of the same caste or profession or who speaks the same language. Advertisers openly say they want someone ‘handsome’ or from a ‘status family’. Potential brides are unabashed in boasting that they are beautiful and have fair skin. In Britain, we pretend that we are exclusively interested in the other’s personality or GSOH and that nothing else matters. Like hell.
Ekta told me that when she first came to Britain, she was dismayed by how damning people were about the Indian caste system. Then she noticed that the British themselves were frequently and persistently asserting their own class status. I asked for examples. She said the upper classes — say the top 15 or 20 per cent — establish whether new acquaintances are of their own class through references to art, theatre, literature and so forth. So someone might say their favourite opera is Tosca. The other upper-class person will reply by showing knowledge of Tosca and other operas, saying something like, ‘Yes, of course the arias in Tosca are magnificent but I am afraid I am rather low-brow. I enjoy the jollity of the Marriage of Figaro.’ That answer contains another assertion of class: ostentatious modesty. Another upper-class signifier comes in the form of great politeness. Yet another is discussion of relatively abstract issues such as whether subsidies for the arts are justifiable or not. The middle classes only refer to such issues. The lower classes do not even do that. All of us are unconsciously signalling our class.
After the wedding, my girlfriend and I visited Jodhpur and suddenly found that the internet was not working. Why so, we asked? ‘It is because exams are taking place today,’ we were told. The entire internet across Rajasthan had been turned off, making it impossible to take credit-card payments, among many other things, because trainee teachers were taking their exams. Apparently cheating in such exams is commonplace because the women can hide smartphones and earpieces in their saris and voluminous hair. The internet blackout was meant to stop the cheating and was part of the anti-corruption drive being pushed along by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Incidentally, Modi comes from the Modh-Ghanchi (oil-pressers) caste which is one of the ‘Other Backward Castes’. But his political opponents have complained he is actually from a higher caste than he pretends. In Indian politics, as in ours, it seems advantageous to come from a lower caste. It reminded me of how the former public schoolboy ‘Tony’ Blair used to pretend he was only middle class.
On the way home, I discovered that W.H. Smith, having died on my local high street, has been reincarnated in Delhi airport. There, prominently displayed, were ‘Pearl white’ facial kits to help Indians obtain a ‘fairer complexion’. A neighbour of mine was saddened to think that some Indians are not content with their beautiful dark complexions. Then again, she herself is no stranger to potions which make her a blonde.