Chaos, Calm And Copious Cuisine
23 June 2007
The Washington Post
Srinagar: Ducking and laughing as his female relatives pelt him with fistfuls of almonds, dusty coconut chocolates and coins, Baseer Qadri, a groom in a very fancy turban, jumps into his car to race off to marry his bride. By the light of the moon, his entourage speeds through downtown. It's the thick of Kashmir's marriage season and it's just after 9 p.m. on a Sunday evening. The rutted roads here are heavy with caravans of wedding attendants, bicycles weighed down with carpets, Kashmiri almonds and cherries being sent to Monday markets, and boys herding goats right through the traffic.Somehow, the wedding procession - in theory, groom first, then his father, followed by close relatives and friends - makes it to the Cardoba Hotel, where lights strung around bushes and gates make the neighborhood glow. Once the procession moves inside, it's SHUSH, SHUSH. Quiet. Quiet. The women and men are seated separately. Not a sound is to be made as the bride, Tamkeen Masoodi, a medical student, and Qadri, already a doctor, sit in a room carpeted with hand-stitched Kashmiri rugs. The 'Nikkah Nammah,' or marriage contract, is read and signed. It's written in calligraphic Urdu and festooned with painted flowers - climbing roses in pastel colors. A Muslim cleric who is also a separatist political leader leads the service, wearing a princely gray vest and soft triangular hat. On the staircase on the women's side, dozens of the bride's smiling friends and giggling relatives lean in, with stacks of purple and orange bangles jangling, almond perfumes wafting. They are decked out in gold earrings and necklaces, hands covered with orange henna paint and black hair hidden under flowing silk scarves of pink, saffron and green. The bride's hands and feet are also coated in elaborate swirls of orange henna. Over her hair, she wears a wedding shawl, hand-stitched with intricate embroidery, the Kashmiri version of a veil. After the contract is signed, the bride and groom quickly separate. The bride rushes off to a backroom to coo with her family - - sisters, mother, other female relatives - and to be congratulated. Her makeup is retouched and words of support are offered for the wedding night. For more than an hour, women in the family, along with a male wedding singer, belt out traditional wedding songs called 'vanvun,' to wish the bride well in her new life. Meanwhile, older women rush around giving commands for the wedding feast. The bride's family is responsible for the meal, eaten only by the groom's side. 'Where are the wazas?' shouts one woman, referring to the army of wedding chefs and their assistants who wear white smocks and pointy hats and look a lot like oversize versions of the Oompa-Loompas from 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.'Is the lamb here yet?' howls a woman with a unibrow who says she's a relative of the bride. 'Where is LAMB?' Reclining on pillows, male guests wait like kings to be served dish after dish, after dish, after dish - some weddings serve as many as 36 - including varieties of lamb prepared in various sauces and meatball forms.Call it My Big Fat Kashmiri Wedding. 'Oh yes, I loved that Big Fat Greek wedding movie - we are just like the Greeks - wonderful people and we love lamb, too!' chuckles Ghulam S. Masoodi, a relative of the bride's and a Kashmiri American who lives in Buffalo, N.Y., most of the year. 'Kashmiri weddings are a centerpiece of our culture. And we like to have a good time and - of course - eat!' The wazas rush in and ladle the food out of silver cauldrons that bubble and spew steam. There's some chicken, too, roasted in tandoori spices and sprinkled with a touch of turmeric. But there's mostly mutton: mutton seeped in milk - a delicacy considered the ultimate test of a waza's skills - mutton that tastes like a hot dog and mutton served with walnut chutney. There's coconut biryani rice, flavored with saffron - 'skip the white rice and focus on the meats,' advises Masoodi - and yellow containers of yogurt. 'It's filled with good bacteria to help settle the stomach after all that meat,' Masoodi says with a laugh. There's pickled lotus root, which has a sour taste and the texture of celery. Then the South Asian version of the wedding cake: Gulab Jamun, a golden-brown fried doughnut, mixed with cardamom and a pinch of saffron and doused in rose water. It's served hot with vanilla ice cream. There's often so much food at weddings that Kashmir has spawned its own form of wedding crashers: not bachelors on the prowl, but hungry people looking for a free meal. Since a political leader is marrying the couple, men with guns - his guards - hang around the gate. They get plates of food, too. But the groom eats very little. The bride does not eat at all. They each say they can't wait for some time alone together. Theirs is an arranged marriage, or what is known among South Asia's young generation as an arranged introduction, since Qadri says he spotted Masoodi at medical school, thought she was cute, and asked to meet her parents. Later, around midnight, when everyone collapses from food comas, the groom smiles. 'I will have some time with my bride,' he says.