47 weddings and a quarrel!

Updated: Feb 12, 2020, 19:32 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Attended the mother of all ceremonies in Udaipur, India's destination wedding capital. And, it was nothing like what you're thinking

Couples too poor to afford a wedding ceremony
Couples too poor to afford a wedding ceremony

picThe closest I'm ever likely to get to an orgy is being at 47 weddings in one go, on one stage. No, seriously; where could this be? Udaipur, of course. Over a weekend evening of driving around this Rajasthan lake town, I could figure that all that there is to it are 'destination weddings'. You can hear DJs belting out desi numbers from far-off five star hotels, breaking the deathly silence of this otherwise morning-town.

But I'm not talking about the multiple fancy, pre/post wedding parties in Udaipur, the sorts that the Ambanis hosted for their daughter Isha in City Palace in 2018. The one I was at, in the outskirts of Udaipur, is where the Ambanis had simultaneously sent free food to feed the poor, for whom hosting a wedding often equals halving their life's income.

So an NGO called the Narayan Seva Sansthan (NSS) groups a bunch of unmarried, heterosexual folk and organises the event for them for free. So far they've got 2,051 couples married in 33 ceremonies since 2000. This is their 34th community wedding, with couples walking in files on an assembly line. Most of them "nirdhan" (desperately poor), 10 of them "divyang"— handicapped, disabled, differently-abled, physically challenged; call them what you like, doesn't change the real situation.
The music and dances seem to have a stronger Gujarati influence, given Udaipur's proximity to the neighbouring state. The venue itself is part of the hospital the NSS runs for the physically and mentally challenged, with surgical wards, units manufacturing calipers and artificial limbs, skill-training centres for both patients and their attendants while they stay on for months for treatment. All of which is offered free of charge, along with food and mattress.

Hadn't heard of NSS, before this community wedding. And it's quite splendid, have to say, looking at what they do—especially with free treatment of the limbless. Heavily recommend you check out their centre after a night of vulgar splurging at Leela/Taj/Oberoi properties in Udaipur. It'll feel like chicken soup for the soul.

a differently-abled couple at a mass wedding ceremony in Udaipur
A differently-abled couple at a mass wedding ceremony in Udaipur

A grand old patriarch Kailash Agarwal, on centre stage, overseeing this mass wedding, had set up this NGO in 1985. He was once a banker, and is now blind himself. His son Prashant runs the show. They're about to set up a similar 500-bed hospital in the heart of Udaipur.

But how the hell did I land up at this unusual wedding party? Honestly, out of guilt, and from a moment of epiphany; both of which ideally occur in a stoned state, which I was in, by the ghats of Benaras once, chatting with a potential date on an app, who I could meet in Delhi on my way back. After a few weeks of acquaintanceship I froze when she told me that she had lost her legs in an accident. Suddenly, I wasn't sure if I wanted to meet her!

This of course set me off to question my own moral fibre. Up until then I genuinely believed (still do), that humans are essentially divided into four quadrants—men, women, rich, and poor; every other distinction being a political obfuscation. What about the physically challenged? They had not even crossed my mind. How hard is it for them to find companionship?

On the sidelines of this community wedding, I met Jaya, 32, and Deepak, 31, both of whom had got similarly married with the help of NSS the previous year in Udaipur. They're from the same taluka in Maharashtra. What unites them most is the lack of lower limbs. There is an annual booklet that gets published in their taluka with updated names and contact details of men and women past a certain age, who are still unmarried.

But, more importantly, Jaya tells me, who belong to the same "samaaj" (caste). That's how Jaya met Deepak, and they came together to this NSS hospital to work at the skill-centre, helping out with the wards, learning mobile-phone repair, and they got married. I would've found someone soon enough anyway, Deepak tells me. Jaya isn't pleased. I beat a hasty retreat from this domestic quarrel!

Prashant Agarwal, who runs NSS, and has assisted thousands of poor from the region, and his physically challenged patients find love/companionship after free treatment, tells me it's hard enough that the "divyang" are eliminated from the regular marriage mart, due to their disability. That they are still not allowed to, or aren't comfortable with, stepping out of caste is a burden even heavier than their physical challenge. Only sometimes when they're really old that they get okay with looking beyond caste, Prashant tells me.

He clearly enjoys playing Cupid though, I can tell, as I bump into him on my flight back. "What're you doing in Bombay," I ask him. "Attending a wedding," he says. Of course, and looking for suitable matches as well, I'm guessing. "Aapki shaadi ho gayi kya (Are you married?)," he asks me. "No, not interested," I tell him, before he starts making a strong pitch already. Don't, don't even go there, I smile, and bugger off!

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14
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