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Rent-a-Guest 12 August 2008

Posted by Ayesha Mattu in BARAKA, Culture.

The BBC reports that in South Asia, you can now pad the number of attending guests on your way to wedding debt, er, bliss.

The Best Guests Agency employees can turn up either traditionally dressed or in smart Western clothes, and are briefed on family history and pretend to be friends from the past. Three categories of guests are offered, with the highest – at around 600 rupees – being be-suited guests who are tall, well-built, light-skinned and who can converse well.

Mr Syed, the founder, said that he has been contacted by families from far outside the state, including Bangalore, Calcutta and even Dubai.

Many American WASPy weddings seem to invite only Very Important People to their weddings, perhaps due to prohibitive costs or because, increasingly, parents are leery of putting up cash for “starter” marriages as divorce rates soar to 44%.

In spite of the lower number of guests, though, it’s still easy to rack up expenses planning the details of your special day. After all, what better way to enter the marital state than $10,000 in debt?

In Pakistan (and in Pakistani-American weddings) though, we don’t stint on the guest list. What’s a little debt if it saves face? When Basil and I got married in Pakistan in August 2002 we requested that no more than 150 people be invited, which we thought very generous since we originally wanted to wed barefoot on a beach in Mendocino with no more than 25 people present.

My parents were appalled at our sheer naiveté. With 150 guests, they complained, they’d only be able to invite both sides of the family!

Eventually they stopped consulting us on anything as they realized that since they were paying for the wedding, they could do as they pleased. My sisters had 500 and 700 guests at their weddings respectively, and we eventually topped out at about 300, with all sorts of extra and uninvited characters showing up in the end.

Invites to desi weddings seem to be given to all and sundry as far as I can tell. That medical college roommate your father hasn’t seen or spoken to in 30 years? He must be invited even if he lives in Chicago because if he somehow finds out about it, and realizes that he wasn’t invited, he will complain and that two-minute ordeal is unbearable.

My father, who drives like an aggressive madman (“one hand on the wheel, one on the horn, and both feet on the gas” as Basil says), met some bare acquaintances at the Islamabad Club shortly before my wedding who had the gall to complain that they hadn’t been invited. Before my outraged eyes, my otherwise assertive father meekly issued them an invite.

It’s bad enough being at a wedding, this time your own, where you do not know 90 percent of the people attending, but it’s even worse when you realize that  your parents don’t know a fair percentage of them very well either and merely invited them because of cultural expectations.

Suffice to say, I have many, many photos of me in a flaming red bridal gown smiling plastically with strangers.

I am convinced that food – a desi obsession – (and free food to boot!) is a big part of the equation. You must invite each and every person you know, or even brushed past in the market this morning, because otherwise they will whinge about it. But what they are really whinging about is missing out on a free meal.

The way some people act at weddings you’d think they’d never seen a buffet before – literally elbowing each other out of the way, spilling food on their clothes in their eagerness to shove it in their mouths, and being totally unwilling to move away from the buffet table once they’ve filled their plate so that others can eat because they want to stay close for seconds and thirds.

Once, I even saw otherwise sane, professional, educated people throwing well-gnawed chicken bones over their shoulders and onto the carpeted hotel floor before diving headfirst into the biryani yet again.

Of course, all those random people who invited you to their kids’ weddings where you then had to cough up cash as their present must now be invited so that they can in turn cough up cash for your kids. Fair’s fair, after all.

And, trust me, people remember how much you gave them. I was once at a wedding where the bride’s sister yoinked the discreet envelopes stuffed with cash that guests were handing the couple, opened them before the guests had left the stage, rifled through the notes (glaring if necessary at any miserly guests), and finally noted down the name and amount in a handy dandy notebook that just happened to match her sari.

As a backup, it was also all on video, with a suitable filmi soundtrack.

People remember, though they don’t necessarily adjust for inflation. The Pakistan rupee was 15 to the US dollar when we moved there in 1985, so getting 500 rupees ($33) back then was a big deal in a country where the per capita income was still only $183/month as of 2004.

The rupee is around 60 to a dollar now, but from the looks of it, for some people the 80s never ended.

In Pakistan, for many years the government actually outlawed the serving of food at wedding receptions because people were competing with each other to stage such lavish receptions that it was becoming well-nigh impossible for even the middle class to marry off their children without going into catastrophic debt due to insane cultural expectations.

As usual though, many people just worked around the law. They hosted dinners at home for select guests, or ,in extreme cases, handed them gift certificates to local restaurants, or even passed out gold coins to make up for the shame of not slaughtering animals in their guests’ honor.

There seems to be a direct correlation in Pakistani culture between how highly one honors a guest and the size and number of animals slaughtered for that guest’s meal. This goes treble for weddings.

If you’re served one chicken, you’re as yummy and special as lentils. Which means: Not very.

Mutton? Now we’re talking.

Seriously though, the fact that it has become a matter of izzat (honor) to feed portly folk a heavily meat-based dinner so that they can celebrate the wedding of your child by gaining a few pounds is utterly incredible.

Feeding the hungry is commendable. But hardly anyone is interested in this Sunnah because they’re too busy tripping over themselves in their haste to impress the Joneses. Or the Khans, as the case may be.

Hotels made up for their lost revenue due to the law by charging an arm and a leg for serving guests tea and soft drinks with nary a dry cake russ in sight.

My poor parents. They were dishing out hefty, inflation-adjusted monetary gifts, sipping watery tea, ignoring their empty, growling stomachs through countless weddings, and dreaming of the day when their three daughters would finally wed so that they could, in sweet serenity, legally offer everyone flat Fanta.

But, alas, when that time finally came round for the last two daughters to wed, the restrictions had been lifted, allowing for lavish meals once more.

Nowadays, if you don’t put on a lavish feast (no vegetarian food please, we’re Pakistani), people will…well, people will talk.

And we can’t have that, now can we?

Originally posted at Rickshaw Diaries, September 2005, and reposted here in honor of our  upcoming 6th wedding anniversary, mash’Allah. Sometimes I still wish that I’d eloped and had that barefoot beach wedding in Mendocino that Basil and I dreamed about.



1. Haleem - 12 August 2008

I paid for my own reception. We invited only those we HAD to (and still got to 400). Wouldn’t have had it any other way – key thing is organization.

I attended a wedding couple of days ago (my last post) and people were all complaining about food. That’s what happens when one invites too many people who shouldn’t really be there. We will always get complainers, so really no point in inviting people who don’t wish to be there.

2. Baraka - 12 August 2008

Salaam dear Haleem,

I agree that organization is a key point. However, though my own wedding was beautifully executed (and debt-free), it just wasn’t what I had envisioned for myself and so felt surreal throughout.

Glad you enjoyed yours though! :)


3. Haleem - 12 August 2008

Congrats on the 6 year anniversary btw.

4. nerda - 12 August 2008

congrats on the upcoming anniversary!! don’t worry, i’ll send you a postcard from hawaii when i elope!

5. Baraka - 13 August 2008

Thanks Haleem & Nerda! :)

Nerda, if you do that I will eat my hat ;)

6. maximus mercury - 14 August 2008

congratulations! 6 years, Mashallah. I’m assuming the photo is of you – am gripped by an impulse to request access to wedding albums! :) Will save that for whenever we meet, Inshallah.

you *could* still do the beach in Mendecino thing… renew your vows or smth… :) Could be really special. Call your parents, your sisters, your nieces and nephews, buss.

I wonder what my dream wedding would be like. I just saw photos of school-mates’ weddings (in PK) and was really surprised to see totally non-traditional events…they had a qawwali instead of a mehndi (I think), they had an elaborate nikah day at the bride’s house and then they had a ‘wedding’ function up in the mountains – I thought that was a smart solution: take everyone up to some difficult-to-reach location (but lug all that jewellery around) and thereby eliminate all acquaintances who want to show up only out of their general paitoo-ness.

7. Baraka - 14 August 2008

Salaams dear MM,

Perhaps someday we will renew those vows with loved ones witnessing. I like the idea of active witnessing, that the people present are those called upon to recognize the sacredness of a union before God and community, to enrich it with their love, and to help it in its times of need.

And I love what your schoolmate did! I too wanted a qawwali night for my mehndi and a reception up in Nathiagali or Bhurban but was nixed for the exact reason that it would be too far away for many people to attend easily.

Hope you’re well in Chicago! :)


8. Shabana - 14 August 2008

Happy 6th, Baraka.

Mine was pretty small, but still no less plastic. Happily, it occurred under the ban. I had vowed for years to serve snacks and nothing else.

9. VARANGALI - 15 August 2008

Salam Baraka,

Rebecca Mead, in her 2007 book on American weddings, “A Perfect Wedding,” notes that the average American wedding costs $27,852. Wow.

Meghan O’Rourke, reviewing the same book in Slate, has an interesting take on why people are so willing to spend this much on such ceremonies:

“Weddings today are not the life-changing (and even traumatic) events they once were. Sex is no longer postponed or shrouded in secrecy, nor are the domestic niceties of sharing linens and kitchens new to honeymooners: According to some figures, more than 50 percent of Americans have co-habitated before they get married. It is not clear what is “different” about life post-marriage, other than one’s tax form—and the unnerving prospect of divorce; after all, many of today’s couples are children of divorced parents and know firsthand just how precarious the institution is. So the wedding becomes an exercise in magical thinking: If my teeth are white and my linens match my napkins, he and I will stay in love forever. This is the ‘impending transformation of [our] inward self’ (as Mead puts it) that we’re seeking in the “outward accumulation of stuff.'”

Or, you know, it could just be keeping up with the Joneses – which I see plenty of, sitting here in Karachi.

10. Umm Salihah - 15 August 2008

Mash’Allah six years , may you be blessed with 66 more together insh’Allah. What a lovely picture.

My whole family got dragged to pakistan for my wedding, which was the most traditional ever (mainyoo, cousins dancing at mehndi, dodgy lighting, doli, although no fight which is a first for our family) so of course I had no control over the whole thing and we ended up with over 1000 guests 90% of whom I did not recognise (my parents still insist they were all related).

My sister learned a lesson from it and says she will have an intimate wedding with 100 guests of her specific choosing. Ha ha ha ha ha – good thought but I’d like to see that happen!

Best Guest Agency? people are truly crazy, although I could invite them to my sisters wedding.

11. safia - 15 August 2008


Mabrook sis on your 6th annivesary.
Pls clarify ,is that picture really of the both of u?-)

12. Basil - 16 August 2008

Most weddings are obnoxious. I’m much more in favor of a small, private ceremony with close family and loved ones present. Forget about gifts, forget about grandeur, and please please please: no more buffets! Weddings should be about close community honoring the newlyweds, not the family of the newlyweds honoring their extended social circles.

We recently attended a spectacular wedding that included ~80 guests and was one of the most touching ceremonies I’ve ever seen. They allowed their wedding to reflect their love for each other, and that made it beautiful.

13. Baraka - 19 August 2008

Salaams all,

Jazak Allah khair Shabana dear. I’m glad you got to carry out your vow :)

Varangali, I read that article when it came out, very interesting.

Also, I read somewhere that the average wedding in South Asia costs between $20-50,000 so you can imagine the impact on people’s finances (or debt) in countries where personal income is much lower.

Jazak Allah khair Safia dear :)

Bas, that was a beautiful wedding and I felt blessed and honored to witness their union.

Next time we decide to get married to each other, let’s just run away to a beach :) Happy 6th anniversary!


14. maji6 - 2 September 2008

We should just remember Allah hates wastage. People who waste are the brothers of Shaitaan. We should live within our means. Debt is a stress which should be avoided.

And May Allah Grant barakah to all muslim couples.

Ma salams

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