Rent-a-Guest 12 August 2008Posted 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.