One cold December night, as I entered my first cousin’s house driving down a long driveway that reached an expansive parking area and huge gardens overlooking an elegant house, the loud sound of music and laughter filled the tented corner lit up with fairy lights. A bonfire crackled outside the tent, inside which there was a group of young people. Mostly teenagers, they were standing in two rows, listening to the exasperated instructions of a delightfully talented choreographer, giggling and mocking one another, trying to match steps with their partner. The song playing on a speaker was loud and familiar: Koi Mil Gaya from Karan Johar’s iconic Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.
It is everywhere. The fairy lights-brightened houses; non-stop music; teenagers and people in their 20s doing choreographed dances to peppy Punjabi numbers, remixes of old wedding songs and popular item numbers from Bollywood; females in heavily embellished, overpriced clothes and jewelry; 100s of guests in settings fit for a grand gala; and gatherings of varying sizes for different events for that one main event: wedding.
The wedding season is in its full swing in Pakistan; it starts around November and goes right into the new year, breathlessly pausing for one night for parties on the New Year, dancing in red on the Valentine’s Day in February, and gracefully waltzing into March.
In a country where marriage is considered the most important day in the life of an adult, wedding ceremonies are a huge deal and spread over many days, and where there is no nightlife outside private parties and get-togethers, it is hardly a surprise to see the transformation of a personal event into an extravaganza where the emphasis is on the superficial and the glittery.
The glitz and the extravagance, as in the rest of the world, is directly connected to the zeroes on your bank account. Your material status is not merely denoted by the house you live in, the cars you have, the fancy schools and colleges your children attend, and the holidays you take. A wedding is the biggest and loudest announcement of who you, what your social standing is, how to display the designer clothes you spend too much money on, the diamonds and old gold that shine on your fingers, wrists, ears and necks, the event management company that organises the multi-day wedding of your son or daughter, the entertainment at the events, and the guest list.
Pakistani weddings are full of laughter and merriment and happy clusters of family and close friends, and become an occasion for entire families scattered all over the country and outside Pakistan to gather and have a great time for a few days. Pakistani weddings are also representative of the changing societal sensibilities, priorities, choices and tastes.
A few days ago, my 24-year-old niece attended the birthday party of the two-year-old daughter of one of her best friends. A multi-tiered cake, live entertainment, a fairy-tale themed event, and tables laden with food and expensive goodie bags, the crore-plus birthday of a toddler, would it be sassily impropriate to say that it was not merely a manifestation of parents’ love for their firstborn but also the occasion for the display of their affluence? It is what it is: if you have it flaunt it!
The same family had another birthday years ago. My niece was in Grade 5 or 6 when one of her friends had a birthday party, in which there was a full-blown music and dance event that had artists from Pakistan and India, and headlined by the very lovely but at-that-time-fairly unknown Katrina Kaif.
Destination weddings are another representation of look-we-have-arrived materialism. In addition to young women wishing to have a once-in-a-lifetime event that resembles the princess ball they saw in their childhood fairytale movies, and parents wishing to do something big, as per or beyond their material wealth, for their loved ones, it is also a way of doing things different from their peers who they wish to outdo in every way possible in terms of look-how-much-we-have.
Dressed in bridal finery that costs more than a decent-size car, and adorned with jewelry that could cover three years of an Ivy League education, one bride looks like another bride, give or take an inch in height or a few pounds in weight.
Bridegrooms are mostly in colour-coordinated fancy menswear, in a futile attempt to make up in expensive watches and shoes what they can’t match the bride in jewelry.
Without going into the psychological effects of these displays of wealth on the minds of the majority of the country that is either too poor to even dream, or stuck in their lower and middle class humdrum and pain of making ends meet while keeping their dignity intact, the reality of extravagant weddings in Pakistan is hard to dress up for other than what it is. As parents celebrate the most important day – in their eyes or in terms of traditional mores – the idea, primarily, is to do their best for their loved one. Slowly, steadily and glitz-ily, the idea has metamorphosed into much more. The result is days of merriment, music, dance, food, lovely clothes, lovelier jewelry and exorbitant entertainment.
The sadness of seeing a beloved daughter leaving the home is dimmed in the happiness of seeing her getting married in splendour amidst family, friends and hundreds of guests. The joy of bringing a new person into your home and watching your son become a bridegroom is enhanced by the charm and magnificence of the celebrations of his wedding.
Every year it is the same old theatre of the rich and the fabulous, and every year, it gets grander, more expensive and more elaborate.
And since wedding sensibilities of Pakistan and India are almost identical, now after Isha Ambani-Anand Pirmal stuff-of-urban-legends-that-are-true 100-million-dollar wedding, stunned and murmuring, a new era of big fat subcontinental weddings has started. Of days-long engagement celebrations in Italy, 4k dollars-plus wedding invites, billionaire guests, the multi-day, mother of all wedding extravaganzas, where the entertainment was Beyoncé, main attractions were the Khans and the Bachchans and the Chopra and the Jonas and the Padukone and the Singh and the Clinton, and the background dancer of the Ambani scion was Salman Khan, now there is no way to predict where the lesser beings will get their ideas for a different, grander, a more expensive and a more elaborate wedding.
Don’t even try, billionaires. There is only one wedding that will outdo an Ambani wedding: the next Ambani wedding!