It was the first days of the new year, and thrumming through the soles of my feet was that distinctive, hard-driving rhythm—the dhol drum singing out its bhangra beat. The dance floor was small, swallowed whole in a corner of the underground ballroom, but we were all crowded onto it, celebrating the closing night of the wedding. The speakers strained and gaudy lights painted our bodies in splashes of color and soon, after leaving the dance floor, I watched as a young Indian man newly arrived from a Midwestern city stammered across the ballroom toward a girl he claimed he loved with the simple plan of asking her to dance.
He’d come here with friends, three young men looking to discover India, reconnect with their roots, learn something of the land their parents came from. In a minute, he’d be sprawled across the floor, his face streaming blood and I’d be racing toward his attacker, a relative of mine, who now hoisted a heavy steel chair high over his head and was about to bring it down with all his might and crush the foreigner’s skull.
My cousin’s wedding had been hastily arranged, though no one told me why, and I had trouble finding a flight from New York at such short notice. It would be my first time in Punjab in years, and though I wasn’t born here, my parents had been and I’d lived with the idea of the place from as far back as I could remember, side by side, as if I’d spent my life with a phantom twin whose pull on my imagination was made that much more powerful by his absence.
That first morning after arriving, I immediately felt my own strangeness in these surroundings for walking out of the bedroom I was confronted by a servant on her hands and knees ferociously brushing the carpets. My aunt offered a perfunctory hello, and turned on the maid and started pouring out abuse. The young woman dropped her head and pulled her scarf tightly over it and nodded and pressed the stiff bristles so deep into the frayed carpet she was almost flattened against it. Whoosh-whoosh, whoosh-whoosh! My aunt walked on and the maid raised her head and smiled at me and returned to her previous, and still quite vigorous, pace.
The Groom appeared at breakfast wearing a sheepish grin and offered a sarcastic roll of the eyes, as if to say he was nothing more than an onlooker to the spectacle unfurling around us and not at all the center of it. “Hullo,” he said, warmly gripping my hand, “I guess I’m getting married, eh.” He stood, slightly pudgy with a round, boyish face and a constantly embarrassed grin and said how glad he was I’d traveled all this way. Every now and then, that look of sarcasm mixed with suspicion returned and seemed to telegraph a feeling on his part of both bafflement with me and superiority.
“I don’t know what it’s all about,” he said that first morning. “People are coming from everywhere. Who are they? If someone tells me what to do, I’ll do it, that’s all, I don’t care about the rest.”
In his bedroom he displayed only two books. One was a body-building manual by Arnold Schwarzenegger and the other a work by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the spiritual cult leader who, some years before, had poisoned an Oregon town in order to rig municipal elections in his favor. Both books were popular in Punjab, I’d see them in bookstores everywhere, along with, to my alarm, copies of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” which were ubiquitous. I was glad my cousin didn’t display a copy of that. The Groom said he was interested in the Bhagwan, he made him think, and he was interested in things that made him think.
We walked that evening around the gated park outside the house, and talked, me of New York, he of his recent years in the Ukraine where he studied medicine. His future wife was from Long Island, he said, but as a teenager, her family sent her to Delhi. “They wanted to make her a proper Indian girl, teach her our values, not American values.” He smirked when he said this, and I knew what he meant, to make her properly humble, to learn the roles of woman and future wife, to know her place, to say yes, to flatter, and above all, not to think. “It’s a good family,” he promised me, “import export, gem stones, that thing. We’ll settle in New York. She’s going to be MBA.” They’d met twice, both times chaperoned. “We’ll come visit you. We’ll go—how do you say it—clubbing. She likes that, this clubbing business. They have big clubs in New York, yes? They fill two floors. That must be cool. Do you go to them? Two floors of club-type people,” he mused.
I’d been away from my family for so long I’d forgotten what it felt like to drown in them, all that punchy childishness, all those subjects we were not allowed to talk about and therefore everything we were not allowed to say or feel or think. Every word we spoke was shadowed by a hundred we didn’t or couldn’t or had not imagined because the possibility had been killed years ago, perhaps centuries, and I found myself wallowing in idiocies, unable to find a path out.
The house offered two broad terraces, one opening from the second floor, the other on the roof, and the next day the former was covered in a great blue tent which stretched out over the back yard and streamed across the driveway, shrouding all the windows and creating a perpetual night indoors, so we sat now in gloomy, lightless rooms and moved about like great-eyed tunnel dwellers through the halls.
The Groom’s father was Uncle Sits-On-Bed in my private lexicon for he did exactly that, all day long, cross-legged and in pajamas with a phone at his elbow, in the center of his continent-wide bed where he took his tea and meals. It was from here that he ran his medical practice, constantly receiving messengers and sending out lackeys, complaining of his own poor health, and finding himself, at all hours, on the receiving end of abuse and bitterness from his much-aggrieved wife, Sad-Eyed Aunt. An uneasy truce reigned between the couple, and the house was divided: he held the bedroom like a fortress, while Sad-Eyed Aunt laid siege throughout the halls with ever futile gestures, spreading tales about him to her children and the servants.
Every day brought new arrivals who had to be found sleeping mats for and a corner on the floor and fed and given tea. Ceremonies were held, often in the afternoons, lasting hours, for everyone had to be photographed performing the same ritual with the groom, feeding him, bowing to him, standing with idiotic grins behind him, while the rest waited and watched, and throughout the house, despite all this seeming activity, a debilitating lethargy took hold.
California Uncle arrived with his family in tow and a different Armani suit for every occasion and helped shatter the indolence. It was him, Mom told me, who had originally pushed Uncle Sits-On-Bed to pressure The Groom to get married, placed advertisements in Indian newspapers across the States looking for a suitable match, and sorted through the replies and sent along the likely prospects. He brought that same zeal to the moribund house, for on his first night here we were bundled into cars and off we zipped, plunging into noisy streets and alleys, all horns ablast, on a pilgrimage to the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs.
California Uncle marched us headlong, from shrine to shrine, with barely time to rush forward and drop to our knees and matha tek, a lowering of the head in supplication, all the while offering a rambling commentary on the saints and heroes these shrines were dedicated to. We scurried onward, in a shallow and vapid circuit, dropping to our knees, rising up, rushing forward, checking off the boxes on our pilgrim’s checklist, before one rapid-fire loop through the temple itself, and then hurry, hurry, back to the waiting cars.
I’d begun to look on the wedding similarly, as an onrush of empty gestures and eye-glazing ceremonies, with no one caring one way or the other. We were repeating dead gestures, it felt to me, uselessly elaborated and echoing mechanically from an ill-remembered past.
The Groom’s boyish charm had been oddly growing on me when one evening he decided to take an outsize interest in my having worked recently for a Jewish nonprofit in New York. He believed I must be privy to secret knowledge about how the world worked, having spent years in such close proximity to real Jews. An undigested anti-Semitism quickly poured out of him. The Jews were the cause of this, they did that, they controlled so-and-so, and of course, not one Jew died in the World Trade towers. Who else could pull off such a stunt but the Jews?
It was an attitude I often encountered in other Indians and it always baffled me. The Groom had never met a Jew and should have no particular interest, good or bad, in Israel or the history of the Jews, and his attitude sounded canned and secondhand. It was as if he was proving his bona fides as a card-carrying member of the just gone 20th century, and this was his way of informing me he was modern, Western, forward-thinking.
His hatred was real when he talked about Muslims. These he had met.
“I lived for years in Ukraine,” he said. “We have them there. I walked into one of their houses.” He made a motion to spit. “Filth! You walk into a Muslim house it’s no different from walking into a garbage dump, but more disgusting. They live like cockroaches in their own shit. They breed like them too. And that’s how they should be dealt with. Exterminated. Like cockroaches.”
His ferocity was no longer mimicked. This was real bigotry, born out of the shallow depths of his being. Over 50 years had passed since Independence, when the dream of a secular nation was given shape, and here was my cousin, among the most educated and progressive and well-traveled of my relatives, slipping with ease into the most backward of attitudes. When I protested, offering, for the sake of ease, my own experiences when I’d lived briefly in Egypt, he responded with a broad, patronizing smirk. I was blinded, he said, by Western liberal attitudes. Luckily, intelligent people weren’t so blind in India.
The next morning, a roar burst over my head. I was standing outside watching beggars argue over how much money they were to be paid, a tradition at weddings, when there appeared, at the end of the street, a bull of a man flanked on all sides by his family. He stormed into our presence, laughing with abandon. He was a cousin of Sad-Eyed Aunt, and so an uncle of mine in Punjabi kinship, and I called him Bhangra Uncle, for his family was a troupe of bhangra dancers, statewide champions in fact.
That evening, to my delight, they offered a demonstration of their considerable skill. The family ranged in all ages, from a 6-year-old boy upward, and every member took the floor, men and women alike, in a performance that made us all drunk who stood watching. It was a marvelous sight to see such dancers. The geometric arms, the flying feet, the beauty and athleticism and spirit of it! I fell dreamily under their spell.
The next day I was standing alone on the roof, smoking secretly, when one of the dancers, a young woman, appeared. We were separated by rows of laundered sheets fluttering from wires, and were at first invisible to each other. When suddenly she materialized feet from me I was struck by her beauty. I’d noticed it the night before, but now was left unnerved, for in daylight, it was unmistakable and astonishing.
I nodded, gesturing with the lit cigarette, “Hullo.” She was maybe 16, possibly more, and I wanted to compliment her on the performance. Her father had crushed me in a bear hug and told me how glad he was to meet me, for he’d heard about his nephew from New York. I’d been dazzled by his energy, his forcefulness, the sheer talent of his family. Here was ancient India, I had thought, true village India. It poured through his veins and tightened his sinews.
But on the roof, instead of returning my greeting, Bhangra Uncle’s daughter let out a shriek.
Without another sound, she turned and took to her heels. I’d never seen a woman so terrified. In seconds, she was racing down the stairs and disappeared. I didn’t have to think hard to know why. She’d found herself alone with a man—one who was smoking no less—and it mattered little that I was a distant relative, for if anyone saw us together, even for a moment, her reputation could be ruined and no one but the most ugly and most old and most brutal would marry her.
I watched the empty space where she had stood. I’d been lulled into forgetting that what lay under the skin of the bonhomie and backslapping was blind acceptance of ugly rules for women and bone-deep patriarchal attitudes.
A thick fog hung over the city on the night of the final party, the reception for the bride’s family and the newlyweds, and as I walked from the car, my breath pooled in gray gusts while lights from houses and cars fractured into glittering balls. The ceremony had taken place that morning, lasting a merciful 20 minutes, and now bride and groom sat with stone faces on golden thrones while throngs of well-wishers threw money into their laps. A dance floor opened up and the booze, which had been locked away up to now, was flowing freely.
I was sitting on the john when the power went out. The bathroom was plunged into total darkness. At the sinks, three drunk Indian American kids had been arguing about a girl in a pink dress. One of them was in love with her. She was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. “Did you see her?” he shouted desperately, “Did you fucking see her?” His friends were trying to calm him down when the power failed. Lovestruck Kid panicked. “Jesus fuck, Jesus fuck!” he repeated over and over and I could hear his friends struggling with him. A minute passed before the power returned and his friends succeeded in reassuring him. I stepped out of the stall and tried to push past them. All wore crewcuts and were smoking Marlboros and looked maybe 18. Before I reached the door, Lovestruck Kid grabbed hold of my jacket collar. “Did you see the girl in the pink dress?” he slurred, pushing his face into mine. He followed me outside. He was in love with her, he wanted to marry her. I shook myself free but before I could get away, his friend stopped me. Did I know so-and-so? They’d been searching all night. I knew who they were talking about. It was California Uncle. They were related somehow, through someone’s cousin of someone’s wife, etc.
I pointed out California Uncle across the foyer and Lovestruck Kid, instead of following his friends, wrapped an arm around my shoulders and walked with me into the ballroom.
“There she is,” he said, pointing vaguely. The dance floor was full and there were a dozen girls in pink dresses. I shook him off me and got away and found a drink, but 10 minutes later, he reappeared, this time with his arm wrapped around the shoulders of my cousin, California Uncle’s son.
“He wants to ask one of the girls to dance,” my cousin grinned.
I called him Cousin Young Buck because he’d just started college. A couple nights ago I’d taken him to a hotel bar where he’d ordered a coke and watched me drink a whiskey. The mere fact that he’d been in a bar was enough to send him into a panic on the drive back. He insisted we invent a story, however absurd, to cover our tracks. But when his dad asked where we’d been, I told him exactly what we’d done. I thought Cousin Young Buck was going to faint. His father didn’t mind, in fact he seemed pleased we’d gotten out for an hour. As we walked away, Cousin Young Buck looked at me with terror still in his eyes.
“I’ve never done that before,” he said. “I’ve never even thought about it.”
“What?” I said.
“Telling the truth.”
Now he told me Lovestruck Kid’s story all over and the three of us stood and swayed and searched the dance floor for the Girl in the Pink Dress. When we thought we landed on the right one, Lovestruck Kid shook his head, “Not her. Her!” and we were left with little idea who she was.
Finally, the dance floor opened up and Lovestruck Kid exploded, “There! There she is!”
I saw who he was pointing at. It was the beautiful girl on the roof, Bhangra Uncle’s daughter, who ran at the first sight of me. I decided it was a bad idea, maybe a very bad idea. Cousin Young Buck strongly disagreed. He was excited about his protégé and wanted me to push him forward. Besides, he said, it was the other girl, to the right of her, and so for minutes we debated back and forth while Lovestruck Kid displayed more and more of the anxiety he’d shown in the toilet earlier.
I was already irritated at my cousin for bringing him back to me and I wanted nothing more than to be rid of him. I did the easiest thing I could think of.
I clapped an arm around his shoulders and offered a pep talk. “It’s your life,” I said. “Sometimes you’ve got to take the bull by the horns.” I slapped him on the back and pushed him forward. “Go on,” I said, “just do it. Ask her.”
He weaved across the floor and stepped among the spinning lights and found the Girl In The Pink Dress, who was the girl from the roof, who was Bhangra Uncle’s daughter, who was 15, maybe 16, and who was dancing with her brothers. All his drunkenness seemed to disappear once he stood before her, and he looked like a serious young man doing something brave. The exchange lasted no more than a couple of seconds. He spoke, she shook her head no, he walked away, crestfallen.
One of her brothers who’d been dancing with his sister, the youngest, a boy of 6 or 7, had been watching too, and took to his heels. Oh, he knew something! It happened in slow motion from that moment on, for as Lovestruck Kid retreated back toward us, the child was whispering in Bhangra Uncle’s ear and pointing wildly at the defeated suitor.
That great animal roar I’d heard for the first time only days before, when Bhangra Uncle appeared on the street outside the house, now burst over us again. All heads turned toward him. He charged forward, and in one motion, with his whole body coiled with fury, brought his fist to the young man’s face and sent him sprawling across the floor. He turned and found a heavy steel chair and raised it over his shoulders and aimed it at the young man’s head. I’d sat in those chairs earlier and knew one good blow could kill a man, especially a blow with the force Bhangra Uncle possessed.
Lovestruck Kid, his face bloodied, looked up in terror.
Without thinking, I started running toward the pair. Bhangra Uncle was swinging the chair through a high, powerful arc and I came up behind him and grabbed its legs and we started struggling. It gave the kid time to recover and rise unsteadily to his feet. Our eyes met briefly. I’d seen a similar look of terror in Bhangra Uncle’s daughter’s face only a few days previous. In Lovestruck Kid’s eyes, physical agony mixed with something deeper. Moments before, he’d done probably the most courageous thing he’d ever done, asked the girl he thought he loved to dance. Now he was about to die for it. His face said every line of that and more. I watched him turn and begin running, glad I’d given him that one moment, and soon he was sprinting up the stairs leading to the lobby.
His two friends, who had been standing some distance away and were slow to register the scene, took notice, and in the general confusion, shot after him. My struggle with Bhangra Uncle ended when he threw me to the ground. He turned and gave me a look of disgust and took off in pursuit.
Unfortunately, others had already been running.
As soon as Bhangra Uncle let loose his roar, his elder sons or younger cousins or whatever they were, brawny, fierce-looking men in their 20s, took to their feet, raced up and out of the hotel, and found their cars, where they’d stored cricket bats in the trunks, perhaps just for such an occasion. They were standing waiting at the hotel doors as the three men from the Midwest fled through the lobby for their lives.
Any earlier courage I’d displayed was gone. I stood rooted like everyone else, gawkers all, though we could see nothing, only hear it, the crack of bat against body and muffled cries seeping down from the lobby above like a noxious gas. That we couldn’t see anything made it all that much worse. It caused a sick paralysis to work its way through my limbs. A minute passed and California Uncle was the first to take cautiously to the stairs. The sounds of the fight soon died and I followed, feeling like a coward, for I was terrified and I could feel the terror in my legs.
I was glad the violence was over by the time I reached the top of the stairs. The three men, to whatever state they’d been reduced, had slipped away and disappeared into the parking lot, and into the thick, icy cold fog beyond. A trail of blood led out into the night. Here lay a wide empty field. The temperatures were already dropping below freezing. The glass doors were splashed in blood, as was the floor, and the blood-stained jacket of one of the men lay torn from his body on the ground.
The attackers stalked the floor, their rage unabated, furious the men had gotten away. Bhangra Uncle talked of forming a posse and hunting down and killing all of them. The desk clerks and bellboys grinned sheepishly from the sidelines.
On seeing me, one of the attackers stalked across the lobby swinging a bloodied cricket bat at his side. He was my cousin through Sad-Eyed Aunt and only the night before we’d laughed together at juvenile jokes. He had declared me his lifelong brother! Now he raised the cricket bat and pushed it against my face.
“I saw you,” he said. The night’s violence hung about his shoulders like a vapor. “You were talking to them. What were you talking about?”
At any second, he could swing the bat at my head and nobody would stop him.
I had no idea who they were, I said, they were looking for my uncle, that’s all. He leaned in closer. Was my uncle related to them? Who else was? What did we say to each other, word for word? I talked on, lying flat out, and hated myself for being a coward. What I wanted to tell this bastard was to go fuck himself with his cricket bat and his medieval ideas of manhood and honor, because the only thing the young man was guilty of was giving in to drunk courage and asking a girl to dance.
Brother Goon tapped the end of the bat against the wall next to my head.
“If I hear you had anything to do with this—ever—you’re a dead man. I’ll hire someone if I have to. They’ll hunt you down and kill you.”
Bravado talk of hiring hit men spread through the attackers, and with it, a general interrogation. Who invited them? Who were these men related to and how? And how closely? If it was too close, one of us might have to die. On they blustered while California Uncle made excuses and everyone pronounced them know-nothing strangers, who knew how they got here, gate crashers from America without any idea how to behave like us, good civilized people, and if they were related to anyone, no one knew who or how or what kind of madness or delusions they carried with them or the moral cesspool they were raised in.
Downstairs, the female relatives of the girl took up her cause by wailing and beating their breasts. The girl’s honor was forever lost. “He asked her to dance!” they shouted, their voices filtering weakly from below. Soon they were tearing at their clothes. Her life was over. No one would dare marry her. She’d be burden to her parents for the remainder of her days.
Sad-Eyed Aunt found the blood-covered jacket and held it over her head and displayed it as a mark of injustice. Not the injustice done to the victims, but for the crime of asking the wrong girl to dance. The Americans ruined her son’s wedding. They deserved everything that happened to them and worse. She was all for hunting them down. Uncle Sits-On-Bed took the initiative to search the pockets for a passport. Instead, he found something far more incriminating. It was a packet of Marlboros.
“Look!” he said, raising the pack high like a trophy.
His wife let out a cry. The cigarettes were ironclad proof of guilt and the gutter character of these men. The pack passed from hand to hand and caused a renewed round of condemnation, and I felt in my own pocket for an identical pack.
Cousin Young Buck appeared and pulled me aside. “They saw us,” he whispered urgently, “talking to them.” He was trembling with fright. “I’m related to them. You can’t say a word, not one word. Ever.”
Later that night, after we had returned to the house, one of my aunts announced herself satisfied. No Indian wedding was complete without a good fight and someone almost dying. Brother Goon wrapped an arm around my shoulders. He’d checked out my story and decided I was telling the truth.
“You don’t need to worry,” he assured. “Not now.” He meant he wasn’t going to kill me. I attempted a smile.
I carried my bedding upstairs to the kitchen. The single entrance offered a defensive position should Brother Goon hear something different. Downstairs, idiotic talk of hit men continued and I was glad when Mom appeared and brewed us a pot of tea to calm our nerves. “These are dirty people,” she said. “Know nothing types. All this fuss over nothing.” I was relieved she didn’t share the wider bigotry against the victims.
As we drank the tea, the cries of the moaning women filtered up through the house. They had been chased out of the ballroom and followed us home where they took up with renewed vigor their caterwauling and hair-tearing vigil. “They’ll be like this all night, screaming and shouting and all for nothing,” Mom said. I thought of the young girl whose beauty had helped set these events in motion. “He’ll never let her out of his sight now,” Mom said, talking about Bhangra Uncle, “not for a second!”
The shock was still ringing through my body when Mom’s voice changed. There was something she hadn’t told me, she said. I looked at her in confusion, “What is it?”
“You promise, never to tell anyone,” she said, biting her lip. “Not one word.”
“The wedding, about why it happened so fast. You promise me first to say nothing.”
“OK,” I agreed testily.
“You see, he was in love with a girl from Ukraine, where he was studying.” She was referring to The Groom. “Another student, but a white girl.” She told me her name. “She was just here, in the summer. She met everyone in the family, visited all the houses. I thought she was a nice girl, well brought up. I liked her. Everyone said they liked her. She is going to be a doctor.”
The girl hadn’t finished her studies, and so when she returned, the family got together and had a long talk with The Groom. “Actually,” she said with her usual understatement, “I think there was a lot of pressure.” Not just his parents, but California Uncle too, for the family wanted to see The Groom settled well, and that meant a proper Indian bride who would fit easily into the family.
The Groom was forced to write a letter. That was all. Nice knowing you, wasn’t it fun, don’t come back, you’re not welcome. California Uncle found a new wife with speed, just in case The Groom located his spine and had a change of heart.
I asked what The Groom said about all this.
“What else can he say? This is his father, this is his mother, he said yes, of course.”
In the morning, smoking a cigarette on the roof, I watched Bhangra Uncle and his clan depart, proudly carrying on their shoulders the age-old customs and traditions of village Punjab. Competing strands of life in India seemed to converge that week. The village and the city, crustal plates of Indian life, and the line separating them a fault running through the heart of the nation. So much of what I’d seen seemed born from tremors along that fault. The hardening of village attitudes, the degrading treatment of women, the sudden explosion of violence, the search for the right wife, no matter the costs, the stranglehold of the older generation on the will of the younger, the closed, imagination‑less world of the middle classes.
I crushed the cigarette between my fingers and slipped the butt back into the box, to hide any evidence I’d been smoking.
The bhangra dancers retreated down the street and I couldn’t help but think that their world was already falling apart and the new century bursting through, and they blind to its collapse. I felt for them, for the intimate world of the village with its codes and customs, the connections that it fostered and the passions it brought forth. They disappeared one by one, the men full of their triumph, the women downcast and sullen, and before they were all gone, I caught one last glimpse of a young woman who the night before had chosen to wear a pink dress.