The trey he was holding was shaken as he himself shook ass a loud taff sound exploded just outside the sprawling and imposing mansion. Now, it wasn’t the usual crackers busted in almost all barats (marriage processions) in India, that Ramesh was quiet used to, but a real gunshot. Thankfully, although three remaining cups fell down, no guests were around, so the coffee didn’t stain their clothes. “Be careful, and be ready as our dulha (groom) is at the gate,” cautioned Usman, a fellow waiter. Ramesh held himself and looked outside. A young Girish, mounted at a studhorse was at the gate and we was welcomed by another stud, most probably, his friend, raising a revolver up in the sky and cracked a bullet into the air, making a sound as loud as thunder but without the raw power of a storm. Little wonder, Ramesh, a veteran, who has served in countless barats, was shaken.
It made him curious and leaving his trey on a table at the food court, he went at the gate. Girish was climbing down from the horse, with the help of two young men. Dressed in impeccably stitched silk sherwani that looked highly flamboyant as it bright maroon overall, bordered with gold, having a very funky style, indeed. Its subtle contrasts with rich embroidery and textures, was a great fit on the dulha. As he moved towards the marriage hall, escorted by these two young men, the flamboyant attire that was richly embroidered with sequins and minute graphic details, his face sparked with pride, matching the sherwani perfectly.
At the entrance, two young girls, probably, bride’s friends came holding a decorative golden diya plate, having nine depressions, in which lamps were enlightened with ghee. They performed his aarti, by revolving the diyas around him seven times, very much like a bhakt (devotee) performing puja (worshipping) of his or her god. Then, they just put the diya holders aside and Girish sat down on the thick cushions to perform an elaborate puja as two pundits (priests) sat opposite him and like an obedient students, he kept obeying their orders and slowly, as he kept throwing ghee and hawan samgri, to the small, rectangular hawan kund and soon, a fire in it was enlightened. Suddenly, the young escorts again raised their guns and fired. But, this time, it just produced a thud sound and a lot of smoke. And, he was shaken again. This time to find that as the smoke got disappeared into the tin air, a slew of currency notes—of Rupees 10, 20, 50 and 100—rained onto the dulha—and scores of servants grabbed them. One 100 Rupee note also hell on his hand that he coolly pocketed.
It was time for him to start serving the guests who had gathered at this expansive barat ghar (marriage manor) in that small town, Nakabganj, in Central Uttar Pradesh. He picked up his trey and went to fill coffee from the coffee vending machine and started serving the guests, mostly dressed in expensive suits and saris and adorning sparkling ornaments. But, sitting on plush chairs on the right flank of the big ground, they were hardly interested to pick up cups of coffee from his trey.
And, then he realized!
They were all rushing to the left flank. No, not all. Only, the men.
At the left side of the ground, a bar was set up. Young bartenders, wearing white and maroon uniform and adoring red turbans were serving rum, whisky and vodka in fine cut crystal tumblers. Bacardi rum, Johnny Walker Red and Black Levels whisky and Absolut vodka were flowing like water. Guests rushed to grab their drinks before they are over and enjoying them, munching alongside roasted cashew nuts and almonds.
A few were also putting delicately roasted pieces of chicken and mutton kebabs in their mouths.
A wave of music floated; being played by the D.J. on the background floated on the air.
Suddenly, another wave—of soft metallic music –filled into Ramesh’s ears. He looked up. A female hand, full of glass and gold bangles, picked up a hot cup of coffee from his trey.
Suddenly, Usman called him, “Andar chalo, varmala hone wali hai (let’s go inside the hall as garland exchange ceremony is soon due),” and they rushed inside the marriage hall. Inside a huge, air-conditioned hall, hundreds of guests were sitting on cushioned chairs and a band playing cool, classical music at one corner, a slim stainless steel staircase leading to the stage on the other.
On the 25 feet long and 15 feet wide stage, two big thrones were kept, waiting for the prince and princess to sit. But, before that stood Girish, wearing a foot long and nine inches wide, elongated sehra (crown) that was an embroidered turban having a sparkling maroon silk strip was juxtaposed by two golden ones and strings of pearls and flowers were attached to them, covering his face. His bride, Smita, not wearing a sari, but a heavily embroidered red, tassar silk lehnga, crafted with gold strings, having delicately women fine embroidery and a matching maroon choli that was even more finely woven, to be matched by a long red dupatta, around her long neck. Smita indeed looked like a princess, wearing heavy diamond stuffed necklace, a huge nose ring that just stuck to her neck with a pin as her nose wasn’t pieced. Matching to his groom’s sehra, she adorned a tiara on his head, having nine tapering diamond studded twines, climbed to the stage from its left flank, holding a heavy garland inter-woven with red roses and white Chrysanthemums with strings of exotic carnations and hydrangeas, supporting it. Girish was also holding a similar garland, only a bit lighter.
The band started playing ‘Mehndi Laga Ke Rakhna,’ a popular wedding song, from the movie Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge.
Girish and Smita moved closer to each other. First, it Girish raised his hands and put the garland around his would-be bride’s neck. Then, it was Smita’s turn.
A gun again exploded the moment she put her garland around his would-be groom’s neck. While the smoke filled the air, hundreds of currency notes rained from its nozzle.
They were escorted by two boys and two girls to their simhasanas (thrones). And, they sat on its thick, red cushions, to be supported by similar thick cushions on their backs. Adroitly woven, golden borders in teak wood flanked them.
The escorts stood behind Girish and Smita. Now, the band started playing another song, ‘Dulhe Ka Sehra Suhaana Lagta Hai’ from Hindi movie, Dhadkan, sung by Nusarat Fateh Ali Khan.
The escorts produced a thick wad of currency notes and showered over them.
Hundreds of notes, of Rupees10, 20, 50, 100, even the new 500 and 2,000 fell on them. Only to land on the floor that servants like Ramesh, rushed to pick.
But, he was not so fortunate.
He stood watching the spectacle from a distance of 50 meters as he was serving coffee to the guests.
And, he was lost in deep thoughts.
It was just a month ago, in the midst of demonetisation when the Prime Minister has declared the Rupees 500 and 1,000 currency notes as illegal tenders and has banned them to wipe out corruption, black money and terrorism from India.
No one knows if it did or not, but he along with his Parvati, wife and daughter Radha, all were standing in a long, serpentine line outside his bank to withdraw their own money.
They had to.
Their only daughter was getting married and all money they had saved over the years for this day had suddenly become illegal.
Oh! It was long and freezing night. But, braving the chill, they had to stand. Radha should be surrounded by her sakhis (friends), who would put mehnadi (henna) on her hands and adorn her, was with her, with blank hands and equally blank mind.
As the sun rose, a glimmer of hope floated into the air. Ramesh, Parvati and Radha glanced hopefully at each other. So did, tens of men, women and children standing in the line. He tried to look for any well-do-do guy, any businessman or any money lender standing in the line, but he couldn’t spot anyone. “Soon, the bank will be opened and we will get money,” said Ramesh.
“And, we will get 2.5 lakhs as Jaitley has ordered banks to give this amount to for shaadis (weddings),’ added Parvati.
“I’ll show him this card and demand our dues,” Radha was determined.
After three hours, the bank pulled up its shutters and they could enter.
At the cash counter, a grey-haired and seasoned man was sitting. Ramesh put forward a cheque of Rs. 250,000 along with the wedding invitation.
The man took the cheque in his hands and put aside and joked, “Kya majak hai (what a joke)! Two lakhs and fifty thousands; are you out of your mind as we have the rule of giving only Rs. 24000 to an account holder in a week.”
“But, sir, the Finance Minister has announced yesterday for shaadis, one can withdraw 2.5 lakhs,” Ramesh protested.
“He may say anything, but we don’t have his written orders, so we cannot give you 2.5 lakhs and even if I get the written orders, I won’t be able to as we don’t have enough cash in our treasury,” the cashier put his foot down.
After a lot of persuasion, he was ready to give Rs. 50,000 and not a paisa more.
Ramesh meekly accepted it, although he was legally entitled for Rs. 48,000 as both he and Radha were having separate accounts in that bank.
It was already past 11 in the morning as it being the wedding day, he had to hurry.
Suddenly, there was a way out, the only way. “I’m rushing to Bankelal for help,” he told Parvati.
“But, he is a mahajan (money lender) and will wasoolo (charge) a high rate of interest,” she said.
“This is the question of our only daughter’s life, so don’t worry, as I’ll face it,” he replied.
In India’s villages, hamlets and small towns these systems of inter-dependence, often lurking on the fringes of exploitation, still operate. That also came to his rescue. Ramesh, crisscrossing the narrow by lanes of Nakabganj, reached a small jewelers’ shop. There sat Bankelal, behind a large, rectangular counter, adorning gold and silver ornaments.
He listened to his painful story quietly and produced 25 new notes of Rs. 2,000 and coolly handed over to him, “You being an old friend, I charge just five per cent interest and after a month, return Rs. 51,000 to me,” Bankelal tried to sound gracious.
Ramesh pocketed the money and left.
On the way to his home, he bumped into Mohanlal, a Dalit, kshetra panchayat member. Nakabganj, being a developmental block, was having a , the second tier of India’s panchayati raj system—a grassroots democracy—where people elect their own grassroots representatives. At the village level is the gram panchayat, kshetra panchayat is at the block level and then, at the district level, is zila panchayat.
Mohanlal proved to be his man Friday. He assured him of the kshetra panchayat bhawan (block panchayat building), for the wedding and barat’s reception.
Ramesh could now take a breadth of comfort.
His friends and colleagues in the catering business lessened his pains further.
They made it sure that the barat will have to complaints and baratis were served tea, coffee and simple, vegetarian dinner.
Another mild bang brought him back to the reality.
Groom’s friends have exploded two more gun shots.
This time at the guests.
But, but they were wads of sparkling and glittering pieces of papers—red, blue, yellow, oranges and purple—floating in the air.
Not the currency notes that he wished to collect and pay to the mahajan, because tomorrow is the day, when he must re-pay his loan.
But, only if wishes were the horses!
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