Jaina Gori is Bride No. 14. Dressed in a panetar, the white-and-red traditional Gujarati bridal sari, Jaina is enjoying her big day, a day and stage she will share with 17 couples.
It’s 9 am and the mass wedding of the Balmiki Samaaj is scheduled to begin at 8.30 am at the Chaudhary High School ground in the heart of Rajkot, with Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel as chief guest. Jaina is late by half an hour so she walks briskly, bunching the pleats of her panetar and struggling to keep the pallu in place. “We are coming back from the beauty parlour. We went there at 6.30 am,” she says, smiling coyly.
“Do we look okay?” asks her mother Gauri as she fidgets with a string of white chrysanthemums and red roses that trail from her bun. “The parlour woman took a lot of time but then she had to dress up three of us — Jaina, her younger sister and me,” says Gauri, who is dressed in a bright red sari.
Jaina, 19, is the first in her family to get married at a mass wedding. “I heard that there were 40-45 applications for today’s event. If I hadn’t been shortlisted, I don’t know when I would have got married. I am lucky,” she says. Her parents, younger sister Pallavi, two cousins and some others are escorting Jaina back from the parlour. They huddle around her, adjusting her pallu and making sure she doesn’t trip on her sari.
Would Jaina have preferred her wedding to be a private affair? “Am I happy? Of course, I am. How many girls get a chance to get married at a function and be blessed by the chief minister?” she says. “Anyway, only the main ceremony is a mass event; all other ceremonies like mehandi, pithi (haldi ceremony) and sangeet were held at home.”
It’s 10 am and by now, her relatives start coming in, dressed in shimmery saris and kurtas and spilling out of autorickshaws.
Guided by young volunteers dressed in black T-shirts that bear the organisation’s name, Jaina heads toward her designated area, a mandap marked out by a stump that carries a placard saying, “No. 14, Jaina and Jeevan”. There are nine such mandaps on either side of the aisle that leads to the stage.
Jeevan Vaghela, 24, Jaina’s groom, is not here yet. Jeevan, who works at a government officer’s bungalow as a safai kamdar for a monthly salary of Rs 7,500, hasn’t studied beyond Class V. “I studied up to IX,” says Jaina proudly. “Our match was arranged by our families — we have a few common relatives. We have been engaged for two years but my father didn’t have enough money for the wedding. My father drives an autorickshaw and there are six members at home – it’s not easy,” she says.
Jaina sits down on a plastic chair near a pile of gifts that the organisers have arranged for each of the brides. Her relatives squat on the green carpet spread across the mandap, making sure they don’t encroach on the space for Couple No.s 13 and 15 on either side.
This mass wedding, the fifth such wedding organised by the Balmiki community in Rajkot, is being hosted by BJP leader and former corporator Karshanbhai Vaghela. “The chief minister has gifts for all the newly-weds, all the basic things a couple would need,” says Vaghela, pausing to scream out instructions to the workers and decorators.
Jaina sits on the plastic chair, her head bowed. “She is quiet at home too, but she is very sensitive and mature. She became quieter after her mother’s death three years ago. Her mother died while delivering Jaina’s brother. Being the eldest of three sisters and a brother, Jaina took charge of the family. Two years ago, when her father decided to marry Gauriben, Jaina supported him,” says one of her cousins, Alka.
Jaina smiles as relatives pour in to compliment the henna on her hands, her imitation jewellery that matches the embroidery on her sari and the layers of multicoloured bangles that reach up to her elbow. Almost all of them take a picture with her, the younger ones take selfies on their cellphones and some call the professional photographer hired for the wedding.
Jaina steals anxious looks at the entrance. She has been here for over an hour and there is no sign of Jeevan. Most other grooms are already at the venue, dancing with their relatives to the beats of dhols, pausing only for announcements that blare out from the loudspeakers — of a lost child, a call for parents, or for directions to volunteers.
Jaina’s anxiety grows as marriage ceremonies begin in the adjoining mandap and garlands are exchanged. “Can you check why he is late? Where are the garlands? Please ask mummy,” Jaina tells one of the cousins, who assures her everything is in place.
Around 10.15 am, Jeevan arrives with his parents, five brothers, two sisters and other relatives. The smile returns to Jaina’s face. “We met two years ago, during the engagement. Not after that,” Jaina says coyly.
Another plastic chair is quickly pulled out from somewhere and Jeevan is seated on it. He seems nervous and overwhelmed. He fumbles when asked his age and seeks out his father for his “correct age”. Jeevan steals a glance at Jaina and compliments her. Jaina grins broadly and says, “Thank you”.
As her mother looks at Jaina admiringly, her eyes well up. Gauriben asks a relative to wipe her tears — “but carefully, don’t let her make-up get smudged. We spent hours at the parlour,” she says, laughing.
The priest arrives and the ceremony kicks off. Plastic chairs are pushed to the side and the couple and their parents are seated on the ground. After a round of elaborate rituals, Jaina and Jeevan are asked to stand up and exchange garlands. While Jeevan does that effortlessly, he teases her and pulls back several times when it is her turn. Finally, he gives in and Jaina, now all giggles, garlands him.
This is followed by the pheras and a few other rituals, interrupted by individual donors who come and gift her saris, a gold nosepin, a set of utensils and other such items. Jaina wraps her hands over these gifts, hands them over to her mother and turns back to her rituals.
In the aisle outside, a medical team goes around picking out small children from the crowd and giving them polio drops.
Just then, the loudspeakers announce the arrival of Chief Minister Anandiben Patel. Shouts of Bharat Mata ki Jai and Vande Mataram go up. But Jaina and Jeevan go about their ceremonies without a pause. Jeevan puts vermillion on Jaina’s forehead and ties the mangalsutra around her neck.
At 1.05 pm, the ceremonies are finally done. The couple are seated for a photo session. As relatives jostle and push to line up with the newly-weds, the two whisper into each other’s ears. It’s their moment — at least for a few minutes, they are alone in this crowd of a few thousand. Around them, children clamber on to bamboo barricades to catch a glimpse of the CM, people push and shove and the man on the loudspeaker screams in delirious excitement about the presence of the CM.
Soon, there is a call for all couples to head towards the stage and sit on the plastic chairs placed in front. There is a photo session with the CM and other politicians, followed by a few official announcements. As soon as the CM leaves, lunch is served and people head to the tables beside the pandal for puri, sabzi, dal, bhaat and mohan thal (a dessert).
At 4 pm, it’s time for vidaai. The mood turns sombre as couples head to the main gate. Jaina hugs her parents and sisters, tears rolling down her eyes. She steps into a decorated car, rolls down the window and, as the car drives away, waves at her family.
Jaina and Jeevan, Couple No. 14.
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