Can you have a small Desi wedding?

I should have gotten married during the pandemic.

There was a sliver of time back in early 2021 where you could have had a little party of 30 people and I should have booked the local town hall and gotten married. But I umm’d and aah’d just long enough for the 30 to turn into 6 as another lockdown hit. Pants. Now, in 2022, I have to plan for a wedding of over 150 people.

This is going to be a selfish little rant about my biculturalism and how it sometimes deeply pains me. Hop on for a ride.

I have been to a lot of weddings. When you’re desi, it’s kind of a given through the power of sheer probability. You likely grow up around a lot of relatives and a swathe of milney wale (people you are acquainted with or meet regularly) which could include next door neighbours, work acquaintances, people who work for you, people from shops you frequent, people who know people you know, friends of your grandparents – the list goes on. So it’s likely at multiple points in life that one gets invited to a wedding. And, in my case at least, there is a lot of, “Okay mum, remind me… whose wedding is this and how do I know them?”

“Oh you remember Aunty Mehreen whose house we went to that one time? With the cute baby? Yes, it’s her nephew from her husband’s side’s wedding. Pass the Sprite.”

So I would pass the Sprite and sit there munching the roast chicken, eyes glazing over as I stared at the stage with the bride and groom atop their throne (Google “desi wedding throne”) getting flashed by multiple cameras. My munching would freeze as the videographer came over to our table to sadistically zoom on me eating. Then it would be mains, dessert, pink tea, photos and home.

As I grew older I got to know the rhythm of these things and realised much of the joy was in picking your fancy outfit, getting dolled up and looking hawt as you munched your chicken. And later I even went to my own cousins’ weddings and actually knew most of the attendees. There were even rare occasions where I helped set up for weddings and got involved in pre-planning.

But despite my varying levels of involvement and varying levels of knowledge of the couple – the fact remained that these weddings were huge and impersonal. I was a face in a crowd. Even when I knew people, it rarely felt like I got to spend any actual time with them. Half the time was spent greeting people and redoing lipstick. I think the smallest wedding I have ever been to was perhaps 110 people and that was a nice but quite religious affair. Largest was likely over 350. Average is 200+ for my circle.

I had a phase as a teenager that, unless I knew the couple, I refused to attend a wedding and opted to stay home. This, in hindsight, was an aggressive strategy as it meant my poor parents had to attend and make excuses for me. And people did actually care to see me at these things, especially the “grown-ups” as it was likely a rare opportunity to meet everyone you knew and measure how much taller all the kids had gotten. Like, instead of coming all the way up to Northern England from London, they could see me in Hull for a wedding and say hi and that would be enough. It fulfils a social function beyond being there for the happy couple.

But I had reasons for not wanting to subject myself to it all. Firstly, I hate going to the beauty salon and as I entered my teens it became very socially accepted and in many ways expected to get your hair and makeup done to attend a wedding. Ever increasing expensive and elaborate outfits were also very much the norm and it was not my scene. I didn’t want to fit into it but also didn’t want to stand out. So I excused myself. 

Secondly, a lot of these events were segregated with women on one side and men on the other. The irony of a wedding where the bride and groom aren’t seated together still makes me do a dopey smile. But more than that was that, at a wedding where I didn’t really know anybody, I suddenly was kept away from my brother – the one person that I can always pass time with.

And lastly – and this is an irrational thing so don’t hold it against me – it feels like a lot of the weddings I have attended have ended in divorce. This might not actually be true but the impersonal nature of the wedding itself coupled with later finding out about the divorce feels like a deception. It makes the wedding feel like a facade. Like I went to a wedding, no idea who the couple are, they looked so perfect on their throne and bam – divorce. It was all a lie and all I did was look pretty and munch chicken. It is an awful thing to say but it just makes me feel so cynical. I feel I want to break this cycle of inviting the whole town to your wedding but nobody really knows you or your relationship. Including yourself.

Because it’s my turn. And I want a wedding…right?

Yes. A small wedding. I want 30-40 people. And it just… can’t happen. That is not an option for me because I was born and raised a Pakistani, where that is not allowed. But I was also raised in the UK, where it’s totally fine to have a small wedding. So I am torn between what I know I must do and what I want to do. And there are reasons for what I want. But also reasons for why I might… be wrong?

There are two main reasons I want to have a smallish wedding. The first addresses the “large impersonal gathering of chicken munchers” issue. A smaller gathering of people who are in my and my partners’ inner circle will hopefully lead to more chit chat among guests and the emergence of a collective support system around us. I will have more time with each person and people will know what it means to me to have them there.

The second reason requires a little cultural insight. The reason desi weddings are big isn’t just because of a lot of milne waley. It’s because weddings are a huge life event within desi culture. For a girl, it means leaving the home she’s lived in her whole life to go live with her husband and her in-laws. She is moving from one family to the next in a calculated risk that has been organised largely by her family and those that love her and are losing her want to be there to pray for her safety and happiness and see her off. If that were me, seeing everyone I know, my entire social circle at my wedding before I left them to embark on a very challenging transition period, it would be such a confidence boost – such a swell of love.

Except… that isn’t my story. I left for university in London when I was 19 and later worked in London. Then I worked in Leeds. Then, I moved to Wales and then China. I moved back to the UK in 2019 (great timing!) and lived in a rented flat when I was 28. My soon-to-be-officially-husband and I bought our own flat last year. 

I won’t be moving in with my mother-in-law, lovely though she is, and have already made most of the other transitions a desi bride would: leaving my family, transitioning to new ways of doing things, making a relationship work. So a massive party in which people see me off doesn’t really make the same kind of sense, you know? My wedding is more a personal milestone rather than one all my milne waley need to be invested in. I would have liked people to have seen me off before I went to China… because that felt so much bigger than this does even though I am really excited by it and looking forward to it. 

Even as I write this, it feels very selfish. Here’s me deciding who gets to feel what for me at my wedding. It is very individualist thinking because… I am British. But I am also Pakistani and therefore very aware of the collective and it’s a never ending source of angst.

My wedding cannot just be my wedding. Even if my path diverged from the typical desi bride in every way possible, the generation above me will still put a lot of their hopes and prayers on my wedding day. They will still feel all the same feelings as if I were moving away and starting a new life. The facts don’t change those feelings. Those feelings are rooted in thousands of years of collectivist tradition and thinking.

There are people among my milne waley who have known me since I was an infant, who have known my parents from when they were young. People who I barely know but they know of me because they are close to my mother and moved to the UK around the same time as her and ask about me every Eid. I might be okay missing a wedding because I don’t think I invest in people I rarely meet in that way. But that thinking means I would be depriving those who are invested in my wedding of being there to feel their feelings. And maybe catch up with someone else they know and haven’t seen in a while. There are thin golden lines of connection all around me and whilst I might call them shallow because I prefer deep chats and a few close friends – those lines are connected to people who will feel the hurt if I sever our bond.

And bonds will be weakened if not severed if a big desi party does not happen. My father has 4 siblings, my mother has 9. Nearly all have children and many have grandchildren. We have past neighbours, current neighbours, connections made through lives lived in 3 different countries. To not invite certain people sends little ripples of “F*** you Aunty Mehreen!” across a vast network of interconnected golden lines shaking the foundation of a lot of relationships. 

I think I am doing enough by marrying outside my race and religion. I need not paint the bullseye on my face. And honestly, the weight of these thoughts is not terribly heavy on my shoulders. I am a little asshole. But it’s a cruel way for me to treat my parents because they are the ones who answer for it. I am just the child, the girl getting married. My family is responsible for the guest list and organising the day – at least traditionally. In actual fact, I call the shots and always have – but my autonomy is, in a way, something they have allowed. Like I said…marriage is a big deal and comes as a select package of traditions and emotions. The facts don’t change the feelings.

My parents chose to only have two children, me and my brother. In raising us, they ran contrary to desi culture when needed but imbued the value of familial harmony in us regardless. I got to travel the world, forge a career and choose my spouse. As a desi, having your parents defend you against the collective and let you lead the charge of your life is contrary to the norm. At least it is to the norm I have seen growing up. So robbing them of the chance to celebrate my success at a traditional milestone just because it’s not my comfort zone… I am not that big of an asshole.

So my path diverges here and I stand wondering how hard to push for what I want and what I sincerely feel is the right thing for me and my not-yet-but-soon-husband versus what is possibly for the greater good of my social circle. I am not sure how I wish to proceed. Am I being unnecessarily contrarian? Am I standing up for myself? Am I being selfish? Will I regret whichever choice I make? 

You can only do what you think is right. And what was right for me was to have just done the 30-person thing back in early 2021. Big regret. Would’ve gotten away with it. Would’ve been a whole “Oh Sophie beta, how sad we couldn’t have had a big wedding for you during that pandemic 10 years ago.” And I’d nod my head sagely and be like, “Yes Aunty Mehreen, but Allah has a plan for everything” and we’d all bob our heads murmuring religious things. That would’ve been dandy. But I didn’t act fast enough and now have to stew in this mess. Like a soft carrot of sadness.

I suppose I don’t know what is “right” in this scenario. That kind of black and white thinking is immature when it comes to nuances like this. It’s funny. I keep hearing people say “it’s your day – get that facial, buy that fancy outfit, get the gol guppay.” But I don’t hear, “yaas guurl slice up that guest list!” Facade.

Okay, I’ve decided.

150 max. Chicken munchers subject to approval. Vegan options because it’s 2022 god damn it!

I love my parents very much.

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1 Comment

  1. InshaAllah it will be fine, in all honesty invite those closest to you, yiu get to have your intimate time with them and let your parents have their guests. Win win 😊…even if you don’t know them 🥲…if I could have I would have even cut down mine. But desi parents have desi expectations that unfortunately they need to uphold especially if your the eldest or only male/female 🙃

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