For Indian families, a modest wedding is an oxymoron. No matter how meager a household’s earnings, no expense can be spared. It was no different for Arti Kumari’s parents, despite their limited means as an NGO worker and a subsistence farmer.
Her parents, Meena and Anil, had put aside whatever money they could save. They pleaded with extended family members for loans. They even took a lien out on their small parcel of farmland to be able to host and feed upward of a thousand people in style.
As the wedding day grew closer, Arti was still waiting for notice of the date of her athletic test for the federal security force job she hoped to win. She would be marrying without a job — not the future she and her mother had worked so hard for.
Nevertheless, her wedding would be an ornate, multiday affair.
Spending on weddings places so much financial pressure on underprivileged families that lawmakers have sponsored bills in India’s Parliament to discourage such excess. None have advanced.
Perhaps that is because there is no greater occasion in Indian society — especially in rural areas, where days of backbreaking labor pass with little respite, piling on top of each other into difficult years — than a colorful, cacophonous wedding.
But perhaps it is also because a wedding publicly reaffirms and reinforces the extended family system that provides the scaffolding for life in villages like Belarhi, in which sons support their parents financially and their brides provide the difficult, unpaid labor of caring for a rural home and a multigenerational family.
But this young couple looked forward to a very different future. Arti’s fiancé, Rohit Kumar, had promised to support her professional ambitions, which would take her away from the role of caretaker and helpmeet that Rohit’s mother expected her to fulfill. The intergenerational bargain was starting to fray.
Arti’s father and other men in the village had worked for days on the roof of the family home to build a platform for the haldi, the first day of a Hindu wedding ceremony, when Arti would be covered in a thick yellow paste of turmeric, rose water, milk and honey, a ritual thought to invoke luck and a special bridal glow.
As the men tied branches together into a canopy support, the older women of Arti’s family cooked special dishes over an open flame. The chili and other spices in hot oil filled the air with eye-watering smoke, adding to the suffocating heat.
Downstairs, Arti readied herself for the ceremony.
Through skillful negotiation, Arti had managed to delay her wedding by two years to complete her education, prepare herself to apply for a job, and take a bit more space to grow up — a luxury few Indian women are afforded, particularly in rural areas.
With support from her mother, Meena, she had also used the time to negotiate with Rohit. At first, he made it plain that he hoped for a traditional Indian wife who would primarily exist within her marital home, taking care of him and his parents and doing the housework that up to then had been the responsibility of his aging mother.
But Arti and Meena impressed upon Rohit that while Arti would accept the burden of the household, she would also exist fully outside the home, either in a job she secured before marriage or one for which she would continue to strive as a married woman. Over time, Rohit began to see the benefits of Arti working. It would mean more money for the household, after all.
Now, with the ceremony looming, Arti held on to the hope that she was marrying a man who would treat her as a true partner. “I trust my future husband,” Arti said. “He has assured me that he will let me study and let me follow whatever I have to.”
Rohit also promised Arti that she would be permitted to leave his family house dressed in a kurta blouse and jogging pants, rather than the traditional sari and veil, to keep training to run a fast mile as part of the Central Industrial Security Force exam.
These negotiated items, ensuring Arti a modicum of freedom and support, were no small thing for a household like Rohit’s. His conservative mother rarely left home, and when she did, she always wore a veil.
Rohit assured Arti that he could defend her against his parents’ expectations. “I’m the sole earner of the family,” she said he told her. “They can’t do anything to me. If you want to study, you will study.”
However, there was no guarantee. Arti only had Rohit’s word that he would be able to persuade his parents to support their plans.
That evening, at the haldi ceremony, Arti, resplendent in a saffron-colored sari, sat poised and calm on the ground as she received blessings from a priest and gifts of money from friends and family to bring her good luck.
The wedding had begun.
The next day, the men of Arti’s family gathered in a procession to Rohit’s village for the presentation of their wedding gifts. Arti’s parents had saved and borrowed to send off their daughter with a suite of household goods, including furniture, a television, cookware and kitchen appliances. They had also purchased a motorbike for Rohit, which Arti hoped he would teach her to drive as well.
After they left, Arti sat in a bedroom of her parents’ home, quietly chatting with her sister Shanti on her last night as an unmarried woman.
The conversation soon took a dark turn. Arti had heard horror stories of what could happen to a new bride once she was at the mercy of her husband and his family, including abuse or even murder by in-laws who were trying to extort more money from the bride’s parents. In 2020, the Indian government recorded nearly 7,000 “dowry deaths,” in which women were killed by their husbands or in-laws after conflicts over such payments.
“I’ve heard about a lot that has happened to other women,” Arti said. “They have been burned alive and they have been killed and they’ve been abused by their in-laws.” Thinking about such things made her feel afraid, she said, even though she believed she could trust Rohit.
“That is why I want to get the job as soon as possible, so that I can be independent and stand on my own feet,” she said. “I won’t have to be dependent on my husband.”
In the meantime, she was comforted by her mother’s promise that she could return home if her in-laws ever mistreated her — a significant gesture, because after marriage many Indian women are seen as members of their husbands’ families, with no further claims to their own parents’ support.
Arti imagined Meena warning Rohit’s family. “If you even raise your voice against my daughter, you will feel my wrath,” she said, imitating her mother’s voice.
Meena’s track record gave Arti confidence. She and Shanti proudly described how their mother had once filed criminal charges against a village man who was abusing his wife.
“He went to jail, and when he came out he apologized to everyone,” Shanti said. “Now he respects my mother. And the wife said, ‘You changed my life by doing this.’”
The following evening, preparing for the third and most important day of the ceremonies, Arti lay still on a bed, weighed down by heavy clothing and gold jewelry and the stifling heat as women applied elaborate makeup and styled her long, dark hair.
She looked so glamorous. But the day’s outrageous heat radiated from the concrete walls, making the tiny bedroom feel like an oven. Her beautiful but heavy red velvet skirt, with its layers of stiff crinoline underneath, seemed like a genuine threat to her health.
The wedding drew hundreds of people to Arti’s modest childhood home — everyone from their village and from the groom’s village was invited for the elaborate Hindu ceremony. A steady stream of well-wishers came for an early peek at the bride, their constant traffic adding to the summer heat that baked the small concrete house.
Nearby, in a huge tent festooned with colored lights and other decorations, long buffet tables bore snacks, rice and curries for hungry wedding guests as they waited for the groom’s procession to arrive.
The ceremony began, and Arti, looking luminous but dazed, stood with Rohit on a makeshift platform decorated with flowers. As hundreds of people looked up at them from below, their lives were formally entwined. The ceremonies and celebrations continued through the night.
At dawn the next day, as the wedding festivities finally began to ebb, Arti dissolved into tears on her childhood bed, clinging to her father. Rohit sat near her, but didn’t touch her back or take her hand to offer comfort. They were still all but strangers.
Meena sobbed so hard that she fainted, as if she were grieving a death rather than celebrating what Indian society says must be the crowning achievement of any family with a daughter: successfully marrying her off.