It was the third week of February and I was attending the wedding of a distant relative, on a date that was considered particularly auspicious according to the almanac, the authoritative reference for deciding good and bad dates for various important markers of life, and especially weddings. The address on the card informed me that it was at one of the older five-star hotels in the city, a majestic edifice that would lend its grandeur to the occasion. When I landed at the venue, the groom’s party or the baraat was gearing itself for that final, frenetic expression of joyous abandon, the dance around the groom’s carriage, before the marriage ceremonies with their traditional tropes of pundits and mantras shifted the mood to greater gravitas.

The bandwallahs in perfect sync with the boisterous mood had cranked up the volume, belting out popular Bollywood numbers with frantic urgency, even as the spring air wafted tantalizing whiffs of French perfumes steaming from wedding finery. Everything suggested the celebratory normalcy of the happy, carefree mood of a wedding. Enveloped in its reassuring familiarity, conversations were spiked with the usual light-hearted wedding banter, with virtually no one talking about the virus devastating our neighbours to the east.

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And yet it was not a subject one could ignore entirely, and soon enough, when the bridal couple was asked about their honeymoon plans by an inquisitive guest, the bride’s resplendence was momentarily dimmed as she spoke about how their plans to have their honeymoon in Lake Como, had been scuttled, their hotel bookings, and the rest, all cancelled. “Because of that coronavirus showing up in northern Italy, the news is now quite worrying,” she added. “Oh really! In that case just go to eastern Europe, that should be beautiful too,” the guest responded predictably, reflecting the response from a world happily insulated from the panic that would spread its tentacles across it in a few short weeks.

In those early days when the novel coronavirus was but a passing reference in our conversations, the wedding season was still unrolling and so invites to various weddings filled our social calendars. At home I had at least four beautifully designed wedding cards adorning our furniture. These weddings were all slated for the big ‘saya’, the auspicious dates in March and April. At least a couple of them, one being a close relative’s, were slotted for the third week of April in deference to the carefully selected auspicious dates. At my relative’s, the planning, the designing, the selection of vendors, advance payments – all the minutiae of wedding preparations had been attended to, allowing for an unfettered build up to the anticipation of the actual date.

In those early days when the novel coronavirus was but a passing reference in our conversations, the wedding season was still unrolling and so invites to various weddings filled our social calendars.

But global events were soon spilling over into the country. The last week of February saw India cancelling its visas for travellers from certain affected countries as it scrambled to protect itself from a virus whose spread was spinning beyond boundaries. Some of our eastern neighbours were already showing an upward graph, even Singapore hadn’t been spared despite its efficient management of what would soon be deemed a pandemic.

It was at about this time that an eminent business family from Nepal was to celebrate an Indo-Nepali wedding in Kathmandu. With attendees from the creamy layer of Nepal’s society that included erstwhile royals and Ranas, enhanced with a generous touch of Nepali hospitality, it was an invite that many at the Indian end had vied to receive. That was until the coronavirus began to inundate WhatsApp messages with horrifying images of the mayhem it was wreaking in faraway Wuhan. These were enough to spook the intended guests, who decided to skip niceties and send regrets instead.

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Reluctant to travel to the mountain country where the virus had made its appearance, they instead invited the hosts’ to shift the wedding to Delhi, which, was yet to report its first case. The venue changed almost overnight. Hastily designed, executed with the desperate need to salvage a fraction of the style and aesthetics that had been so meticulously detailed over the many months leading to the event, this wedding was a much watered-down version of the original. But it gave us a sense of the unfolding crisis.

By early March, social norms and the numbers attending social dos were being redefined. How were these directives to be welded into the scale and festivity that normally define an Indian wedding, was the million dollar question that set off a nearly existential crisis among wedding planners and their clients. Ankit Malhotra, CEO of the wedding planning firm Comme Sogne Vero, gives a sense of the uncertainty and the questions that he and his clients were beset with as the downsizing began. Before his world unspooled he had been poised at the apex of a dream run, with three major weddings planned at three different cities of the country, all for the spring season. The three weddings, all deserving of the BFIW tag (Big Fat Indian Wedding) had taken months of meticulous planning and intricate detailing, and now it seemed they would change unrecognizably.

Cancelling or postponing the events seemed the only option but the financial burden, with most advances paid and arrangements made, didn’t bear thinking about. Yet they were left with few choices. By the time the next government directive arrived, with the advisory that social gatherings were slashed to no more than 200 persons, followed by another that stipulated just 50, Ankit found that the choice had been made for them. The weddings stood cancelled. All financial arrangements left in limbo with wedding dates pushed to the promise of the next wedding season.

The coronavirus scare was bigger than anticipated and rapidly ballooning into an unimaginable crisis, forcing the government to constantly innovate and strategize in order to contain it.

And as for the weddings that played themselves out in sync with COVID-19 updates and government directives that came like unpredictable salvos fired into the great unknown, it was all about second guessing the next government order and redrawing all set plans at a moment’s notice. As it happened with Salman and Swati (names changed). Their wedding had been planned for the third week of April, a time chosen with a careful sifting of their professional commitments. The momentary hiatus between his hectic travel schedules and her work in an event management company. By February their circle of friends and relatives had been sent ‘Save the Date’ invites and expecting a large turnout, they had selected a beautiful wedding venue on the outskirts of Delhi. But March brought in unannounced the complete of the predictable linearity of the wedding arrangements.

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The coronavirus scare was bigger than anticipated and rapidly ballooning into an unimaginable crisis, forcing the government to constantly innovate and strategize in order to contain it. Visa curbs kicked in, reports of the chaotic conditions at the airport made attention-grabbling media headlines. The cases of C positives were rising and in response new guidelines were formulated, which immediately cut the oxygen from the city’s lifelines of leisure, art and entertainment, with clubs, gyms, restaurants, theatre, beauty parlours and the rest ordered to down their shutters.

Big events were either cancelled or scaled down, and social distancing was the new mantra propagated as the essence of social etiquette. As the city landscape changed with what was permissible or not, Swati and Salman kept altering their plans too. The April wedding date was reconfigured to March, the venue changed to more intimate proportions, the guest list pruned ruthlessly despite the accompanying heartburn, and the banquet order reset. And all along the couple, who had set their hearts on a grand event as their wedding, learnt to rejig long cherished dreams and settle for the doable in these strange times.

By 18 March the panic buzzer was being pressed with greater urgency. The numbers of COVID-19 positives were spiralling, stoking rumours that the country was headed for a shutdown. Swati and Salman felt the pressure of the ticking clock and the urgency unleashed by an unprecedented set of events that demanded immediate decisions. The priority was to get their marriage registered, before the law courts too closed down to combat the spread. Next they had to make the wedding arrangements and plan the wedding lunch, scaled down to fit into a single afternoon before the nation began locking itself down. Other arrangements, which would have been merely a phone call away during regular times, such as the flower decorator, the beautician and the mehendiwali, now needed to be discovered with the doggedness of a bloodhound, from the hundreds of others who had closed for business. And yet it was finally done.

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Many more nerve-wracking hours later, the wedding was finally becoming a reality, a dream being
realized in an altered world. That evening, on 19 March the couple left for their ancestral home across the Delhi border to formalize the traditional welcome given to the bride. It was planned as a two-day trip, giving a celebratory touch to the hurried ceremony conducted earlier. While they were there, came the announcement they had subconsciously been bracing to hear through the preparatory stages of the wedding. From 7:00 am to 9:00 pm that Sunday, 22 March the country was going into a lockdown of sorts – a janta curfew. Shuttered across its vast expanse, its teeming one billion plus pushed indoors, with its movement, its very breath in freeze mode. Swati and Salman heard the news just as they were entering the ancestral home. It was past 8:00 pm. Marriage solemnized, now they would just have to beat the lockdown in time to reach their new home, they decided. A new beginning in unusual times.

Amita Nigam Sahaya is a social entrepreneur and gender activist. She is the director and founder of three NGOs including the Women Work & Health Initiative. She has authored and edited seven books on women and gender issues and translated to English the Hindi classic Jhansi ki Rani, Lakshmibai by her great-grandfather Vrindavanlal Verma. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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