Penang, northwestern Malaysia, marked the end of the Malay Mission, two weeks after I had left Frankfurt. The journey has taken me to the Candi of Java, to bustling Jakarta, to modern Kuala Lumpur, to the misty mountains of the Cameron Highlands, all to culminate here, on the mainland opposite the island city. The impetus for coming to Malaysia this year was a very good friend, or to be more exact, his wedding. His big, fat Indian wedding.
Suggested song: Big Fat Indian Wedding by Neeraj Shreedhar
Twisty Roads: Leaving the Highlands
The morning’s bus ride from Tanah Rata took us back from the mountains to the sea. It was almost a mirror image of the bus ride from Kuala Lumpur to the highlands: an hour or two of twisty roads and great vistas, followed by another 3 hour or so glide on the major highway that runs up the eastern shore of the Malay peninsula, connecting Singapore to Kuala Lumpur and then to Penang.
Being dropped off on the island meant a 9km crossing of the strait, over turquoise waters and through the spray. A route we’d immediately retread, five people and luggage squeezed into an Uber, to get back to the Butterworth side of the strait to get to the hotel. The hotel, the Iconic, was luxurious and new, considerably more upscale than the hostels and guest houses I regularly frequent when I travel. While a bit artificial in feel, with porters to open the front door, leather armchairs in the lobby and an ultra-attentive Chinese staff, I could deal with the foray into luxury travel for a day or two. I would not spend too much time in the hotel anyway, so the danger of getting doughy and soft from too many amenities was minimal.
The Eve of the Big Day: Pre-Wedding Rituals
After recuperating for an hour at the hotel and changing into slippers and linen pants, we were off to my friend Shankar’s place. He had invited us to spend the day with him while he went through the Hindu pre-wedding rituals . The density of Ubers on the mainland was low, so low, in fact, that we had to get a cab. It was big and blue, fitting the five of us comfortably. A large sticker on the side read: ‘This is a metered taxi. No haggling permitted!’ Of course, the driver stubbornly refused to turn on the meter and went on an anti-Uber rant.
Arriving at Shankar’s house, we haggled with the cabbie, still overpaying him in the end. Oh well, it’s just glass pearls. Nonetheless, taxi rides are a chore. And while I do understand the taxi drivers’ dislike of services like Uber or Grab, the reason I use these services in Southeast Asia is simple: no haggling and no overcharging.
A big gazebo decorated with palm fronds made the house recognizable from the far end of the street. Tables were decked out with homemade Indian food, and everywhere friends and family mingled. I had seen Shankar only a few months ago, still I had missed him and it felt good to see him again. We hugged, exchanged the latest news about how life was going, and had an all-around good time. Understandably, he was quite busy, being the center of attention on the eve of his big day. I left him to it and started to interact with the other visitors. A warm and joyous atmosphere permeated the place, with everyone being relaxed yet excited. Family, friends from primary school, from high school, from university and from his stay in Germany chatted away with each other. The food was marvelous.
Soon after, the cleansing ceremony took place in the living room. Shankar, kneeling bare chested (the picture still shows him chastely clothes, I would not dare excite the valued readership overmuch at the sight of pure manliness) at the center of the living room, received the blessings of the female members of the party, smiling. The positive apprehension and excitement he must have felt resulted in him constantly smirking underneath the big mustache he had grown for the wedding. The ceremony, quite an elaborate affair, lasted for half an hour or so. At least, so it seemed; it might well have lasted twice or three times as long. Tempus fugit.
More food was served and a little while later it was time to leave Shankar to get ready for his big day. I was looking forward to meeting the woman who could make a man smile like that! Back to the hotel it was.
The Wedding Day: A Marvelous Event
The next day brought the wedding itself. Shankar had arranged for us to wear traditional southern Indian clothing: bright shirts and gold-striped sarongs for the gentlemen and beautiful sarees for the ladies. Getting us decked out took the better part of the morning.
Looking dapper, Shankar’s school friends shuttled us to a colorful Hindu temple. Idols abounded, as did the guests and the food. Photographers flitted here and there, music filled the big hall that was soon filled with well-wishers. The groom arrived first, looking like a Raja, followed by an entourage of family-members who escorted him to the stage. The ceremony had started, a sound-filled, marvelous affair, with pipes and percussions intermingling with the rhythmic chants of the preacher.
After a short while the beautiful bride made her entrance in a similar manner, in even more splendor than her very-soon-to-be husband. Joining him at the front of the hall, the ceremony approached its peak. Vows were spoken and solemnized, the smell of burning incense filled the room.
Seeing the two of them sitting there on a swing bench, freshly married and serene, made me a bit sentimental. A strange sensation in all the joyous chaos surrounding me. Well, I am a sucker for this sort of thing, I guess. Like the ‘Yogi’ said, things go straight to my heart. I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.
That lasted but a moment, though. Food was to be had, and it took my mind in other directions, namely, curries, rice, and superb stews. A well fed tummy and a an overflowing heart required a few hours of respite. Once more, we headed back to the hotel as the crowd dispersed.
The Wedding Day: Great Reception
The evening brought the wedding reception. It was another complete affair, with even more tasty food, quite good wedding singers, cake cutting, and a crowd of hundreds. The bride and groom were charming, the parents understandably proud. Smiles and sarees filled the hall, a bit of awkward dancing by the Germans was met with general goodwill. Again, hours passed like minutes and the evening came to a close far too soon.
We bid our farewells, sentimentality grabbing me again. A last hug, and the big, fat Indian wedding was over. My Path to Penang had come to a colorful, beautiful, and rewarding conclusion.
The next day, I would be on my way back to Frankfurt, a half-day of exploring Singapore all that was left of the Malay Mission. On Tuesday I would be back in Germany, with a bag full of stories and experiences to be shared with those who are close to my sentimental, strange and sometimes silly heart.