Music filtering down the alley marks the start. We don our fanciest traditional clothes. Our sandals gleam in their bedazzled glory. We wear all the golden jewelry we own. A 3-inch round mirror reflects face after face as we transform from every day to party ready. Soft breezes filter in and cool us. Eyeliners and lip color, whitening foundation and vibrant eye shadow.
So much anticipation for something only we know.
Once ready we rush out the door, our chiffon scarves easily fall from our fancy hairstyles and pool around our shoulders. We jump over sewage puddles and half-eaten garbage left for the rats. Gray cracked concrete buildings threaten to crumble upon our beauty. We enter next door’s narrow room and greet ancient aunties with kisses and rushed laughter. We carry our shoes and step lightly to the back door, gaining access to a different dusty alley. Wires form a thick web above our heads; we quickly and gracefully dart ahead. Men politely wait out of sight for our unveiled faces to pass as we reach our first destination.
Sweat threatens our perfectly painted faces.
We draw closer to the musical cacophony that pulls us through the poverty stricken neighborhood. Again, we are inside, breathless and excited. We enter, greeting the mother of the groom with ecstatic gestures and words of joy over the music that assaults our ears. We pick a path through the dozens of colorfully dressed women, sitting on the floor and filling the already noise-filled room with more excited talk. Lyrical voices lift and mix with the music blaring from a loudspeaker. A young woman, scarf free, changes the song from her iPhone. Two or three older women jump up to join her in a small makeshift dance space, uninhibited to move their hips to the beats of their ethnic songs. Old and young laugh and smile. Bodies moving freely in response to released inhibitions. No man enters, no camera betrays the moments of celebration and womanhood.
Dancing, laughing, singing, clapping.
In joyous tension we wait for the wedding bus to arrive, the next part of our journey. The bus arrives and a different atmosphere descends. Music abruptly stops and immediately a black cloud shelters almost every woman. Women’s figures disappear, gold and glitter hidden. Dark veils hide their perfectly contoured faces. We crowd quietly, gently, gracefully together into the light filled night. Traffic honks around us as we discreetly climb into the bus. A gentle hum of conversation keeps the atmosphere light, while the attention from men on bikes and sitting at chai shops sends our gazes downward.
Calmly, we ride ten minutes to the wedding hall.
Upon arrival we enter the air-conditioned room, women relaxing on couches and conservatively dancing to upbeat music. Male relatives come and go, yet veils have lifted, with restraint. We laugh behind our hands, we smile and the cameras capture perfect moments.
The old sit serenely as bystanders, their happy glances recalling fun in hidden spaces.