Gods and Lovers

During their massive, five-day Indian wedding, a local couple was worshipped

Today, Atul and Sarika Maheshwari are gods incarnate. People have flown in from all over the world -- India, Canada, England and even the Ukraine -- to celebrate them. These visiting guests wait patiently in a ballroom. Waiting is not unusual. The gods are rarely punctual.

But the guests, spread out across 55 tables, aren't anxious. For hours they've been making merry. Outside the ballroom they dipped pineapple, strawberries and soft yellow cake into a towering fountain of chocolate fondu. They dined from a long table of hot Indian dishes. They even glimpsed Atul, who greeted the jubilant people while Sarika remained out of sight.

Now they wait.

The mehndi takes hours to apply...
Daniel Kramer
The mehndi takes hours to apply...
...and once it's done, Sarika must sit for hours while it dries. Click
Here to view Daniel Kramer's complete photo gallery of the wedding.
Daniel Kramer
...and once it's done, Sarika must sit for hours while it dries. Click Here to view Daniel Kramer's complete photo gallery of the wedding.
Guests party it up, dancing with dandia sticks at the Friday night sangeet.
Daniel Kramer
Guests party it up, dancing with dandia sticks at the Friday night sangeet.
At long last, Sarika's wedding day has arrived; here, she applies her bridal bindis.
Daniel Kramer
At long last, Sarika's wedding day has arrived; here, she applies her bridal bindis.
Sarika hangs out in a room at the Marriott while Atul's family prepares for the  baraat upstairs.
Daniel Kramer
Sarika hangs out in a room at the Marriott while Atul's family prepares for the baraat upstairs.
The best Saturday morning party in Sugar Land, the Maheshwari baraat...
Daniel Kramer
The best Saturday morning party in Sugar Land, the Maheshwari baraat...
This specially trained horse has probably attended more South Asian weddings than the guests.
Daniel Kramer
This specially trained horse has probably attended more South Asian weddings than the guests.
Rashmi welcomes Atul to the wedding under the traditional gate.
Daniel Kramer
Rashmi welcomes Atul to the wedding under the traditional gate.
Sunil Sahay next to a statue of Lord Ganesh.
Daniel Kramer
Sunil Sahay next to a statue of Lord Ganesh.
Sarika rides into her wedding ceremony on a dholi.
Daniel Kramer
Sarika rides into her wedding ceremony on a dholi.
In the Laja Havan portion of the wedding ceremony, Sarika pours puffed rice into flames as an offering to Fire God.
Daniel Kramer
In the Laja Havan portion of the wedding ceremony, Sarika pours puffed rice into flames as an offering to Fire God.
Husband and wife at their wedding reception.
Daniel Kramer
Husband and wife at their wedding reception.

Soon, the gods will make their grand entrance into the ballroom, commencing a night of dances, speeches and tributes in their honor. There is a large stage at the front of the room. There is a table for the gods and a place where they may eat and gaze over the crowds. Sarika and Atul were supposed to appear 45 minutes ago. Now, the guests sit below bright chandeliers and a canopy of lights and white-and-blue translucent fabric.

And still the people wait.

Suddenly a loud voice booms over the crowd. He has questions for the people. Serious, discerning queries.

"Are you ready to drink?" he calls out. Alcohol, he means. Copious amounts of it.

The voice belongs to "dj rick," Ricky Bajaj, and he is about to get this party started. He's talking to more than 500 people here at the Sugar Land Marriott Town Square. He has another question for the excited masses: Are you ready to see Atul and Sarika?

"The gods" are two 26-year-old Indian-American newlyweds. They just got married a couple of hours ago -- and in their religion, Hinduism, the bride and groom are treated as gods Mahalakshmi and Lord Vishnu during their wedding. Outside of the ceremony itself, people don't seem to care too much about that; still, throughout the festivities, the bride and groom take on an almost exalted status.

Here in 21st-century America, there's an even more apt comparison: celebrities. Prior to the wedding, the couple had several sets of bridal portraits done. For their various wedding events, there are two photographers and a videographer (two on the wedding day). Friends and family have celebrated them at various events for days straight. Even their parents, brothers and sisters are like minor stars by association.

The wedding reception is the climax of this revelry. The fact that this party is kicking off so late is no big deal. Indian weddings never start on time. There's even a term for the general Indian phenomenon of lateness -- Indian Standard Time (or IST).

Finally, it's time to view the holy couple.

The guests look to the door, and the pair breezes out. Atul wears a black South Asian-style suit. Sarika is dressed in a blue, glittering lehnga (skirt) and choli (top). They make their way toward the stage. It is a quick, easy stroll forward; but it is also the culmination of years of anticipation and months of planning, stress, excitement and anxiety.

Finding each other was challenging enough. But in the South Asian community, there's a lot riding on the wedding itself. The bride's and groom's parents and family in- vite practically everyone they've ever known to celebrate their children's marriage, and alternately their success as parents. And they spare no expense to make sure it's a memorable affair. It's not uncommon to spend $75,000 -- more than twice what an average American couple spends, according to wedding coordinator Haley Doyle of En Vogue Events in Kingwood.

Every culture seems to have some sort of coming-out party, and for South Asians, it's definitely the wedding. The event marks the end of the bride's and groom's lives as their parents' children and the beginning of their shared adulthood together. In a few short seconds, the couple has made it across the ballroom.

Yes, Dr. Atul and Sarika Maheshwari have arrived. The gods are in the building. Showtime.


Years ago in Mumbai, Sarika's father, Sunil Sahay, bought her a traditional lehnga to wear on her wedding day. He purchased the item for his daughter's trousseau, a collection of valuable property for the bride to carry into her marriage.

That old lehnga was not fashionable enough to keep up with rapidly changing Indian trends. So Sarika bought a new one for her wedding (several, actually, for various events). But she still has her trousseau.

Born in Houston but raised in Saudi Arabia, Sarika grew up in the peaceful confines of the Aramco oil company compound in Dhahran. Her parents are "north Indian miscellaneous," from various Indian states, and they were engaged through an arranged marriage. Sarika would eventually return to the United States to attend boarding school; but even away from her parents' home, she never lost sight of their wishes.

The pressure to find, date and marry the perfect educated, well-mannered Indian bachelor began about a year after Sarika finished college at UT Austin. Immediately after graduation, she moved to London to complete a master's program in sociology. Once she returned, though, it was time to get rolling.

This is where the "aunties" came in. The term is one of respect; aunties are your mother's friends, your relatives -- just older women of the community.

During the two years after Sarika returned from London, various aunties introduced her to eligible Indian boys. Back in her mother's community, a young woman would have a social résumé listing her accomplishments, her hobbies, her height and weight and a description of her extended family with details about her uncles, aunts and grandparents, including where they lived and their educational backgrounds. Families used the résumés to arrange their children's marriages. Today, the custom survives but is toned down, just describing hobbies and education.

"I just think it's funny," Sarika says. "My parents had made one for me. It was very sweet, but it was definitely exaggerated."

Sarika had seen many happy couples get together through Web sites like shaadi.com or blind dates arranged by aunties, so she decided to be open-minded.

She met a few guys. It always went the same way. First, they talked on the phone and the conversation was…great. Then, they got together for coffee and immediately, she sensed it: There was no chemistry.

One time, she traveled all the way to California to meet a man.

"My parents' family friend -- their son married this guy's sister," she says. "My parents had seen pictures of him from their wedding and were like, 'Oh, he's a doctor and he's really smart. And he's older, he's 29, so he can take care of you.'"

Her mother thought, "This is it," but that match didn't end up working out either. By the time she was 25, Sarika's parents were constantly badgering her, even though she was still young relative to women of her generation, who tend to get married at 28 or 29.

Many South Asian-American women live a paradoxical existence: Parents teach their daughters to be independent and career-driven -- then, it's time to find a husband. Brides feel pressure to simultaneously be American working women and traditional South Asian wives, says Zooni, an editor for Bibi Magazine, a publication for South Asian-American women. (She uses an alias to keep her engineering and magazine lives separate.) With sons, the situation is similar but more relaxed. Men aren't expected to settle down until their thirties.

"It might be generalizing, but I think South Asian men, they might be very modern and very Westernized in all their thinking, but when it comes to a wife or having a partner in life, they immediately turn to mother, whatever Mom was," says Zooni.

Divorce is eschewed in the South Asian community, so in most cases, marriage really does last "until death do us part." Sarika's father wanted to make sure that his future son-in-law's family understands this principle, so, "If they have ten divorces, we don't want to get our daughter in that mess," he says.

He had other stipulations as well: "I told her the only person I approve of is either a doctor or a lawyer. That's it. Nobody else. Only two people," he says.

After dating around for some time to no avail, in June 2005 Sarika attended a few events in connection with a convention for AAPI, the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin. Among other things, the convention is sort of a "dating thing" for young Indian-Americans. This is where she got together with Atul, a student at Baylor College of Medicine.

Atul himself had also envisioned his ideal spouse -- although his criteria were less narrow than Sarika's father's. "I knew what I wanted," he says. "I wanted someone like Sarika who is very well-rounded, smart, intelligent, funny, witty, culturally well-grounded -- and someone who loves me very much."

For years, he had waited for the right girl, although he felt no pressure from his parents. He just loved the idea of settling down. Dating and "testing the waters" didn't appeal to him; he was searching for The One. Until he met Sarika, no one else deeply intrigued him. No one. Then, after a long conversation with his future bride, he finally thought: Hey, I'd like to take this girl out on a date.

Within a week, they were officially "in a relationship," according to their Friendster accounts. Soon after, they began talking about what they wanted out of life -- family and marriage. Throughout this period, though, they downplayed the seriousness of the relationship to their parents.

"I knew that if I introduced them to any guy and was like 'I kind of like him,' they would be calling the parents and wanting to get me engaged right away," Sarika says.

By September, they knew for sure. With Hurricane Rita bearing down on the Texas coastline, Atul's parents came to Houston from Beaumont to meet Sarika's parents. The couple were, for all practical purposes, engaged.

But Atul had yet to give Sarika a ring -- and since she is American, after all, she expected one. Four months later, he took her to a "light show" in Hermann Park. Beforehand, Atul, his sister Bani and a friend had decorated a garden with rose petals and votive candles. Atul proposed.

Within 48 hours, Sarika's mother had drawn up the first list of invitees. (She had been jotting down names all fall.) At one point, the guest list for the reception would fluctuate up to around 750 and then back down. Atul, as it turned out, would live in Boston for most of the planning process.

Sarika never hired a wedding planner.


For a Hindu ceremony, you can't just pick a wedding date. Couples consult an astrologer for auspicious wedding times. The process isn't entirely old-world, though. "They gave us an Excel table," says Sarika. "We had a percentage thing -- like, 'This day is 70 percent good, this day is 85 percent good.'"

The first week of December was designated 100 percent good.

"Both our moms said we should just do it that weekend!" says Sarika. But friends and siblings in medical school had exams that week. Sarika and Atul had the last say, and they decided on November 18.

In some South Asian weddings, the parents aren't simply consulted -- they actually make the majority of the decisions. Historically, the wedding was seen as the last act of parenthood (back in the days when brides were practically children and often married in their teens). Of course, the concept has been diluted these days. But parents still take great pride in their children's weddings -- and in some cases, they do all the planning.

A marriage is also very much "about a meeting of families," says editor Zooni. "You want to make sure that the parents get along…There's a lot of pleasing. "

And the "pleasing" is an important part of the wedding preparations. Neither family wants to be neglected. If families are from different regions or speak different languages, they may quibble over which rituals to do. Here in America, South Asian kids often tend to socialize together even though religions (Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Sikhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism) and ethnic backgrounds (Pakistani, Indian, Nepalese, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi) don't necessarily match up.

Even the vendors can get drawn into familial tension, says videographer Farhan Khokhar of A&A Videography.

"It's very offensive to have more shots of the bride's family than the groom's family," he says. "In a Western wedding, I've never had anyone complain that someone's been left out," he says.

Problems can also occur if families are sharing expenses and one side has no real upper limit while the other side clearly does. To avoid confrontation, Sarika and Atul discussed money issues with their own respective parents.

The couple took care of the big stuff -- the venues, the photographer, the Indian decorator -- before Atul left last June to begin his neurology residency program at Harvard. She stayed here, finishing law school at the University of Houston and an internship and preparing for the wedding. The plan was for her to join him in New England after the wedding -- which was the proper thing to do, anyway.

For most of the summer, planning was minimal; but by early fall, it kicked into gear again. Besides the wedding and reception, there would also be three other traditional pre-wedding events: a haldi, an intimate party to initiate the wedding; the mehndi, when friends and family have their traditional Indian henna tattoos applied; and the sangeet, a large dance party the night before the ceremony.

By October, Sarika and her mother were dedicating practically their entire lives to planning the colossal affair -- which was becoming even more massive than originally planned. Initially, the couple expected 250 people for Friday night's sangeet, 300 for the wedding and 600 for the reception. But, somehow, the wedding had expanded to 450, and the reception was looking like 700 to 750 people.

"The Friday night thing -- I have no idea," Sarika says. The venue had a limit of 300 people, so they couldn't allow the guest list to balloon too much.

"When it starts adding up like that, you just think, 'Oh my god.' It's adding up to thousands of dollars. I don't want my parents to go broke. But they want to do it, too -- they want a good wedding."


All fall, Sarika's aunties dropped by the house to help. Occasionally, a group of friends would come over with their own personal deep fryers, sit on the floor and cook little snacks that could be frozen until the wedding. "And it's so funny because they'll put on Indian music and they'll gossip," says Sarika. "It's totally like My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

A lot of these women are part of the first wave of young Indian immigrants who came to the United States in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Now their kids are old enough to partner up, so there have been weddings galore in the last few years.

The boom has bred a bit of one-upsmanship, actually. Call it "keeping up with the Patels," call it what you will: People up the ante year after year.

"You see someone spend $70,000 on X, Y and Z. Then someone has to spend $100,000 on the upgraded packages on X, Y and Z," says wedding coordinator Doyle.

One recent affair was even deemed "Donald Trump"-esque. If you want to throw an unforgettable bash, you need that wow factor.

"People will say, 'I remember seeing that' at so and so's wedding. But no one wants to do exactly the same thing," says Sarika. "The trend just becomes to do something bigger."

People tend to view the wedding as a chance to showcase their wealth and their children's professional accomplishments. After struggling as immigrants, they're finally settled and established, says Ayesha Hakki, publisher and editor of Bibi Magazine. "This is usually the biggest joyous celebration they've had. So, this is the first time they've let the community know: Look, we've arrived."

International relatives endure the arduous visa application process and long flights to come. In India, weddings are equally lavish, if not more unrestrained than ceremonies here. "Everyone that goes to India nowadays that goes to a wedding will be like, 'Oh my god, they had it at this huge farmhouse and they flew in chefs from all over the world,'" says Sarika. So, again, the families didn't want to disappoint.

Like college or purchasing a house, the wedding is something Sarika's parents, Rashmi and Sunil, saved for over the years. At roughly $85,000 to $100,000, the event did come with a hefty price tag, Rashmi admits. But all their friends do that. Having an intimate affair isn't an option.

Still, it seems appropriate to ask: Why not spend $50,000 and give $25,000 to the millions in poverty in India? Was that ever in the back of their minds?

"No -- I don't know -- maybe we should have thought that way," says Rashmi, but she and her husband do some charity "here and there," and she believes Sarika will be very generous once she has the resources.

"You do feel, 'Oh, it's really so much.' You do feel that way. But, yeah, in the back of our minds we (believed) that it would cost that much. But, she's our only daughter."


The morning of the wedding, Sarika applies her bridal bindis, her toe rings, her anklets and her makeup while she's still in her striped pajama bottoms. She's feeling remarkably calm.

"Did you take a sedative?" her cousin seriously asks at one point.

Right now, Sarika is sitting in Room 416 at the Marriott. Upstairs in 533, Atul and 20 to 30 of his family members are preparing for the baraat, the groom's family procession toward the bride's family. Around 10 a.m., the Maheshwari clan heads down to the lobby singing songs, and exits out to the Sugar Land Town Square, across the street. On the corner, a white mare with ornate red dressings for the groom is held by Paul Wahus, co-owner of Mission Bend Stables in Houston.

The horse must be trained to participate in a baraat, since there is a loud beat from the dhol drummer and people dance around, says Paul's wife, Sheila. Throughout the baraat, the groom sits atop the horse, which strolls forward and stops according to the group's movements.

Despite the perils of this procession, things go smoothly. "Most people have some sort of horror story like 'the horse ran away' or 'my uncle got kicked,'" Sheila says.

Around 11:15, the groom's party makes its way to the side entrance of the hotel. They walk toward a traditional gate, where Rashmi is waiting to greet them. Sarika will hear later that her father cried as Atul's family approached.

"He was in the corner bawling," she says. "A bunch of the uncles had to go up to him and be like, 'It's okay,' and then, typical of my dad, he started getting angry with them."

The wedding itself is long and boring -- which is normal. The family expects guests to chat quietly throughout the entire affair. Some people bring in trays of almond shakes. Groups of attendees stand along the periphery of chairs and wander in and out of the ballroom. The culmination of the ceremony seems to be the mangalphere, when the bride and groom walk around a small fire seven times.

At the reception, even some of Sarika's non-Indian friends are wearing bright saris. After some initial inflation, the guest list has shrunk back down to the original estimate: 600.

Once the doors open and everyone settles in the ballroom, Atul and Sarika's parents and siblings enter and promenade across the room. They come in smiling and waving, as if they're in a parade.

Sarika and Atul make their dramatic stroll through the ballroom doors. They're seated in front of the dance floor so they can see the performances. As a surprise for the guests, Sarika jumps up and joins her friends' routine. She had tried to get Atul to do a dance with her, but he declined, saying that he didn't want to deal with the stress.

In between the Bollywood-inspired dances and toasts, there are video clips of loved ones talking about Sarika and Atul's future. Who will wear the pants in the relationship? The respondents are pretty much split, though one says, "Atul will wear the pants, but Sarika will tell him which ones to wear." Advice for the newlyweds? "Do not spend too much money," Sarika's father says. What's the first word that comes to mind when you think of Atul? Funny, kind, goofy, genius and quirky. What's the first word that comes to mind when you think of Sarika? Sweet, compassionate, pretty, big heart, princess, awesome, beautiful inside and out.

Listening to all this, you can't help but think: Damn, this is one lucky couple. Not only do they come from the same general region of India, speak the same language and follow the same religion, they found each other at a relatively young age. And with medical school and law school finished, they're perfect Indian poster children.

"They're the prime couple," says friend Kajal Singh. "The funny thing is it does happen a lot that a doctor marries a lawyer, a doctor marries a doctor -- those kind of things. But a lot of times I see what was done was based on economic reasons or based upon family-focused situations, something like that. But, with this, the economic reasons are just a side part. They're really genuinely in love."

For the final dance of the evening, a group of the couple's friends and relatives from across the country get up to perform a routine they have learned using video footage sent by the choreographer. Suddenly, they pull Atul onto the floor, at which point, after initial feigned befuddlement, he breaks into full-on Bollywood dance moves, in sync with the others.

These are the moments people live for in South Asian weddings. In the glow of the moment, it seems $100,000 is a small price to pay, after all, to be treated as a god.

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