Gods and Lovers

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.

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.

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Ruth Samuelson