I always knew I didn’t want an Indian wedding. Even when I thought that I might marry a boy someday, I imagined us eloping, telling my parents to cash in that giant savings bond for a down payment on a house instead of some three-day extravaganza filled with people whose names I didn’t even know.
Later, when I met Jill, and it became abundantly clear that I would not, in fact, be marrying a boy, but instead a (white) woman nineteen years my elder, any lingering thoughts of a wedding went flying out the window; I was much too busy figuring out how to get my parents to even speak about my relationship, let alone throw it a celebration.
The irony is that I actually love weddings, and I think that we browns do them better than anyone else. I mean, who can beat us on ceremony? — color, noise, ritual, festivity, food, dancing — we’ve got it all. In our community, weddings also carry clout, which means that people will reorganize their schedules, spend a bunch of money, get on a plane, and inconvenience their families, all in order to show up and bear witness. It’s an absurd, beautiful prospect, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t mourn the loss of it.
Ten years into my relationship with Jill, we adopted Shiv. Born to an African American birth mother and placed with us at two days old, our son was given the same initials — SCM — as my dad, who died unexpectedly in 2006. My father never had the chance to really know Jill or to push past his disappointment over what that part of my life looked like, and in the wake of the loss of him, I feared even bigger breaks were to come: with my mom, with my community, with my culture.
It was Jill who urged patience, insisting that I not rush the process of integrating her into my extended family network. “Give them time,” she advised. “They love you. They’ll come around.”
Three years after my dad’s death, Jill was officially introduced to the aunties and uncles at what we jokingly called a “sip and see,” a term used in the South to refer to a newborn baby’s first social event; people come to sip punch and see the baby. Except that, instead of punch, we had wine, and instead of a baby, we had a (very nervous) Jill.
Three years after that, we had a sip and see for Shiv in Memphis, my hometown; it was the same weekend that we attended an Indian community event — the wedding of one of my closest “sisters” growing up — together, as a couple, officially “out” and with our tiny, black son in his tiny, fancy rajah outfit. Never underestimate the power of a baby; everybody wanted to hold him.
A few weeks later, my mom moved away from Memphis to be closer to us, and by “us,” I mean “her grandchild.” (Her house is less than two miles from ours.) She cooks us dinner once a week, provides an inordinately generous amount of child care, and refers to Jill as her “daughter-in-law.” Shiv’s mundan was her idea.
So I went into it, thinking it was for her. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to plan and arrange and invite and coordinate — after all, I was raised a Hindu and I went to an Episcopal school for twelve years — nobody loves ritual more than me.I was raised a Hindu and I went to an Episcopal school for twelve years — nobody loves ritual more than me. And I’ve always wanted that ritual to be a part of my son’s life, a lens through which he experiences the world. And though Jill was raised Christian and no longer practices any faith tradition, she earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion and probably knows more about Hinduism than I do; she’s long been on board with holidays, dietary restrictions, and temple visits. Still, it seemed to me that the mundan was really for my mom, something that mattered to and would carry the most weight for her.
Over the Fourth of July weekend this past summer, dozens of friends and family members gathered — some coming from as far away as Like all of the events I saw growing up, this one was sacred and chaotic and a total group effort.London and Oregon — to witness and celebrate our son’s mundan in Memphis. Like all of the events I saw growing up, this one was sacred and chaotic and a total group effort: Radha Aunty made all of the arrangements for a priest (one who wouldn’t be freaked out by the configurations of our family), Mohan Uncle (one of my dad’s closest friends) sang a bhajan that my father loved, Chanchala Aunty (who thought of my dad as her older brother) hosted us in her gorgeous home, Asha (one of my big sisters) wrapped me up in the heaviest sari I’ve ever worn — the same one my mother wore at my mundan, in India in 1984, and Vasu Uncle (who warmed to Jill from the start) explained the meaning behind the Sanskrit and the ceremony.
Shiv was a rock star, reaching out to take the aarti as he knows to do from doing puja with me and my mom, and tried to eat the haldi rice, but otherwise sat uncharacteristically still, like he knew something important was going on. Jill participated fully with me in the puja — the two of us Shiv’s parents, together. One of the most important men in Shiv’s life, Sacha, did the honors of cutting Shiv’s hair, a moment that, according to tradition, binds them together for life. Once our boy was all bald, the priest instructed the entire congregation to come up and give their blessings to Shiv, sprinkling the aforementioned haldi rice over his head. That parade of people — all colors, all backgrounds, from all different parts of mine and Jill’s life — was one of the most sacred things I’ve ever experienced in my life.
To honor the multi-faceted nature of Shiv’s identity, we attached our own piece to the mundan, asking two of our closest family friends to give readings: Courtney reciting from Rumi, Dave, from Rilke. Finally, Kate, who happens to be an Episcopal priest, and whose extended family I’ve proudly been a part of for years, led us all in a set of blessings and affirmations taken from The Book of Common Prayer.
O God, We give you thanks for the blessing you have bestowed upon this family in giving them a child. Confirm their joy by a lively sense of your presence with them, and give them calm strength and patient wisdom as they seek to bring this child to love all that is true and noble, just and pure, loveable and gracious, excellent and admirable. Amen.
That evening we had a party, a decidedly secular celebration with beer, barbecue, and birthday cake, where our boy blew out his candles and romped around the yard with his cousins. Then, after a day full of costume changes, new faces, and no nap, he was ready to crash early, so we drove away from our own party, the three of us singing “Wheels on the Bus” as the sky darkened.
After our son fell asleep, as we vigorously insisted to Radha Aunty that we were really, truly full and not in the least bit hungry, Jill reached for my “Today felt real,” she said. “Like it meant something.”hand. “Today felt real,” she said. “Like it meant something. Like we did something people have been doing for hundreds of years, and I could feel it.”
Turns out my son’s mundan wasn’t just for his nani, but for his moms, too. Turns out that, while I took the long way around, but I still managed to get what I never thought I could have: a beautiful, improbable, distinctly twenty-first century American family, loved and accepted by the community of people who made me who I am.
View photos from Shiv’s mundan ceremony at the photography blog Shoot With Personality.
Nishta J. Mehra is a fan of big conversations and good food. She spends her days working out what it means to live fully and joyfully: as a mother, teacher, daughter, friend, and spouse. Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, she lives with her partner Jill and their son Shiv in a suburb of Houston, Texas. Read an excerpt called “Mixed” from her collection of essays, Pomegranate King, and check out our chat with her. Find more of her writing on her website, Blue Jean Gourmet.