The naked insides of my camera lay on the desk between us. Babu shook his head regretfully, ‘There is nothing to be done Madam.’ He hesitated, ‘However I can offer you something in the way of conciliation.’ He opened his desk drawer and took out an envelope, turning it thoughtfully in his hands before passing it to me. I pulled out a square of cream coloured card with two long Indian names written above each other in pink calligraphy. ‘Wedding is tonight, friend’s daughter will marry rich man,’ he paused, ‘It is not love marriage – wedding day will be their third meeting.’ I asked how many people married for love in India and he sat up proudly, ‘Not so many madam, maybe five percent. I am one, I choose my wife from love. You English peoples are knowing about this.’ He gave me a conspiratorial wink.
He invited me to join him in celebrating this ‘not love marriage’ and instructed me to arrive at his camera shop two hours before the wedding reception so that I could be ‘prepared in Indian style.’ I was starting to feel like a Christmas turkey being trust up for the oven. I shyly asked if I could bring my friend Seb with whom I was travelling. I was told, ‘More people, more fun.’
At 6pm that evening Seb and I gingerly entered Babu’s shop to find it seemingly deserted. We called for our new friend and he emerged from a back room where he said he had been preparing our clothes. There was a splendid red and gold sari lying on the chair, a cream blazer hanging on a clothes rail and a timid girl holding a box of jewellry. ‘This is Anushi, she will help preparations,’ Babu told us. An hour and a half later we were ready. Anushi had combed my knotted hair with gritted teeth, thrust a multitude of gold bangles onto each of my arms and painted my finger and toe nails red. Babu was summoned to admire us. He seemed pleased, and we three posed together for a photo before climbing into a rickshaw taxi and heading to the wedding celebrations.
Outside the town hall a row of topless men banged drums. Inside an anxious bride stood beside her wide eyed husband on a stage. Their faces wore tired smiles as colourful wedding guests queued up to congratulate and bless them. Babu grabbed our wrists and made a beeline for the father of the bride. ‘This my great friend’ he said, fondly patting the father’s bulging belly. ‘And these: My new friends from England.’ We shook hands and were whisked to the front to meet the bride and groom. Heads all around turned to look at us. Babu led us past the queue and directly onto the stage. We congratulated the nervous newlyweds who continued to smile self-consciously. Families of the bride and groom were invited to the stage to pose for photos with us and their son and daughter. Completely undeservedly we appeared to be the guests of honour. As the camera flashed for the fifth time and I felt the stiff, awkward arm of the bride around me I recognized another unearned privilege: I had been born into a situation which granted me the freedom to choose who to marry. Appreciating that this was not the case for the girl beside me, nor for fifty-five percent of the world’s men and women, all at once I realised how lucky I was.