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Why does the gender of the groom matter in a wedding?

In this excerpt from a new novel, Seema, an out lesbian working in Obama-era San Francisco, grapples with her emotions as she prepares to marry a man

Repsentational image.
Repsentational image. (Sandy Millar/Unsplash)

Are our endings foretold in our beginnings?

Consider my parents’ wedding. Bill and Seema had agreed they’d get married on the day Barack Obama officially kicked off his presidential campaign. In February 2007, three years after they first got together, Obama finally does so: addressing a freezing rally in Springfield, Illinois, in front of the state capitol, where a century and a half ago Abraham Lincoln called on a house divided to stand together, he issues his own call, for people to come together for the purpose of perfecting the union and building a better America. 

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But that happens on a Saturday, and the San Francisco City Hall doesn’t perform civil ceremonies over the weekend. When Bill and Seema show up, with Fiaz and Pierre in tow, the following Monday, they are confronted by another rally: it’s also the three-year anniversary of the day same-sex marriages had first been performed in San Francisco, marriages that had been voided within a few months by the California Supreme Court, citing Proposition 22. A crowd of gay and lesbian couples and supporters throng city hall to hear Mayor Newsom reiterate his commitment to win them the right to marry and reinstate their voided marriages. City hall echoes with applause and cheers, praise and gratitude.

‘I didn’t know this was happening today,’ Bill whispers to Seema.

He is disappointed that the main hall is occupied by the rally— their wedding would now be held in a small chamber instead of under the rotunda’s spectacular dome—but the disappointment is overshadowed by the fear that the rally might change Seema’s mind.

The rally does give Seema pause. There are many couples in the hall dressed in wedding attire, like the lesbians in the white tuxedo and the white dress. She finds herself scanning the crowd for a particular pair—of all the images of a euphoric San Francisco celebrating in the wake of Newsom’s order three years ago, this is the one imprinted indelibly in her mind: The first couple to be married, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, founders of America’s first lesbian rights group fifty years earlier. In the photo, the then eighty-three- and seventy-nine-year-olds, dressed in lavender and turquoise suits, hold each other in their frail arms, their wrinkled foreheads touching, bashful as teenagers.

But there’s no sign in the hall today of Del’s unruly mop of silvery hair beside Phyllis’s sedate grey-brown. Were they still alive? If so, they’d been together for close to fifty-five years, married for less than six months.

Author Nawaaz Ahmed.
Author Nawaaz Ahmed.

They have to skirt the crowd. Bill takes Seema by the hand, searching her face for signs of doubt. Seema has, in the three years they’ve been together, never shown any regret about the community she’d left behind. Fiaz is the only remaining connection she maintains to her queer past.

Their sex life, too, after that disastrous start in Iowa, has more than righted itself, with some patient instruction from Seema. There’s no reason to fear himself inadequate or her unfulfilled, if that morning’s frenzied lovemaking is anything to go by. She’d awakened charged and aroused, with a rapaciousness that had inflamed him too. They’d fucked feverishly, Bill crying out in long tremulous sobs as he came, the shock of his orgasm coursing through him. And then he’d pleasured her to a protracted climax, tongue and fingers flicking and stroking slowly, deliberately, the way she liked. 

‘Bill, slow down.’ Seema stumbles in her high heels. ‘I know we decided to dress like the day we met, but repeating the twisted ankle is going too far.’ She has on the scarlet dress she’d worn for the anti–Iraq War march, and Bill his blue shirt and pigeon-grey slacks.

Bill stops in contrition, and she kisses him on the cheek, whispering, ‘Relax, I’m not going to pull a runaway bride.’

But she’s glad she’d insisted on everyday clothes for their party. She’d warned Fiaz and Pierre against wearing anything fancy or bringing any wedding accessories: bouquets, balloons. She’d have felt too awkward, too guilty. Now they could be at city hall on some trivial business.

Her mother called earlier that morning, when they were dressing for the ceremony. Ammi had asked, ‘Will you wear a saree today?’

‘No, I don’t even own one anymore.’

‘Do you remember—how you and Tahera fought over my wedding saree?’

How she’d coveted Ammi’s wedding saree, with its elaborate vines and flowers of gold zari covering every inch of the silk, a luscious dual-toned crimson- peach, unlike the more modest dark reds that brides in their family usually wore on their weddings. She’d badgered Ammi until she’d been promised that saree for her own wedding. Tahera had to be placated, of course, so she’d offered Tahera her first three choices among the other sarees Ammi was setting aside for them, in the bottom shelf of her almirah. All those sarees that Ammi kept adding to regularly each year of their girlhood—and all the jewellery, too, the gold necklaces, earrings, and bangles, that Abba periodically brought home to enchant his two daughters with—they must have all been used for Tahera’s wedding. 

But Ammi said, ‘I still have the saree. I saved it for you, for whenever you wanted it.’ 

Radiant Fugitives: A Novel by Nawaaz Ahmed, Contxt-Westland, 392 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699
Radiant Fugitives: A Novel by Nawaaz Ahmed, Contxt-Westland, 392 pages, 699

The heft of Ammi’s gift, like the saree’s weight which belied its delicate Banarasi weave, settled like a rock in her heart. It was a more precious gift than she’d any right to expect. Ammi had accepted news of her impending marriage quietly, as if too grateful to ask questions. Since then, their conversations have become more frequent, almost weekly, though her mother still calls from outside the home, either from Halima Aunty’s or from an ISD booth. Ammi’s call today had been reassuring. She’d have been disappointed, even distressed, if Ammi hadn’t.

‘I’m just happy you called,’ she’d said. ‘Do you want to speak to Bill?’ Ammi first demurred but then asked to be put on the speakerphone. ‘I wish you both a long and happy married life.’

Then to Bill: ‘Please take care of my daughter.’

And Bill took her hands in his and raised them to his lips as if for Ammi to see. ‘I will, Seema’s mother.’

I don’t need anyone to take care of me, she’d wanted to object. But she was silenced by the memory of all those times she’d witnessed—with anguished longing—mothers enfolding their daughter’s hands into the groom’s with the same tear-strained phrase.

Now waiting in the ceremony room, a pang of bitterness: if only it had been possible for her to be seated here, decked in Ammi’s saree, with her groom beside her, resplendent in a sherwani—why does the gender of the groom matter?—and flanked by her parents.

She’s suddenly reminded of Reshmi, Prince Salim to her Anarkali, the day of the play—the closest she has come to such a configuration.

Wherever Reshmi is now she is surely married and probably already burdened with several kids.

In the confines of this small bare chamber she casts the other occupants—the brides in white, carrying bouquets of demure calla lilies—in a pallor. All light in the room is drawn to her. Her scarlet dress seems to swell and pulsate, a flame of a flower, more brilliant than mehndi on any bride’s hands, more fierce than any red wedding saree she could drape herself in. The registrar’s gaze keeps reverting to her, even as he officiates for the couple ahead, as if no eye can resist her, no will can ignore her. She can almost imagine that Bill’s tight hold on one hand and Fiaz’s arm threaded about her waist are both needed to keep her seated, to stop her from whirling around the room, the scarlet swirling and flaring, even as the marriage-equality rally outside cheers, still audible over the registrar’s spiel—

Do you, Seema ... ?

I do. Qabool.

Extracted from Radiant Fugitives by Nawaaz Ahmed with permission from Context, Westland.

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