The first time I saw this photograph was when I was in Chennai earlier this year. My cousin, with whom I had stayed, had a copy of it. I examined it and realized the significance of so many things this picture represented. So many faces, so many stories. The faces of those who are still alive are much older now, but yet they somehow are the same.
This picture would tell a different story to each person who looked at it. Here is the story it tells me.
First, the facts. My maternal grandparents are in the center, the core if you will.
Seven of their ten children are in this picture with them. The oldest three of their children were unable to make it to this family reunion of sorts.
Six of their nineteen grandchildren are present. There was a seventh grandchild at this occasion, but for some reason wasn't present for the picture. The youngest three grandchildren weren't born yet.
Three of their six sons-in-law and one of their four daughters-in-law are in this picture. The photographer was another one of their sons in law.
All three of the children in this picture are now parents.
In addition to my grandparents, there are two people in this picture who are no longer with us.
One of the reason that this picture means so much to me is that it signifies the ties that bind my extended family together. When we were younger, we lived in a different state from the rest of our family. We were very isolated from them, but we somehow got together during summer. And when we did, we had a BLAST. Our parents, who were siblings, would just sit around and talk. We cousins would get together and play, squabble, walk to the store and have ice cream and soft drinks. Now that we've all grown up, we still reminisce about those summer days and how much fun we had.
This also was the first time ever that the members of my immediate family was photographed together. I am not sure why, but we never owned a camera, and taking pictures was never very important to my parents. Granted, we did have our pictures taken on occasion, like prior to our head being shaved bald of the hair we were born with. This was a tradition in India, which quite possibly had some religious significance. Other than that, I think there was one more visit to a photo studio to take a set of pictures of my brothers and me.
Even though this picture goes back to when I was fourteen, I remember this occasion very well. My family and I flew down to Chennai to attend my aunt's wedding. Upon landing, we discovered that the suitcase that had my Mom's and my clothes in it was lost in transit. This meant that we had nothing to wear for the wedding. Mom was the same size as most of the women at the wedding, so she could easily borrow a blouse and saree. Although we were told by the airline company that our suitcase would arrive the next day, nobody wanted to take any chances. They had to decide what I should wear. Due to the lack of time, a very hurried decision was made that I would also wear a saree. The only thing that would need to be done then was to get a blouse sewed, which didn't take much time.
One thing you have to understand is that wearing a saree for the first time is a huge deal for a girl. It was something I was totally not prepared for. So it was a huge surprise and I was so excited! I didn't know if I would be able to walk without stepping on it and having it come apart. But that was just a fleeting thought. I was going to wear a saree! That evening we went to get my blouse sewed.
The next day the missing suitcase arrived.
My mother changed her mind and suggested I wear the salwar kurtha that we had brought for me to wear to the wedding. I was so disappointed. My parents were very strict and their word was the law. But I wanted so badly to wear a saree. After I had come so close to being able to do so, I couldn't believe it was not going to happen. I didn't know what to do, but I thought about it and decided to ask them if I could still go ahead and wear the saree anyway. My reasoning was that with so many people around I might not get in trouble. Still, part of me was petrified even to broach the subject. I began to imagine how much more disappointed I would be if I asked them and they said no. But something inside made me ask.
I went to my mother and whispered in her ear, "I still want to wear the saree. Could I?"
"I'll ask your father and let you know what he says," she told me. My mother must have realized what it meant to me.
I breathed a sigh of relief. The world did not end, bad things that I had imagined would happen didn't happen. At least I didn't hear a flat-out "No". There was still hope.
Later on, my mother came to me. "You can wear the saree for the wedding," she said, "Wear the salwar kurtha for the ceremony in the morning." I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Really? I wanted somebody to pinch me because I was sure I was dreaming!
But that's not all. After the ceremony that morning, my aunts decided that the women would go get their hair done for the wedding. They decided to take my cousin and me with them.
I nearly passed out from the excitement. I had never had my hair done before.
Off we went to the hairdresser. There was a lot of brushing and curling and hairspray and pinning. I was given an up-do which added years to my actual age but made me feel so grown up.
And when the saree was draped on me and a necklace put around my neck, I looked and felt like I was a princess.
I was an awkward and gawky teenager, but for the first time in a long time, I felt beautiful.
When I walked in the room all dressed up, there was a collective roar, followed by squeals of laughter from everyone. I felt self-conscious and shy, but happy at the same time. My parents, aunts and uncles gave me a difficult time about me getting ready to be the next to walk down the aisle, but it was all in fun.
Even though that day was all about my aunt, it was like an enchanted evening for me.
It is no wonder then, that I'm all smiles in this picture.