Suhaag Raat: Then and Now

Some things have not changed: little or no sex. It’s just that friends now insist on making it more memorable than the newlywed would like.
REFLOWERMENT
Photo: VERONICA GAUTAM

The world of married couples is divided into those who consummated their wedding on that very night, and those who did not. In India, the division can be as unforgiving as the one between the haves and have-nots. Few can understand the challenge of sleeping next to someone for the first time. One has to be either drunk or desperate to perform under such circumstances.

Hence, a glass of milk and almonds are traditionally left for the groom to help him find the strength. The strength to do small talk in the face of bigger pressures. Most wedding nights, where the couples aren’t acquainted with each other, are spent chatting and catching up on sleep. When Anupama Singh (name changed) found this little piece of truth out a few days before her big night, she was relieved. A grandmother now, Anupama was 21 when she got married. Without the help of Google and sex education, she had to rely on the only married friend she had for advice. “I still remember what my friend told me,” she says. “She said, ‘Don’t be silly, nobody does it the first night. It takes a few nights to talk and get acquainted.’” With such an assurance and the fatigue of having endured a traditional wedding, Anupama slept through her wedding night. She doesn’t remember if her husband drank the milk or not.
Anupama had a typical arranged marriage in the 1970s. Back then, even a love marriage, it seems, didn’t do much to calm newlyweds’ nerves. Mrs Saxena (name changed), who had dated her husband for seven years before getting married to him, was just as nervous on her suhaag raat as her husband. “The men were too macho to show that they were nervous, but the truth is we all were. None of us had gone all the way, nor did we speak about these things,” she says. She only got one piece of advice from a married friend: “Go to the toilet immediately after the act if you don’t want to conceive.”

By the time Mrs Saxena’s daughter got married six months ago, a lot had changed. The ghost of silence around the three-letter word had vanished, taking virginal nervousness away with it. While Mrs Saxena was massaged with haldi -based herbal concoctions and kept strictly indoors to acquire glowing skin, her daughter hopped across to Kaya Skin Clinic to get unwanted body hair removed by laser treatment, and followed it up with skin polishing. As part of her hair removal preparations for the night, she also got a painfully elaborate ‘bikini wax’ done. The daughter was also taking birth control pills to avoid unwanted pregnancy. Alcohol had replaced milk and almonds as the bedside aphrodisiac.

“The suhaag raat has gone from marking the start of sexual adventures to the end, or climax, so to speak,” says Arif Ali, a young scriptwriter. Arif was a young lad growing up in the 1990s’ Jamshedpur, a town where holding hands with a girl in public was nothing short of a scandal. Despite the conservative atmosphere, people found avenues for sexual exploration. But the suhaag raat retained its excitement. It was the first night one could do things legally. It was an excitement mixed with fear, raised to a traditional crescendo in anticipation of the great moment: the loss of virginity.

Such is the thrill of this lead-up that even non-virginal Indians refuse to let go of the hoopla. When it comes to the suhaag raat, it doesn’t matter if it’s the first or millionth night the couple has shared. It doesn’t even have to be a night, technically speaking. Sheryl (name changed), a Catholic girl who married a Hindu, enjoyed a suhaag afternoon between the two wedding ceremonies. “I’m glad I did so in hindsight,” she says, “because the night was spent removing hairpins, bangles, jewellery, make-up, safety pins and the kilos of sari I was wrapped in.” Her husband was horrified by the artificial hair the stylist had added to give her a bridal look. And when she stepped out for morning tea in her pyjamas and T-shirt, her father-in-law was at a loss of words. Sheryl’s hair was recovering from a week of hairstyle changes and her skin had reacted to the constant make-up. Her father-in-law joked that they wanted yesterday’s beautiful bride back.

An unexpected outcome of spending lakhs on the bride’s outfit, jewellery and hiring professionals to adorn her designer outfit, is the marathon effort and time it takes to undress. This in turn impacts the mood of the newly married couple, not to mention energy reserves. When Kajal’s (name changed) friends, who were hiding behind the curtains in her honeymoon suite, heard her squeal in pain, they jumped out. Kajal’s heavy gold jhumka was entangled in her earlobe. The groom was surprisingly relieved to find the bride’s friends in his room, throwing his hands in the air and letting the girls help her disrobe.
Not all such encounters end well. Mayank (name changed) was in his birthday suit, with his wife almost there, when his friends decided to spring out from under the bed. In another wedding, Shobha (name changed) wasn’t aware that the groom’s friends had bugged the room with audio recorders. She happily criticised her in-laws and husband’s family while removing her jewellery.

“It is all in good humour,” says Ali, whose pranks have involved leaving clock alarms and TV timers set at odd times on the wedding nights of friends and relatives. For his sister-in-law’s suhaag raat, he and his wife left fish sauce in shot glasses everywhere to stink up the room, put egg in the handwash dispenser, and coffee on the toilet seat to keep the couple from relaxing. “Just like couples have to do what they must, this too, has got to be done,” is how he justifies his behaviour. Why friends and cousins must turn into practical jokers, if not complete spoilsports, is yet another mystery surrounding the suhaag raat.

On their wedding night, Akash and his wife invited a friend to sleep on their couch. The couple was exhausted from their great Indian wedding and just wanted to catch up and relax. Akash didn’t consider it odd to have friends around on his wedding night; after all, a modern day suhaag raat only parodies the past. “It’s something my parents did,” he says, “like listening to Beatles records.”

The Indian wedding thrives on its contradictions. We want to enjoy the ostentation of a bachelor party in Las Vegas as much as the coyness of traditional games like searching for a ring in a tub of milk before the suhaag raat; it is said that whoever finds the ring first calls the shots in the marriage. We like our brides to look down and demurely follow the husband during the traditional marriage ceremony, yet have the audacity to get a bikini wax done for la grande nuit. As for grooms, the expectation is an age-old one. An impossible one, that too.

On the morning after her marriage, Mita still remembers the question an old uncle asked her husband, although it happened 21 years ago. “He asked him if we did it three times.” Mita was aghast and offended. She soon realised that the uncle asks the same question on every wedding. In the 21st century, the grand suhaag raat remains one of the biggest mysteries in the Indian wedding. An old uncle’s fantasy at best, a perpetration of marital rape at worst.
For those at the beginning of sexual adventures, a grandmother’s wisdom is an assurance: no one does it the first night. For those who are at the climax, it doesn’t matter if it’s the millionth time. It’s worth it, because it’s your suhaag raat.