A Brahmin priest presides over the fire with offerings of coconut and turmeric, flowers and fruit.

The temperature is a sultry 97 degrees when the Air India flight touches down at 2:14 a.m. in Chennai, the city formerly known as Madras. My brother and I have just come from New York City to visit our parents, who are living in India for the year. My American mother is settling easily into retirement in this country she has previously experienced only as a visitor. My Indian father is hard at work back in the land of his birth after 46 years in the United States.

We have also come for my cousin’s wedding. Four hours after we land, the festivities begin on my uncle’s rooftop under a temporary thatched structure that provides a refuge from the strong morning sun. From this roof a good arm could toss a hefty stone and hit the beach where the tsunami’s wave struck in 2004, but today the sea is calm. This morning it is just our side of the family — aunts, uncles, cousins and their kids and one beloved grandmother Paathi — along with a handful of priests, half-naked men with cell phones tucked into their dhotis. All the elements of any Hindu religious function are there: a small fire fueled by dried cow dung and ghee; silver platters filled with gifts and offerings, such as silk fabrics, fresh turmeric, bananas, and gold jewelry; and an abundance of fragrant flowers.

My cousin is 31, the youngest of three brothers but the first to get married. This has been more than a minor point of contention. As a general rule of matrimony, sons should be married off by, say, 30, in a logical descending fashion from eldest to youngest. Daughters start “ getting introduced” in their early 20s. With each trip to India, my unmarried status seems to become more and more of a pressing issue. Paathi repeatedly asks when I’m getting married. “Apparam, apparam,” I answer evasively. “Later, later,” although at 35, I’m already a decade behind the coupling and copulation curve. “Can we find you a boy? We can find one here. We can find one in America. Will you marry an American?” Anyone, she implores. Just get married. The obsession wears thin on my hopelessly romantic self, and Dr. Seuss rhymes float through my head. “I will not marry him, Sam-I-Am, I will not marry your choice of a man.”

Most of my cousins’ marriages are arranged. Resumes are exchanged that include educational and employment standings, the marital status of siblings, specifications of caste and subcaste, and declarations of lineage. Attractiveness and height-weight proportions also are matched appropriately. It’s a market thing really, where one advantage can help offset a less favorable characteristic. Maybe it’s not red, but it has a really nice stereo system and power steering. Astrological signs also play a major role, but ultimately the match is a practical one. We romantics do the exact same thing on many levels, but somehow it feels less official. There’s more time for mulling.

The groom leads his new wife across the stage by the big toe.

My cousin is marrying a woman he has known for six weeks. They met over dinner — with both their families present — and agreed to spend the rest of their lives together. Between the meeting and the wedding they hardly saw each other. He didn’t want her to discover that he drinks and smokes, and I imagine she had her private habits as well. When he later found out that she has terrible vision and wears contacts, he felt betrayed. I don’t know what she thought the first time she saw him smoking with a beer in his hand, but perhaps it was close to the same.

The wedding begins early the next morning, and my cousin’s house is chaos. It’s still dark outside, as I sit in the main room, wrapped up in 18 feet of shimmering green silk trimmed with gold thread. I savor my tumbler of Indian-style coffee, with its hint of chicory, loads of sugar, and sweet creamy water buffalo milk. I feel like the eye of a storm, trying to stay out of the way. The groom pulls freshly laundered underwear off the drying rack. An aunt pulls a plastic comb through her long hair and then distractedly weaves it into a braid. The sound of my uncle’s morning puja prayers drifts from the corner, where he prostrates himself in front of the large wooden wardrobe filled with burning oil lamps and pictures of deities. I send his wife off to finish getting dressed and take over the task of cutting to length the intoxicating fresh strands of jasmine blossoms that the women wedding guests will tuck into the long braids that travel down their backs. There is a rush to leave the door by 5 a.m., an auspicious time on this auspicious day to begin new endeavors, according to the Hindu calendar. When we leave, the clock reads 5:10, and I wonder if anything that may go wrong in their lives could be traced back to this very moment, when we couldn’t quite get it together and walked out the door 10 minutes late.

In the stifling mandapam, or wedding hall, none of the 300 guests pays much attention to the activity on the dais. Instead they visit with each other or roam about, trying to find a breeze or an effective ceiling fan. Every time I’m about to complain about the heat, I need only look up on stage, where the couple is planted on the floor, dripping with sweat, in front of a smoky fire. The 26-year-old bride sits stiffly in her nine-yard sari and heavy gold jewelry. My brother and I bring water to our cousin, whispering promises of an ice-cold Kingfisher Lager as soon as possible.

I have yet to see the bride and groom look at each other.

The rest of the morning is a Sanskrit litany performed by the priests. They pour ghee onto the small fire that burns at the center of the ceremony, as gifts are exchanged, fruit blessed, and children and fertility prayed for. Neither bride nor groom seems to have a clue what to do. My cousin has not been a practicing Hindu, and his bride works in a call center answering our 1-800 help calls during our QuickBooks crises. They lean their bodies toward the priests, listening carefully to their instructions and following their directions.

At certain moments, the lights for the video camera illuminate the stage, refracting off the smoke, and we all focus our attention on the couple. My cousin leads his bride across the stage by the big toe of her intricately henna-decorated foot. They walk around the fire seven times, making a promise with each round: to cherish one another, to be lifelong friends, to provide for their children. After another female cousin and I help the groom fasten a string around the bride’s neck, they have officially “tied the knot,” but the ceremony continues for another two hours. We the guests drift upstairs for lunch.

After an afternoon siesta, we return to the mandapam to eat again, an evening meal made up of no fewer than 24 separate dishes, an onslaught of tastes and textures, including rice and curries, sambar and rasam, pappadams and pooris, chutneys and pickles. Men ladle hefty portions from stainless steel buckets onto fresh green banana leaves, and we eat, scooping up the feast with our fingers. The sounds from the traditional musical performance drown out our attempts at conversation, and cousins wait impatiently for it to end so they can put on Tamil and Hindi film music. Once the musical coup is complete, we all dance in a bouncing clump of sweaty bodies, silk saris saturated, shirts stuck to men’s torsos like wet paper. Every part of my body is sweating, my eyelids, my ears, my fingernails.

My other cousins call on me to use my authority as an elder female cousin to drag our new family member onto the dance floor, but the bride begs me, “Please, Meera. Nooooo.” I am torn between respecting her self-consciousness and wanting her to feel welcome among these strangers. Earlier in the day, she sat on her father’s lap and relinquished her family’s lineage to become the 83rd immediate family member of my grandfather’s clan. There is no turning back. Tonight she will sleep in my cousin’s bed, under the same roof as his parents and grandmother, a stone’s throw from the sea. It is the start of a new life. I pull her into the circle, and we dance.

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