Until quite recently weddings were arranged, organised and celebrated by men and women and had very little to do with the government of the day, let alone the Reserve Bank of India. But from November 8, when the State and the central bank entered familial lives due to the government’s decision to demonetise high-value notes overnight, and impose restrictions on the withdrawal and exchange of cash at banks and Automated Teller Machines, things have changed.

Given that demonetisation, and the Reserve Bank of India’s notifications – one of which belatedly permitted people with weddings in the family to bypass the cash withdrawal restrictions after submitting a long list of documents and receipts – has virtually made weddings a State-run enterprise, it is tempting to conclude that the situation that those with weddings in the family find themselves in is the revenge of, or an unwitting lapse by (which Baba Ramdev has also rather unwittingly referred to), bachelors in politics and banking against those headed for holy matrimony.

Indeed, the Reserve Bank of India guidelines are so bizarre that we cannot dismiss the idea that there seems to an acute desire to tie up the personal with the political here.

My writer mother Shivani’s life spanned eight decades of the 20th century, with only her last three years spilling over into the new millennium. Among her lesser-known works is Hey Dattatreya!, a pithy collection of essays on fast disappearing and rare folk and classical literature, folk songs, intimate vignettes of festivals, and family and public rituals that had held together a multi-ethnic society for centuries in the remote Kumaon hills that our family is from.

Tucked away in a chapter towards the end of the book, she had put down a master list, almost a century old if not more, of ceremonies and wedding rituals that had come down to her from family elders. It is a list that mostly steps over theological beliefs but concentrates on the ethical and humane aspects of the beginning that a young couple makes to lead an inclusive social life. The society the list highlights is one where people – young and old, men and women – must live in close proximity with others with similar hard lives, where dowry is unacceptable, but sharing means caring. There are no explicit instructions for families, but it is clear enough that at each wedding each member of both families must be cared for and made to feel special. And all rituals must highlight the qualities of sanctity, permanence and trust that a marital relationship must be based on.

Wedding cash

In 2016, when prices have jumped manifold and the rupee has been devalued consistently, as one scans the list of directives that accompany the grudgingly granted withdrawal of Rs 2.5 lakhs for weddings by the State, it is not difficult to gauge the humiliation and embarrassment this restriction can cause to tradition-bound small town and rural families.

According to the government’s fast-changing rules, among other things, it is mandatory for parents of brides and bridegrooms who want to withdraw Rs 2.5 lakhs from their accounts to submit at their banks details of cash payments exceeding Rs 10,000 along with signed receipts from each recipient as well as a signed declaration that the recipient does not have a bank account.

Take a look at the decades-old minimalist list of traditional ritual expenses, and of relatives who are considered to be recipients of cash at weddings as listed rather haphazardly but graphically by my mother. Need one say more?

Bride’s side

On eve of marriage, cash and kind for poorvang karma (ritual deed) and Ganesh pooja rituals

To be placed before Ganesha: 50 paise and modak (or 50 paise in lieu of modak); priest’s assistant (usually an understudy) 50 paise.

Tea, lunch and sweets for all in attendance.

Matrika pooja (propitiating the local goddesses)

Neg (ritual cash) to be given to bridegroom’s (married and unmarried) sisters present at the ritual – between Rs 2 and Rs 10 per sister as per the saamarthya (circumstances) of parents.

To the bride’s father’s sister (bua), a sum of Rs 10 for presenting a hand-drawn painting of the three great goddesses to be worshipped.

Rs 5 each and a pair of clothes for the barber’s wife (nayan) who massages and paints the bride’s toes and later takes her to the water source to bid farewell to her father’s home and its sustaining deities; also to the washerman’s wife (dhoban) who puts sindoor in the parting of the young bride’s hair and blesses her to be sada suhagin (a blessing that her husband will not die before her).

Aap dev (ancestor worship ritual)

A pot each of rice and whole black gram (urad dal), ghee, spices, sweets, a chowki (a low wooden stool, for ancestors’ spirits to dine off), milk, curds, five kinds of dry fruits, radish with green leaves, fresh ginger root, dates, dhoti and cash gift of Rs 10 for the family priest; Rs 5 for his assistant.

Punya vachan (blessings recited to the bride and her folks) and kalash sthapan (sanctifying a pot of water)

Cash for four priests Rs 20; Rs 2 for the assistant priest; kalash sthapan fee Rs 2.

Sundry cash to be dispensed at the time of the wedding rituals

50 paise to be knotted at the edge of the bridal scarf along with a turmeric root and a betel nut; for all the sisters (including cousins) who get the groom ready, Rs 10 or Rs 5 per sister, as per parental circumstances. A similar amount for the older brother’s wife (bhabhi), who applies kohl to the eyes of the groom to ward off the evil eye.

Rs 15 or Rs 20, as per circumstances, to the bridegroom’s mother as token price of mother’s milk.

Bridegroom’s side

Lagnadaan (giving the bride’s hand in marriage)

Rs 5 or Rs 10 for the priest; Rs 5 for shakhochchar (reciting the bridegroom’s genealogy as he is received by the bride’s family).

For the priests – one on each side. Each side shall pay their own priest

Dhoti, kurta, topi, shoes (not leather), coat and shawl and Rs 5 for purna patra (the ritual of filling a holy pot with blessed liquids or grain by the priest), Rs 10 as dakshina (offering), Rs 11 for sacrificial holy fire, Rs 2 for performing the chaturthi karma ritual to ward off evil ones.

Bridegroom’s aunt

The bridegroom’s father’s sister shall provide a hand-drawn painting of the three goddesses (Jyunti) and receive a sari by way of thanks from his mother.

Things the bridegroom’s party must carry for the bride and her family

Two coconuts, five betel leaves, eight betel nuts, camphor, batasha, five kinds of dry fruits, five kinds of sweets, mustard seeds, a large copper pot for lighting a ghee lamp through the night, paddy, a lamp stand, one and a quarter metre of red cloth for the goddesses, two yards of yellow cloth to tie the scarves of the couple together, laddoos, honey and a chowki.

Cash for the priest conducting main wedding ritual

Amount to be given at the greeting point after washing his feet Rs 10 or Rs 20. Jyunti (goddess) worship: Rs 2; lagnadaan: Rs 2; anchal granthi (tying the knot): Rs2; manaamooni (the bride and groom feeding each other a sweet): Rs 5; the fire ritual: Rs 10.

This is by no means a well-balanced list. The clothes, the jewellery, band baja (there’s no mare for grooms in the hills), palanquin and the ritual send-off money handed discreetly to the not-so-well-off clan members accompanied by those mock remonstrations – “This is too much brother! No, no, this is only for the baal Gopaal [children]” – as well as the cash handed to those who travelled long distances for the occasion, are all missing here.

These amounts can be, and often are, increased or curtailed as per the circumstances of the families. However, the fact remains that expensive or austere, family weddings provide a wonderful and vulnerable point in the lives of two families. Not the least because each of them is unique and full of secrets. This is inevitable because what begins as a gentle or urgent tying of the knot shall go on in time to create the society of the future. A society where all must fight for elbow room, hoard and pretend and improvise and ultimately sustain the democratic idea of all-for-one and one-for-all even as caste and clan and gender rivalries continue.

And this is what makes the State’s throttling of access to their own painfully but joyously hoarded savings in banks, and the requirement to submit duly vetted lists of each cash payment, seem so beastly and unfair.

Modern concerns

Many readers may point out that my mother’s list has some reprehensible gender and caste overtones. All one can say today, a century after when this list was perhaps first crafted, is that first, this is all about values of an older generation in which the men had, according to the usual definitions, a more decisive role. But look closer and we begin to see a woman’s hand in the insertion of daughters and daughters-in-law as prime operators in every ritual. Secondly, balance is not everything in a marriage. Trust, human love and fellow feeling are. A more egalitarian society today can perhaps produce a better nuanced and rounded off list of rituals with a substantial hike in payments to the marginalised.

But a steady and neutral re-reading of this list makes one shudder at the thought: what if the Reserve Bank of India and the Government of India took this task (as well) upon themselves and came out with a master list of payments and registered forms to be filled and signed for these rituals? After all, they have tasted blood haven’t they?