APRIL 22, 2011 11:04AM

Ghee on a Saturday Evening

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From the archives, 2003.

It was Saturday evening, two days after the blackout that shut down most of the Northeastern quadrant of the country. I decided to take a walk down by the waterfront. For me, living in the Hamilton Park area of Jersey City, the waterfront means the west bank of the Hudson River at the point where the Holland Tunnel crosses into lower Manhattan, an area given over to a concrete walkway, buildings of various sorts, some deserted tracts of scrubby land, and the Newport Marina. I first set foot in this area some five or six years ago when I went to meet Bill Doyle, an old friend and, at that time, a business associate in a small software company. He was sailing his boat up from Baltimore and docking it at the marina.

At that time there were perhaps three or four high-rise apartments at Newport – as the area was called – two office towers, a parking garage, a fitness club, several shops, and, a couple of hundred-yards back from the shore, the Newport Mall, with a Sears, a J.C. Penny, a Sterns (now Macys), a multiplex theatre, food court, and assorted shops, stands, and kiosks. Now the number of apartment towers had more than doubled, there were five or six office buildings, a half dozen restaurants – American, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Indian – several bars, two hotels, more parking, a florist, a large drug store, and a (private) primary school will be opening in the Fall. One of my colleagues, Xiaohui Wang, from the (now defunct) software company lives in one of those apartment towers. He tells me that his young son, Eric, can recite 20 ancient Chinese poems.  

There were, as one might expect, a lot of people out that evening; there usually is. Judging from the languages they speak and their appearances, most of them are not native to America. The majority of them appear to be from Asia while some appear to be of African descent. There are some, but not many in overall proportion, Caucasians of European heritage.

Most of the people are relatively young. Many are walking with infants of toddlers. All are relaxed.

The evening is a pleasant one. But I cannot forget the recent blackout – though it had been quite mild in this area – nor could I allow myself to completely forget the political climate. In fact, the immediate context, being surrounded by Third World professionals living in America, kept that climate bitterly in mind. How will the increasing xenophobia affect their lives? They came to work, to raise families, indeed, I suspect many came for freedom. Xiaohui is one of the students who had demonstrated at Tiananmen Square. He came to this country to study, then to work.  Now he and his wife have two children.

As I continue strolling along the shore, with all these people, such thoughts haunt me. The buildings are, at best, nondescript modern towers, bland, faceless, sterile. The people too are thoroughly modern, but they are not nondescript nor, on the evidence, were they sterile. To the contrary, they dressed in clothes of many lands and were happily fertile. Those fearful thoughts were in stark contrast to these people and to the New York skyline, one of the Great Wonders of The Modern World, across the river.

At some point I angled inland from the shore, cutting across the north edge of the apartment complex to Washington Avenue. I then turned left and headed south along the very broad sidewalk in front of the office towers. There, a football field away, was a curious sight, a unexpected bright patch. It was outside one of those new bars that had been settled in the area. People had gathered, most of them seated, behind a low railing demarcating an area of the sidewalk for use of the bar’s patrons.  At the far end of this area I saw a small white canopy with decorative gold filigree on its supporting pillars. The seated people were well dressed, the men in suits, the women in elegant evening wear.

As I drew near, it became clear that this was a wedding. I concluded that it must be a Hindu ceremony, though I have never seen one, or even read a description of one. The (veiled) bride and groom wore Indian clothing, maroon for him, gold-trimmed crimson for her, both in silk. The officiating priest wore Indian dress as well – white slacks and a maroon closed-neck jacket – as did many others. The couple stood in front of two ornate chairs placed at the back of the canopy. There were flowers and flower petals scattered about and several people wore garlands of flowers around their necks. That seemed Hindu, as did the small altar – a rectangular tray a few inches off the ground – near the front of the canopy. A small flame flickered in a dish on the altar, and the priest would occasionally throw some powder on the flame – incense perhaps? But the tip-off is a jar near the altar. Its label said “ghee.” Ghee is a clarified butter that is often used as an offering in Hindu ceremonies, that much I remembered having read.

As one faced the altar from the audience the bride stood behind the altar and to the right, while the groom was to the left. The priest was to the right as well.  He said quite a bit, most of it in a tongue foreign to me, though he did speak a few words in English. These words sounded like wedding vows, suggesting that one or both of the married couple may not have been a native speaker of . . . whatever language was being used for the ceremony. At times the priest’s voice would rise in pitch and his speech would transform into chant.

The bride appeared to be of Indian descent, so I assumed that the English was for the groom’s benefit. He appeared to be of African descent. Thus the older couple to the right of the altar must have been his parents while the older couple to the left of the altar must have been her parents. It is possible, of course, that both families were native to, say, Trinidad. Most of the people in attendance appeared to be of Indian or African descent – which means that, at this time in history, they could have originated anywhere in the world outside of the arctic zones – though Caucasians of European descent were there in some measure as well.

The ceremony was in progress when I happened upon it. Perhaps the ceremony had been going on for a minute, five minutes, or an hour. I do not know. I stayed until the ceremony seemed complete – a period of perhaps twenty minutes or so.  During that time the couple walked around the altar, while remaining under the canopy, on four different occasions. The bride led the way on the first two circuits while the groom led on the last two circuits. Each was wearing a shawl and their shawls were tied together.  

A few others – the street was otherwise deserted – wandered along during the ceremony and, like me, observed from outside the railing. “What’s going on?” asked a Chinese woman. “I think it’s a wedding. See, there’s the bride and groom.” “Oh,” she remarked, “they’re not from around here.” Who is? I thought.  Perhaps some of the patrons of the Hamilton Park Ale house, the bar on the ground floor of the building where I live. There were pictures of high school sports teams and old pols on the wall, even a Kennedy or two.

At some point I noticed that the bride’s mother – in a red sari and yellow shawl, trimmed in gold (the groom’s mother wore a closely fitted lavender dress embroidered all-over with a loose net of gold filigree) – began passing flower petals to everyone in attendance. When the ceremony concluded, they all tossed the petals at the married couple, who then sat down in the two chairs, the bride to the right, the groom to the left – though, from the couple’s point of view, the bride was to the left, the groom to the right. As this was happening the bride’s mother began distributing small cakes; they came in small boxes with a cellophane window on the top and probably a dozen to the box. People would eat the cakes and, as they came forward to congratulate the couple, would feed cakes to them as well.

It was an odd sight, this small Hindu wedding party in colorful silk, flowers, ghee, and incense, nestled to one side of a small canyon framed by tall nondescript buildings in muted shades of metal, glass, concrete, and stone. On the shore of the Hudson River. To the west of New York City.

I do not know if there was music and dancing afterward. It was time for me to head home.

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family, neighborhood, mood, wedding

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Thanks for the lovely journey
You're welcome, ER.