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April 16, 2012

A tale of two weddings

CENTERVILLE — Growing up, Priyanka Pankhury Batra, 30, loved the world of vintage American style. But she was born in India, and she wondered what would happen when she got married. Would she marry an Indian guy? Would she have an Indian wedding?

When the time came, she found a way to have the best of both worlds: an American wedding, which she planned, and an Indian wedding, planned by her parents, Narendra Batra, a Centerville surgeon, and Rajni Batra, a Centerville pediatrician.

On Aug. 6, 2011, Pankhury, who graduated from Centerville High School in 1999, married Chris Leary, 35, at the Foundry in Long Island City, Queens, N.Y. About 100 guests attended, a majority of them Chris’ relatives from Massachusetts. A handful of the Batras’ relatives attended, including Narendra’s sister, who lives in Portland, Ore. Only two relatives could travel from India for the New York wedding.

“The American wedding was kind of like my baby,” Pankhury said. “I planned the whole thing, I designed the invites, I designed a lot of stuff that was in the wedding. … It was sort of a fancy ’50s vintage-inspired affair.”

The Indian wedding was another story. “I wasn’t allowed to get involved. My parents — it was their thing,” she said.

Pankhury’s parents said it was important to them to celebrate the occasion with their extended family in India.

“Most of our relatives are there, and my parents and Rajni’s dad,” Narendra said. “We just wanted to share this happiness with our close relatives and get the blessing from them.”

At the American wedding, the mutual friend who introduced Pankhury and Chris to each other five years ago did the officiating. By contrast, the Indian wedding was a traditional Hindu affair. The ceremony was in Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language in which the Rig Veda, a Hindu scripture, is written.

“It was really interesting,” Pankhury said. “We had a cool priest who translated everything he was talking about into English and told us what to do and explained what different things meant.”

Another difference was that the American ceremony was all of 15 minutes, with vows written by the couple, while the ceremonies associated with the Indian wedding lasted for two days.

Rajni, Pankhury’s mother, said the Indian wedding was on Nov. 22, 2011, because the date was auspicious. Pandits, or Hindu priests, coordinate the bride’s and groom’s birth dates with planetary influences and offer the family a few auspicious dates to choose from.

Pankhury and her parents flew to India about a week before the wedding. When they got there, they still had to buy a traditional wedding outfit, which is in three pieces, a skirt (lehnga), a top (choli) and a long veil. Pankhury looked at about 100 outfits before choosing a fuschia ensemble embroidered with Swarovski crystals that weighed more than 40 pounds.

The groom and Nikhil Batra, 23, the bride’s brother, traveled together from New York closer to the wedding. The family had only a day to find outfits for the two of them and Narendra. Luckily, they were all guys.

“It’s always easier to shop for guys,” Rajni said. “An hour later we had three guys all outfitted completely.”

It was Chris’ very first time in India.

“I didn’t know quite what to expect because I’d actually been to one Indian wedding before, but it wasn’t as elaborate and it wasn’t in India,” Chris said. “But I wasn’t nervous because I knew [her] family members would take care of me.”

Pankhury agreed.

“My relatives were really warm and welcoming,” she said. “They tried to teach him some Hindi, and every time he tried to speak, it would be all messed up.”

Chris said one of the best parts was seeing Pankhury in her Indian wedding dress.

“That was the coolest part for me, when she came back from her aunt’s house where she was getting ready,” he said. “She was incredibly beautiful.”

The first day of the Indian wedding was the henna ceremony. Pankhury had henna applied from her hands to her elbows and from her feet to her knees. It took the artist three hours to apply it, and another three hours for the henna to dry. During that time, she was spoonfed by the groom, her mother and her brother.

The second day started with a ceremony in which the mother’s side of the family placed bangles on the bride’s wrists. The bangles are meant to remind the bride of her family.

“This is a more somber ceremony where the girl is told this is the last day at her father’s house and she is now embarking on a journey to become a daughter-in-law,” Rajni said.

During the ceremony, Pankhury wore traditional Indian jewelry. The jewelry was especially important to her family because it belonged to Rajni’s mother, who died two years ago.

Chris said that at several points in the ceremony, a nominal amount of rupees was involved that symbolized good luck. He said he was at a bit of a cultural disadvantage when the ceremony turned to bargaining. When the bride’s female cousin stole his shoes, he was supposed to negotiate to get them back.

“She definitely won the negotiations,” he said.

Chris rode to the ceremony on a white horse, a tradition from the days when horses were the main means of transportation. Relatives walked in front of him dancing while music played until they came to the doorstep of the bride’s house — in this case the hotel where the Batras were staying. Because Chris’ family wasn’t there, surrogates from Pankhury’s family stepped in.

When Chris arrived at the doorstep, Pankhury was in an area where he could not see her but she could see him coming. Rajni, as the mother of the bride, greeted him and blessed him with a dab of saffron.

Having the wedding in the hotel drew a crowd, Rajni said. Groups of tourists from Japan and Norway were fascinated by the ceremony and stayed around to watch it.

“It was a very nice traditional wedding,” Rajni said. “The relatives were so overjoyed. … They had a very happy reunion. There wasn’t a single relative that didn’t come.”

Instead of throwing rice at the bride at the end, the bride threw rice at the guests, signifying that she was leaving her old life behind. Following Indian custom, guests caught the rice to plant in their gardens, where it will grow in the bride’s memory.

The Batras left India in 1983, Rajni said. After five years in England, they moved to Des Moines for Narendra’s residency in general surgery. After that, he got an offer in Centerville, and they moved here in 1997.

Pankhury earned a journalism degree from the University of Iowa in 2003 and a master’s degree of fine arts in design and technology from Parsons School of Design in New York in 2007. She formerly worked at Atlantic Records as a graphic designer and is now working as a freelance graphic designer and developing her own design business.

Chris is the director of the writing center at St. John’s University in Staten Island, teaches English and is pursuing his Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

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