I was in the middle of the fleet of bicycle-riding teachers one morning when Madhu, who worked in the kindergarten, confided to me that she was engaged to one of the pastor’s brothers. Her fiancé, who was on an evangelism trip in the mountains, was due home again any day. Madhu was the tiniest teacher of all. She seemed barely bigger than her four-year-old students. She had large, serious eyes and her tiny frame was always wrapped in the same brown sari.
“Congratulations!” I squealed, sliding through a muddy rut and lurching sideways, “When are you getting married?”
“I don’t know,” she said softly, “the pastor decides.” The pastor, as the oldest man in the family, was entitled to make all the important decisions for his little brothers. “I want to get married before you leave.” She glanced timidly at me. “Maybe you could ask him to set our wedding date.”
“Well,” I glanced uncomfortably at my handlebars, “I suppose I could talk to him, but I am sure he has a lot of other things to consider about the wedding, not just whether I am in town.”
“Oh no,” she said brightly, “if he thinks the American professional will come to our wedding, he will make it soon.”
“I see” I peddled on in silence, plowing through cow dung and mud puddles, thinking how disappointed the pastor would be if he ever saw his American professional in her own element, if he knew she was really an insignificant student who was by no means at the top of her doctoral classes, whose “professionalism” was the subject of much justified skepticism among the faculty.
“If we get married soon,” Madhu continued, “maybe your sisters will be here too.”
I remembered with a burst of happiness that Dr. Hamilton’s two youngest daughters were expected to join me in Surkhet any day. They had been with the medical team, hiking through the Himalayas bringing supplies and eternal hope to small mountain villages. Amelia, was in college, studying education, and Esther was just finishing high school and thinking of becoming a teacher. When the team from Flagstaff returned to the States, they were going to stay on, spending a few weeks with me in Surkhet, taking my little seminars and helping me in the school.
Because of the protests and civil unrest, Amelia and Esther arrived three days late, escorted by Silas’ brother, who stayed in Surkhet for 45 minutes, just long enough to eat a plate of dhal-bat. He turned right around and headed back to Kathmandu, a journey which, on a good day, takes fifteen hours.
I was greatly encouraged by those girls. They were, in many ways, more missionary-minded than myself; they were stronger when it came to bugs, more durable when it came to physical hardships, and more understanding when it came to deep-seated cultural differences. They did not mind that Raju called them “the sisters of lesser importance” because of the age difference between us. No matter how vehemently I protested, I would always be a first-born son to him.
Amelia and Esther joined me in the little cell upstairs, and participated in an informal reenactment of the Ten Plagues of Egypt. The plague of darkness crept over the village when the power went out for a two whole days. There were plagues of monsoon rains and hail, and a plague of heat. The scariest of all was a plague of flying beetles that swooped through the window and swarmed around our unprotected lightbulb. It is hard to sleep with beetles crawling through one’s sheets. I woke up with one smashed to the front of my pajamas. The following day ants began devouring the beetles, making efficient little trails across my bed as they carried off bits of beetle carcasses. The plague of boils took the form of mosquito bites. Amelia and Esther never complained; they squished bugs, scratched mosquito bites, and endured the stomach flu cheerfully and with inspiring grace.
Madhu was eager for all of us to be at her wedding, so I timidly approached the pastor to ask on her behalf.
“And who told you they were engaged?’ asked the pastor sternly.
“Well, Madhu mentioned it, and it seemed like they would like to get married soon. And your brother has just returned, right, I mean, you can’t get married without the groom, right? Hehe, But he is here, so…why wait, eh?”
The pastor looked hard into my face. “Well,” he said at length, “it is not so simple as that. But, they can get married. They can get married next week on one condition: you and your sisters must undertake to make Madhu as beautiful as an American bride.”
I was elated, “Oh pastor, she is already as beautiful as any bride—it is a bride’s countenance that makes her beautiful. But don’t you worry; we will put our very best effort into getting her ready.”
The pastor began puttering around on his motor bike inviting the community to the wedding. The wedding invitations were a bag of nuts, which the pastor dipped into and offered at each home. If the neighbors ate the nuts in his presence, they were accepting his invitation to the wedding. If they thanked him but set the nuts aside, they were declining.
Amelia, Esther, and I joined whole-heartedly in the effort to prepare for Madhu’s big day. We grabbed Shreana and peddled her around the tiny village as our translator while we doggedly sought out hair spray, a curling iron, a make-up case, bobby-pins, and moisturizer. Brides in rural Nepal wear saris, and can choose any color of sari they like, except red. Red is reserved for women who are already married. Madhu wore a sari in bubble gum pink, covered with embroidered flowers. She also wore a gold nose ring, and a heavy, beaded pink veil. Amelia and Esther had the foresight to have saris tailor-made for them by Silas’ sister while they were still in Kathmandu, but a sari for the sister of greatest importance had to be scrounged up from among friends and relatives. In the end it was Sova who donated a bright pink sari that fit well enough for me to wear. I was taller and clumsier than Sova, but with the help of three other teachers, I was pinned and wrapped and folded into that garment, to the intense delight of every resident of the village. The famous American professionals were sporting traditional dress.
As the sister of greatest importance, the pastor told me, I was to be the bridesmaid. I had almost as much professional experience in the work of being a bridesmaid as I had in being a teacher. I had already presided in eleven weddings. But I had never been in a wedding in Nepal before, I had never even attended one, and I was not entirely sure what my duties would be. Madhu told me not to worry; she would coach me through. As we made our way toward the tiny church, I felt like my legs were tied together. The many layers of sari restricted my movement. I waddled awkwardly beside the bride. The front steps were strewn with almost a hundred pairs of shoes, our first indication of the size of the crowd inside. I paused at the open door.
“Pssst! Madhu,” I whispered, “what should I do?” Madhu did not move or speak. I glanced over at her. I could just make out her face behind her heavy veil. She looked absolutely petrified. She seemed to have been super-glued to the floor. “Do we go in together?” I whispered, “or do I go in first? Or do you go in first? Or your parents? I don’t know if the pastor is in there yet, or the groom…” Madhu’s body, stiff and stony, made no response. “Um, hello? You still with me?” There was silence.
Shreana, confident, motherly, fourteen-year-old Shreana stepped pertly up beside us. “Come on!” she said commandingly. “It is time to go in. Ann, you hold these.” She handed me two heavy leis made of fragrant green grass.
I grappled with them. “Well, yes, we go in,” I mumbled, “but the question is who goes in? Doesn’t the bride go in with her father or someone? Isn’t the oldest male relative important?” Shreana sighed impatiently, shook her head in a gesture that said, “do I have to do everything around here?” and walked the bride up the aisle herself—that is, Shreana shoved the bride’s stiff form across the floor, weaving her through the crowd of guests seated cross-legged on the floor, and up to the wooden podium. I waddled along behind, clutching my leis and trying not to step on anyone.
My first glimpse of the groom told me that he was much younger than his brother, the pastor, and that he was almost as incapacitated as the bride. He stood at the front of the room, twisting his hands together and staring miserably at the ceiling. Shreana shoved his beautiful bride, as stiff as a corpse, beside him. The pastor smiled benignly.
“Beloved friends!” he said slowly and with great magnanimity, “we are together today to celebrate the Christian union of these two believers in God. And we are honored today to have three American professionals with us! But still,” he hurried, “we will have the rest of the wedding in Nepali.” Those were the last words I understood.
I could not understand what people were saying, but I understood what was happening. These were not children being forced to marry by a patriarchal social system. These were adults who had believed in Jesus, been set free, and prayerfully chosen one another. They were nervous, but they were full of committed love, and theirs was the first Jesus-centered wedding the village had ever seen. I understood the solemn exchange of vows, which has become merely a ritual in many Western countries, but which startled and amazed the guests gathered in that crowded church. They had never heard a man seriously promise to love his wife for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. They had never heard of forsaking all others and cleaving only to one.
The room was full of sober, curious faces. The pastor told the story of Jesus in words the guests easily understood. He told them about the great, Triune God who had loved them and sent Himself to earth, and about the Son who had been the sacrifice for their sins and whose death had purchased eternal life for anyone who is willing to receive it. The pastor nodded at me and I deftly tied a grassy lei around each of the bride and groom’s necks. The pastor joined their hands, and pronounced them husband and wife.
That evening, after a long celebration, the bride and groom went home to the pastor’s house. They would spend their wedding night in the same room I had stayed in when I first arrived in Surkhet, the room with the spiders. They would not have a honeymoon. They would wake up the next morning on a bed made of cinder blocks and wooden planks, and Madhu would begin to learn her way around her new home, helping the pastor’s wife in the kitchen. Amelia, Esther, and I went back to Raju’s house to figure out how to get out of our saris, and to pack. We would have to travel back to Kathmandu alone.