6th June 2016. I’m on a Bhutan Airways flight to attend Waheeda Rehman’s first born Sohail Rekhy’s wedding to Dechhen Pelden in Paro, Bhutan. In the seat ahead is veteran star Helen Khan, and beside me is actor Asha Parekh, both friends of Rehman for decades. As we take off, we discover that most of the passengers on board are headed for the same destination and they include Rehman’s maternal and marital families and her children’s friends.
At Paro Airport, Kashvi, Waheeda Rehman’s daughter has come to receive us and escorts us to Hotel Le Meridian where we are given a customary welcome. Waheeda Rehman is waiting for us in the lobby and looks visibly excited.
“It is the first wedding in the family and I want to enjoy every minute” she tells us. Her enthusiasm is infectious and everyone is in a mood for celebration.
At 7 pm the skyline is bright and I go fro a stroll in the hotel garden accompanied by Asha Parekh. There is a nip in the air and we are about to join other guests in the hotel terrace when it suddenly begins to rain and everyone rushes inside. We are told that the Bhutan climate is unpredictable and never to leave without a shawl and an umbrella.
Dinner is at the hotel and the staff informs us that their hotel has come alive because of the Indian wedding. As if on cue, bridegroom Sohail joins our table and is besieged by his friends and cousins to join them for a party. Sohail pleads for them to let him go to sleep.
Waheeda Rehman watches them fondly and says, “In the olden days, we fussed over the bride and the bridegroom, today they are their own wedding planners. As a result, they hardly enjoy their special moment.”
Rehman is all praise for her daughter-in-law and proud of her son’s choice. “She is considerate and efficient and well versed with our customs. When we realized that the wedding date coincided with Ramzan, I told my relatives to let go off rozas for one year and they agreed, but Dechhen was particular that morning sehri and evening iftaar should be available to all those observing the fast and supervised the details personally. It is very thoughtful of her and I appreciate it.”
7th June 2016. The wedding ceremony is at a temple on top of a hill attended by just the two families, Rehmans and Peldens, after which they drive to Hotel Gangtey Palace where the guests have assembled. The garden is dressed in colourful tents and every table has a decorative plate comprising sweets, snacks, betel leaves and nuts. At a little distance, the monks are getting ready for further ceremonies. There is a strike of a gong followed by chorus chanting and then everybody moves inside the palace.
Inside we are served a flourescent bowl in which are placed the symbols of the universe - fruits, some cereal, grains, followed by Bhutan’s traditional Butter Tea, reserved for auspicious occasions. A white silk scarf is given to all of us to offer as blessings to the newlyweds.
Lunch is a combination of regal Bhutanese and exotic Indian cuisine served with wine, live band and local dance. Waheeda Rehman watches the sparkling ambience and feels nostalgic.
“When I got married to Shashi Rekhy five decades ago, our guest list including the house staff was 50. My son Sohail has thankfully expanded his list to 70. Ours was an inter-community marriage and our son masha Allah has an international wedding. Life is so beautiful and full of surprises. Would you believe that a decade ago, while shooting for Aparna Sen’s 15 Park Avenue, I stayed in this very hotel? At that time, I had never imagined that I was going to host a wedding at the same place one day. Fascinating, isn’t it? ”
Suddenly the music stops and the dancers on floor take a back seat. Sameena, Waheeda Rehman’s niece comes and whispers something into her ear and she gets up to straighten her sari and put her hair back. Then lowering her voice she informs us that Her Majesty, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, Queen Mother of Bhutan, has arrived to bless the newlyweds.
When I introduce you to the royal family, it is customary to bow and greet them.Waheeda Rehman
Moments later, we are escorted to the other wing of the palace and introduced to the Queen and her children, Prince Dasho Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck and Princess Sonam Dechhen.
The first thing that strikes you about them is their majestic posture and impeccable etiquette. In the beginning everyone is cautious and conscious, but slowly, as the Queen gets comfortable, she drops her guard and discusses movies animatedly.
Grown up in West Bengal and educated in Darjeeling, she is well acquainted with Indian languages and cinema. Princess Sonam, seated beside me, shares that her mother and she watched Bajirao Mastani last night and enjoyed it.
Over lunch we discover that Queen Mother is also an author of two books – Rainbow & Clouds and Treasures of the Thunder Dragon, and hosts an annual literature festival titled Mountain Echoes. “I love to do different and interesting things,” she says.
It is nice to know she is human after all.
8th June 2016. A barbecue party has been organized at Hotel Zhiwaling, which is the pride of Bhutan in terms of architecture and magnificence. White tents with colourful motifs flutter in the breeze surrounded by cypress trees dressed in blue fairy lights. In a corner, a bonfire is lit for those who feel cold and beside it is a live band playing vintage numbers.
Helen Khan is in a super mood and surprises everyone by getting on to the dance floor. The night is young and the mood is sensational.
9th June 2016. It is time to get back home and Waheeda Rehman is in the lobby to bid all the guests goodbye. She has a surprise for us. The Queen has sent autographed copies of her book for Helen, Asha Parekh and me.
As I drive to the airport, I think of all the destination weddings I have attended. But this was an ethereal experience because the land is so pure and the people so simple.
I’m not surprised that Bhutan is rated the happiest country in the world, because leaving Paro was like a dream coming to an end.
(Bhawana Somaaya has been writing on cinema for 30 years and is the author of 12 books. You can read her blog here and follow her on Twitter: @bhawanasomaaya)