A couple that got married with a unique ceremony in Kolkata speak to Aseem Chhabra about the moving experience.
Aretha Delight Davis and Angelo Elpithoforos Volandes met as freshmen at Harvard University in 1989. Their friendship blossomed into romance, but the relationship went through ups and downs -- including a long breakup. Eventually in 2008, Volandes, now a doctor and medical ethicist who specialises in end-of-life decision-making at Harvard, proposed to Davis.
They had a civil ceremony in Easton, Massachusetts. But for the religious wedding the two flew to Kolkata for a ceremony in the chapel at a girls' orphanage run by the Philanthropic Society of the Orthodox Church. They were married by Reverend Andrew P K Mondal on December 13, 2009. Davis got 95 girls from the orphanage, aged between 3 and 18, as her bridesmaids.
"We always wanted the wedding to be a testament to the type of couple we are," Volandes recently said from his home in Newton, a Boston suburb. "We have spent a good deal of our professional life helping those who are less fortunate."
Volandes is the son of Greek immigrants and when he was young bussed tables for his father's diner. Davis' parents came from Guyana. After finishing her undergraduate studies from Harvard, Davis did nutrition research at a Guyanese orphanage. And Volandes studied healing traditions in Greece and Egypt. "For us, as children of immigrants we recognize that we could have been those little girls, had our parents not emigrated to the US," Volandes added. "So we had a very special bond with them."
In 2001, Volandes's mother and brother had volunteered at the orphanage. And in 2008 he and Davis took a trip to India and spent a brief time mingling with the girls there.
"When we went last year, we went, in part, to check it out, as a place which we would want to return to," said Davis, a fourth year medical student at Harvard. She earlier got a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. "We wanted to make sure that the girls were properly treated, and were receiving the level of care and love that we would provide to our children as well."
"The girls were not just caring and loving towards us, but also towards each other," she added. "You really feel the presence of the higher power when you are around these kids. They put things in context for you, and remind you of what is really important."
"I think one thing that struck us last year was how remarkably normal the girls were," Volandes said. "Here you have girls who are orphans and come from circumstances of really abject poverty and yet, when we met them they were remarkably normal, no different than the girls in the neighborhood where we live, where kids have resources and the family environment."
A few months after their first trip to India, the two contacted the orphanage and indicated their desire to get married in the chapel. The chapel had witnessed one more wedding in the past and the staff of the orphanage made all the arrangements. Volandes and Davis landed in Delhi December 9. The wedding party was small. The bride and bridegroom's mothers accompanied them, as did Volandes's brother. But there were 95 young girls waiting for Davis in Kolkata.
"The day before we got married the girls did the henna on my hands," Davis said. "And the day of the wedding they were much better at putting the makeup than I was. I never wear makeup. I think they really enjoyed doing that, being part of the ceremony and we all giggled together and when some boys came into the room, we shooed them away."
Volandes wore a suit at the wedding, but Davis was dressed in a brown lehenga that she had bought in Los Angeles nearly 10 years ago. "When I saw that dress in a sari shop, I said that's what I'm getting married in. At that point I had no idea that I would get married in India, but it all seemed quite appropriate."
"During the ceremony I looked to my right and there was my husband-to-be and then I looked to my left and I made eye contact with the girls," Davis added. "Some of the little ones were falling asleep, which is completely understandable, but I would wink at them and they would smile back. The wedding was a new beginning for us and we are sharing the moment with them."
After the church ceremony, the bride and bridegroom exchanged garlands -- adding an Indian touch to their wedding. The wedding party then moved to the cafeteria at the orphanage, where the girls performed Indian dances to Rabindranath Tagore's songs. This was followed by a special meal that Davis and Volandes had arranged for. The meal consisted of Indian dishes -- Chilly Chicken, cauliflower and other vegetable curries and a couple of Greek dishes, including cod. They actually found a Greek chef in Kolkata! "Can you believe there is one?" Volandes asked, laughing. The president of the philanthropic society ordered a cake from a local hotel. For the next three nights Davis and Volandes stayed in a dormitory in the orphanage. "We stayed with the girls and we would wake up, have breakfast and play with them," Davis said. Then the two travelled to Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Udaipur for their honeymoon. Their family joined them on the trip.
Going to Kolkata was not just about the wedding. The couple has bigger plans for the girls of the orphanage. "Our one option would have been to have a large expensive wedding in New York City, where unfortunately too many people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars," Volandes said. "Instead, we made a donation to the orphanage, as did all of our friends and family, in lieu of wedding gifts. Our goal is to raise enough funds to provide college education to each of the 95 girls. An article about the special wedding in The New York Times resulted in additional donations from anonymous sources," Volandes added.
"I am secretly planning and scheming my return trip already," Davis said a few days after Christmas. "We intend going back soon, every year and half. We are going to keep in touch with the staff and the sister there. We are very interested in the girls' education."
"It is true to who we are," she added. "And we want to raise our children with the sense of service -- a love for people and recognition to use the talent they have been given to help others. So this will be hopefully our legacy to our children and something they will take to heart and pass on to their children."
Image: Aretha Delight Davis and Angelo Elpithoforos Volandes at the Philanthropic Society of the Orthodox Church