In the Netflix adaptation of Montgomery’s classic, “Anne of Green Gables,” the plain, red-haired girl tells a friend, “I know I want to be a bride in a white dress, I’m just not sure I want to be a wife.”

An entirely understandable dilemma, and one that is bankrupting Pakistanis.

If every culture has one overwhelming personality trait, Pakistan is a colony of belligerently hospitable families. People pride themselves on their generosity, their skill for pleasing, for guest-tending. Food and tea is always on offer, no matter the size of the house.

This reminds me of a story. During the 2014 Punjab floods, I travelled to affected villages in the outskirts of Lahore. There I met with a group of women gathered around their destroyed homes, their drowned livestock lying dead in the fields behind us. As I interviewed them, one woman signaled to a small boy who took off at full speed and returned twenty minutes later with a tray teetering in his hands. There were two green bottles of 7Up placed gingerly upon them. An expensive refreshment for people who had lost everything the day before.

In my moments of sentimentality, I like to believe that it is in this magnanimous spirit that Pakistanis fore-mostly host. They have an incredible, almost insatiable thirst to fulfill social niceties. But at what point do the economics of it all become too much? When does it transform from a cultural highpoint into a foray of debt and desperation? The answer across the board is simple: weddings. Weddings are killing people.

In the village of Baral in Azad Kashmir, a retired army cook just married off his 18 year old daughter. He makes Rs. 20,000 a month working in a kitchen in Lahore. The wedding has cost him Rs. 350,000. There was wooden furniture to be made for the bride’s new home, her clothes, jewellery, gifts for the in-laws and a dinner that kept the family honor intact. He still owes Rs. 50,000 to the caterers and over Rs. 170,000 to the furniture shop.

In the bigger cities, prices are almost double for caterers despite the one dish law in Punjab. According to the Punjab Revenue Authority, it is collecting Rs. 20 million a month from Lahore’s wedding halls alone. For a bit of chicken korma and too-chewy naan, that is a fortune.

For the sake of clarity, if we pin down the impossibly-difficult-to-define middle class as within the income brackets of Rs.30,000- 35,000 a month, the average senior police constable fits the bill. Earning close to Rs. 35,000 a month, getting a son or daughter married in a way that is socially acceptable will cost him roughly Rs. 500,000 in Lahore or Islamabad. There is no way to do this without taking big loans from landowners and richer relatives, and then paying those loans off in cash and kind for years to come.

The wedding whirlpool isn’t just hurting middle and low-income families. A retired government officer lounging in his Cantt home in Lahore says his daughter’s wedding quite near bankrupted him. “How do you produce that much cash if you don’t already have liquidity? I had to sell off my land. You know how much just one wedding dress cost me? Rs. 1.2 million. But that’s the rate these days, that’s what you have to do to keep up.”

And there’s a great deal of keeping up to do for the rich. High-end fashion brands are charging on average upwards of Rs.600,000 for a single wedding dress, worn primarily for a 120 minute time period between the hours of 8 and 10pm. And people are buying. It is now a multi-trillion ruppee wedding industry in Pakistan, with every painstaking flowery detail put in place by event planners, decorators, florists who appear with notepad in hand and tell you lilac hydrangeas will be perfect for the afternoon wedding of your dreams. There is the cost of generators, of the guy who hangs upside down to light up a tree branch, the nice chairs that cost Rs.350 per chair to rent out for the night.

“Have a career, buy your own white dress and wear it whenever you want,” Anne’s friend tells her in the Netflix series and sets Anne thinking. If one is to go through all that expense just to be able to wear a pretty wedding dress, that’s one way to minimize the cost of a fairytale.

Of course, weddings aren’t going away. They’re here to stay, as much a part of the social fabric of Pakistan now as religion. But it’s a good time for the rich and educated to be influencers of culture. Social media makes the wealthy both aspirational and accessible to kids in middle income households with second hand smartphones and 3G, watching high society weddings on their Instagram feeds. What was once taking place in private behind 20 foot walls is now out in the open for all to see. How far does this go to influence social acceptability? Does it push people to host weddings beyond their means? This is difficult to say for certain, but it’s hard to believe that such an influx of information coming from the wedding marquees of Gulberg could keep dreams static in the streets of Gulshan-e- Ravi.

 

The writer is a member of staff.