Yet another failed attempt at curbing wedding reception queues

For a long time now I’ve been obsessed about queues at Indian wedding receptions. The process at a reception is simple – you get to the hall, and immediately line up. Once you hit the head of the queue, you get to greet the newly wed couple, give them gifts and get photographed with them. Then you’re shown the way to the dining hall where you have dinner and put exit.

When I started my research into reception queues, my aim had been to save the guests at my own wedding the trouble of lining up for too long. As it happened, I’d failed to spot the bottleneck in time, and hence failed spectacularly. Over a few more weddings that I attended, I cracked the mystery, though – the main bottleneck was in the wedding video.

As I wrote a few months back:

… Then you hear the click of the photographer’s shutter, and start moving, and the videographer instructs you to stay. For he is taking a “panning shot” across the width of the stage. Some 30 seconds later, the videographer instructs you to move, and the bride and groom ask you to have dinner and show you the way off stage.

The embarrassing bit for the guests, in my opinion, is that having struck a photogenic pose for the photo, they are forced to hold this pose for the duration that the videographer pans. Considering that photogenic poses are seldom comfortable, this is an unpleasant process….

So when my sister-in-law got married a couple of days back, I thought it was time to finally put my research to good use, and save her guests the trouble of standing in line for too long. A couple of hours before the reception on Thursday, I went and had a quiet word with the videographer. I told him about how the panning shot held up queues, and so he should make it quick. After a little discussion, he agreed to use a wider angle for the shot, and cut down the time by half.

Around 8 pm, half an hour after the reception started, the queue wasn’t too long. I was secretly happy that my method was working, but there was the possibility that the short queue was down to low arrival rate rather than high process rate. Fifteen minutes later, the queue had built up through the length of the hall, and would remain so for another half hour. My efforts had come down to nought.

It was when I went up on stage to introduce some of my relatives to the bride (I was the cut-vertex in the network between the married couple and these guests, so my presence was required) that I realised what the problem was. The videographer I’d spoken to had been doing his job, panning quickly, but he wasn’t the only one.

There is always a level of mistrust between the families of the couple at any Indian wedding, and this is mainly down to them not knowing each other well. So there is redundancy built in. Usually, each side brings its own priest. The two halves of the couple collect their gifts separately. And most annoyingly for me, each side arranges for its own photographer and videographer.

So the problem was that while our videographer had been panning quickly as instructed, the videographer engaged by my now brother-in-law-in-law was in no such hurry, and was taking his own time to plan. And since I hadn’t engaged him, it wasn’t possible for me to tell him to hurry up.

And so some guests had to endure a long wait in the queue. If you were one of those, my apologies to you – for I didn’t anticipate the double-videographer problem which would hold up the queue. And my apologies once again to those who had to wait in queue at my wedding as well!

Wedding videos and optimising reception queue lengths

In the past I’ve dissed wedding videos, claiming that they don’t add any value (as no one ever watches them) and only serve to slow down the queues during receptions. While I maintain that the way they are currently shot still hold up reception queues, I’ve revised my opinion about their general usefulness.

So my in-laws are preparing for the wedding of their second daughter (my sister-in-law), and in order to “revise” what needs to be done, my wife suggested we watch our wedding video. So since last night we’ve been watching our wedding videos, and I must say it’s been quite useful.

For not only are wedding videos inherently entertaining, they also capture nuances of the wedding that still photographs cannot capture. It was pertinent, for example, to observe the order in which my relatives were garlanded as we were being welcomed into the wedding ceremony.

We also got to observe how bad the crowd was immediately after the wedding when people rushed to wish us and hand over their gifts (bad but not that bad). And rather embarrassingly for me, the video showed my failed attempt at cutting the ceremonial ribbon to enter the wedding hall (I have astigmatism which my contact lenses don’t correct, which affects my perception of depth). The video also allowed me to note that the scissor to cut the ribbon was handed to me by a bureaucrat aunt, someone who I guess is well used to handing over scissors in that fashion!

Having watched the reception part of the video, though, I continue to maintain that video recordings hold up the reception procedure, and result in inordinately long queues. Moreover, the way videos are currently shot cause severe embarrassment and discomfort for the guests.

For those that are unfamiliar with south indian wedding receptions, this is what happens – you join a (typically long and wide) queue, and when you get to the head of the queue, walk on stage to greet the couple and hand over your gift. Then you all line up for the photo. So far so good.

Then you hear the click of the photographer’s shutter, and start moving, and the videographer instructs you to stay. For he is taking a “panning shot” across the width of the stage. Some 30 seconds later, the videographer instructs you to move, and the bride and groom ask you to have dinner and show you the way off stage.

The embarrassing bit for the guests, in my opinion, is that having struck a photogenic pose for the photo, they are forced to hold this pose for the duration that the videographer pans. Considering that photogenic poses are seldom comfortable, this is an unpleasant process. Moreover, guests aren’t aware when exactly the videographer is covering them, so there’s a chance they might be caught on camera making awkward body movements (possibly due to the discomfort).

Thus, I propose that rather than having the video camera straight on (next to the principal photographer) and getting a panning shot taken, the videographer should position himself on one side of the stage (the opposite side from which the guests are entering), and take a profile view of the guests wishing the bride.

This way, they capture on camera guests in more natural gestures, and the “best” front view would have anyway been captured by the still photographer. The guests can then be asked to move on as soon as the photographer’s shutter clicks (a more natural exit moment), and the time spent by each group of guests on stage could come down by more than 50% (thanks to panning time saved). And this can result in a drastic reduction in expected waiting time for a guest!

While I’d like to implement this procedure at my sister-in-law’s wedding (so what if I thoroughly failed to keep the queue length under control at my own wedding? At least I should use my learnings elsewhere!), the problem would be in finding videographers who are willing to reposition themselves.

In some sense, the videographer standing straight on, and guests waiting for a long time is a kind of a Nash equilibrium, and videographers won’t move to side on unless there’s sufficient demand from hosts to cut queue lengths at their weddings! And since moving videographers to side on is not an intuitive solution, the demand for this move from hosts will also be small.

So I guess unless we can find a videographer who is willing to experiment (not too easy), we will be stuck with front-on videos, uncomfortable guests in front of the camera, and impatient guests in the line!

More on religion

According to the Hindu calendar today is three years since my mother passed away. If I were religious, or if I were to bow to pressures from religious relatives, I would have performed a “shraadhha/tithi” today. Instead, I’m home, leading a rather normal life. In spite of it being a Sunday today, I’m actually working (I coordinate schedules with my wife, and for some reason she chose to take off this Friday and go to work on Sunday, so I followed). I’ve eaten breakfast and a very normal lunch.

Every year, twice a year (it’s remarkable that my parents’ death anniversaries have a phase difference of about six months), I begin to get requests from relatives – mostly uncles and aunts but also from the wife – that I need to “do my religious duties” and perform the shraadhhas. The last few occasions, I complied. However, as I’ve explained in this post, I’ve gotten disgusted with the general quality of priests around and decided that it’s not worth my while to enrich that community just because someone tells me it might help my parents attain salvation in their afterlives.

Since I flatly refused to do the shraadhha this time, the last few weeks have had more than their fair share of religious discussions compared to earlier. I’ve been asked how I know that priests mis-pronounce. When I say that my limited knowledge of Sanskrit is enough to identify the mispronunciations, they suggest that I try different priests. I then talk about the number of different priests I’ve encountered over various Shraadhhas over the last few years, and about how not one has really said the mantras well (except for the family priest who conducts weddings, etc. but shraadhhas are too small-time for him).

Then comes the clinching argument from my relatives – that even otherwise irreligious people like my father did their ancestors’ shraaddhas without fail. And it is at that time that I start questioning the whole purpose of the Shraadhha and trying to ascribe a believable reason for it. I argue that if the intention is to remember the deceased, I don’t need one day a year to do that since my parents come in my dreams practically every other day. The intention might have been to get all the descendants of the deceased together, but then I’m the only descendant of my parents and I’m “together with myself” all the time.

Then they try and convince me to perform what I can classify as “lesser evils” – such as giving raw rice and vegetables to a priest. I’ve done that once before and considered it to be such an unpleasant experience that I don’t want to do it again. And then I question how it will help. And the argument goes on.

So for today, finally I submitted that I’ll put food out for the crows before I eat, since in the Sanatana Dharma crows are supposed to represent your ancestors. After much haggling, this seemed like an acceptable compromise.

Later in the evening yesterday, my wife and I had a long conversation about what it is to be a Brahmin and why Brahmins are traditionally vegetarian.

Sometimes, when I don’t think enough I think it is ok to admit to the whims and fancies of other people just so that I don’t piss them off. But then when I do think about it, I find it ridiculous that saying a certain set of songs with certain pronunciation and intonation will have some bearing on my life. I find it incredible that feeding some random so-called Brahmins will help provide peace to my deceased parents.

Growing up with an ultra-religious mother and an atheist father, I never really “got” religion, I must say. In fact, the first time when I thought about religion was when I read about parts of America not believing in evolution (this was some 4 years back) – it was incredible that some people were so deluded that they didn’t accept something so fundamental. It was around the same time that I read The God Delusion (not a great book I must say – could’ve been written in < 20 pages), and the beliefs of the devout, as it described, shocked me.

It was around this time that I realized that some (nay, most) people actually take it seriously that if you pray for something it increases your chances of getting it. It shocked me to believe that some people believe that chanting a certain set of songs (mantras are just that, in Vedic language) will improve your life without any other effort on your part. It shocked me that people actually believe in afterlife and rebirth. By this time, my father had passed away, and this wasn’t a topic about which I could have a rational discussion with my mother, so I let it be.

Some temples (of various religions) make me feel calm and peaceful, and I love visiting them. There are temples which look so good I think they need to be preserved, and I make reasonably generous offerings there. There are festivals that I consider fun, and I celebrate them enthusiastically. We had a fairly large doll display at home this Navaratri. We burst fireworks and ate lots of sweets this Diwali. Last year we hosted a Christmas party. With some friends, I raided the kebap stalls in Fraser Town during Ramzan. We set up a little mandap at home for Ganesh Chaturthi, and displayed my collection of Ganesh idols.

But the concept of before-lives and after-lives and rebirth? That of prayers sans effort making a difference? That you need to feed some so-called Brahmins who can’t recite mantras for nuts just so that your parents attain peace in the afterlife? I find it all absolutely ridiculous.

I didn’t put food out for crows – I find no reason to believe that my mother has transformed into one of them, and that that particular crow will come looking for food today. I haven’t worn back my sacred thread as promised yesterday. I think my cook had put onion and garlic in my lunch today. And life goes on..

When will people come?

So I was trying to estimate how many of my invitees will attend my wedding ceremony and how many will attend the reception (the former is at noon and the latter the same evening). While a large number of people have kindly RSVPd, not too many have really mentioned which event they’ll turn up for. So it’s my responsibility to somehow try and figure out how many will come when, so that the information can be appropriately relayed to the cooks.

Personally, if I’m attending the wedding of someone I don’t know too well, or a wedding I’m attending more out of obligation than out of the desire to be there, I prefer to go to the reception. It’s so much quicker – queue up, gift, wish, thulp, collect coconut, leave. The wedding leads to too much waiting, insufficient networking opportunity, having to wait for a seat in a “batch” for lunch, and the works.

Again, I hope that most people who are coming for my wedding are coming more because they want to attend rather than looking at it as an obligation. Actually I was thinking of a wedding invite as being an option – it gives you the option to attend the wedding, but you pay for it with the “cost” of the obligation to attend. In fact, over the last few days, I’ve felt extremely guilty while inviting people whose weddings I bunked (for one reason or another).

That digression aside, what upsets estimates for my wedding is that it’s on a Sunday, when more people will be inclined to come in the morning rather than at night. For one, they have the day off. Secondly, usually people like to spend Sunday evening at home, ironing clothes and the like, preparing for the grueling work week ahead.

And the fact that the venue is on the northern side of Bangalore, while most of my invitees live in the south (the fiancee and most of her invitees are in the north) makes me want to increase my “lunch” estimate and decrease the dinner estimate. And then the fact that I’m getting married on a seemingly “auspicious” day, when there are lots of functions all around, makes me wonder if I should discount the total attendance also.

After the wedding is over, I’m willing to anonymize and share the spreadsheet I’ve used for my estimates. Ok you might think I’m a geek but what I’ve done is to put an “attendance” probability for each event for each attendee, and then taken expected value to get my estimates. As I write this, I think I should take standard deviation also, and assume the law of large numbers (yes I’ve invited a large number of potential guests) in order to provide my in-laws (who are organizing the whole event) 95% confidence intervals for number of guests..

Anyways, I just hope that my (and my in-laws’) estimates are right and we won’t end up erring in either direction (shortage of food, or wastage) by too much in either direction. And the costs of the two (localized costs – as hosts, our costs of food shortage (in terms of reputation, etc.) is much higher than cost of wastage; though from global sustainability perspective it’s probably the other way round) have led our solution of the Newsboy Problem to be conservative in estimate.

And yesterday I was suggesting to my in-laws that after the wedding lunch, we can revise the estimates for dinner to M – X where M is the total number of guests we expect (counting double for people who we expect to attend both lunch and dinner) and X is the number of people who had lunch. It’s important, I think, to use as much information as possible in making decisions.