A Scientist and a Minister Walk Into a Furniture Store
When we ask newlyweds to think back on what they wanted most for their big day — and we’ve interviewed hundreds of them over the years — the most common response is “For it not to feel like a wedding!” But in a monsoon of flower crowns and macaron towers, how do you see beyond the usual tropes and actually pull off a non-cookie-cutter affair? For the answer, we decided to interrogate the cool couples whose weddings we would actually want to steal — right down to the tiger-shaped cake toppers.
Vikram Paralkar is a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and a researcher of leukemia, but he’s also an author of fiction (including this month’s highly anticipated novel, Night Theater). Nate Walker is the executive director of 1791 Delegates, a consortium of legal scholars who teach non-lawyers about the First Amendment, but he’s also a Unitarian Universalist minister. They celebrated their union — and their ties to Hindu and Quaker traditions — in an antique furniture store and a French restaurant at one of the highest points of Philadelphia this past December.
Vikram: It all began in December 2009. I had a solo in the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Choir.
Nate: A colleague of mine saw the choir with his husband and watched Vikram sing “Moonlight in Vermont” and went up to him afterward. They actually took me out to dinner, and during the meal they said, “We want to set you up with this guy, Vikram.”
Vikram: There was immediate chemistry, unlike anything I’d had with anyone before. For some reason I thought if I found someone who’s a scientist, that would be a match for me — I have a fairly dubious opinion about religion of all kinds, and Nate is a practicing Unitarian Universalist minister. At the end of the day it came down to something like, “Do you have the same sense of humor? Can you make each other laugh? Do you have the same sense of kindness?” We talked on and off about the possibility of getting married for a couple of years, but neither of us urgently made a move once gay marriage became legal.
Nate: In 2019 I saw an opportunity to propose. Vikram’s parents live in Mumbai but were going to be in London with his sister, so I flew there to get their blessing. His sister and her husband prepped them, because they weren’t necessarily used to this custom. For me, this is how my dad proposed to my mom. I knew I wanted to do that.
Vikram: I have been out to my parents and my sister since 2006, and they had met Nate and love Nate. But I wasn’t out to my extended family. I go to India two to three weeks a year, and I’d pretend I hadn’t met the right person yet, or that I was too busy with work. It’s one thing to conceal a boyfriend. It’s another to conceal a husband.
Nate: I told his parents how we wanted to include them in this big decision, because we love and respect them — and wanted to protect them. I explained that we’d do a quiet, discrete ceremony, and that nothing on social media would cause them harm. They had Champagne ready, and four hours’ worth of Indian food ready for lunch; we just ate and ate and ate and stayed up until midnight talking.
Vikram: When Nate got back from London, he insisted on going on a picnic in the park outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Constitution was signed. Nate is a First Amendment expert. While proposing to me, he said to me, “We’re doing this at a place where this right was first made possible, but we were not included. Now we are a part of the Constitution. In front of Independence Hall.”
Nate: I gave him a ring from Tiffany’s, a simple, handsome, platinum ring ($2,400).
Vikram: I said to Nate, it should just be him and me at City Hall with our friend Kim Kunda, who’s a photographer ($2,500).
Nate: My mom was like, “But I have to be at my son’s wedding.” And of course, of course, she was right.
Vikram: We decided to have Nate’s parents, my cousin, and her family who live in Connecticut, and a very small number of childhood friends. It was 17 of us. (We decided we would have another event with my parents and sister in the U.K. in June 2020.)
Nate: We knew we wanted our childhood friends to sign the license — we did a self-uniting license, from the Quaker tradition. From Pennsylvania’s history, they had this option of a self-uniting license, where couples could sign their license without any clergy or without anyone in the government between them. Just two witnesses. You know me, who studies church and state, I wanted to say, “This is between Vikram and me, not between religion or the state.”
Vikram: Nate did not want to wear Western attire, so we decided to wear Indian traditional clothes, sherwani. Sherwani are worn during formal occasions, like a tuxedo. We went to a store, Manyavar, in New Jersey ($450 each). Indians can be conservative and I did not want a scene where they weren’t going to serve a gay client.
Nate: We said, let’s not make a fuss. About 17 times, they asked, “Is this for a wedding?” Yeah, it’s for a wedding. “So whose wedding is it for?” Yeah, it’s for a wedding. At the end, as we’re checking out, one of the clerks was a little more direct: “So is this for the two of you?” We said yes.
Vikram: She smiled and said, “Congratulations! That’s really wonderful.” It made me realize that perhaps I am not charitable enough to the idea that, at the end of the day, people just accept you for who you are. You don’t constantly need to keep justifying yourself.
Nate: That was the pattern, over and over, us realizing that people accepted us — from the limo driver to our own families. The fact that Vikram’s cousin was like, “Of course I’ll be there and my parents who are in their eighties or nineties want to come.” Oh my God, this is what it means to live in 2020.
Vikram: We wanted to have an Indian-looking wedding, and while thinking of venues we were struck by this furniture store, Material Culture, which is really like an antique warehouse. It has a large number of pieces from the Middle East and from India, and they have an event space where you can pick any of their furniture to decorate with. They had some statues of Buddha, and we replaced them with Lord Ganesh, because I’m Hindu.
Nate: It’s an ornate, extraordinary space, like a museum. The format was a circle of chairs in this colorful setting, and we set out envelopes on each chair that contained readings. So we went around the circle and everyone shared in the ritual. We opened with the words of Albert Einstein, because Vikram is a physician-scientist and Einstein has a quote about relativity in the power of love.
Vikram: We had a poem by one of the great poets of India, Rabindranath Tagore. We picked a reading from Justice Kennedy’s judgment making gay marriage legal. We picked a Walt Whitman poem.
Nate: My parents shared these very, very touching testimonies about their love for us and their admiration of our relationship.
Vikram: Then Nate and I had written vows. As any author will tell you, there’s a constant fear of cliche, that you’ll just say something that has already been said by a million people. How do you express the same sentiment about love that a million people have already expressed, but say it in a way that is fresh and original? I thought it was a beautiful challenge, as an author myself. Nate has officiated over a hundred weddings as a part of his work, so he’s an expert. He choreographed it all, choosing which person should read what, including entry and exit cues. It was a seamless and lovely ceremony.
Nate: Then his cousin gave me a Hindu blessing of Ganesh, the elephant, who is the remover of obstacles — that in our lives we have no obstacles. Then Vikram’s cousin, who is in her 80s, and her husband, in his 90s, gave the Arti blessing. They came forward with candles, prepared the plates, and placed red dots on our foreheads with ash chalk. Our friend David gave some closing words about liberty and invited us to celebrate our first moment with a kiss.
Vikram: From the furniture store, we all got into a limo (Trophy Limousine Worldwide, $1,200), and then we went to Jean-Georges in Center City.
Nate: It just opened in August 2019, and it’s in the highest point in Philadelphia, at the top of the Comcast Building. It’s an extraordinary place.
Vikram: You go through a glass elevator to get to the top, and because this was a rainy night, we were going up into the clouds. You walk into a beautiful glass-ceilinged atrium, and we sat in the lounge area for drinks ($400) and then they took us to a private room ($750) for dinner. There were beautiful flowers and tableware. They’d arranged everything.
Nate: The food was French and fancy.
Vikram: It was prix fixe, with three options for starters, three options for appetizers, three options for the main course, and two options for dessert ($3,600). Since we’d already had speeches and readings at the wedding itself, we didn’t have any at the dinner.
Nate: We had a beautiful meal and shared stories, just laughed. It was a dream. Overall, we spent under $16,000 on what became the best day of my life.
Vikram: There were two cakes, chocolate and strawberry, and we didn’t do a cake-cutting, but it was our friend David’s birthday and so one of the cakes was his birthday cake and we sang “Happy Birthday.”
Nate: This was a Sunday evening and people were working the next day and Vikram’s family were driving back, so there was no afterparty. The limo took us home. We asked people not to share images on social media. It gave his family some oxygen to breathe into this, talk to all the people they wanted to talk to. And as Vikram said, we’re planning a reception with his family in London in June where my brother and his family are all coming — a big meeting of all the families.
Vikram: The wedding was an impetus for my mother to take a step, and tell her sisters that I’m gay, tell her cousins. Then we decided it was time to be public, and we put photos on social media. We had an outpouring of affection from extended family and friends — and I’ve gotten some beautiful messages from young men and women in India who said that seeing photos of me and Nate gave them hope, that one day they’ll have the ability to be truthful to their families, and live open lives with dignity. Of course it’s been great to assert my love for another person, but the fact that it could help another person, that hadn’t registered in my mind. That was really beautiful.