Neil and Sanam Chhabria begin a new life together by following four centuries of tradition with a three day celebration
by Mark McDermott
Sanam and Neil Chhabria were married August 20 in a traditional Hindu wedding, or Viva Neil and Sanam Chhabria begin a new life together by following four centuries of tradition with a three day celebrationha, that was the culmination of three days of elaborate rituals. Festivities began Thursday with an eight-hour ceremony in which the bride was painted with intricate henna designs at the groom’s family home in Palos Verdes Estates and ended Saturday with an exuberantly colorful wedding at the Hyatt Regency Resort in Huntington Beach.
But the newlywed’s love story began, with considerably less grandeur, on December 18, 2010, at Big Mike’s Philly Steaks & Subs sandwich shop in Hermosa Beach.
Neil, the son of local real estate icon Raju Chhabria and his wife Philomina, had invited a friend from his college days at the University of San Diego, Diva, to a hip hop show he was promoting at a nearby Hermosa nightclub. His brother, Anand, was performing. His friend brought a few cousins, including Sanam, the daughter of Atul and Malvika Madhav of El Segundo. Diva called to meet before the show, and Neil asked the girls to join him at Big Mike’s, famed for its massive Philly cheesesteak sandwiches.
Neil was in mid-cheesesteak when they arrived. He was immediately struck by Sanam.
“I wasn’t expecting to really meet anyone, but Diva was bringing these two cousins and she called me. ‘Okay, cool, whatever — meet me at Big Mike’s so I can walk you into the show and you don’t have to pay cover,’” he recalled. “They show up at Big Mike’s and I’m chowing down on a sandwich. Then I saw Sanam, and got a chance to take in her beauty….It’s really corny and I feel weird saying it…They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, and I looked at her eyes and I could tell she’s a really good person. I don’t know how else to explain it other than I liked what I saw, and not just physically.”
Sanam, a lifelong vegetarian, was less impressed.
“I’m like, ‘Ew, what are you eating?’” Sanam remembered. “I remember him just going at it, and the sandwich was just so much meat. I was thinking, ‘Oh god, this guy is like a serious carnivore.’”
“She was repulsed,” Neil remembered.
At the show, Neil kept his distance. “I think he wanted to see what kind of girl I was, what I was about,” Sanam said.
But he couldn’t help but watch Sanam, who was 20 at the time, a student in radiologic science at Cal State Northridge. He liked everything about the way she carried herself.
“I pretty much fell in love that night,” he said.
The next morning, Sanam checked her Facebook to find a friend request from Neil. She accepted, and they chatted online; he asked for her phone number and she gave it to him. She realized from the outset his interest was romantic.
“When someone sends you a smiley face, you know what it’s about,” she said.
She thought Neil was a nice guy, but Sanam was so focused on school that she wasn’t even considering dating. In fact, she’d never dated; her priority was education and she didn’t want distractions. But Neil sweetly persisted, gently asking her out again and again over the next few months.
The couple’s mutual love for the Los Angeles Lakers helped pave the way. He’d asked her out for Valentine’s Day, but she told him she thought it was a silly holiday. Instead, a few days later that February, Sanam agreed to go with Neil and a group of mutual friends to festivities surrounding the NBA All Star Game, which was at the Staples Center that year. Over the course of the evening, she realized how much she really liked Neil.
“I think he’s a very confident person, which I think is a really attractive trait,” she said. “He’s like that just generally in life, very confident, and that’s actually one of my faults. I’m not always confident in myself, and Neil is, always, and very positive. That’s why so many of his friends love him so much — he’s a very hard worker, always working, so he doesn’t have a lot of free time, so when he does come around his friends get very excited. That’s how you can tell he’s a good person.”
After that night, the couple never looked back. They dated for the next five years, and it became increasingly clear they’d spend their lives together. Neil is a self-declared non-romantic. Sanam accepted this, but had one condition.
“I am notorious for not being romantic,” he said. “Her one request was, ‘I know you are not romantic, but when you propose to me, you better be romantic.’ I was like, ‘Oh, man, I thought I was off the hook with her.’”
Neil’s family goes to Hawaii every other year for his mother’s birthday. Sanam had never been able to go, because her parents, being very traditional, were not comfortable with her staying overnight. But last year, Neil had already asked Sanam’s father for his daughter’s hand and won approval. Her father also agreed to allow her to go to Hawaii, where Neil intended to propose. But as the trip approached, he realized he wanted to do it locally, so both families could be near. So Neil planned a pre-trip dinner out on August 16. His mother had designed a new fire pit at their home in PVE, and Neil had it fully decked out — everything was covered in rose petals and candlelit and a photographer was hidden nearby. He said he wanted to drop by his parents’ home before dinner. They arrived, and nobody was home; pretending to look for his family, Neil led Sanam to the back yard. As she approached the fire pit, he dropped to one knee.
“I was so blown away about the way he did it,” she said. “The amount of flowers…I mean, I was just very stunned. I think the first thing I said was, ‘Oh my God, you are romantic.’ He’s like, ‘Thank you!’”
A year of planning led up to one of the grandest weddings the Peninsula has witnessed. Festivities began two weeks before the date with a dance party at A Spice Affair in Beverly Hills for Neil and Sanam and their friends.
“It was an opportunity for Sanam and I to let loose and have a good time before we had to smarten up and host 600 people,” Neil said.
Official festivities began the Thursday morning before the wedding, with special prayer ceremonies hosted seperately by each family. That night, the Chhabrias hosted a traditional gathering, called a Mehndi, in which an artist draws designs on the bride-to-be’s skin. Sanam thought this would take a few hours. As it turned out, it began at 1:30 p.m. and wasn’t completed until after 8 p.m. But as she sat, at first impatiently, she began to see the beauty of the occasion, and its purpose. She couldn’t move her arms, so everybody, including her groom, had to wait on her hand and foot the entire time.
“It was cool to be queen for a day,” she said.
“She looked like Jasmine from Aladdin that night,” Neil said. “It was one of the most incredible things you’ve ever seen.”
Friday night a traditional Hindu dance was held at the Norris Pavilion in Rolling Hills Estates.
“That was a traditional Indian folk dance, and since I’m Gujarati — It’s called a Garba, from Gujarat state, where my people are from,” Sanam said. “It was really fun. A lot of people had a good time.”
Sanam and her mother and cousins, in fact, went back to Gujarat last year on a shopping trip for wedding clothes for themselves and other members of the wedding party. “We went with four empty suitcases and came back with them all full,” she said.
The wedding occurred Saturday at 10 a.m. and the reception was at 6 p.m. in the ballroom of the Huntington Beach Hyatt. The wedding was performed in Sanskrit by Mahesh Bhatt, a renowned Hindu wedding priest, who took care to explain much of the ritual in a way that made it understandable to everyone present.
“Our priest was a hit,” Sanam said. “He was so refreshing. He had so much wisdom.”
The ceremony included 15 stages, beginning with Barat Swagat, in which Neil and his family were welcomed to the ceremony site by Sanam’s family, and ending hours later with Kanya Viday, when the bride and groom left their “Mandap,” the four pillar canopy at center stage (the pillars represent the four parents). There were nine bridesmaids and nine groomsmen. The bride’s brothers, Sahaj and Shakeel, gave her away.
Neil, months later, is still dazzled by the experience, and by his new wife.
“Number one, she is smart,” Neil said. “She’s got a good head on her shoulders and works hard. She handles her business and she’s somebody I can have an intelligent conversation with. I just enjoy being around her. And besides being smart and capable, she is the most loyal person in my life.”
The future is bright for the young couple. Neil, 29, works with his father at their newly established Chhabria Real Estate Company, which was founded this year after the family spent the last two decades with Shorewood Realty. Sanam, 26, works for UCLA Health as a radiologic technologist. She’s also obtaining her real estate licence and helps with the family business on weekends.
“I like my career but we can’t predict the future. I’m a part of Neil’s family now,” she said. “Of course we’ll do what’s best for the family.”
In fact, an essential underlying theme the couple’s wedding rituals emphasized that the marriage was about more than the union of Neil and Sanam, but also between their families for generations to come.
Sanam said one day recently her parents, who have felt somewhat bittersweet emotions since the wedding, stopped by her and her husband’s home in Hermosa Beach.
“They were very happy, of course, but a bit sad,” Sanam said. “I’m leaving home, of course. When they came over the other day, they told me, ‘When you have kids, you’ll understand.’ This is a big accomplishment, as a parent — to have your kid finish education, earn a degree, get a good career, then get married. You’ve accomplished your job as a parent.”
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