A Suitable Match
By Irum Sarfaraz
Umair, Sameer and Azhar realized that their parents did not have the resources to send them outside the country for higher education. Although Umair planned to apply for a scholarship for a PhD abroad, that was still in the future. Sameer’s older brothers were working for good companies and there was a chance they could get him in too. They were anxiously awaiting his graduation so that he could also help pull the weight of the joint family a little. Azhar had two younger brothers and he had assured them that he would help his father with the expenses to afford good professional colleges for them. Ahmed was the only one of the four who no longer had to worry about making a future in Pakistan.
“When is Ahmed leaving for America?” asked Farida. She had brought out a fried egg and two toasts of bread with a cup of tea for him; his regular a la carte breakfast. She settled back on the takhat and started to sort through the bunch of fresh cilantro she had in a tray.
“Not right away,” replied Umair, focusing on his breakfast. “His wife has to apply for his immigration and it will probably take a year for him to leave.”
“Is he happy?” Farida was curious. “He’ll have to leave his family and move to America now…” Umair laughed at his mother’s simplicity.
“Of course he is happy Ammi,” he replied. “What kind of future do you think he has here? Why wouldn’t he go if he has the chance? At least he’ll be able to get somewhere in the US. He also plans to continue his studies along with a job.”
“It was good of his khala to consider him for her daughter,” Farida said. “I hope the girl is well mannered and good natured. I’ve heard that the Pakistani girls who are born and raised in the US are very snobbish and arrogant and don’t even want to look at the boys from Pakistan, let alone their parents.”
“I’m sure she is very nice Ammi. She’s from the same family as he is,” replied Umair.
“Has he married her just so that he could get to America?” Farida asked, looking at Umair a little closely. The question had lingered in her mind ever since she had heard about the wedding.
“Of course not, Ammi!” Umair was quite taken aback. “Ahmed would never do anything like that. A couple of boys in our cafeteria once teased him saying that he had married just for the green card and he got very angry. Said that was why he didn’t want to tell anyone that he was marrying a US citizen girl. He said he felt insulted when people thought that was the reason he was marrying her.”
Farida believed her son. She had not only met all three of Umair’s friends over the past years but also their families on festivals and other occasions. She and her husband Akram always felt reassured that Umair’s close friends were boys from families who were just as staunch in their values as they themselves were. Making sure their children were not in wrong company was a major bane of parents in Karachi and Farida and Akram were relieved that they didn’t have to worry about this with either one of their two children.
The cilantro was done and so was the breakfast. Farida prepared to get up.
“Don’t you wish you had a sister in America too Ammi?” Umair teased his mother. “Then I could have married her daughter and gone there too. Within a few years, I’d have you all with me.” Farida smiled
“You only get what is in your fate,” she replied in a serious tone. She knew he was pulling her leg. “Always believe in focusing on what you have rather than fret over what you don’t have.” Farida and Akram were both realists and they had injected the same realism in their children.
Although moving to a foreign country, especially the US, was a huge dream for many of the boys who went to the University with Umair, it had never been his. He was more preoccupied with how and where he was going to find a job after he had graduated. The next priority on the list was finding a good match for his younger sister. That was another major family project right around the corner.
“I was just joking Ammi,” he laughed. “I know that no Pakistani girl from the US would want to marry a guy belonging to the middle class background and neighborhood in Karachi.”
“What’s wrong with middle class and this neighborhood?” Farida sat down again in surprise, unable to comprehend that there was anything wrong with where they lived. “This is a respectable area with good people who care about each other and help each other when needed.”
Farida had gotten married when she was eighteen. She was a distant relative of Akram and had lived in an even simpler home in Hyderabad, a city 100 miles from Karachi. For her, the huge, bustling, cosmopolitan Karachi was as glamorous as New York could be for a country bumpkin from Nebraska. Her husband’s home was all she had seen and she found nothing wrong with either the house or the neighborhood.
“Ammi, the world is all about money and status now,” Umair explained patiently. He knew his mother’s simplicity and often sought to explain ‘the world’ to her. “A man’s respect and worth is measured by his money, home, cars and clothes. Simple people like us are considered nobodies.”
“I know that Umair,” Farida said, an amused look on her face. “Do you really think I am that naïve? I read the papers and I watch TV. What I’m telling you is that you should never think that there is anything ‘wrong’ with the way you live and where you live. Let others think whatever they wish. Don’t let them dictate how you feel about yourself.”
“Don’t worry Ammi,” Umair reassured her. “I don’t live in a fantasy world.”
Farida knew her son understood his social status well enough not to go around wishing for the stars. She was told by her close friends that a couple of women in their neighborhood were giving matrimonial ads in the papers for green card holder girls for their sons. To Farida, a marriage such as this constituted nothing but a business deal with a shaky foundation and could never guarantee a happy union. As Farida got up to leave, she realized full well that her conversation with her son was nothing but some light, post-Valima chat that neither Umair nor she was taking seriously.
Though Zahra had taken Mrs Ali’s number from Khalida, she remained skeptical about calling her. There was no dearth of negative stories regarding these rishta Anties. While many were known to charge astronomical prices just for registering the profile of the prospective candidate, others had the reputation of gossiping about their registered candidates for marriage freely within the community. They had all the information and not all were ethical enough to keep this information confidential. So, Zahra had good reason to ponder over what she should do. She finally decided there was no harm in at least talking to the lady. It was still better than signing her daughter up on an online Muslim marriage bureau. That idea was out of the question for her. So, she decided to bite the bullet and picked up the phone.
After the hellos and during the preliminaries of her chat with Mrs Ali, it turned out that the lady was actually an aunt of one of her cousin’s wife. This warmed up Zahra considerably towards the lady and she was encouraged to talk to her further. Mrs Ali told her she had started this matrimonial service just to keep herself occupied after her husband’s death. She lived with her son and daughter-in-law, both of whom worked during the day. Her three grandchildren were grown up and away at college. With so much time on hands, rather than watch TV all day she had decided to start her little service. She well understood the genuine concern of Pakistani immigrant parents in the US, especially when it came to finding good boys for their daughters. Word of mouth had spread like fire and people now called her from other states too to register their children, coincidentally, more girls than boys.
“All I need is a picture and details of your daughter so that I can put her in my file,” Mrs Ali sounded like an educated and reasonable lady. “All this is just for my own information in matching people up. I won’t send the picture or more than the necessary details to anyone else.”
“Anti how much do you charge for your help?” Zahra asked her tentatively. Mrs Ali laughed.
“Who told you I charged anything? I just do it to pass time. It is for a good social cause and among the best of deeds and I like to think I’ve become the bridge between two families.”
“I asked because usually people take a ‘registration’ fee and if they are successful in finding the right match, they charge more,” Zahra told her. “Frankly Anti, I’ve always felt hesitant about trusting people who charge money.”
“That is their decision and I cannot comment on that,” Anti was wise enough to stay on the topic on hand rather than gossip about other Rishta ladies. “Send me your daughter’s info and we’ll go from there.”
“How does this process work?” Zahra was curious.
“Let me clarify up-front that I do not take any responsibility for the ensuing discussions or background checks on the boys or girls,” Mrs Ali’s voice was firm. “If I think a boy is a good match for your daughter, I’ll give his mother your number and very brief info on your daughter and she’ll call you directly. My job is only introducing two parties to one another. How the two of you handle the rest of the process, exchanging pictures, meeting directly, background checks etc., is entirely up to you.”
Zahra was quite satisfied after talking to Mrs Ali. As soon as she hung up the phone, she emailed a couple of good pictures of Humna along with other details like her husband’s profession, their family, and Humna’s education to Anti. She then called Khalida to update her on this very pleasant development on their common problem.
“Are you sure this Anti is legit?” Khalida sounded just as skeptical as she herself had been before making the call. “I mean, after all these stories about the Rishta Antis you keep hearing, wouldn’t you think twice before getting in touch with them?”
“I did think twice before calling her and she’s legit alright,” Zahra reassured Khalida. “I also found out she’s a very distant relative too and she doesn’t charge money. I think you should send Saira’s information to her right away. You never know if Anti already has the type of boy you’re looking for.”
“When’re you sending Humna’s information?” Khalida still sounded dubious.
“I sent it as soon as I got off the phone with her,” Zahra replied a little smugly. She knew that would be Khalida’s next question. By that evening, Khalida had spoken to Mrs Ali and sent Saira’s information and picture too.
Over the next few days, Tahira got a call from both Khalida and Zahra advising her to get Myra registered with Mrs Ali too. Marriages didn’t happen overnight, they reasoned with her. No harm in waiting for a good match while Myra was still in school. None of their daughters were aiming for grad school immediately. The only thing left to do was to make sure they got married off and started settling down. They could continue their studies later if they wanted.
Jabeen had also been updated about this new successful Rishta Anti discovery. Her daughter was far too young to be registered for a potential match. But she got quite excited thinking about the possibility of marriages very soon in the homes of her best friends. Far from home and starved for the colors, festivities, dresses, the singing on the dhol,and mithai and traditional foods of Pakistani weddings, a wedding in the home of a close friend was indeed an occasion to look forward to.
When they next got together, Tahira’s enthusiasm was infectious as she excitedly started talking about dresses, events, decorations, and gifts for the groom and his family. The other three laughed at her for counting her chickens before they hatched. They had to find the groom before they could buy gifts for him, they teased her. But even as they made fun of her, inwardly they were no less enthusiastic about the possibility of finding good matches for their daughters very soon.
It was like they hadn’t found Mrs Ali but Aladdin’s lamp that they had already rubbed and were now waiting eagerly for a well-educated, handsome, Pakistani boy from a respectable family to materialize any day into their living rooms.
Umair, Sameer, Ahmed, and Azhar were together again after a short break since Ahmed had taken three weeks off for his wedding. His wife, Ruby, had just left for the US and he was back at the University for his final semester. His three close friends, along with a few of his classmates, were teasing him mercilessly, calling him every applicable name in the dictionary, rota-dhota (crying, whining) Romeo being the most common.
“Yaar, we’ll really miss you when you’re gone,” Sameer slapped him on the shoulder. They were in the cafeteria during their break.
“Well I’m not going anywhere for at least another year so enjoy my company while you can,” Ahmed said, putting on a lofty attitude.
“And who told you we enjoyed your company?” Azhar asked very seriously. “I also miss the stray dog in my street if I don’t see him one day. It’s not because I love him, it’s because I’m used to his snarling. It’s called force of habit.” Sameer and Umair snickered. Ahmed rolled his eyes.
“Seriously guys, sometimes I wish you could all come with me,” he said, a little soberly.
“Yes, we’d love to come along too but the thing is, we don’t have any khalas in the US who also happen to have daughters who are willing to marry us.” Sameer said with friendly sarcasm. They all laughed.
“Even if you had three khalas in the US and they had six daughters, I doubt even one would be willing to marry you!” Azhar hollered at his own joke. Sameer grabbed his neck playfully.
“Speak for yourself, ineligible bachelor kaheen ka!” he said.
“Choro yaar, life is not a bed of roses in the US either,” said Umair, a little seriously. “You think Ahmed’s life won’t be a struggle?”
“I admit it will be. But Ruby is a sensible and understanding person and it doesn’t look like I’ll have a very hard time adjusting with her,” said Ahmed. “My aunt hasn’t allowed her children to stray too far from the Pakistani culture even though they’ve been raised there. Plus, Ruby and I have good mental compatibility. My first priority will be to get a job when I get there. Later, I plan to start my MBA on the side.” Ahmed told them his plans.
“The good thing about the US is that you at least get some sort of return for all the effort you make,” said Sameer. “Unlike here where only the ones with hefty hands on their backs get anywhere. Others like us just have to believe in our stars.”
“Even if I had a khala or a chacha in the US, chances that their American born and raised daughters would be even willing to consider me is like a shot in the dark,” Azhar said realistically. “Very few girls from there want to marry boys from Pakistan.”
“I’m glad you admitted it yourself that even your own cousins wouldn’t want to marry you,” Sameer got his chance to get back at him.
“Shut up!” Azhar punched him playfully.
“On a serious note, you’re right Azhar,” Ahmed agreed. “When I first started to talk to Ruby, I was quite taken aback at her fear of Pakistani boys who marry just for green cards.”
“Really?” Sameer was surprised. “She actually asked you all these things?”
“Yes,” Ahmed nodded. “And I’m glad she did. It is best to address the sticky issues first and get them out of the way. Fact of the matter is, the only reason why we even started talking to assess each other was because we were cousins. Otherwise, I doubt that even this talking stage would have come. But honestly speaking, if the girls from there aren’t willing to trust us, we too are just as untrusting. I mean, who wants to marry a spoilt, American Pakistani churail…?”
“If memory serves me right, you did. Three weeks ago,” Azhar said, pretending to think really hard. He had to joke about everything. Ahmed laughed.
“I certainly haven’t but I’ll make sure I find the perfect specimen for you when I get there.”
“Please do,” Azhar said merrily. “What is life without excitement…! Life with a witch would be perfect!” Azhar’s banter was always enjoyable.
“So, what did you tell her when she told you her views about Pakistani boys?” Sameer turned back to Ahmed, very curious about why Ruby eventually decided to marry him.
“He told her that’s exactly what he had in mind since that’s his major at the University; Marry-Your-Cousin-For-Her-Green-Card,” Azhar’s stupid remark got him a sharp slap on the hand from Ahmed. They all laughed.
“No…seriously,” Sameer persisted. The conversation had taken an interesting turn.
“Well I told her that she couldn’t throw away the entire barrel of apples if the top layer was rotten,” Ahmed shrugged. “I then told her we should take our time to get to know each other before either of us said yes. Good thing was, our families didn’t pressure us in any way.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Azhar commented dryly. “That’s the good thing about parents in the US; the give their kids breathing room instead of forcing their opinion on them.”
“So, that’s why you took so long ‘thinking’ about it’?” Umair reflected.
(To be continued)