A Suitable Match
(IrumSarfaraz is a freelance writer settled in the Bay Area. Her published credits number well over 1,500 bylines in Pakistani and American online and print publications including newspapers and Blogs. She also has to her credit a poetry collection and the translations of Harun Yahya’s ‘Atlas of Creation Part I’ and ‘Evolution Deceit’ into Urdu. She writes regularly for Umera Ahmed’s AlifKitab, Pakistan’s first digital Urdu platform and also for Urdu Link. Though a work of fiction, A Suitable Match is based on real narratives of the major players involved in the tedious process of finding the right boy; the girls and their parents in the US, the boys and their parents in Pakistan, the matchmakers in US and Pakistan, and the friends of these girls and boys. Besides writing, IrumSarfaraz also teaches language arts and creative writing.
TahiraAftab is an artist/illustrator settled in the Bay Area who paints and illustrates on commission and also teaches art.)
It was almost three thirty in the afternoon on a weekday in an affluent San Francisco suburb. The days were still long, though it was mid-September, and the golden rays of the warm sun brightly lit up the immaculately manicured flowerbeds and the emerald grass of the Illahi home front and backyard. The large sized home with its red tiled roof set off by red brick trim around the sparkling large windows and front door was more or less similar to other neat, similar sized homes on the wide, clean street. The street wasn’t deserted and there were a few people walking their dogs, jogging, or walking, and children riding bikes and walking in groups. Despite the informal relaxed atmosphere of the late afternoon, there was an air of cordiality and civility in all of their manners that reflected the general mindset of the neighborhood.
Inside the spic and span Illahi home, TahiraIllahi checked the bread roll in the oven. It was almost done. She quickly glanced at the Gucci watch on her wrist. There was still half an hour to get changed and ready for her three guests whom she had invited for afternoon tea at four o’clock. She ran one last look around the kitchen and the family room. Everything was in as perfect order as the hair and makeup of a Pakistani bride on her big day; not a strand of hair astray, nor a lash out of place.
The huge granite island in the center of the kitchen, glistening like glass, was all set with snacks, plates, napkins and tea cups. Though it was a casual sit together with old friends, Tahira followed protocol of making sure her guests felt welcome and enjoyed their afternoon.
Maheen, her 15-year-old younger daughter, was already home from school. She had stuck around the kitchen with Tahira only long enough to gobble down a late, after school lunch and was now in her room with her homework. Her older daughter, Myra, was in her third year of college. Being about two hours away, she lived in a dorm and came home only on the weekends.
The three guests Tahira was expecting were her three friends who lived in the same city as her. The four of them, all in their mid-forties, well-groomed and well dressed, had known each other for over a decade now and made it a point to get together at least every two weeks. The fact that they were all Pakistani had helped cement their friendship further. Though they met each other on numerous other occasions too, it was at these exclusive little parties that they talked freely about the more irksome issues concerning them all.
When the kids were younger, the talk at these casual meetings mostly revolved around people they knew, kids’ school related problems, in-law issues, the latest fashion and jewelry, etc. But as the kids had grown older, another worry had gnawed its way up to the top of their list.
Tahira was ready with her tea and snacks when Jabeen, Zahra, and Khalida arrived within a few minutes of each other. Even after spending two decades in the US, the friends often joked that the real test of their culinary perfection lay in their art of preparing Pakistani cuisine masterfully rather than the Western. Tahira’s famous bread roll was borne out of this same effort; spicy ground beef wrapped up and baked in a whole wheat dough prepared with yeast.
“So, any luck with that boy you were looking at for Humna?” Tahira asked Zahra as they were having tea. Zahra shook her head.
“But hadn’t she liked Humna’s picture at first?”
“Yes, she had liked Humna’s information but called back two days later saying that her son doesn’t think there is ‘chemistry’ between them.” Zahra and Khalida’s daughters were out of college and already working. The finding-a-match issue was a serious reality for them and both were looking for good boys for their 25-year-olds.
“And he figured this lack of chemistry, physics, psychology or whatever, just by looking at her picture?” Khalida asked sarcastically. Zahra shrugged.
“What can we say?” she replied. “We’re not the choosers here.”
“That’s too bad. Can’t imagine what’s gotten into these boys nowadays,” Jabeen said sympathetically. “But don’t worry, there must be a match for her somewhere.”
“Yes, on the moon maybe,” Zahra joked. “So far, I haven’t been able to find one here. You just wait a few years. Then you’ll be in the same boat as us.” Jabeen had two sons in high school. Her daughter was a fifth grader. She had a long while to go before getting on the proverbial similar boat as her friends.
“Don’t you just hate it when people whose daughters are already engaged ask you sweetly when you are planning to get your daughter married?” said Tahira. “Ullookaheenki.” She shook her head. The other three laughed.
“Any development for Saira so far?” Jabeen asked Khalida about her daughter.
“Didn’t you just hear Zahra?” she replied seriously. “There is a match; the problem is that it’s on the moon.” Jabeen gave her a slap on the shoulder.
“Perhaps you two are just not doing it the right way,” said Tahira.
“No my dear,” replied Zahra, “There is no other way to do this. We’re the girl’s parents so we have to sit and wait. It’s the boys’ mothers who pick and choose.” Khalida agreed with her.
“These boys seem to have gone crazy nowadays,” she said. “Watching these pretty, goriAmerican girls around them in schools, colleges and continually on TV and movies has messed with their heads. Since these girls are off limits to them, they search for the same type of girls from Pakistan.”
“Exactly,” said Zahra. “This is the reason why these boys’ mothers go round searching for gori, tall and, preferably, doctor girls. And this is the reason they take one look at a picture and say yes or no. They have so much choice.”
“Our daughters are not ugly, short, fat or uneducated,” said Tahira indignantly. “And are medicine, law and engineering the only professions left for girls?” She was taken aback by Zahra’s candid explanation.
“Who said they were any of these things?” Khalida turned to Tahira. “They’re attractive, well groomed, well mannered, and educated Pakistani girls, as all Pakistani girls in our circle are. But the boys want gori, tall and very pretty ones with hefty professional degrees so that they could also help rake in the dough.”
“If they want a gori, then why don’t the fools just marry a Caucasian girl for heaven’s sake?” Jabeen said exasperatedly.
“They can’t because of religious and other reasons unless they rebel against the parents. You know that,” said Zahra. “Hence the demand for a gori, desi girl. Plus, there’s no charm in a goriCaucasian girl. They want someone who looks like Julia Roberts but can run the house and cook as well as their mother.” The four of them laughed.
“I totally agree,” said Tahira. “The boys just take a look at the pictures of wheatish complexioned girls, regardless of how attractive they are, and say ‘no, thank you’, right away.”
“But how can the idiots decide by just looking at a picture?” protested Jabeen. “I mean, there’s a whole ‘person’ behind that picture. You cannot reject a human being simply on account of his or her looks.”
“But they do, my dear,” Tahira said. “They do.”
“Don’t you guys have relatives in Pakistan?” Jabeen asked them. “I mean like cousins or cousins’ kids or other distant relatives?”
“Naheenyaar, nowadays boys from Pakistan just marry for the green cards and citizenships,” scoffed Zahra. “When you show them a girl’s picture from the US, they only see a blue passport attached to the neck.” They all laughed.
“Honestly, they’d marry a cow if it meant they could become a US citizen,” Zahra added.
“Oh, come on, yaar” Tahira said. “Don’t be so cruel. It can’t be that bad. I mean, they would probably marry a mare. But a cow? No way!” There were peals of laughter again.
“Ok seriously, there have to be some eligible boys in your families,” Jabeen said again.
“First of all there is no one eligible in my family and secondly, Saira has strictly said no-no to a boy from Pakistan,” Khalida said, sobering up. “She’s heard too many horror stories about these green-card-seekers.”
“Yes, but not all boys are the same,” Tahira tried to reason with her.
“I agree,” added Zahra, “jokes aside, there are probably good boys out there too. But it’s easier to sit here to talk about these things because when it comes to your own daughter, you get very fearful. Even Humna has heard these ‘green-card seeker’ horror stories. She’s willing to consider a boy with a basic education born and raised in the US than a doctor from Pakistan. Despite the problems with rishtashere, she doesn’t want to take chances on a Pakistani boy.”
“A number of Pakistani boys I’ve seen here act like they have open permits to enjoy life to the max, in all respects, if you know what I mean,” said Jabeen. “But when it comes to marriage, they want the most perfect, well-cut, glistening diamond they can show off to the world.”
The other three knew she was right. But right or wrong, the fact was that the boys had the first choice, unless the girl really was a glistening beauty. If this girl was not found in their own Pakistani circle of acquaintances, they set their moms loose on a countrywide hunt to fish her out from any corner of the continental USA.
“Have you guys tried the online marriage bureaus?” asked Jabeen. But the other three were unanimous in their apprehension.
“Naheen Bhai, you don’t know what kind of creeps sign up there posing as someone else,” said Khalida. “I don’t want to exchange my daughter’s information and pictures online with God knows who.”
“How about a rishta Anti?” asked Tahira, looking questioningly at Khalida and Zahra. Given the escalation in the problem of finding suitable boys, the number of rishta Antis, or matchmakers, had also ballooned phenomenally in the US.
“Someone recently gave me the number for that Mrs Ali. She does this from her home and is also in California. But I never called her,” Khalida replied. “I don’t know too many people who’ve gone through her and I’m not sure what kind of a person she is.”
“Give me the number,” Zahra was interested. “I’ll talk to her and see what she has to say.”
“Yes,” agreed Tahira. “No harm in talking to her. Especially before the girls slip past prime ages.”
“God, this is just as bad as in Pakistan!” groaned Jabeen, exasperated.
“No my dear,” said Zahra, “it is worse here. At least in Pakistan they reject you after a first face-to-face meeting and the exchange of some sort of conversation. Here they reject you outright by looking at your picture.”
“So what are the parents of girls supposed to do now?” Jabeen asked the question that haunted the mothers of all the girls in families like their own with well educated, attractive girls who weren’t gorior very tall nor doctors or engineers and who were 24-year-old and older. “Plant a boy tree in their backyards and then wait for the ‘boys’ to grow on them so that they could pluck them off and marry their daughters?”
Despite being first or second generation immigrants, the lifestyles of semi conservative Pakistani families like Zahra, Khalida, Jabeen, and Tahira were balanced precariously on a fence where their being tethered to Islamic rules and cultural norms kept them from being entirely Western. Therefore, as more or less everything else in their lives, the traditional route of finding matches for their children was also the same as in Pakistan; the boys’ families had first pick and the girls’ families waited for this manna from heaven to descend into their gardens. As opposed to those perched on the fence perilously, trying desperately to balance the covenants of both societies, things weren’t so complicated for those who had decided to be either on one side of the fence or the other.
As Khalida and Zahra were now discovering, though this balancing act had been manageable when the kids were younger, things weren’t quite the same now. Marriages were not too much of an issue in families that permitted free mixing of boys and girls. These girls and boys were in college together or were introduced by mutual friends and then decided to marry. Also, these girls and boys had a silent understanding with their parents that they would choose their own life partners. But those who had chosen to ‘straddle the fence’ secretly scoffed at these types of matches, labeling the girl as being too ‘fast’. They remained firm believers that the ‘proper’ way to marry off a girl ‘respectably’ was to patiently wait for someone to refer the girl to the boy’s family and the entire process to move along the ‘traditional’ way.
Ironically, even if it was discovered that the boys of these ‘fence straddling’ families were having undue fun, the incidences were ignored with ‘boys will be boys’. But the girls had to be careful and watch their step. This wasn’t to say that there weren’t radicals and revolutionaries within this group of girls too, but they were few. But as opposed to the boys, if their escapades leaked out, both them and their families were criticized, and often ostracized, in the community.
Both Humna and Saira had gone to good colleges and might have found good Muslim, Pakistani boys right there had they tried. However, having been raised with the idea that it was improper for girls to mix with boys in any sort of informal settings and to keep their distance unless it was on a professional level, this never happened. Saira and Humna weren’t timid or shy but these values had been hammered into them since early age. Though they were born and raised in a country very different than their parents, Pakistan was still very much alive in their homes.
Someone rightly said that you could take a Pakistani out of Pakistan but you couldn’t take the Pakistan out of the Pakistani.
Umair woke up late that morning. He could smell lunch cooking. The aroma of fried onions and cumin was drifting through the house. He could easily guess it was some sort of meat curry and daal. Another familiar aroma was of boiled rice. Though the house wasn’t very small, the strong smell of spices permeated every room when Ammi was cooking. Also, regular, everyday menus were quite predictable.
The silence in the house meant that both Abba and Amina were not home. Though the house was silent, he could hear traffic from the street, the loudest noise being that of rickshaws. Every time this loud ride went by he wondered why they were driven without silencers despite a law against it. The aggravating noise grated on the nerves.
“So how was the Valima?” Farida looked up from her newspaper and asked her son as he joined her on the takhat in their small covered veranda at the back of the house. The takhat belonged to his grandmother and easily accommodated six to eight people. It was covered with a thick, handmade quilt. The shade of the large mango tree over it made it a cool, relaxing spot in the house. The shade was especially coveted during the long hours of load shedding every day. The family room and the kitchen doors both opened into the red tiled verandah.
“It was very good Ammi,” Umair replied, smiling. “They had invited a lot of people. I wish you, Abba and Amina had come too.”
Farida got up to get his breakfast. One of Umair’s closest friends Ahmed had gotten married and it was the final occasion yesterday; a grand Valima, the dinner hosted by the boy’s family. Though she, her husband and daughter had attended the Nikah ceremony two days ago, they had excused themselves from the Valima.
Umair belonged to a middle class family in Karachi. His father worked in a bank and though they owned their fair sized, three-bedroom home in a good neighborhood their life was simple. The price of everything was soaring in Karachi and he still had a semester of his Master’s in Economics left before he could start looking for a job. He had become good friends with Ahmed and the other two boys in their small group during his years at undergrad college. Though Ahmed did not belong to the very high upper class, he was still a class above his other three friends.
The middle class in Karachi was no longer what it had been. In the midst of blind, roaring corruption and fragmented cultural values, this was the class most harassed by juggling the near exhausting and impossible tasks of having to find jobs without references, getting their children admitted to good schools within very tight resources, and managing a respectable life in a country ravaged by inflation and lawlessness. The richer upper classes had it easy while the lower classes were largely tradesmen and small business owners who mostly worked on daily wages. It was primarily the middle class that focused on education and jobs and was being literally suffocated.
As opposed to a lot of other boys he knew, Umair had never had issues with his middle class background nor was he ever ‘ashamed’ of it. His parents had given him a sound, loving upbringing with stable values. The two other boys in their small group, Azhar and Sameer, were from similar backgrounds and as hardworking and ambitious as he was. However, all three realized that it was going to take more than just ambition and a degree to get anywhere in present-day Pakistan. Not only where there more graduates than jobs, the good jobs were mostly reserved for the ones who came with beefy references. Even the engineers and doctors were aghast at the lack of opportunities. The country’s richest 1 percent was getting richer by the day while the middle and lower classes were getting increasingly frustrated. Umair was thankful that at least his family owned their home. Thinking about paying the rent every month was at least one less thing to worry about in pressing times. (To be continued)