A Suitable Match
By Irum Sarfaraz
That night, she narrated the incident to her husband, a tinge of foul taste still in her mouth. She told him she wasn’t going to call the lady back. There was no point. Ibrahim Saeed agreed with his wife. He wasn’t so westernized yet as to forget how marriages took place in respectable households.
“Don’t you think you’re taking this rishta search too seriously?” he asked, looking at her from the top of his reading glasses. He was in bed with his book. His question only increased the intensity of Zahra’s headache.
“If you think I should just sit back, relax and watch my daughter grow old, you are no better than that idiot I talked to today,” she said, brushing her hair aggressively. Ibrahim smiled.
“You’re talking like an old fashioned mother from Pakistan who starts considering her daughter a burden as soon as the girl turns sixteen,” he teased. Zahra stopped brushing her hair and turned around in irritation.
“Ibrahim, she’s not a burden on us and you know it. But she’s almost twenty-five and we have to get active in finding the right boy. He’s not going to ring the bell one day and appear out of nowhere,” she flailed her arms to emphasize her point.
“Stop getting so obsessed with the idea. She’ll marry when she is destined to get married and the right boy will also come along then.”
“I know. I keep telling myself that but I can’t stop worrying,” she sighed. Then a thought struck her. “I wonder if I should call my aunt in Houston and see what her two grandsons are doing nowadays?”
“Absolutely not. I strictly forbid it,” Ibrahim Saeed replied sharply. “If they are interested in Humna, they need to come to us first. Stop making it look like we’re so desperate for our daughter that we’re going around knocking on people’s doors asking about their sons and grandsons.”
“But there is nothing wrong…,” Zahra started to argue.
“I said no and I mean no,” Ibrahim replied firmly. “Just relax and take a deep breath. Don’t make Humna feel like she’s so much of a burden on us that we’re ready to marry her off to any Tom, Dick and Harry,” He was getting irritated now. On any other occasion Zahra wouldn’t have ended the conversation without a good argument and a supreme effort to win it. However, the topic seemed to have ruffled the usually even-tempered Ibrahim Saeed’s feathers too. Plus, in her heart she knew he was right. She really shouldn’t make her daughter feel like they wanted to get rid of her in a hurry.
The next day she told Khalida about the ‘girl picture first’ lady.
“Yes, an idiot from the same club called me a couple of days back too,” Khalida told her distastefully. “She was insisting on Saira’s picture first too. I asked Salman what I should do and he said there was no harm.”
“So, did you send it to her?” Zahra asked in surprise.
“No. The next day when I called to get her email address, we talked a little more in detail about our families. She told me that she was a widow and planned to spend her time between her four sons.”
“Well she’s a widow… I guess that’s what she would do,” Zahra couldn’t figure out what Khalida was getting at.
“Yes, that would have been fine except that she told me that when her two older sons had gotten married, she had stayed with each daughter-in-law for almost a year, teaching her the proper ways of their household and their family traditions,” Khalida put emphasis on the word ‘their’.
“Are you crazy?” Zahra retorted. “Who does that? Teaching a daughter-in-law the ways of their lifestyle? Even the people in Pakistan realize that every family operates differently and as long as the daughter-in-law doesn’t go out of line, she doesn’t need teaching. And her sons have no objection to this?”
“I guess not. And she made it a point to tell me that she expected the girl to comply with this rather than argue about it later.”
“My God!” Zahra shook her head. “These mothers are sure going around painting the town red!”
Indeed, they were. In Khalida’s opinion, they weren’t painting the town red, but every conceivable color in the book.
“I know Humna wouldn’t mind adapting to the ways of her husband’s family but to be taught like a child? Isn’t that taking things a bit too far? That’s like telling the girl that it’s ‘our way or the highway’, and whatever you’ve been taught was all wrong.”
“Exactly. I told Saira and she was literally spooked. Mothers-in-law are notorious enough as it is. To be rudely surprised after the marriage is another thing. However, no girl deliberately wants to walk into the lion’s den with her eyes open.” Zahra laughed.
“A lion’s den? That’s a little extreme.”
“Maybe but I politely backed out of this one. I think these boys’ parents are getting too power hungry for their own good.”
“I guess so. They’re treating their sons like a rare commodity just because they’re from respectable families and well educated.”
“It’s a classic case of andher nagri, chaupat raaj.”
Farida had just finished the day’s cooking and was now sitting on the takhat under the mango tree peeling a tray full of carrots. Winters were the best season for carrot halwawhen the vegetable was in season. Now that the season was almost gone, this was probably going to be the last batch of halwa for the year. Amna was home studying for a test and Umair was at the university. She was halfway through when the doorbell rang. She put on her slippers and went to the gate using the side alley of the house. She was pleasantly surprised to see her sister-in-law Anees.
“It’s been a while since you showed your face,” Farida said, hugging her. Anees was her younger brother’s wife and lived two streets down in the same neighborhood. Anees had a very amiable personality and got along well with her in-laws.
“I know apa,” she replied, “but the boys just take up so much of my time. And if I’m not home, it gives them a perfect excuse to not study at all.” Anees had three young sons who constantly kept her on her toes. She settled comfortably on the takhat, selected a juicy, red carrot from the peeled pile and started nibbling at it. Anees often wished she had a daughter too. In her opinion, girls were ‘stable’, and, in her words, ‘helped keep the mother sane’. She described her sons as ‘small hurricanes ripping through the house at all hours’.
“Indeed,” Farida smiled. “Boys need constant monitoring, especially when they’re young. But wait till they’re older. They’ll be like strong oak trees around you.”
“I hope my three grow up as responsible as Umair,” Anees replied drily, always all praise for her husband’s sober, intelligent nephew. “In fact, that is another reason I am here.”
“Oh?” Farida looked at her questioningly. She hadn’t stopped peeling the carrots.
“Apa, my sister Nighat was reminding me again to ask you if you’ve thought about her brother in law’s daughter for Umair.” Farida sighed. For the past several months now, Nighat, Anees’ older sister, had been asking their intentions about Umair for her brother-in-law’s daughter. The girl was in medical school and the parents were looking for a respectable boy from a family they knew. Umair fit the bill perfectly.
Amna had come out to say a quick salam to her aunt. She needed a break from her studying. Hearing Anees talk about a girl for Umair, she immediately got excited at the prospect of her brother’s marriage.
“Mami, you’ve been telling us about this girl but you never bring her picture,” she told her aunt.
“You’ve met Sidra a few times at my house, haven’t you?”
“Yes, but we have to show Umair Bhai and get his approval too.”
“I can get her picture when your Ammi says yes,” Anees laughed. Nighat gave her daughter a warning look. She didn’t want Anees getting ahead of herself.
“Amna,” she said in a stern voice. “Don’t interfere when we are talking.”
“But Ammi,” Amna refused to take the hint, “I was just asking Mami to get the girl’s picture. Then we can show Umair Bhai and see what he says.”
“She’s right Apa,” Anees prompted Amna. “There’s no harm in showing Umair the picture. If he says no, we can just end this whole thing once and for all.”
“I haven’t thought about it that seriously yet, Anees,” Farida replied. “Plus, I haven’t discussed it with Akram or Umair either. So don’t say anything to the girl’s side unless I tell you to.” Anees nodded her head. She was hoping Farida would agree to at least getting Sidra’s picture to show Umair.
“And mami,” Amna turned to her again, “do you know how many people keep asking Ammi about Umair Bhai? It seems like he’s in high demand!”
“Yes, I know,” Anees smiled at her exuberance. “No one wants to let a good boy get away nowadays. Everyone’s out with a net and our Umair is a heea.”
“It’s as if they’re not boys but some rare fish in the ocean,” Amna laughed at her own analogy. Nighat wasn’t pleased.
“Amna go and study,” she addressed her daughter a little more sternly this time “This subject is for adults and I don’t like you taking part in our conversations. And since you’re not in a mood to study, go and make good tea for your Mami.” Amna knew her mother’s tone. She went inside to make tea.
“Anees, please don’t promise these people, or anyone else, anything,” Nighat told her. “Umair has told me strictly not to even think about it until he finds a job.”
“I know Apa,” Anees reassured her. “I’m just the messenger. I’ve told them the same thing but they’re very hopeful and keep reminding me.” Nighat didn’t reply. The carrots were all peeled and ready to be washed and grated.
“And another thing Apa,” Anees moved closer to her, looking over her shoulder to make sure Amna wasn’t close. “My sister-in-law was also hinting that they would be willing to ask for Amna’s hand for their son if you agree to consider their daughter for Umair.”
“What! Are you talking about a watta-satta?” Nighat stared at her incredulously.
“There is nothing wrong with a watta-satta if the matches are good,” Anees tried to reason with her but Farida was exasperated.
“Anees, sometimes I think your three boys have done away with all your senses. Don’t you know our family is strictly against watta-satta?”
“These are different times apa….”
“These may be different times but we honor our traditions. And even if it was something not recommended by our elders, I’m personally strictly against it. It’s like a business deal rather than a marriage. Plus, Umair would never agree to anything like this.”
“Apa, I’m just telling you what she told me. I’m not telling you to say yes to either of the two proposals,” Anees tried to pacify her irked sister-in-law.
“I know Anees. But watta-satta is never a good idea,” Farida explained. “The relationship of one couple directly affects that of the other. The couples are constantly under pressure and they consider themselves bound by duty rather than love or respect for each other. Also, Akram and I are hoping that Amna gets married first before we bring Umair’s wife home.”
Anees knew there was no point in pursuing the issue. She really was just the messenger. Had Farida shown an interest in Sidra or the watta-satta, she would have relayed the message back to her brother-in-law. But this was clearly not the case.
Humna got a text at work from Ruby. She wanted to get together for coffee at a local coffee shop. Humna got there right after work.
“I have a potential boy in mind for you and wanted to get your opinion,” Ruby got to the point right away. Humna looked surprised. These things usually came from her mother, not her friends.
“Is it one of your colleagues at work?” she asked jokingly.
“Not really,” Ruby replied carefully. She knew she had to tread with caution. She didn’t want to scare Humna off by giving too much information right away. “He’s actually one of Ahmed’s friends in Karachi.” Humna broke out in a laugh.
“So now you’re trying to hook up your hubby’s cronies with all your pals here?” she said, smiling and shaking her head. “Seems like his Paki colors have started to rub off on you already!” Obviously, she thought Ruby was pulling her leg.
“I’m not joking,” Ruby’s serious tone forced Humna to sober up. “He’s one of Ahmed’s good friends...”
“…who’s probably looking for a green card to ride all the way to the US.” Humna interrupted sarcastically.
“Ahmed’s friends aren’t like that.”
“Probably looks and talks like a paindu, as most of them do.”
“He doesn’t. I’ve met him. And do you think Ahmed is a paindu too??” Humna realized Ruby was serious. She also regretted the paindu comment. There was a chance she could have offended her.
“Look, I’m not saying Ahmed is a paindu,” she said in a conciliatory tone. “He doesn’t look like one and I’m sure he doesn’t talk like one either but I don’t know about his friends.” Humna reminded herself to keep her general notions about Pakistani ‘imports’ to herself when Ruby was around.
“Exactly,” Ruby said. “So how can you say no to a guy without even looking at him?”
“And you think he is just like Ahmed simply because he is Ahmed’s friend?”
“Yes. Because he’s Ahmed’s friend and because I’ve also met him.” Ruby replied firmly.
“And what makes you so sure he isn’t another one of those gold-digging, green-card seekers?” Humna decided to discuss the issue openly and get it over with.
“I know because neither Ahmed nor this guy knows anything about this whole thing. I wanted to see what you thought first before I talked to Ahmed about it.” Humna was taken aback.
“You mean the guy doesn’t even know that you’re trying to set him up with a girl from the US?” she was now curious. “But on second thought, what objection could he possibly have with an option to get here?”
“As it happens, he might have a problem. Judging by what Ahmed has occasionally mentioned, the guys is not interested in getting married right now. He wants to stay in Pakistan for at least a while.”
“And you’re trying to hook me up with a guy who doesn’t even want to come here at the moment, nor is aware of my presence?” she asked Ruby disbelievingly. “Are you out of your mind? Do you expect me to go and live there?”
“No, no,” Ruby shook her head in annoyance. “All I’m saying is that he seems like a genuine guy and Ahmed always talks highly of him. I met him at my wedding. Pretty good looking too. I know you just like Ahmed knows his friend. I don’t see any harm in the two of you talking to assess if you are compatible.” Humna thought about it for a while.
“So, he is ok with moving here?” she asked. Ruby shrugged her shoulders.
“I’m not going to lie to you because honestly I have no idea. That is something you two have to figure out when you talk. That would be down the line. Right now, we’re just trying to see if the two of you are even compatible as a couple. Why can’t you initiate a conversation with a potential candidate without thinking about his geographical location? You have better options sitting around here for you?”
“No, I don’t,” replied Humna. There were currently no candidates on the scene in the US.
“But how can I talk to a guy I’ve never even seen?” (To be continued)