A Suitable Match
By Irum Sarfaraz
“Don’t worry about that” said Ruby quickly, inwardly delighted to have made at least this much progress. “I’ll send you his picture. If you like him, and only after you say yes to me, I’ll talk to Ahmed and see what he says.” She made a mental note to check if there were any pictures of Umair in her wedding group pictures. Humna stared at her.
“Don’t you think I should be the one holding the rejection card in the hand?” she asked with a touch of sarcasm.
“Oh grow up, you idiot!” Ruby chastised her mildly. “Don’t you see you are the one with the rejection card? If you don’t like his picture, that will be the end of this discussion. You would have rejected him first. However, in case you like him and he refuses to marry a girl from the US, that will be a good eye-opener for you that not all boys from Pakistan belong to the GCS club.” Humna figured she was right.
“I’ll have to talk to Ammi and Daddy too and see what they say.”
“Oh, no, no!” Ruby was alarmed. “Don’t do that until you’ve checked out the guy yourself.” Humna was surprised.
“But why? Shouldn’t they be aware of this too?” Ruby sighed.
“Look,” she explained patiently. “You and I have a different way of looking at this. Most girls here, you and I included, are focused on mental compatibility whereas our parents are still clutching on to cultural norms, class distinctions, and what not. Our mothers especially seem to have superfluous standards for judging character.” Humna had no grounds for denying this.
“Even though Ahmed is my mother’s nephew,” Ruby continued, “I doubt she would have even considered him or allowed our communication to start had my aunt not belonged to a well off background. The fact that once I got to know Ahmed, I couldn’t care less about his background is a different story.”
It wasn’t uncommon for second generation Pakistani Americans like Humna and Ruby to be bewildered by the duplicity of standards displayed by their immigrant parents. The society in which they were born and raised taught them honesty and forthrightness. Though their parents upheld these values, they often slipped when it came to personal choices, making distinctions on account of financial status, education, and social class. This attitude was most evident when it came to the selection of boys or girls for marriages. Who the boy or girl was, what their parents did, where they lived, how much education they had, and what they looked like was far more important than how these potential spouses were likely to fulfill their long-term commitments to their marriage vows.
“So, what do you say?” asked Ruby. She knew Humna was mellow-natured but still very strong headed. If she refused once, she wasn’t likely to reconsider.
“I guess there’s no harm in at least looking at his picture,” Humna mulled over the idea before finally replying.
“I’ll see if I can find him in my wedding pictures,” Ruby replied. She was inwardly very thankful that Humna had not asked any pointed questions regarding his social status. Those would have been hard to avoid. But then she herself didn’t know too much about Ahmed’s friends except that they belonged to simple families in Karachi.
After dinner that night, Ruby pored carefully through her digitized wedding pictures on the computer. Though a lot of Ahmed’s friends had attended the wedding, only three of the very close ones had also been present at the mostly family occasions of mayun and mehndi. She found several shots of Umair with Ahmed. In both events, he was dressed in the traditional shalwar kameez like all the other boys. In the wedding he was dressed in a black suit, white shirt and red tie. It took her less than an hour to pick out a few good pictures and email them to Humna.
Although Farida had acted very composed in front of Anees, she was actually amused as she recounted the purpose of her sister-in-law’s visit to her husband Akram .
“I’m not surprised at all,” Akram replied. “A couple of people at work have also been asking if I’ve started to look for a girl for my son.” Farida was taken aback.
“You never mentioned this before,” she said.
“This is nothing to be surprised about,” Akram replied mildly. “Just like the women you know keep asking, so do the men I know.”
“This shows how people are scrambling to find good boys from respectable homes,” she said. “With a total stranger there is either doubt about the boy’s behavior or his background. Then there is also the demand of dowry.”
Akram didn’t reply. He knew Farida was right. They too were thinking along the same lines; with a daughter in the house, they needed to find a good boy themselves.
“What do you think about that watta-satta Anees was talking about?” she asked Akram.
“Absolutely not! I am completely against the idea of exchange marriages. Both couples forever stay fearful of affecting their sister or brother’s marriage. Completely crazy idea.”
“That’s what I told Anees. You know I’m very hopeful that Saliha Apa will come forward for Amna.”
“Has she said anything to you?” this was news to Akram. Saliha was Farida’s elder sister who was settled in Dubai.
“She hasn’t said anything directly yet but she did hint at this the last time she was in Karachi. But I don’t want to say anything to anyone until there is a formal proposal from her side.”
“Yes, don’t mention anything to anyone yet before time,” Akram told her. “I like her boy too but often the parents are willing but the boys have other ideas in their heads.”
“True,” Farida sighed. “Let’s see if Apa says anything this time when she comes for a visit in the summer.”
“I suggest you don’t count your chickens before they hatch either, “Akram cautioned his wife from getting too excited prematurely.
“Don’t you know me? I don’t believe in counting chickens until they’re hatched and laying eggs themselves.” Akram shook his head in amusement. His wife was a simpleton but a wise one nevertheless.
An idea suddenly sparked in Farida’s head.
“Do you think we should get Umair engaged to someone?” she asked Akram. “At least that would stop people enquiring about him all the time.”
Akram had no issues with that. He also knew that whenever the question of girl selection came up, Farida would have the veto power. Farida wasn’t too pleased with that idea.
“I don’t want to take the entire brunt of the responsibility of girl selection, “she shook her head. “It would be Umair’s decision first and foremost. I will advise him but I won’t force him. I don’t want him telling me for the rest of his life that he married someone just to please me.”
Akram knew she wasn’t just saying that. If she said she would give her son the power to say yes or no, she meant it.
Khalida had called Tahira for advice. There was a problem. She was currently in touch with a boy’s family in Michigan who had liked Saira. She and her husband had also approved the boy and his family. After the usual, preliminary talks were over, Saira and the boy were now in contact with each other to judge their compatibility level. But now there was a hitch.
“I’ve told the mother repeatedly, though as subtly as I can, that it is time the two families met face to face,” Khalida explained to Tahira. “But she keeps on saying that a face to face meeting is the final step.”
“Final step?” Tahira was bewildered. “But isn’t that supposed to be the first step, or least the second or the third? What if the boy limps or has an extra thumb?”
“My imagination hadn’t gone that far but I know that a face to face meeting is important. I’ve insisted, as firmly and as politely as I could, that we need to meet first before we can give her the final answer. I mean, the girl and boy haven’t even seen each other in person. People can be totally different in real life.”
“Of course,” Tahira agreed. “Everyone knows that. Their hesitation to meet in person is not a good sign. Doesn’t send a good vibe to me.”
“Same here. But her point is that if we end up saying ‘no’ to them, they’d have made the entire traveling and staying expense to California for nothing. Hence we have to give her a final ‘yes’ before she and her family make the trip out to see us.”
“Is she crazy?” Tahira was astounded. “Who says ‘yes’ before even meeting the boy and his family in person? I mean…what if Saira doesn’t like the way he looks or talks or walks? Or vice versa? Plus, their counting money for such an important task makes them appear quite miserly.”
All sorts of new moves in the match making game were appearing before Zahra and Khalida now that they had started to actively play it.
“Exactly,” said Khalida. “Salman is in no mood to consider this proposal any longer. He says if they’re not interested in meeting us or our daughter in person or allowing us to meet the boy, then something has to be very wrong, in all probability.”
“I agree with him,” Tahira said thoughtfully. “I’m not saying there actually could be something very wrong with the boy but there is also nothing right about the way this is proceeding. What does Saira say? Has she asked the boy about this?”
“Yes,” Khalida sighed. “The lad says we’re misinterpreting his mother’s intentions. But I have a feeling we’re not. This is so crazy. The last time I talked to the lady she was quite clear on this. The mother and son seem to be on different frequencies.”
“Have you tried talking to Mrs Ali?” a thought struck Tahira. “Maybe there’s some miscommunication between the two of you that she can clear up. She referred this lady to you, right?”
“I have talked to her. She says though she sometimes helps the two parties, I and Salman have to figure this one out ourselves. It is not her rule to mediate between two parties when they don’t see eye to eye.” There was a moment of silence as Tahira thought about what to say.
“I really don’t know what to tell you,” she finally declared. “Frankly, if I were in your shoes, I’d let this one go. As a matter of fact, that might actually be a good way to bring the lady around. If you stand your ground firmly instead of saying yes to everything, she could get your message and decide to fly out after all.”
“That’s not a bad idea. I’ll talk to her tonight and see what she says.”
Two days later Tahira called Khalida back to enquire about what had happened. She was very hopeful that their little strategy had worked and that the lady had agreed to fly out with the boy to California. However, Khalida was glum.
“When I told her, very nicely, mind you, that we wanted to meet the boy before saying yes otherwise we would have to excuse ourselves from this proposal, she said she was now convinced that we weren’t at all serious in finding a good boy. She also said we were very inexperienced in how good matches were found and if we hadn’t been interested, we shouldn’t have wasted their time.”
Tahira couldn’t believe her ears.
“After all the communication you two have had for over a month now, she actually had the gall to say that to you?” she exclaimed.
“No, not only that, she also told me that it didn’t look like we were mentally prepared to marry our daughter and that we shouldn’t look for a boy until we were sure about our intentions.”
“Wow! How majestic! So she didn’t consider backing down from her own stand at all?”
“Not even once. It was like it was all our fault,” Khalida replied, the enthusiasm of the past month missing from her tone. “She sounded like she had a long list of girls in hand and was itching to move on to the next contender.”
“What did Saira say?”
“She was very disappointed. She had felt a lot of similarity of likes and dislikes with the boy. But even she wouldn’t say yes without meeting him. She also raised the point that the boy could have come alone but the fact that the mother was calling all the shots was not a good sign. The woman was displaying all the classic symptoms of being a pain-in-the-neck, interfering, mother-in-law.”
“What can I say,” Tahira really couldn’t figure out what to say. “But don’t be disappointed. I’m sure Saira’s Mr Right is out there right now looking for her.” She tried to cheer up her friend. Inwardly, she was wondering about all the problems she herself was going to face in a couple of years with not one but two daughters.
Saira’s story of the latest proposal disappointment reached Humna through her mother. She was surprised too. Who would expect a family in the US in the 21st century to behave like this?
“Only goes to show that one doesn’t need to have education or a good social standing in order to have decency,” she told her mother.
“Maybe,” Zahra replied. “But education and social standing are nonetheless very important considerations.”
“Ammi, even after two major migrations, one from India to Pakistan in 1947 and then from Pakistan to the US after your marriage, the class and creed system of the Hindus still lurks inside you,” Humna’s tone was mildly teasing.
“It’s not the Hindu system, it’s logic,” Zahra retorted sharply. Her daughter’s remark has irritated her. “If you come from a good family and a good background, you would naturally want a person from a similar background as the new member of the family. What’s wrong with that?”
“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. What I’m saying is that a person’s social or financial status shouldn’t be the only reason for pushing him to the back of the line. Decency, education and values should also be considered,” Humna answered casually.
“Of course. But only a person from a similar background would be able to fit into our type of lifestyle. We’re not millionaires but we do have social standing. I wouldn’t allow you to marry the son of a street sweeper in Pakistan even if he has done his MBA from a US university and has a good job. Families and background matter.”
“But why shouldn’t the person matter?” Humna looked at her mother in surprise. “Why would his family matter more than him?” (Continued next week)