A Suitable Match
“Because our families are our identity, people ask first about families. The way we are raised, the places we grow up in and the type of people who surround us shape who we are. A degree and a job cannot create or take away our greatest inheritance; our social class.”
A casual discussion that had started with Zahra informing her daughter about Saira’s recent proposal fiasco had turned into a heated argument; more heated for Zahra than for Humna. This wasn’t the first time the mother and daughter were having an impassioned discussion about such an issue. Humna referred to these as discussions whereas for Zahra they were bekarbehas. She struggled to ‘educate’ her daughter about the reality of life whereas Humna, on the other hand, endeavored in her own way to clarify her own point of view.
“You might consider yourself to be ‘American’ but the fact is that you are more Pakistani. Being born in France doesn’t make one a Frenchman. You’ll understand this better when you have kids of your own.” Humna looked at her mother amusedly.
“But Ammi, that’s what I’m trying to tell you. I want to be neither a Pakistani nor an American. I just want to be a good Muslim and a good human being with humanity related values.”
Zahra frowned at her daughter. It was impossible to win an argument with these kids. They understood nothing.
“So you want me to find a son of a bhangi or railway cooli for you?”
“I’m not telling you to go out of your way to find a son of a bhangi or a cooli. I’m just saying that it isn’t fair to brush their children aside in disdain either. In fact, these are the truly self-made people who struggle enormously against the odds to get where they are. People like us are spoon fed compared to them.”
Ibrahim Saeed had arrived home in the middle of this debate. He was sitting in his favorite recliner going through the day’s mail and had no intention of interrupting. Attempting to give his two cents to his wife in the middle of her bombardment of one of the kids only meant creating an escape route for the child and getting the guns turned on himself instead, especially when he agreed with the other party.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Zahra turned to him in exasperation.
“All I can tell her is to make me a good cup of tea and you to get dinner on the table. I’m really tired today.” He wrapped it all up in a single sentence. Humna couldn’t suppress her smile. In her opinion, her father would have made a great marriage counselor.
In Ibrahim Saeed’s opinion, which he often expressed to his wife, angrezchalayga ay but left Zahra behind.
Humna was reading a text from Ruby asking her if she had seen the pictures. She still hadn’t. She had been flooded with one thing or another at work. Though she had seen Ruby’s mail with attachments she had ignored it assuming it to be a funny, mass forwarded email. She scrolled through her inbox and found the mail. The subject line was empty. This was probably the one with the pictures of the boy she was talking about. She decided to open it when she got home.
After dinner that night she clicked open the mail and found Ruby’s wedding pictures. According to Ruby’s message, the boy was UmairAkram, the guy with the dark green scarf around his neck in the mehndi pictures. Humna hadn’t forgotten her conversation with Ruby but she had filed it away in the ‘will think about it later’ folder in her mind.
Looking at the pictures intently now, she was suddenly intrigued. The guy in the picture was about 5’ 10” tall and clean-shaven. His wheatish complexion and Greek nose complemented his large, dark eyes that were either very dark brown or black. He had a very attractive smile and was obviously having a good time at the wedding. There was an air of sobriety and intelligence around him.
She went through all the pictures two or three times. There were pictures of him from the Nikah and Valima ceremonies too. He was almost done with his Master’s in Economics from the University of Karachi, one of the top ten universities in Pakistan. So the guy wasn’t stupid either. She decided to call Ruby.
“So what do you think?” Ruby asked her excitedly.
“What do you mean ‘what do I think’? It’s not like he’s standing at the door with a proposal and an engagement ring for me. I know nothing about the guy, I’ve never seen him and I’ve never spoken to him. Whatever could I think?”
“At least you know all that I’ve told you about him and you’ve seen his pictures. You must have some opinion.”
“He looks like a reasonable person.”
“Reasonable enough for you to be a little more curious about him?”
“Meaning that if your curiosity has been sufficiently stirred, would you like to move to the ‘getting to know him’ phase?”
“Are you suggesting I get a ticket to Karachi and fly out to meet him or is he planning to come here to meet me?”
“Don’t be stupid. What I meant was calling, Skype, chat, email, etc.”
“Ruby,” Humna started wearily. “You know I’m distrustful of guys from Pakistan. Not just me, very few girls would be willing to trust total strangers who live 10,000 miles away.”
“Are your parents related?”
“Are you in your senses? What does this have to do with what we’re talking about?”
“Just answer the question. Are they?”
“Of course they are, you moron! They’re married!” Ruby clicked her tongue in exasperation.
“I meant were they related before they got married?”
“No. They weren’t. Daddy’s mother saw Ammi at some party and selected her for her son. Then the usual process of boy-meet-girl, family and background checks blah, blah, blah and then they got married.” Unconsciously, Humna was walking into Ruby’s trap.
“And did they meet, talk, chat before marriage?”
“No. I don’t know about now, but it certainly wasn’t done when they were married. My mom just saw pictures of Daddy and met him, in the presence of elders of course, three or four times. All they did was exchange hellos. By what Ammi tells me, this is still how it’s done in most of the middle class families in Pakistan.”
“Despite all that, they’ve had a pretty good marriage, wouldn’t you say.”
“Are you kidding? They have a great marriage. I’m sure they have issues but then who doesn’t. Ammi tends to heat up at times, but daddy knows how to cool her down.”
“So despite this live example in your own home of strangers getting married and having a great marriage, you are hesitant about a strange guy? This is not to mention the added privilege, that your parents never had, to talk, chat, email and Skype to see if you and Umair are compatible.” Humna sighed.
“I’m not saying that strangers can’t have a good marriage. The only thing that makes me hesitant is his being from Pakistan. That casts an immense, dark, suspicious cloud over this whole thing.”
“And you’re willing to waste I don’t know how many years of your life waiting for the ‘trustworthy’ guy from the US? Give me a guarantee that that’s exactly what you’ll find here and I’ll back off.”
“I can’t give you any guarantee Ruby. No one can guarantee things like that.”
It was at that moment that Ruby slammed the trap door shut.
“Just listen to yourself talk. We’re both saying the same thing,” she reasoned. “Look Humna, if I hadn’t heard so many good things about Umair, I would never force you to at least think about him. In fact, I’m still not forcing you. If you tell me that you’re not interested at all because you can find an equally good or better guy here, I’ll just take his portfolio elsewhere. Good guys are hard to find and I will try to hook him up with one of my friends. So he lives in Karachi. Big deal.”
“Give me time to think about this. And don’t talk to Ahmed until I say so. Because if the guy agrees, that would mean moving to the next step and I’m not mentally prepared for that yet.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve never been in touch with a potential candidate on email before? What’s there to be mentally prepared about?”
“I have been in touch with potential candidates, Ruby. Just not with one in Karachi.”
Ruby smacked her forehead in annoyance.
A son of one of the families Zahra and Ibrahim Saeed were well acquainted with was getting married. As active members of the local Pakistani community, their whole family was also invited to the wedding. Weddings were three- or four-day events and were greatly looked forward to as it meant the chance to show off gold, silver, pearl and diamond jewelry and latest fashion dresses of gorgeous chiffons, glistening silks and georgettes with gold and silver thread and bead work with matching yards of flowing duppattas in striking color combinations.
That night had been the Nikah and the family was on its way back home after the bash, which was held at the Sheraton Hotel. Zahra was full of the expense of the night’s bash, the bill for which had gone to the girl’s side. The boy’s event, the Valima, two days later, was at a reputed local banquet hall and the bill for this would go to the groom’s side.
“Ameena told me tonight’s event was almost seventy dollars per head, including food and decorations.” Ameena was a close mutual friend of the groom’s mother and Zahra.
“Wow!” exclaimed Huma. “It looked like there were over 300 people there. If there were, that’s almost twenty-five thousand dollars and just for one event!” She was sixteen and, as all girls her age, thoroughly enjoyed the glitz and glamour of Pakistani weddings.
“Their money, their business. Let them spend it however they like,” said Humna.
“It’s their money but they shouldn’t splurge like this,” Zahra was irritated. “They only raise the bar for everyone else in the community.”
“Why would they be raising the bar?” asked Humna. “People can have as lavish or as simple a wedding as their pocket allows. It shouldn’t be for impressing others.”
“We’ll have your wedding at a local park,” teased Huma. Ibrahim laughed.
“Don’t be so mean Huma,” he reprimanded his younger daughter in good fun. “I can afford a good restaurant, if not the Hilton or Sheraton.”
“No one is having weddings at restaurants anymore,” Zahra was still stuck on the troubling idea of the bar being raised for a ‘respectable’ wedding. “You could keep the smaller events preceding the wedding there but not the Valima or the Nikah.” Ibrahim didn’t reply.
“What I don’t understand is why the two parties didn’t just combine the Nikah and the Valima and just split the cost,” another sensible suggestion from Humna.
“Because that would have drastically reduced the opportunity for the girls and their mothers to show off their dresses and jewelry,” Ibrahim had to respond to this. Huma and Humna laughed out loud. Zahra gave him a vexed look. She hated it when he joined ranks with the girls to mock her ‘sensible and realistic’ ideas.
“The Nikah and the Valima have always been separate events and they should be treated as such,” Zahra responded primly. “Just because we live in a different country doesn’t mean we forgo the actual manner in which weddings are celebrated.”
“If one is really concerned with the actual, and recommended, modus operandi of an Islamic wedding, the Nikah is to be a very simple affair at the mosque and the Valima is the only grand reception. There is also no question of all the unnecessary bells and whistles of the several events preceding the Nikah that people have made incumbent upon themselves to celebrate,” he said firmly.
“You’re right Daddy,” Humna was listening intently. “We’ve just made a simple affair really complicated just for the sake of showing off. Nowadays, the actual cost of the entire wedding, which include the dowry, a.k.a. gifts, for the boy and the girl, their families, professional makeup for three or four events, professional photographer and event decorator and accommodations for the out of state guests, runs close to 75,000 dollars.” Huma whistled. This was enough to distract her from shuffling through Humna’s wedding favor box for her favorite candies.
“I think all the current flamboyant and ostentatious customs that we have ‘culturally created’ are outrageously excessive,” said Ibrahim. “It is extremely unfair to burden ourselves with that sort of expense just for the sake of vanity.”
“It’s not vanity, Ibrahim,” Zahra argued. “If you live in France, you have to do what the French do.”
“Let’s move to France,” Huma promptly suggested. “Maybe having weddings there will be less expensive.” They all laughed. “We can move back after the two of us are married!”
“Either that or you start working overtime, Daddy,” she continued. “You have two daughters. You’ll be broke by the time you get the two of us married in style.”
“Don’t worry beta-jee,”he looked at his fun-loving, younger daughter in the rearview mirror. “I won’t go broke because I don’t believe in going overboard with expenses just to please everyone else.”
“This is not about what you want Ibrahim,” insisted Zahra. “The boy’s side nowadays demands a bohatacheeshadithe definition of which is as lavish an affair as we’ve seen.“
“This is just a subtle, modern form of the ignoble dowry system all wrapped up in frills and ribbons,” Ibrahim shook his head in disgust.
“You’re right daddy,” Humna agreed. “Unreasonable and callous monetary demands from the groom’s side is actually dowry redefined.”
“Why does the boy’s side have the upper hand in our marriages?” Huma questioned thoughtfully. “I mean, they reject ten million girls before finding the right one and then call the shots as to how and where the events should be held. They probably make other under-the-table demands too.”
“It’s like they sell their boys to the highest bidder,” Humna shook her head distastefully. “Where does one find sincerity?”
“You’re right,” Huma agreed. “Marriages are more like a business venture now. People are attracted to money, the future earning potential of the girl and what kind of wedding the girl’s side can throw. It was obvious tonight too; Owais only did his undergrad in business but the girl is a doctor.”
“Her father is a doctor too,” Humna interjected.
“That’s enough reason to lure in any boy,” Huma said. “Owais is short and dark complexioned but the girl is better looking, more educated and obviously rich.”
“As they say, money makes the world go round,” said Zahra. She had started to enjoy the conversation now.
“Enough girls,” Ibrahim interrupted. “No need to discuss anyone in particular. You can talk in general about weddings.” Zahra gave him an irritated look. The girls usually had more inside information on the couple than the mothers. She knew it wasn’t right to encourage the girls to talk about anyone in particular but couldn’t deny that the conversation was getting more entertaining.
They still had another ten miles to go. The girls chatted with their father about the food and menu. Zahra put back her head and closed her eyes. Her mind was still doing the math of wedding expenses. But before the wedding expense, there was still the question of finding that boy. (Continued next week)