A Suitable Match
Humna was watching TV in the family room but her attention was on the phone conversation her mother was having with Jabeen Anti. Zahra was a firm believer in multi-tasking. Humna had rarely seen her mother sitting down doing nothing but talking on the phone; she always made sure her hands were simultaneously busy with her mouth. Hail to hands free blue tooth. At this time too while talking to Jabeen, Zahra was busy reorganizing the books in the three bookshelves in the family room. Most of the books were Urdu fiction, poetry, and biographies by Pakistan’s well-known writers and poets. These books were her mother’s prized collection. Just like the wall hangings, Arabic calligraphy and colorful oils of Pakistan’s rural life, and the carved wood and marble decoration pieces scattered around the house, the bookshelves too reflected the residents’ close and loving affiliation with their home country.
The topic was Owais’s wedding that Jabeen had not been able to attend.
“The girl was not only pretty and rich but also a doctor,” Zahra was saying. Though Humna could only hear one side of the conversation, it wasn’t hard for her to guess what Jabeen was saying too.
“Yes, surprising indeed. Owais hasn’t even started grad school yet,” Zahra laughed.
“Of course—Who needs to go to grad school when both the father-in-law and wife are doctors—that’s what I was telling Khalida. Even boys like Owais have the pick of the crop girls when it comes to getting married.” The conversation had moved to Zahra’s favorite topic.
“The only thing the girl’s side possibly saw was the status of the boy’s family and their good reputation. Otherwise, he has neither education, nor looks.” Zahra’s tone was somewhat piqued. She stopped to listen to Jabeen.
“I haven’t talked to Mrs Ali for a while. I think she was the one who hooked them up. Yes, she has people calling her from all over the country. Yes, I’ll keep you posted. Ok, you take care too.” Zahra clicked off the wireless blue-tooth on her ear and walked out of the room, probably in search of another chore as she figured whom else to call.
Humna was left in a deep thought. She couldn’t help comparing Owais with Umair. There was no comparison when it came to looks and education. Umair was tall and good looking and was completing grad school, even if it was from Pakistan. Owais was attractive at best but could in no way be deemed handsome. He still had to go to grad school. If Owais came from a good family, so did Umair. She had to admit that if Umair had been a US-born and -raised boy who had proposed to her, her mother would have been delirious with glee. The only thing that reduced Umair’s grade in the matchmaking exam was his being from Pakistan.
Her last conversation with Ruby was running through her mind that if she, Humna, refused to consider Umair then Ruby would just suggest him to someone else, probably Saira. Though Khalida Anti’s mind worked more or less along the same lines as her mother’s, there was a good chance Saira would make her mother see sense if she thought the guy was worth it. But then, which girl in her right mind would not ‘see sense’ in a guy like Umair? Humna was suddenly curious to find out more about this mysterious stranger from Karachi.
“How is this going to work?” She called Ruby that very night. Ruby was elated. But she was now wondering how to get Ahmed, not to mention Umair, on board too.
“This will only work if Umair agrees to talk to you too,” she explained to Humna.
“So he’s going to reject me if he doesn’t like me? I told you I wanted to be the one with the right of rejection.”
“You did have the first right of rejection, idiot. Why do I have to keep explaining this to you? The poor guy doesn’t even know we’re discussing him right now,” Ruby said exasperatedly. “Could you just put your self-esteem and ego aside for a minute and approach this entire thing like an adult?”
“Honestly Ruby, you’re talking as if any guy from Karachi would actually refuse the opportunity to come to the US on a legitimate immigration visa.”
“Don’t be so cocky. There is a good chance he might outright refuse because he doesn’t want to come to the US at all. He may not be interested in any girl from the US.”
“What happens if he agrees?”
“If he agrees to at least get to know you, then you two can first email each other and see how it goes.” Sounded harmless enough. No different than the rishta process in the US.
“And one more thing,” Ruby was quick to remind her. “Don’t mention this to Anti or uncle yet. Our parents are really into class compatibility. I suggest you evaluate the guy without the pressure or the negativity that parents are likely to inject into boy selection. If you decide, I meant if the two of you decide, that this is seriously going anywhere, then you can let Zahra Anti and Ibrahim Uncle into the picture.”
“What if I decide he’s not my type?”
“If not, then no need to mention him at all. What they don’t know won’t hurt them. Plus, it will keep the door open for you to consider some other good match from Pakistan in the future. If you tell Zahra Anti now, she might completely forbid you to consider any one from Pakistan ever. That won’t be good in the long run.”
That made sense. In the last two years, her mother had rejected two potential proposals simply because one of the boys was from rural Nebraska and the other from either South or North Dakota on grounds that they hailed from the pinds of USA. Zahra Saeed may have immigrated to a modern world but she had made sure she brought along all the baggage from her Third World motherland. Her ideas often irked Ibrahim but he knew she just followed the mandates of the community to which she belonged. He just ignored them like the whims of a little child. As long as they weren’t causing major harm, he figured, she could celebrate her ‘progressive Pakistanism’ as much as she liked.
“You told your friend what?” Ahmed could not believe his ears. “How could you present Umair to your friend as if he was a…a… chicken tikka in a restaurant?” Ruby suppressed the urge to laugh out loud at Ahmed’s analogy. She wasn’t surprised at the reaction. In fact, she would have been more surprised had he reacted mildly.
“I know it wasn’t the right way but this was the only way to do it,” she reasoned. “Don’t you think it’s proper for the girl to have the right to see the boy first rather than the other way around? And then say no if she didn’t like him?”
“I’m not saying that the boy should see the girl first. But he should at least be aware of the presence of a girl who might or might not agree to marry him.”
“But if he was aware, don’t you think his feelings would be hurt if the girl rejected him?” Ruby asked in an innocent tone. “I mean, not being aware saves him a lot of heartache. Don’t you think?”
“This is not funny Ruby.”
“And I’m not trying to be funny. What’s wrong with matching up two people who could potentially be well suited for each other?”
“But Ruby, I’ve told you about Umair. He has a lot of pride and would hate for anyone to even hint that he was marrying a girl just for her green card. It’s very demeaning.”
“But Ahmed, people talk and gossip about everything under the sun. If we start taking them seriously, none of us would get anywhere.”
“It’s easy for you to say that sitting there. In Pakistan, the mere dread of what ‘people will say’ rules people’s lives.”
“I know what you mean. Pakistanis living here have that dread too. It’s a cultural jinx. But let’s not talk about that right now. That’s not something we can change. Let’s talk about the good changes we can bring in people’s lives.”
“Some people don’t like interference in their personal lives and Umair is one of them. I suggest you drop this idea.”
“Doesn’t he want to get married?”
“Of course he does. But probably to a girl in Pakistan and definitely not to one from the US whom people are likely to say he married just to get a free ride across the ocean. He’d hate that.”
“Let’s take people out of the equation. Tell me, would he mind coming here with a chance to study further and make a better life?”
Ahmed was silent for a moment. There was no doubt that there were better opportunities for any ambitious person in the US as opposed to the very volatile, present day Karachi.
“I wouldn’t exactly say he would mind. He plans to go for PhD to the US on a government scholarship but getting married to get there has never been an option for him.”
“That sounds perfect! This means that the germs to get to the US someday are already in his head!”
“Don’t get so excited. This doesn’t mean he is open to my bringing in a complete stranger out of the blue, plop her down in front of him and his family, and suggest he marry her.”
“I understand that,” explained Ruby. “But Humna is not exactly a total stranger. She’s a sensible, well-educated girl from a good family. We’ve grown up together and went to the same school. Would it be any harm if the two just exchanged emails to see if there is some level of compatibility? I mean, there is no compulsion on either of them to marry each other.”
“I guess there’s no harm,” he said slowly. “So what if they find each other unsuitable?”
“Then I have another friend I could show him,” she said promptly. Ahmed laughed.
“Are you planning to go into the marriage bureau business?”
“No I’m not. But I will exhaust all options of matching up my good friends with your good friends. I think it’s a win-win situation for both parties. You won’t believe the problems Pakistanis are having trying to find good boys here. “
“So why is this spotlight specifically on my friends?” he asked curiously. “Why not consider the many other boys who really do want to move to the US?”
“You just gave me the reason yourself. Why would I, or anyone else, take a chance on a guy who is dying to come here? I mean, yes, the parents here are having a hard time finding the right boys but they aren’t so desperate as to gamble on a fortune hunter.”
“How could you trust my friends to be any different?”
“Because you trust them,” she said simply. “And I trust you.”
Ahmed didn’t reply. Attempting to match up two people was like treading on ground rife with landmines; if things went right, you were applauded but if they didn’t, you were reprimanded for life. However, he couldn’t deny that the thought of having a close friend with him in the US was a most agreeable one. What could be better? The question was how to get Umair on board without scaring him off entirely.
“At this point, all I can say is, knowing Umair, this could go either way,” he finally told Ruby.
“So you’ll talk to him?” Ruby was excited. At least she had managed to convince Ahmed. The ball was in Ahmed’s court now.
“I’ll talk to him but don’t get your hopes up. It won’t be easy.”
If Umair was remotely anything as Ahmed had described him to be, Ruby knew it wouldn’t be.
Umair’s cell-phone nearly dropped out of his hand. He could hardly believe his ears.
“What? Are you out of your mind? How could you possibly do this without my permission?” he blurted out. Ahmed didn’t reply. He was expecting this reaction. That’s why he hadn’t told him at the University but had called him later at home.
“Calm down. Ruby did this without consulting me,” it wasn’t exactly a lie. It was Ruby’s plan, not his. Plus, he was hopeful that the end would fully justify the means.
“The two of you talk about everything under the stars,” Umair was angry. “I’m sure you cooked up this little scheme together too.”
“First of all we didn’t ‘cook up’ any scheme. And secondly there’s nothing to get so upset about,” he tried to calm him down. “Don’t people in Pakistan ask your mother for their girls? They used to ask my mother a lot about me too.”
“For one thing, you’re not my mother,” Umair still sounded nettled. “And you know very well that I do not want to be labeled as someone who is marrying a girl from the US just for a free ride. Do you realize how bad this will make me and my family look?”
“Aray Bhai, who’s asking you to marry her tomorrow? And plus she is not just any girl; Ruby knows her very well.”
“I’m sure she’s a good girl but Ammi and Abba would never agree to a girl from the US. Also, finding a girl for a boy is a mother’s business in our culture. Saying yes or no may be up to the boy, but she’s the one who brings home the potential match. I’m not in a mood to reverse the process and create a tempest at home.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. At the moment, we don’t even know if the two of you will find each other compatible. Let’s take this step by step.”
“But I have no plans to move to the US, why should I even consider marrying a girl from there?” Umair was still rigid. “I’m sure she won’t agree to move to Karachi for me and I can’t leave my family here alone.”
“But you’re planning to go abroad on a scholarship for your PhD anyway,“Umair reasoned. “Wouldn’t they be alone then? And be realistic; no one wants to return after going there once. You wouldn’t want to return to the corrupt, fraudulent system of Pakistan either. Anti and Uncle can move there with you as Amna will probably be married off by then.”
“You sure have everything figured down to a T haven’t you,” Umair pretended to sound sarcastic when in reality he couldn’t help feeling amused. “But even if I agree to marry this ‘very good girl’, there’s no guarantee that she’ll want to live with my parents. I’ve heard that the girls from the US are not in favor of living with their in-laws. They want to snare the boy alone and want nothing to do with his parents.” Umair voiced some common notions about Pakistani girls in the US. Ahmed sighed. Obviously Umair had as many false apprehensions about girls in the US as the girls had about the boys in Pakistan.
“If you have misconceptions about this girl, she too has her share of apprehensions. Just to let you know, she wasn’t willing to talk to you either. The girls there fear that boys from Pakistan marry only for green cards, an easy life and a working wife. Once they have their immigration papers set, they jilt the wife and kids and take off. Many have fiancées waiting in Pakistan whom they later marry and bring to the US.”
“These jilters have given us all a bad name,” Umair replied disgustedly. “I don’t blame her for being apprehensive. She’s probably seen this happening a lot.”
“Yes she has. But you, being my friend, have been highly recommended by Ruby. So she has decided to at least talk to you.”
“And I’m supposed to be delighted at this favor?”
“Stop being so negative. No one is doing anyone a favor. It’s just two people talking to see if they are compatible. At the moment, ignore the fact that they’re in different countries.”
“I’m surprised that girls over there are having a hard time finding good matches.”
“Not everyone is having a hard time. It’s mostly the families who are seeking the best of both cultures and want to do things the way they’ve always been done who are facing this problem. When you start communicating with this girl, I suggest you don’t judge her by the label attached to the Pakistani girls in the US. This proposal is a two-way road. Neither one of you can dispel the misconceptions you have about each other unless you give each other a chance.”
Umair finally told Ahmed that he wanted time to think about it. It was true that he did have to get married to someone. If this compatible girl happened to be in the US, her geographical location was no reason to reject her. However, although he had agreed to think over it, he couldn’t shake off the troubling thought of what people would say. Perhaps, he figured, the only way to get over the trepidation was to face the tiger head-on. (Continued next week)