A Suitable Match
By Irum Sarfaraz
It was the weekend and Seema took her two sons to visit her brother and his family. Her brother was fourteen years older than her and she herself was only a few years older than her brother’s eldest son. With no other siblings or close family members in Karachi, Seema was very attached to her three nephews and two nieces. Though her Bhabi had wanted her entire family over for lunch, there was a cricket match that day. Asking Akram to leave the house on a cricket match day was akin to asking him to jump off the roof of their house. So, she had lunch at home and then took the kids to visit Bhai. In a way, she was glad Akram wasn’t with her. This gave her the opportunity to talk to Bhai and Bhabi alone. She didn’t want to discuss her little plan with Akram until she had talked to them first. In case they absolutely refused to consider it, there was no need to be made fun of by her husband who always teased her about her diwanay-shanay or idioticideas, as he called them.
She took a rickshaw to her brother’s and got there at around 4 p.m. The sun was still hot and the bumper-to-bumper traffic was even worse because of the weekend. The blaring of horns and the near misses of the cars, taxis and buses with each other was more frightening in a rickshaw but she felt much safer in the open ride than she did in a taxi. With all the tales of abduction and stealing and what not, she personally thought it would be far easier to jump out of a doorless rickshaw than a taxi. Besides, her two boys, 11 and 8, preferred the thrill of rickshaw rides over bland taxis or buses.
As always, everyone affectionately welcomed her. Both her Bhai and Bhabi treated her more like a younger daughter than a sister. Her two older nephews were married and shared the upper portion of the house. Bhai and Bhabi lived on the first floor with their unmarried son and daughter. After the tea and snacks were over, Seema casually brought up the topic of Meer’s marriage.
“Have you started looking for a girl for Meer yet?” she asked her Bhabi, Meher Afridi.
“I’m keeping an eye out but your Bhai says not to finalize anything until Meer at least finds a job. The first thing the girl’s family wants to know is what the boy does.”
“Getting a job is not easy nowadays,” Seema pointed out. “Does he have any place in mind?”
“These boys have a lot of places in mind but they have to learn to be realistic,” said her brother, Farid Afridi. “When you’re starting out, you often have to start at the bottom.”
“Isn’t he interested in going abroad for higher education?” Seema asked cautiously.
“Who isn’t interested?” Farid Afridi laughed. “But we can’t afford to send him. I can sell the ancestral property but that would be like spending the inheritance of all my children on just one child. Paying tuition in dollars or pounds is not a joke. I explained this to Meer and he understands. Whatever he plans to do with his future has to be done here.”
“But Bhai, Meer is so intelligent and ambitious. He could be really successful if he gets a degree from a good college abroad,” Seema said again.
“We told him he should start working here first and then try to get a job in the UAE or Saudi Arabia,” said Meher Afridi.
“But Bhabi, you can only go to these countries for making money and nothing else,” Seema protested. “They don’t give you permanent residency and there is no chance of future education.”
“That’s all we can do Seema and I’m glad Meer understands this,” Farid Afridi had taken out his cigarette packet and was now looking for his matches.
“Well he can go to the US if he marries a US citizen girl,” Seema blurted out. Farid and Meher Afridi looked up at her in surprise. Her brother forgot to light his cigarette.
“Are you suggesting I marry my son off to a US citizen girl just so that he can use her as a ticket for a higher education and a chance to settle there?” he glared at Seema. Seema knew her brother’s temperament very well so she wasn’t surprised at his reaction. He was a man of principle and having his son enter a relationship just for the sake of advantage would never be acceptable to him. She had to proceed cautiously lest he put his foot down entirely and forbade it.
“I’m not saying that Bhai. Why would I even suggest something like this? You know me better than that,” Seema replied hurriedly, racking her brain for a good enough reason to soothe his sudden flare of temper. Bhabi didn’t look very pleased either.
“Actually,” Seema cleared her throat. “One of my friends knows a very good family in the US who are looking for a match from Pakistan for their daughter. They are not a very modern, Westernized family and hence want a boy from a good family in Pakistan. So, she was asking me about Meer.” Although Seema had cooked up the story on the spur of the moment, it wasn’t all a lie; Zarina Appa was a friend now and she had said she had someone in mind for Meer.
“No, no, Seema,” Meher Afridi put up her hand in protest. “I’ve heard too many stories about these American-born girls. I want a nice, simple girl from here who will live together with us.”
“How many daughters-in-law do you want living with you Bhabi?” Seema asked in irritation. “Aren’t two enough?”
“Why are you so interested in this proposal anyway?” Farid Afridi asked, trying to figure out his younger sister’s sudden interest in Meer’s marriage.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Seema answered in surprise. “He’s my nephew and I want the best for him. When this friend came asking me specifically for Meer, I saw no harm in asking you.” Inwardly, Seema prayed to be forgiven for her little lies but she knew there was no other way she could get this thing to fly. Plus, it was for a good cause.
“Which friend is this?” Meher Afrdi looked at her closely.
“Sabiha,” Seema replied promptly. Everyone in her brother’s family was well acquainted with Sabiha and her family.
“Hmmm, and the girl will come and live here?” asked Farid Afridi.
“Bhai, why would she come and live here when she and her husband can have a far better life over there?” Seema asked in exasperation.
“People are living very good lives here too Seema,” pointed out Meher Afridi. “There is nothing wrong with Pakistan.”
“There is nothing wrong with Pakistan for people like you who live in their own home, drive a good car, and have their father’s ancestral land to fall back on in case of a financial emergency,” said Seema. “But what kind of opportunity do you think this country offers to an ambitious boy like Meer? Agreed that he will have a Master’s degree but what kind of job do you think it will get him in this corrupt system? Will he live with you guys all his life stuck in some dull, hand to mouth, run-of-the-mill job? He has to marry someone. Does it matter where the girl is from if they can live a good, honest, opportunity filled life out of the country?”
Farid Afridi was listening to her thoughtfully. He had cooled down considerably after hearing that the other party was the first to express interest in Meer rather than the other way around. Meher Afrdi didn’t know what to say. Right then Meer entered the simply but tastefully furnished family room. He was happy to see his aunt but immediately sensed that he had interrupted a serious discussion.
“So, what’s the topic of the day?” he asked casually. He picked up some peanuts from the bowl lying on the coffee table and started eating them.
“Your aunt has brought a proposal for you,” his father said dryly. His cigarette was now almost half done. Meer raised his eyebrows at Seema.
“From a girl in the US,” his mother added. Meer nearly choked on his peanuts.
His eyes were dark gray and complemented his sun tanned complexion. It was clear by his dark brown hair that he was naturally fair but the blazing sun rarely allowed men to keep their fair color in Pakistan.
“What?!” he spluttered. “Phuppo, if you’ve had a fight with Akram phuppa, please don’t take your anger out on me! Marrying any girl is hard enough, let alone an American born, spoilt brat.”
“Meer,” his mother reprimanded. “Beta you shouldn’t talk like that about anyone’s daughter.”
“Sorry Amma,” Meer apologized hurriedly. “I didn’t mean it like that. But Phuppo, please have mercy on me.” He comically put both hands together in front of Seema in a gesture of asking forgiveness.
“Don’t be silly Meer,” Seema said, irritated. “This is a girl from a conservative, educated family and certainly not a spoilt brat. Why should her being born and raised in the US be her disadvantage? You have to marry someone, don’t you?” She then turned to her brother, Farid Afridi.
“Bhai, nobody is forcing you to marry Meer into this family,” she said. “You or Bhabi just have to talk to them first and see if you like the family. If you do, then Meer can talk to the girl and see if the two of them like each other. It’s like the marriage process in Pakistan.”
“I’m not going to talk to anyone,” Meher Afridi was instantly alarmed at the thought of speaking to a Pakistani-American mother for her daughter’s hand. The mere thought was hugely intimidating for the simple lady. Farid Afridi couldn’t help but smile. Meer and Seema laughed too. Meer put his arm affectionately around his mother.
“Amma is already scared of the girl!” he chuckled affectionately.
“Chup karo,” Meher admonished her son.
“So, Bhai?” Seema turned to Farid Afridi. “What do you say?”
“How can I say anything yet?” he looked at her in surprise. “We don’t even know what the girl looks like or which family she belongs to? I suggest you get this information first and then we’ll decide if we want to move forward or not.”
“Hey,” Meer protested. “This is my marriage we’re talking about here. Why isn’t anyone asking me?”
“Of course, it’s your marriage,” Seema turned to him. “And this family is well recommended. Unless you have an objection to going to the US.” She looked at him questioningly. This was all very sudden for him. He didn’t know what to say.
“We aren’t taking you to the mosque tomorrow to do your Nikah,” Seema said again. “Let’s see if we like the family first, then your father can talk to them and the three of you can decide what to do about it.”
“Well, I need to get the rice on the stove for dinner,” Meher Afridi got up, adjourning the little meeting. It was also time for the Maghrib prayers. Seema got up to see what her two sons were up to. They were probably on the second floor playing with her married nephews’ children. The upper portion of the house was far more interesting for them than the boring first floor.
That evening Seema returned from her brother’s house most pleased with the outcome of the meeting. She could hardly wait to call Zarina Apa right away to tell her to move the process to the next step.
Meer couldn’t shake his aunt’s conversation from his mind, nor could he help weighing the pros and cons of such a marriage. Like his father, he hated the idea of marrying someone, even in Pakistan, just for the sake of getting something out of it. But the fact that this proposal had been initiated from the other side turned it into something that could be considered rather than immediately rejected.
He also thought about what his friends would say, as would the rest of the family. There would no doubt be a lot of sneering, jeering and joking that he was marrying a US born and raised girl just for the sake of getting US citizenship. It was different if the girl happened to be a relative. But she wasn’t. Would he be able to deal those sort of remarks?
On the other hand, if he and his family, and this was a huge IF, found the family compatible, then moving there would give him the opportunity to study further and get a far better job than he ever could in Pakistan. He could work in the daytime and take evening classes. At least his hard work would eventually pay off, unlike in Pakistan where it was not hard work but contacts in high places that decided where you ended up.
He had never been envious of his friends who had moved to the US after marriage or to study and he had never wished he was in their shoes. But now suddenly he was considering the advantages that could come out of such a match. The girl’s side was looking for a good family and he had to marry someone sooner or later. No harm in at least trying to see if there was some sort of compatibility here. He debated whether he should consult his friends on this but decided it was too premature. He didn’t want them asking him every day how well the process was going. He would tell them if he saw something coming out of it. In fact, he would also tell Phuppo, Amma and Abba not to say anything to anyone yet either. No use getting tongues wagging before time.
Humna was surprised to see a reply at 10 at night. Curious, she clicked it open. Umair’s response was courteous and polite. She was pleasantly surprised to note that the guy had good English and didn’t get his verbs and nouns all mixed up. He was asking about her family and education. Simple enough.
‘Assalam Alaikum Umair, As you know I live in California and have lived here all my life. I have a younger sister, Huma, who is in her second year of college. She wants to be a doctor. My dad is an engineer and my mother is a stay-at-home mom. They are both from Karachi. I have done my Bachelor’s in Accounting and currently work full time in a local bank.’
Ten minutes later, there was a reply.
‘Walaikum Assalam Humna, Like yourself, I also have one sibling, a younger sister Amna. She will graduate from college next year. My father works in a local bank and my mother is also a housewife like your mother. I am doing my Master’s with Ahmed. My plan is to work for a while after graduation and then start applying for a possible scholarship for a PhD in the US. It’s morning time here and I was just about to leave for the University. More later.’
Then on, Humna and Umair’s emails went back and forth on a regular pace. They were both curious about each other’s lives and backgrounds. As their communication continued they both realized that it was a good thing that neither of their parents or friends were aware that they were in touch. This made the entire process unhindered and unpressured. Their situation was unique and the opinions of others would have made it very hard to judge the pros and cons of it on its own merits.
Before they realized it, a month passed. Ahmed wisely did not question Umair about it at all. In reality, he didn’t need to do that. He got all the information he wanted from Ruby who in turn was getting it from Humna. Regardless of backgrounds, girls are always better talkers than boys.
(Continued next week)