A Suitable Match
By Irum Sarfaraz
“Bhabi I have the information about that girl for Meer,” Seema said in a low voice. She had sneaked into the kitchen with Meher Afridi. Gul was getting a tray ready with some snacks. There were plates of mithai, pakoras and some cookies. The tea mugs were in another tray. Meher Afridi wearily looked at her excited, impatient sister-in-law.
“Hold your horses Seema,” she said, “it’s not as easy as you make it seem.”
“But it also isn’t as difficult as you’re making it seem Bhabi,” Seema insisted.
“What isn’t easy or difficult?” Gul, Meer’s twenty-years-old sister was suddenly curious. She was holding the tea tray in her hand.
“None of your business,” Seema took her niece by the shoulders and turned her towards the door. “Hasn’t you mother told you not to eavesdrop when elders are talking?”
“I wasn’t eavesdropping,” she retorted.
“Gul, take the tray out and see if anyone needs anything else,” her mother interrupted sharply. Gul left the kitchen with the tray.
“I have the pictures in my email Bhabi. You want me to show you all?” Seema asked again.
“Absolutely not!” Meher Afridi refused immediately. “How improper to see the pictures of someone’s daughter in the presence of the entire family and then make her the topic of discussion.” Seema was embarrassed. Bhabi was right. It wasn’t proper.
“Then I’ll just show you and Gul and you can tell Bhai and Meer about it.”
“Seema, why are you so insistent about his girl?” Meher Afridi asked in exasperation.
“Because they are looking for a boy like Meer and it will give him a chance to leave the country.”
“There are plenty of other boys like Meer in Karachi. They can find someone else.”
“Why should someone else benefit from an opportunity that has come directly our way? Plus, my friend has asked specifically for Meer, not the boy down the street.”
“Who has asked what about Meer?” Gul was back in the kitchen, her ears alert. Every time her mother and aunt whispered secretly in corners, it was exciting news. Meher Afridi had poured the tea in the mugs and the tray was ready.
“Take the tea out Gul and then come back and open your computer for me,” Seema told her. She and Meher Afridi took their mugs into the family room. Farid Afridi, his two married sons and Akber were in the living room. As was the custom in the middle class, and even many of the upper-class households, the women sat separately in the presence of brothers-in-law and other men. Had Akber been not present, the family would have sat together.
Pleased to be let in on some high priority secret, Gul had hurried back into the family room with her laptop. She placed it on the coffee table in front of the sofa where her aunt and mother were sitting. In a few minutes, all three of them were looking at Saira’s pictures.
“Who’s she Phuppo?” Gul was examining the pictures closely. “She’s pretty.”
“A possible girl for Meer.” Gul turned to her Phuppo in surprise.
“For Meer Bhai?” she asked excitedly. Then she turned to her mother. “Really Amma? I like her.”
“Keep your opinions to yourself Gul,” Meher Afridi attempted to reign in her daughter’s eagerness. “And I don’t want you discussing her with anyone until we’ve decided what to do. It’s not proper.”
“Please decide quickly Bhabi so we can move forward,” Seema was as excited as her young niece.
“Oh yes, Amma, do make up your mind quickly!” Gul was really excited now.
“You two are talking like we’re selecting a dress in the market. This is not a joke you know. Arranging marriages takes time. Plus, you know very well that Meer’s father has the final say in these matters.” She tried to water down her sister-in-law’s and daughter’s enthusiasm.
Meher Afridi was right; in their household, it was Farid Afridi who had the last word in important affairs like these. Besides, he and the other men of the family were responsible for doing all the background checks on potential brides or grooms. Meher Afridi was a simple housewife who was perfectly content with agreeing with her husband’s decisions.
Seema started telling Meher Afridi about the family details. Gul was sitting on the carpet across from them and had now turned the laptop towards her.
“Gul dear, just log me out of my email, will you?” Seema told her niece and then resumed her conversation with her older sister-in-law.
Gul was about to do that when a thought struck her. This girl was for Meer Bhai and he didn’t even know what she looked like. She wanted to call him in right then and show him but she knew he wouldn’t like looking at a strange girl’s pictures in front of Amma. But there was a way to do it.
Before logging out of Seema’s account, she forwarded the email with the pictures and the other information both to herself and to Meer. The subject line read, ‘A rishta for you’.
Despite all her discussions with Umair so far, Humna still had apprehensions in her heart. It was mostly the fear of an unknown boy from a different country, although of similar culture. She talked regularly to Ruby and Ruby constantly reassured her. But Humna felt it was a different case with Ruby since she was at least familiar with Ahmed and his family whereas she wasn’t. Ruby somehow lacked the insight and wisdom that could put her uncertainties and doubts to rest. She admitted this to Ruby.
“I hear what you’re saying,” said Ruby thoughtfully. “When I was thinking about marrying Ahmed, a lot of people were advising me and talking to me but you seem to be flying alone. Do you think you should pull in your parents at this point?”
“Not until my own mind is made up,” Humna replied. “I know my mom. She’ll shoot down the entire thing and will refuse to even consider it, even if it is going somewhere. I don’t want her attitude shaking the already very delicate balance between the yes or no in my head.”
“You want to talk to my mother about it?” Ruby offered dubiously. “I mean, you could just talk to her like a friend.”
“Are you crazy!” Humna jumped. “My mom will kill me if she finds out someone has else found out before her. I can’t talk to anyone in the community. This will just ruin whatever chances I may have of convincing her. If, that is, the stage of having to convince her does come.”
“Isn’t there a colleague at work that you could talk to?” Ruby suggested. “Any friend at work would be better than no one at all.” Humna was already thinking about this possibility. She suddenly thought of Wahida.
“Yes, I think I have someone in mind.” She was at the point where she needed to discuss the entire situation with someone. Wahida would be perfect.
Wahida was a Bengali junior manager at another local bank in the area. Humna had met her once at a mutual friend’s party. Although Wahida was six or seven years older than Humna, the two had hit off well from the start. They often ran into each other during their lunch breaks too. Humna knew that Wahida was married to a Pakistani guy. When Humna called to ask when they could meet, Wahida suggested they have lunch together that very day. Over lunch, Humna briefly updated her about her situation.
“Seems like you have quite a task at hand,” Wahida said thoughtfully. She was a petite girl in her early thirties with a jolly air around her. “Dealing with your parents will truly be an uphill task by what you’ve told me. When it comes to hanging on to cultural do’s and don’ts, it seems like at least the Bengali and Pakistani parents have a lot in common.”
“My dad probably won’t be so much of an issue as my mom,” Humna looked glum. “But I think it’s time to grab the tiger by the ears now. How did you manage your situation?”
“Though my parents don’t lug around culture as much as yours obviously do, my problem was further complicated by the fact that it was an intercultural marriage. Not to mention to an unknown boy who was also a non-resident of the US, which made my husband Javed look even more suspicious. He and I were classmates and he was on a student visa. So he appeared to be the greatest opportunist in the world to my parents.”
“I can well imagine how complicated that must have been.” Humna imagined herself in Wahida’s shoes. At least Ahmed and Ruby greatly supported Umair’s reputation.
“Very complicated, to say the least. Half the world was telling me how he was only after me to get his immigration while the other half was telling me how intercultural marriages were doomed to fail from the start. I thought I would go crazy.”
“Well, I haven’t even started to talk to anyone yet and I’m already fraught with doubt and indecision. When did you tell your parents?”
“I had told them right away. I figured it would be best to simultaneously weigh all my options and think about my decision while getting negative and positive input from everyone. I didn’t like the idea of stressing alone over the whole situation.”
“But don’t you think this was way more stressful? To be continuously told that you were not doing the right thing? Wouldn’t you rather have decided first and then listened to all opposition later?” Wahida shook her head.
“No,” she replied. “I didn’t want to make up my mind and then be hammered from all sides that I was wrong. I wanted to listen to everyone’s arguments and then give Javed the final answer. It was much better for me that way.”
“In a way, you’re right. I’m getting very muddled over how my parents will react. I thought it would make the decision easier if I was making it without any pressure. But at this point, I am continually wondering how to tell them and how they’ll react. Plus, Umair belongs to an upper middle class in Pakistan.”
“Are your parents from the elite or upper class in Pakistan?” Humna shook her head.
“This is also confusing to me,” she said. “Though both my parents are from the same class as Umair’s but after having lived here, they, my mother more than my father, reject it as if it taints them. My aunts and uncles and the rest of the family have a good standard of living but they live simply. It is surprising how our parents choose to be Westernized in some respects and not in others.” Wahida waited for her to continue.
“I mean, if they want to live totally like the Westerners, why aren’t they just as liberal when it comes to our marriages? I understand the part about sticking to Muslim values but why is it an issue if the boy is Muslim but from another culture or is a converted Muslim? But they insist on finding grooms for us just like my grandma did in Pakistan half a century ago.”
“This only shows how ingrained cultural values are in a person,” Wahida analyzed thoughtfully. “I think the reason parents can’t let go of them is because it gives them the feeling of belonging. Otherwise they’d be isolated from the community in a strange land. They can’t bear to sever their roots and neither can they allow us to do that.”
“You’re probably right but look how miserable they make themselves in the process. I hear my mom and her friends lament mournfully about the dearth of good proposals from educated Pakistani boys. But bring them an educated Muslim from another country, God forbid Pakistan itself, and they start to have fits.” Wahida had to smile at Humna’s tone.
“Do you feel as strongly about class difference as your parents?” Wahida asked. “Because if you have similar sentiments, I mean like thinking that a person is beneath you in any way, that would be the worst way to start off any relationship, especially a marriage.”
“Absolutely not. That’s the last thing I’ve thought about in my communication with Umair. I considered him as an individual whereas for my mother especially, a boy is not alone but is part of a bigger package, which includes his social status and class.”
“That’s more or less how my parents think too, even though they are more open minded than yours,” Wahida agreed. “But class is such a big deal in our community.”
“Umair and I are more focused on discussing our expectations of each other than the class we belong to. He has been very open with me about everything; his aspirations, his expectations, and his future plans.”
“So, what are his expectations of a wife? Are you sure you match those? Because technically, you belong to different worlds even though you’re from the same cultural background.”
“I’m not going to say we are a one hundred percent match in every instance but the things that don’t match are the ones that we can definitely work on.”
“So, you’re open to compromise?” Wahida asked casually.
“I’m not open to compromise if it means negating myself continually to do it,” Humna replied firmly. “But I’d be a fool not to know that no marriage works without both partners’ willingness to give each other allowances here and there.”
“It doesn’t seem like you need my advice at all,” Wahida was surprised. “You two seem quite well adjusted to the idea of getting married. What’s holding you back from telling your parents?” Humna sighed.
“We’re both afraid of how they’ll react.
“Are you afraid of how they’ll react or are you afraid that they’re going to make you back out from your decision?” Wahida asked carefully. Having gone through a similar situation, she was sure she had hit the nail on the head.
Humna was silent for a moment.
“You’re right. It’s because I feel my mother especially is going to try to convince me otherwise,” she finally admitted. Wahida smiled.
“It seems to me like you have already decided to move forward. And if you have decided already, just throw the dice. Otherwise you’ll torture yourself forever over it.” Wahida was right. Perhaps it was time to make the next move.
“My mother is going to explode,” Humna reflected gloomily.
“What about your dad? I thought you said he was more open-minded than she was?”
“He is. But she tends to highjack the conversation and create a fuss. Abbu often gives in just to avoid these useless, heated arguments.”
“Well you can’t have him walk away on this one. You know what…?” Wahida suddenly clicked her fingers. She had a solution. “Talk to him alone first before he or you tell your mom.”
That made a lot of sense. Ruby had been right. It did help to talk to someone who had an unbiased and objective view of things.
That night, Humna emailed Umair about her conversation with Wahida and how it was now necessary to bring in the parents.
‘It’s time to roll the dice. I’ll throw mine here. You throw yours in Karachi. Let’s see if we can manage to get doubles. If not this time, I’m willing to keep throwing until we do. Good luck.’ (Continued next week)