11 A Suitable Husband
Of all the proposals to land on our coffee table, there was one in particular which caught my eye. It was simply too good to turn down. An educated, well respected, handsome professional, settled in Pakistan. Best of all, he had no interest in making a new life for himself in Britain. And the last thing I wanted was the burden of settling a immigrant husband in Bradford, a place where I already felt dislocated. Now, with this fine matrimonial package in hand, I felt empowered once again. This was my ticket to new beginnings in Islamabad.
I might only have spent a handful of my 23 years there, but Islamabad still felt like a home away from home. My ties with my parental homeland began in 1971, when dad convinced mum to return to Pakistan with their three children, ostensibly to give us a better quality of life and greater moral values. We moved in with mum’s extended family in Rawalpindi, arriving in the midst of the war that resulted in East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh. I was four. My earliest memories are of trenches dug out in the road, nightly blackouts, and older relatives routinely handing out cotton wool to stuff in our ears when the air raid sirens rang, to prevent the sound of explosions from piercing our eardrums.
At the head of our sprawling multi-generational household was my grandfather. He’d return from his book keeping position on a bicycle laden with groceries and biscuits for the eight grandchildren that now lived with him. The warmest of souls, he was himself the eldest of 14 children, which meant there was never a shortage of takers for the woven charpois lining the walls of the veranda, which doubled up as our playground after school. Of course, the busy household meant my agile grandmother was rarely released from the stove. Two older cousins quickly became my favourite family members. The college going daughters of mum’s deceased sister, they took charge of tying a blue ribbon in my hair every morning, in preparation for my school day. Mum’s spirited older brother was an engineer with Radio Pakistan. He’d leave for work with a blue tiffin box tucked in the metal basket of his Vespa. We’d greet his return with dismay, knowing he would shortly round up all the children, including his three sons, for extra maths tuition.
It wasn’t long before we moved to Islamabad. You see, when mum began teaching before marriage, she returned home one day with information about a novel government scheme. A new city called Islamabad was being built close to Rawalpindi. It would become the new capital, being more easily accessible than Karachi (the original capital) which was situated hundreds of miles away, on the coast of the Arabian Sea in the South. Nestled at the base of the Himalayan foothills, the site for the new capital seemed isolated and unwelcoming, so the government was keenly offering financial incentives to speed up settlement. With the unprecedented lure of an 18 month salary advance, mum’s parents encouraged her to buy a plot and persuaded their son to apply too. As fate would have it, mum and her brother were assigned adjoining plots. They even asked the architect to draw up plans for identical properties. When mum began to struggle financially after dad stopped supporting us, her brother stepped in so the building work could continue.
My grandma personally supervised the construction, setting off on foot from Rawalpindi each morning immediately after dawn prayers. She was a Hafiz-e-Quran which meant she had committed the entire holy book to memory. Ever the practical woman, she preferred to invoke prayers rather than engage in idle chatter. For months on end, as she watched over the builders, she infused the bricks and mortar with her prayers, and planted the trees which still offer shade in both gardens. The houses were rented out as soon as they were built, to help clear outstanding loans. In 1975, we finally moved in upstairs at number 9, living off the rent we earned from the ground floor. With my uncle living at number 11, we remained tightknit, with everyone relying on his Vespa as the extended family’s sole means of transport.
I befriended two diligent sisters that lived opposite. The ground floor of their house was also rented out so we’d often exchange gestures from our first floor terraces. I’ll never forget the day they brought the neighbourhood to a standstill by staging a doll’s wedding. They’d accepted a proposal on behalf of their doll from the proud owner of a boy doll, from further down the street. Invitations were issued and we all dressed up to attend the wedding ceremony. The sisters had spent weeks, painstakingly stitching clothes for their doll’s trousseau which ‘the bride’ would take to her husband’s home. They proudly laid out the extensive homemade dowry on their freshly sluiced terrace, and even my uncle’s wife went along for the obligatory inspection. Nurturing the girls’ efforts, their mum even served a wedding feast in the form of chickpea pullao and cardamom infused rice pudding. The women marvelled at the efficiency with which the initial proposal had been advanced, and how smoothly the girls had negotiated the terms of marriage. The attention and respect this event garnered from the adults reiterated, in no uncertain terms, that this was precisely the sort of amusement they endorsed. I also absorbed, at the tender age of nine, that proposals of marriage must follow certain protocol.
My own marriage in 1990 took place long before the growth of Muslim matrimonial websites. Back then, when a girl came of age, her parents would put the word out among informal marriage brokers, and then you hoped the enquiries would come flooding in. I realise it doesn’t sound very spontaneous, but that was the etiquette, and in some quarters it still is. You see, it’s indelicate for a girl’s parents to actively tout for a suitable husband. So, the onus is on the boy’s family to make appointments for viewings, and it’s the boy’s prerogative to make the initial offer of marriage.
Whilst we sat tight, waiting for viewings and offers, both mum and I continued to work on our shopping lists. I wanted a suitor who was well educated; broad minded, with an exciting career, a few stamps in his passport and first class people skills. I hoped he’d be at least moderately good looking and taller than me. There was a supplementary checklist which I’d accumulated through hearsay. I knew, for instance, that it was preferable to make a match where you could live independently, to limit day to day interference from the in-laws, but this wasn’t always possible. I knew it was important to consider the size of the new household. There might be a lot of in-laws to please which might also require extended spells in the kitchen. The mother-in-law’s disposition was also worth mulling over since her willing support could make your new life so much easier. Some of my friends had fretted that a potential suitor might not permit them to work, or he may wish to modify their dress code. As far as I was concerned though, such prerogatives were not even up for negotiation. Besides, I reasoned that these issues wouldn’t matter to the sort of well educated, broad minded suitor I had in mind.
Meanwhile, mum was set on a wholesome son-in-law with a solid family background, a good degree, a strong sense of responsibility and the sort of traditional career that would always pay the mortgage. We also had to give due consideration to the suitor’s social class. You see, our unions aren’t just marriages; they’re family mergers, so it’s vital to ensure that a lasting bond is truly sustainable. We couldn’t possibly marry beneath us. Nor did we want the pressure of keeping up appearances by securing a match with people way above our station. Mum has several cousins in her ancestral village who never married, because their families were unable to identify men of a suitable social class for them. In a couple of cases, I know that property was also an issue. Promising their daughters outside existing kinship networks, would have resulted in the unwelcome division of the family’s property. You see, the daughter takes a share of her father’s property to her new family. Little wonder then that marriage within the extended family is still so popular.
The Indian films I grew up with often reinforced the tribulations of finding an ideal suitor. Yet, there were occasions where people became love-struck before even exchanging a single word. “But how could they know whether or not they have a deeper connection?” I would wonder. Ever the realist, I worried that they hadn’t discussed expectations or joint bank accounts. Indeed, the lovebirds faced many hurdles after it was too late for them to evaluate their differences objectively. With our respective lists, mum and I were simply trying to iron out these obstacles in advance. This exquisite A R Rehman song from Bombay (Mani Ratnam, 1995) eloquently captures the initial exchange between a Hindu man and a Muslim woman. In amongst the wedding crowd, a single glimpse of the beautiful girl leaves the protagonist mesmerised. He follows her furtively in the crowd. The girl, the epitome of innocence of course, initially hesitates to return his gaze. She becomes uneasy, tormented by her inability to reject his attention in the largely segregated assembly, and before long her eyes begin to seek his.
Even in Bradford, weddings are regarded as the perfect opportunity for eager mothers to parade their young daughters. So it’s not surprising that the men in films like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 1999) so willing chaperoned their sisters to weddings, particularly since the caring sister was only too happy to intervene on behalf of her distracted brother. As Aishwarya Rai performs ‘Nimbooda’ (which means lemon or sourness, hence the prop in her hand!) with her dance troupe, she’s oblivious to the decent gent in the crowd who has already selected her to be his bride. What makes this a little more plausible, at least to me, is that Aishwarya’s jovial performance showcases her exuberance, and I like to think it is this which makes her so irresistible to Ajay Devgan.
I, on the other hand, was very level-headed about choosing a suitable husband. There was no hesitation when the option of marrying my uncle’s youngest son was put to me, despite the irony that I knew my uncle better than I knew his son, whom I’d seen fleetingly five years earlier at a family wedding in Islamabad. Naturally, his profile came with a good character reference, but I knew little about his daily routine, and nothing about the workings of his mind and heart. I knew him from afar, in the same way I knew my neighbour, with nothing more between us than the occasional inconsequential exchange. The solitary spark of romance in this merger was the nostalgia of a childhood in Pakistan, although that seemed a lifetime away now, and my grandparents, the glue that bonded us all, were long gone.
Rationally though, the arrangement went well beyond the usual union of two individuals, making me something greater than just one half of a couple. Our families shared the same history and I felt relief in such a sense of belonging. I knew that marrying within the family would grant me more security than marrying an outsider ever would. We could also dispense with the usual protracted enquiries since we already knew these people were of good stock. You see, it’s not unheard of for men to have to produce certificates as proof of their qualifications, and wage slips to confirm they really earn what they say they do.
It was reassuring to be stepping into a familiar arrangement. I would effectively be moving next door, from house number 9 to 11. I liked to think I’d be favoured over the other daughter-in-laws since, unlike them, I already belonged to the family. I could be the daughter my uncle never had, and I would gain a much needed father figure. My uncle was now a widower and there were no interfering sister-in-laws living with him. As the only woman of the household, I would automatically assume a rank which most daughter-in-laws wait a lifetime to ascend. And so I accepted their offer, confident that I was the best candidate for the position.
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST
PREVIOUS: LOST IN BRADFORD
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Written by Irna Qureshi
01/12/2011 at 7:52 pm
Tagged with A R Rehman, Aishwarya Rai, Ajay Devgan, Bangladesh, Bombay, Bradford, East Pakistan, extended family, Hafiz-e-Quran, history of Islamabad, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Kehna Hi Kya, Mani Ratnam, marriage proposal, Muslim matrimonial, Nimbooda, Pakistan, Rawalpindi, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Vespa, wedding
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