When you get married as late as I did, chances are many intriguing possibilities come your way. Certainly this was the case with me. It all started when I was about twenty, the occasional ‘rishta’ would crop up and I would bawl my heart out, loud and clear, and in no uncertain terms. Reason being: life in my little European university town was glorious.
There were debates ranging from Hegelian dialectics to Johnny Depp’s warm brown eyes over tempestuous cups of coffee. I adored the rain-drenched cobblestone streets and fourteenth century architecture. The cafes had warm, flickering firesides where chain-smoking Romeos and laconic Juliets sat lazily by, their elbows draped on red and white, chequered table cloths. Cartesian meditations and Kafka’s Cage lay half-read around us, the pages ruffled lovingly by the wind while we, would-be philosophers gazed into forbidden eyes. So you see, of course, suggestions of ‘suitable’ Pakistani boys, when they came my way, were met with a traumatised reaction. I decided, therefore, to stretch my thesis to fictional lengths, if only it enabled me to stay on longer in that little nugget of paradise.
[quote]I found myself sandwiched between the two women who stared me up and down[/quote]
And thus it came to be that the nice young Pakistani man (with appropriate Lucknow roots) living in nearby London was told that I was finding my thesis very absorbing and so could not meet him. He bought it. The second young man living somewhere on the West coast was unfortunately given my phone number. And so he did the unthinkable, he phoned. The girls’ dorm where I lived was full of sympathetic Belgian girls who repeatedly told suitor number two that I was in the library working on the, by now, famous thesis. Sceptic that he was, he kept calling, improving his French as my dorm mates kept answering the phone. Eventually I was hauled out of the mythical library. “So what is your thesis about?,” he asked the unthinkable. I spent forty-five minutes talking about ‘The Psychoanalytic Perspective of Naturalistic Art’. He did not call back. I later heard he told the well-meaning relative who had given him my phone number: “kaafi intense sound karti hain”. I assuaged my pangs of guilt by telling myself that at least his long distance phone calls had improved both his French and Dutch, depending upon which of my dorm mates answered the phone. After this there was a lull for a while. Thesis grudgingly completed, I returned to the homeland. Asthmatic, opinionated and miserable, I missed Belgium bitterly and so decided to write bad poetry about a cobblestoned continent far away. What really did not help was that it was around then that the ‘tea-trolley syndrome’ began with a vengeance. Ok, so I never really wheeled in a tea-trolley but I like to refer to the not so subtle process of trying to get me married off, as such. I don’t think anyone had really anticipated how very long this would take.
These were the ‘just-back-from-Belgium’ days. I was twenty-five and battling with Karachi’s June sweatiness when one fine day I was ‘very casually’ asked to come and say hello to a guest and their nephew. Nothing wrong with the nephew except the slight paunch. Tea-time conversation revolved around ‘chupkalis’ (our pet family phobia). I LOVED the finger sandwiches and samosas which Mummy had put out for suitor so I ate everything on the trolley. I began to suffer from Irregular Bowel Syndrome; I wondered if there was a connection.
Suitor thought I was ‘charming’, but I played the age card, claiming that vast years stretched between us. All four of them. Suitor moved on.
Next in line were a mother and daughter who had flown in from the land of the brave to the land of the pure searching for a suitable girl. Invited to lunch at an Aunt’s house, I found myself sandwiched between the two women who stared me up and down, sinister smiles all the way. Finally the sister (cuddly old thing) spoke up, ‘Aap ko kya pakaney ka shauq hai?’ She went on to assure me that her brother loved to eat. If this was meant to please me, it did not. Terrified I told her ‘mein kuch paka NAHIN sakti’. I also assured her that I had no plans to learn.
Needless to say, we did not meet again. Mummy was horrified at my cheekiness. I was horrified at the prospect of a man in Dallas looking for a ‘chef-wife’.
Some months later Mummy nonchalantly asked me where I was going for lunch. ‘Sind Club’ I answered. Mummy looked inspired, like a lady with a plan.
[quote]He felt that I spoke ‘too much English'[/quote]
Lunch started off nicely enough, it was meant to be five of us but two of the girls dropped out. So it was me and two of my guy pals. Engrossed in conversation with Saad and Ali, I suddenly felt a choking sensation in my throat. The Chicken Kiev just wouldn’t go down. Two tables down there was my inspired Mummy, another lady and a young gentleman. Oh so casually Mummy sauntered up to me and suggested that I come over to their table to ‘say hello’. I obeyed reluctantly with the Chicken Kiev now burning a trail through my oesophagus. Man looked a bit dismal, probably wondering why prospective bride was lunching with guy friends, also wondering why no one seemed embarrassed about it. I mumbled some form of greeting and hurried back to my table, the Chicken Kiev by now doing zumba moves in my colon. I couldn’t believe that ‘tea-trolley’ moves were being conducted in the middle of my Saturday lunch. Uff yeh interruptions! Needless to say, gentleman and I never met again. Apparently he felt that I spoke ‘too much English’. Truth was that I had barely spoken any language at all, gripped as I was by the gripe in my stomach.
Some months went by, I continued to write and teach, Karachi was growing on me. I found great friends and a poetry group, where thoughts and bad verse were passionately exchanged.
My parents showed great patience regarding my advancing years and still-single status. In fact when I look back, I realize that they were incredible. There was no question of forcing me into a situation. When I said ‘I am not inspired’, they understood despite their disappointment.
While I never really thought of myself as ‘on the shelf’, the fact is I was so shelf-stuck that cobwebs were clinging to my silken tresses.
Relatives and family friends were still operating stealthily behind the scenes, however, and next in line was a gentleman visiting from Washington D.C.
Fairly good-looking in a dark, brooding kind of way, he had potential, considering my proclivity for the angst-ridden. Enthusiastically I began to speak about my major at college and my deep, abiding love for the study of psychoanalysis.
He listened while I rambled on as we sat on my parents’ dark blue sofa set. He then began to speak, about his failed marriage and experiences with therapy. There were tears by the time that hour had lapsed. His tears. I did not know what to do with crying-man-in-my-drawing-room. He did not call back. But the seeds for a career in counselling were sown.
Once again I was ‘suitorless’ but psychologically inspired. No one was amused.
Various notions were floating around as to why I was still single. One involved my academic record. At a gathering at a cousin’s house, an elderly lady came up to me and asked me ‘aap ne exactly kya parha hai?’ When I told her that I had a Masters in Philosophy she grinned triumphantly and said ‘Oho! Aap ke saath rehna to bahut mushkil ho ga’! There was also the fact that I was undomesticated and a hopeless dreamer. Expectations of true love and an incredible attachment to my parents did not help.
By now my biological clock was not ticking but running a marathon against time.
The scent of an unsuitable suitor in the living room would have me feigning various situations. My favourites were fever, ‘pait kharaab’ or a friend’s engagement. My parents would have to make polite conversation while I was locked up in my lovely room, listening to ‘I will survive’ for the umpteenth time.
The truth, dear readers, was that there were times where I just was not ready to get married and then there were times when I was ready but still a die-hard romantic, not ready to settle for less than that crazy, pulsating beat of a heart in a tizzy.
Thus the years went by, my parents tolerating my eccentricities. Me, a seemingly well-behaved young lady, teaching Sociology by day and continuing to believe in stormy romantic sagas by day and night.
My sincere advice to all aging single women who are bullied into matrimony by well-meaning/annoying relatives and friends: don’t rush it. The best is yet to be. Whether it’s a drawing room set up or a discreet boyfriend, it’s ok to take a very long while. During that while, there will be bruised egos, (yours and theirs) broken hearts and bleeding souls. Sometimes it just takes a while for P.C. (Prince Charming not Priyanka Chopra) to arrive.
My ‘Mr Right’ did eventually arrive, taking a break from teaching Public Health to rescue me from my dungeon of indecision.
He crossed the Atlantic and made himself comfortable in my living room. The dear friend who introduced us described him as intense and opinionated. He was also quite persistent. He left my living room after six hours but only to make himself cosy in our study. I told him I felt feverish and went upstairs to lie down. Half an hour later, my (by now) weary mother came to me and said, “Why are you upstairs? There’s a nice young man wandering around in the study.”
I pointed to my forehead, trying to indicate fever but Mummy was not amused.
Eventually he left, after having convinced me to go out for coffee. For the following few months, a terribly interesting courtship period followed. I was periodically romanced and threatened, the latter because of my bouts of ‘shaadi’ related panic. But over time those early winter evenings began to feel too short. I longed for more hours in the day.
And in a myriad different ways I began to see the light. It could be because he made me laugh so hard my sides hurt: because he was kind to waiters and those less fortunate, saving his clout for cruel men in undeserved positions of power. Mostly because he sought me out, shook me out of my reverie and made it happen because of his incredible belief that this is so very, very right.
And suddenly my confused world was bathed in an incredibly simple light.