She was scared to look at him. Many years later she realized he must have been too.
She was dressed to the nines. Maybe he was too. She couldn’t tell if it was sweat that was making his face shine or just a moisturizer he slapped on before coming here. She felt a kinship with him. She had had barely enough time to slip into her designated “they’re coming to see you for their son” outfit and carelessly apply an assortment of beauty products on her face. Had he just come back from work too?
She looked at his shoes. They looked scuffed and like they needed changing. She looked at her shiny sandals. She had had them for ten years but you couldn’t tell. She broke them out on very exclusive occasions . Like today.
Her eyes lingered for a second on the plate in his hands that her mom had loaded with snacks. She could see a beef patty, a pastry, a piece of chicken, ketchup, and some fruit. She noticed he was picking at it. Then he finally asked for water and drank it like he had been thirsty for ages.
Suddenly she felt weird. Why wasn’t he more dressed? Why wasn’t he trying to look interested? Could it be that he was a victim of the system too?
No! She rejected the idea immediately. If men had been victims they would’ve changed the system a long time ago. Men don’t get affected by this. They don’t get scrutinized and examined like a lab specimen.
Her eyes briefly met his. His looked tired. But hers didn’t. She used special drops to keep her eyes from looking red at all times. She didn’t like the look of fatigue in her eyes, like she had travelled through time by sheer foot force. She liked to be in control. Then why wasn’t she?
She looked to her left. Her dad sat making small talk with his dad. Or was he an uncle? They were both talking about stocks and equities. She lost interest soon.
She looked to her right. The place she had been avoiding to look at until now. His mom sat there. She had two other women with her, his sisters. They looked like they meant business. She gave them a nervous smile and then looked at her sandals again.
Why doesn’t this drill become smoother ever, she asked herself with mounting trepidation. Any minute now people were going to ask her questions. She wanted to have some water too but didn’t think there was enough water to moisten her throat.
She looked at her sister sitting next to her dad. She looked tired and forlorn. She had spent many years going through the Rishta parade. Then she turned thirty and people moved on from her.
She frowned at this. Why is thirty such an abominable number in a Pakistani woman’s life? Is thirty really that old? Then she remembered her mother proudly telling anyone who would listen that she herself got married when she was barely fifteen and made the youngest bride of the family.
Amma! The woman whom everyone feared. Amma! The woman who refused to give up. Amma! The woman who decided her daughters’ fates. Amma! The woman who never let any of her daughters become adults. Amma! She still coordinated her outfits. Amma! She didn’t know how to stop looking for a man for her girls. She felt sympathy and anger for Amma. Why did Amma listen to people more and her family less?
The two women who looked like the guys’ sisters came and sat next to her. Their nauseating perfumes made her head spin. Their mother looked at her and smiled. She smiled too.
“How are you, dear?”
How am I? She thought. How would you be if you taught elementary school kids who required every ounce of your strength to get their course work done and then came home to this? How would you be if the only time you wore something nice or ate something delicious was when people like you came over? How would you be if you were rejected over and over by women who have sons? How would you be if you hated this all so much but knew this could become your salvation and provide you an out in the form of a man?
“I’m okay”, she smiled.
“You work, right?” One of the sisters asked, while brazenly taking account of her clothes and shoes.
“Yes”. She said.
Amma proudly chimed in. “Teaches English at the best school”.
Oh Amma! She had a reverence and regard for people who spoke any level of English that almost equaled her regard for religion and family.
“Can you cook, dear?” The woman who looked like the mother asked.
Can I cook? She thought begrudgingly. Yes! I can cook. When you have to master an assortment of dishes for people that you don’t know, you can cook. When your sisters work long hours as tutors and seamstresses, yes you can cook. When your mom doesn’t think there is anything more glorious than a perfectly done salad or a nicely cooked bread, yes you can cook. When you hope to be the best cook, the best looking girl, the best student, the best girl, and eventually the best lay so you can hold your man a little longer, yes you can cook.
The woman took it as a yes. She fired another one,
“You wouldn’t want to work after getting married, would you?”
Would I? She again found it hard to keep her head above the sea of random, painful thoughts swirling inside. I want to answer you, she mused, but I’ve never been asked if I would want to do something.
“Because girls don’t work in our family”, the woman added.
Somehow she knew that. Somehow she knew what this meant. This meant girls didn’t work until financially necessary. This meant girls didn’t work until their husband was an alcoholic and liked to gamble their trinkets away. This meant girls didn’t work until they got pregnant and had to have prenatal care.
“He likes girls who talk. But you don’t talk at all”. One of the sisters said slyly.
So are you saying he doesn’t like me already? She wondered. Why does that not surprise me? Why does it sound like another rejection? When did I become so jaded as to pick up the subtle signs of a family dismissing me as their family member? She realized she was becoming bitter for no reason. They still hadn’t said no. Hadn’t they? She again shook her head to get rid of her thoughts.
Appa broke the silence.
“She talks. Actually a lot. We have to sometimes beg her to be quiet. She’s the life of the party. We will miss her so much when she leaves”.
Oh Appa! Why didn’t I save you when you needed saving? Why did I not say nice things to people on your behalf? Why is your hair gray, Appa? Why are there dark circles under your eyes? You’re only three years older than me then why are you ineligible and I’m eligible? Her head started to hurt.
“Well, we wouldn’t want someone quite that chatty. My brother likes girls who know how to carry themselves with dignity and poise”. One of the sisters said pompously.
Dignity? She almost laughed. Do you think I’d be sitting here if maintaining my dignity was a goal? Just the fact that I’m part of this crazy pageant is enough to tell people that I have no dignity and no respect for myself.
“Do you watch movies?” The younger of the sisters asked.
Do I watch movies? Actually no. Or may be I do. I have watched fifteen minutes of most movies. The fifteen minutes between coming home from work and when my students whom I tutor at home come in. The fifteen minutes before bedtime when I try to focus on something else besides sleep. The fifteen minutes that I treasure before I fall asleep on the couch, only to be woken up by the morning sun filtering through the curtains.
The evening dragged on like all such evenings. The guy couldn’t look less enthusiastic. He stole a few glances at her and she could sense the lack of interest there. She tried to send him a telepathic message saying she didn’t like him much either.
Finally they left. Abba heaved a sigh of relief.
“What boring people,” he exclaimed. “His father couldn’t talk about anything except house prices”.
Oh so he was the father!
“And the mother,” huffed Amma. “Such a lousy person. She didn’t look at her once. What did she think she was here for?”
Appa quietly collected everything, cleared the trolley and started doing the dishes.
“Appa! Can I help?” She asked.
Appa turned around, smiling.
“No! Make sure you eat the kabab. I made them. They’re delicious”.
As is everything that you make, she thought. Then why’re you still here, Appa? You would’ve made a man so happy. You would’ve had kids and a life of your own. They didn’t send you to college because Amma thought you’d be married by 18. Then why’re you here?
She decided to take the makeup off. The smell of cheap makeup was making her insides turn.
As she was taking her makeup off, she heard Amma.
“I’ll pray a hundred prayers of thanks if they accept her”.
Didn’t Amma just say they were lousy?
Amma heard the phone ring. She heard her exchanging pleasantries. Amma came out looking crestfallen.
“They said no”.
Abba looked prepared for this. Amma should’ve been prepared too but she started crying bitterly. Appa was comforting Amma.
“I know what to do”, Amma suddenly said inspired by something that looked like it had just occurred to her. She turned to Abba with renewed vigor.
“I’ll call them right now and offer her hand”, she motioned towards her youngest daughter working over algebra in the corner of the room.
“She’s too young. 18 isn’t an age when I’d want her to get married”, Abba interjected.
“Haha”, Amma scoffed. “Your mother came for me when I had barely hit puberty. Stop your sanctimoniousness”.
Amma excitedly called back and communicated her most recent offer to Rishta Aunty.
Appa continued to wash the dishes, like she hadn’t registered anything.
She looked at Appa for a few minutes then looked at Amma.
Amma! The matriarch of this family. The woman who told anyone who heard that she had had a tough life. She attributed most of her troubles to an early marriage and multiple daughters. She hated her parents for never sending her to school.
Then why wasn’t Amma more empathic. Why didn’t Amma send Appa to college? Why did Amma accept when people said that Appa was too old? Could that be because Amma thought Appa was too old too? Amma lived a tough life by her own account but then why didn’t her life toughen her up? Why did she still care about what people said and did? Why did she care so much about this society?
There was no patriarchy in this household, she thought bitterly. Patriarchy didn’t reject her tonight. Matriarchy did. Matriarchy that conforms to patriarchy. Matriarchy that works through internalized misogyny. Matriarchy that fails to support women even though patriarchy works to support men. Why is matriarchy not supporting women? Why is there a woman on one end of the food trolley and a woman on the other end too? Why is there still heartbreak when both parties are women?