The rishta ordeal: “Quick, name all of the different kinds of pulao that exist today.”
When he first sauntered into the room, his family in tow, I was spellbound. He had these beautiful eyes, the colour of milk chocolate, and a smile that could illuminate an entire block. He had just the right height, and by the way he acknowledged my mother, I could tell that he was quite a gentleman.
Instantly, I was certain that this was it, that after many exasperating months of encountering families and their obnoxious sons, I had finally met “the one”.
And then he went and ruined it: He opened his mouth.
He could have said anything, really. He could have said that my eyes twinkled in a way that made him think of him of stars in the night sky. He could have said that my perfume reminded him of sweet clementine in the winter. He could have simply commented on the aesthetics of the room, and how the furniture was coordinated so well that it brought good Feng Shui into our small abode.
But instead he said,
“Chai achi hai.”
(The tea is good.)
And that marked the end of our relatively brief relationship.
Let’s face it, the rishta process is all about hooking the right fish. It’s about permitting the invasion of your home and your privacy, about keeping your mouth shut unless the conversation has been directed towards you – which dictates your future role in his house, seen but not heard – and most of all, about looking like a China doll, because every mother-in-law wants a delicate bahu (daughter-in-law). You need to have the appetite of an anorexic girl, the face of an angel, and you must not be taller than the boy because, Heaven forbid, he looks like your younger brother.
I could see my potential mother-in-law eyeing me throughout the small talk, mentally crossing off a list of things that I should have been but was clearly not. It suddenly dawned upon me that she no longer wished to be there, that she had walked into someone else’s dwelling expecting so much better, that she had not prepared an exit strategy. And just like that, we both suddenly wanted the same thing; for their family to leave.
I had found an ally.
I suppose the irony in all of this is that she had been the one to insist on meeting in the first place. I could tell that the conversation displeased her; that she had imagined a scenario where she would have done most of the speaking instead of sitting quietly, clutching her tea cup with white knuckles. But I was relieved. Had she been the one to direct the conversation, it might have gone something like this:
“Quick, name all of the different kinds of pulao that exist today.”
“Yes, I do want a religious bahu, but tell me your star sign anyways.”
“Haye Khuda, no woman in this family has worked after marriage! But you do have a Master’s degree at least, don’t you?”
“A math degree? Circumference? Two Pi R? Save it for the rotis!”
“Women? Equal roles? Working? Astaghfirullah! Azfar, take me back to Hamid’s house. At least his daughter didn’t know how to speak this angrezi wangrezi.”
“Yes, I understand that you think that saving the endangered polar bear species in the Arctic is important, but right now, all I can focus on is how you didn’t make these samosas!”
“You must at least be able to tell me the difference between kaleji and kalongi?”
“Oh, co-education? I see. Chalo, Azfar, we are leaving!”
While I would have liked to see her storm off after hearing about my opinion on co-education, and hence put an end to this terrible episode, I instead resolved to see how the rest of this would play out. I mean, if you asked me, I think that the rishta process should be a two-way one. If they can stop by and window shop for a bahu, we should be permitted to do some sight-seeing as well.
If they can interview me and dig into my personal life, shouldn’t I be allowed to poke around their backyards too?
And then I heard my father question the young man on the number of zeroes on his pay check, while my mother’s face contorted as she tried to guess the price of the suit he had been wearing. And suddenly, I wasn’t so certain about who would suffer more throughout this ordeal― me or him.
At the end of the day, when complexions would take precedence over convictions, and prosperity would be more valuable than dexterity, I certainly hoped that they wouldn’t judge me by their inability to comprehend my diction, or my feministic notions. I hoped that they would see past their absurd standards of how tall or attenuated I should be, because they themselves had neither features, despite their own reservations.
But what the rejection could be based on, what would make it acceptable and understandable, was the fact that a rainy day could make me think of nature’s profound diversity, while all they would think of would be pakoras and hot pudina (mint) chai.
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