Prose | Fatima Azam

Was it Love or Was it Arranged?

      Nearly eight years ago, I sat in a fancy limo staring down at my deep red bridal henna, which covered my hands like lace, as we headed towards one of the nicest hotels in Atlanta. The man sitting next to me was more of a stranger than a husband, for I had known him only four months and met him a mere two times before our wedding. Oh sure, we had talked on the phone a handful of times, but our relationship could barely be described as casual dating let alone a serious connection. As his family sang Bollywood songs around me, their bright voices echoing off the interior of the large vehicle, I found myself contemplating whether or not I would call our marriage one of love or one of arrangement. It did not quite fit inside either of the pigeonholes into which my friends or I were trying to shove it. What I did finally understand was the odd answer I would receive from my parents when I asked them what sort of marriage they’d had.
            My father, usually sitting cross-legged on the floor with a bowl of boiled and well-seasoned chickpeas, would straighten the sleeves of his crisp, white khurta shalwar before smiling at me with a twinkle in his eyes. “It was love, of course,” he would say with surety, winking over at my mom. My dad is smart man. At the age of sixteen, he left Pakistan and his family behind to attend a prestigious university in Canada. Not only did he move to an entirely new country, but he learned French on the fly and can still speak it fluently. Once he moved to America a few years after getting married, he became a senior scientist, one who actually signed off on drug testing reports for the athletes during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Georgia. At the age of fifty, he decided he wanted to fulfil his deceased mother’s dream of her son becoming a doctor, so he quit his job and worked hard until he received his MD. This man was not someone to take lightly; even as child, I understood that. So, if he said it was love, then, by God, it was.
            My mother, however, took a different view of the matter. She insisted that though she had known my father and his family since they were children in Pakistan, their marriage was more arranged than anything else. She fell in love with him after they were engaged. I suppose her argument made sense too. After all, she had never considered him as a potential husband until his family asked for her hand in marriage. So, she had known the man she would marry for years but never considered that she would be his wife. Basically, what my father did in Pakistan in the 1980’s was today’s equivalent of a man breaking out of the friend zone.
            Somehow, I, the girl who had been born in Karachi, Pakistan, but who had been living in America since before I celebrated my first birthday, had turned out far more traditional than my parents. That was what I thought eight years ago when I agreed to marry a man who seemed pleasant enough but about whom I knew very little. I knew his favorite movie was Fight Club but had no idea if he liked tea or coffee. I knew he had grown up in Pakistan then moved to the US about eight years ago to live with his elder sister in Chicago for a few years before moving in with his younger sister in Maryland. I knew a lot of data and facts about him because when two Pakistani families bring a couple together, it almost turns into a job interview. I am not joking.
            Our families, unlike my husband and I, were not total strangers. My father, former scientist and current doctor, and his father, a doctor and drug rehabilitation specialist, had worked together on several important projects when they were both in Pakistan over two decades ago. They had lost touch. Through the magic of the internet and years of persistence, remember my father is not one to half-heartedly do anything, my dad finally found contact information for his old friend. They reconnected, shared family stories, and discovered that they both had children in college who were single. Well, their minds did not have to take too giant of a leap for the two men to happily wonder if they should turn their decades long friendship into a relationship. When I returned home for the weekend after a draining week as a university senior, I was met with a gleeful parent, who thought he had a suitor lined up for me. The fleeting thought sprang into my head that I was the prince from the old Disney Cinderella movie and my father had turned into the king eager to get his child married. Then I shrugged and forgot about it. My parents had been talking about my marriage when I grew older since I turned thirteen, but talk was all it had been. This newest development seemed like another chapter of an old conversation. While I was busy with homework and making sure I had all my credits squared away in order to graduate at the end of the year, my future husband’s information was sitting in my father’s inbox.
               I think this particular event in my life is one of the reasons I have since refused any sort of HR position that anyone offered me. Judging a person from a list of facts is like trying to decide if a doughnut will taste delicious by looking at a list of ingredients. My parents and I received something that looked very much like a resume along with a few transcripts and several photos. What did I care what school he had attended as child? In fact, I barely knew of most of the elementary and high schools outside of Duluth, GA let alone the ones in Pakistan. The photos were nothing exceptional either: just pictures of a young, chubby man with his family. My parents asked me if I thought he was cute, to which I shrugged and responded that I had no opinion one way or another. Even if he had been the most handsome man on the globe, my response would not have differed much. One does not, after all, decide to spend one’s entire life with someone based on a few photos. I did, however, flatly refuse to provide my father with my CV so he could pass it along. I was more than a list of facts and grades. While that sort of introduction is fine when applying to a job, I had no interest in becoming a bunch of numbers in some sort of strange marriage application.
My father, being a smart one, realized how strange this was for me. After talking with my mother, he decided to invite his friend’s son and daughter over to our house. I agreed because I saw no harm in it and because my parents told me if I disliked him then no harm and no foul, no hard feelings. I knew they meant it. Best of all, even if the meeting went badly, that afternoon my friends and I had tickets for a Justin Timberlake concert. I could spend a few hours speaking with the children of my father’s old friend.
               The meeting was a strange one as well as a perfect example of why judging someone from a set of photos is a poor idea. When my future husband arrived at my parents’ doorstep, he was not the chubby, overweight man in the pictures his father had sent us. Instead, he was surprisingly skinny and only a half foot or so taller than my short stature of four foot eleven. The discrepancy from the photos and the actual man was so great that I had to laugh. I quickly turned my head and covered my face to hide my stifled giggles. Everyone thought I was making an attempt at being a traditional Pakistani bride and being coy. Instead, I was trying not to insult him by laughing in his face.
             The next few hours were awkward if nothing else. I had been through such meetings before, but this one held an air of seriousness around it. We ate, we talked, we had tea together, of which desis are very fond. While I really had no intentions of marrying this man, partly because he was a complete stranger and partly because I was still four years away from my plan of being married at 25 after I had finished my MA and begun my PhD. Still, since childhood, I had this need to entertain and socialize with people. So, I laughed, I made jokes, and I tried very hard to get to know this man who my father thought would make an excellent life partner for me. In a hilarious reversal of traditional roles, he turned out to be one of the shyest people I ever met and still is to this day. He wouldn’t raise his gaze from his plate to meet mine. Whenever he did, stammering, address me directly, he spoke to a spot in the air about three inches to my left or right. I found him rather sweet.
              When we did have a few moments alone, I tried my best to break him out of his shell. I told him about my favorite ice cream shop, my career goals, and other interesting tidbits about myself. He talked mostly to his shoes as he nervously adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses. Either he didn’t care for me, found this meeting as awkward as I did, or he simply was painfully shy. I did my best then, after a second round of tea, I changed out of my fancy khurta shalwar and into something concert worthy. Wishing him and his sister a safe trip back to Maryland and telling them it was nice to meet them both, I left to enjoy what turned out to be a very nice concert.
              I didn’t really think much about the meeting after that. I was busy with school. Although I had thought him amiable enough, I figured that he was about as interested in marriage as I was. Little did I know that back in Maryland, he was having trouble adjusting to the Pakistani way of handling this particular situation. Born and raised in Pakistan, he had already been through a few relationships, but since families were involved here, he was not sure how to proceed. In a series of events that read like the script of a poorly written comedy sitcom, he called his father in Pakistan to call my father in Georgia and ask for my number. When he finally did gather up the courage to ring me, I was rather surprised. Truthfully, I had not forgotten entirely about him, but he had been pushed to the back of my mind.
               He turned out to be much more fun and enthusiastic on the phone. I started to look forward to his calls. To my surprise, he had a knack for making me laugh and for cheering me up when I was particularly stressed about exams or which graduate school to attend. At the time, I was facing a problem that was taking up most of my energy: my parents had always dreamed I would become a doctor, while I had been sure since the age of five that I wanted to be a teacher. Convincing my parents that this was the right decision for me was an exhausting, uphill battle. I had expected this suitor business to be an unwanted distraction. Instead, he turned out to be exceptionally supportive, something that has not changed at all after eight years of marriage. To this day, if I am working late on an essay or grading student papers, he will stay up with me to keep me company, no matter how tired he is.
               As an only child and someone who had never really been in any sort of serious relationship, I began to slowly appreciate the sweet little comments and support he gave me. I once off-handedly mentioned to him that I loved red-velvet cake. A few days later, I found a romantic note and a red velvet cake shipped to my house. Even after nearly a decade of marriage, this little gesture still touches my heart to this day. I am not claiming that my husband has not done many wonderful things for me over the years, but that particular gift sticks out in my mind the most.
My parents noticed how things were progressing and decided to move forward. They asked me, of course. Marrying him was completely my choice. I could refuse or I could date him for three years or I could simply break everything off. Truly, they did not pressure me. In fact, they did not even really try to convince me. However, I did get the feeling that they loved the prospect of me marrying someone born and raised in their home country. They had nothing against American boys, of course, but they liked the idea that he would become sort of a bridge between me and my parents, the missing link so to speak.
                 So, everything moved faster than either he or I suspected. Our families decided that the two of us would get engaged in a few months and then get married whenever the two of us were ready. Yet, fate decided for us. A lot of factors played a role in us getting married mere four months after having met for the very first time, such as my refusal to go to medical school and my parents wanting to make certain I was settled with a supportive husband. We met in August. In November, we were husband and wife.
               Now, when our friends ask if our marriage was love or arranged, we shoot each other glances and do a mental shrug. Truthfully, neither of us is sure of the answer. My husband usually replies that it was arranged since he probably would not have married someone he barely knew so fast if families had not been involved. I reply that it was love because I would not have married anyone if it was not my choice and if I had not truly thought I would be happy with him for the rest of my life. The real answer is probably somewhere between those two. Our parents arranged our meeting, which led to us falling not in love but at least like with each other. Oh sure, we are crazy about each other now, but our relationship was mostly superficial when we vowed to spend the rest of our lives with each other.
            I grew up thinking of an arranged marriage as a dirty word, something backward and ridiculous. Some arranged marriages are. I have heard of people in Pakistan, India, and even the United States who don’t even see their spouses until the wedding. I find that absurd in this day and age. Did I always dream of having a grand love story? Sure, I did. I just never expected that I would get it after my wedding. Our marriage has not been a smooth, simple one. For the first two years after we became husband and wife, we were essentially dating without having the option of slamming the doors and driving off to our separate houses. Even though we had the same culture, we faced a lot of obstacles, such as his desire that I make tea for him while I called him a spoiled brat. No, it was not easy. We fought, we screamed, we hated each other’s guts sometimes, and in the middle of it all, we fell hopelessly in love. I don’t particularly recommend this path. I am only saying that it worked for us, though, truthfully, we are both against arranged marriages.
                 Eight years ago, on the day of my wedding, I thought I was being traditional to the point of absurdity. A few weeks ago, I was watching my wedding video and realized that I had been surprisingly non-traditionalist, whether one looked at my wedding from a Pakistani viewpoint or an American one. My maid of honor, Mahnaz, and bridesmaid, Leigh Ann, led me down the aisle, not my father. Although my parents walked down the aisle before me, the entire wedding party came after my husband had helped me onto the stage. Instead of going with the vibrant, splashy colors of Pakistani weddings, I had picked subtle, elegant décor. And to the shock of most of the Pakistani and Indian guest, spent almost as much money on the cake as on the food. My dress, however, was my grandest rebellion. The fabric was a beautiful light blue instead of the rich red or crimson all Pakistani brides, traditional or not, wear.
              So, was it arranged or was it love? Am I traditional or not? These questions seem simple, but they are not. All I can say is that it turned out to be a little bit of both. While my husband and I still struggle some days with the differences in our backgrounds and the way we came together, we know with almost absolute certainty that we made the right decision back on the fateful day in November.  

1 comment:

  1. Hello Fatima,

    This is such a well written post. And encouraging. In a world filled with such cynicism and downright condescension around arranged marriage, this post is very positive. You see, even I haven't 'found' love and have to thus go down this road pretty soon.
    While whether things will turn out fine and whether I will genuinely be able to love time (and the person) will tell. Until then I will come back and read this post.

    Thank you for writing this!