It is a universally acknowledged truth that all Asian parents want their children to get married and settle down. It is the final and most important duty of the parent toward their child. It is also an Islamic responsibility to help your child find a suitable spouse. Only when the offspring are paired off can the mother and father sigh with relief. So momentous and significant is this obligation, and so huge is the impact of the choice of partner, that parents fret about finding that spouse from the moment the child is born. It is the job of parents, mothers-in-law, and Aunties to network furiously and line up candidates. The girl and boy do not necessarily need to be involved. They can just turn up on the day, if they are required, in order to attend the communal meeting, as Ali and I had done.
Cultural norms dictate how the meeting of the two parties will play out. It may involve members of both parties being present, along with tea and civilities, and a subtle but rigorous scoping out of the other side. Or the boy and the girl might not even be there. The only certainty is that the meeting could change significantly the lives of the two people who are at the heart of the discussion.
The Buxom Aunties, those round matriarchal women in nylon shalwar kameez with their chiffon dupattas pulled deftly over their heads, therefore wield enormous power as matchmakers in the lives of young men and women and their parents who are searching for a partner for their child to build a life with. Behind closed doors, over cups of tea and crispy just-fried pakoras, the seasoned mothers- in-law, the nylon-clad naanis, and the grandmothers, all of whom function as matchmakers alongside the Aunties, talk with the authority of wisdom and experience to those women who are wannabe mothers-in-law in search of a wife for their son.
WANNABE: "I'm getting too old to look after Ahmed on my own."
NYLON NAANI: "It's time you got him a wife."
WANNABE: "I know, but where do I find someone suitable? Someone who can cook, look after the house properly like we used to do, and who will give me grandchildren and not go out and about abandoning her responsibilities. Girls these days are just all about themselves. They don't have the patience and tolerance that we had. You're a naani already, a grandmother, and you've sorted out your daughters-in-law so well. So hard with girls these days."
NYLON NAANI: "You're right, it's very tough. So many couples getting married and divorced willy-nilly. And your Ahmed is such a good boy. Have you talked to him about going back home and choosing a girl? They are the best you know, well-trained and obedient. They know how to look after a mother-in-law."
WANNABE: "Talk to Ahmed about going back home to find a wife? Pfah! He doesn't want to even talk about getting married. He doesn't know I need someone to help around the house. Besides (and her voice softens here), he needs some- one of his own and I'm getting old. Who will look after him when I'm gone?"
NYLON NAANI: "That's your mistake. Boys are never ready; you have to just surprise them. Show them a few pretty girls and even the one who says no, no, no, he will fall for one of them. Boys can't resist a pretty girl. You might need to encourage and persuade him a little bit or perhaps even push him. But he'll thank you in the end."
Nylon Naani pauses, and then looks furtively in all directions, Godfather-style. Even with no one in earshot, she leans in conspiratorially.
NYLON NAANI: "I'm going to tell you everything you need to know about finding a daughter-in-law. Only four things and you will be laughing, laughing, so happy. First, do not involve your son. He does not know what he wants and will only complicate matters. Next, avoid girls who are oh-so-independent. This is not a good quality for a daughter-in- law. They will not be committed."
WANNABE: "Hmm, yes, hmm. So wise, so wise, yes, you are right. Such wonderful Wisdom."
NYLON NAANI: "Three, make sure she is pretty and she can cook. And the younger, the better. And last, look for a girl from the same culture, so that she can 'fit' with you."
When I am older, with many sons, fretting about finding them wives, I will write a sequel to my book. It will be called Love in a Nylon Dupatta.
THE BUXOM AUNTIES' RULES
The natural habitat of the Auntie is weddings, gatherings, dinners, and other places where young unmarried women play together. They are normally distinguished by their fulsome breasts and round tummies, and often by their taste for chewing paan. They have either been married for more years than the Rolling Stones have been alive, and their multitudes of children are married and they have a small tribe of grandchildren, thus making them experts on marriage; or they are lonely spinsters, who now devote themselves to pairing off the younger generation.
As a young woman, I was deeply suspicious and cynical of the Aunties. They appeared to me like jinnis whose sole purpose was to make me feel small and useless. I was convinced that their entire reason for being was to make my life difficult and miserable by belittling my aspirations. In return I had to be polite and affable, as they might have access to my Prince Charming, my dream man, my life happiness. And, of course, I had to play by the conventions of the search that remained unspoken.
Excerpted from Love in a Headscarf by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed. A memoir about marriage in the British Muslim community.
Copyright 2010 by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed
Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, www.beacon.org