The Rules of Engagement

By Majid Mohiuddin '97 '01 MD / September / October 2005
April 27th, 2007

“That’s it. you’re engaged.”

My father clapped me on the back in congratulations. His eyes danced mischievously and his lips triangulated in a characteristic grin.

“What?” I said. “We just got back from ice cream.”

Rasha, her younger brother, my younger sister, and I had stepped out to the local Cold Stone Creamery for only forty-five minutes. We were standing out on Rasha’s porch; she had gone inside.

“Finally! We can get rid of you,” squealed my younger sister, wrapping her arms around my ribs and squeezing. “I’m so happy.”

“I took care of business. Fast, huh?” my father said with a laugh. I imagined the clandestine meeting between Rasha’s parents and mine that had taken place during the brief time we’d been gone. Instead of hazy cigar smoke and drawn shades, imagine a summer-lit family room in the western Chicago suburbs with trays of mango drinks, cakes, and samosas. Mid-afternoon. Rasha was probably receiving the full debriefing from her father in the kitchen right now.

“Don’t I have a final say?” I stammered. We stepped off the front porch towards our car in the driveway.

“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of everything,” my father said in the soothingly paternalistic voice I last remembered hearing when I’d been vaccinated on the arm as a toddler. My sister and mother climbed into the backseat of the Pathfinder. “Besides, you already told me ‘yes’ yesterday. She said the same to her parents. Hmm … I’ll have to find a printer for the invitations right away.”

I sat leaning against the passenger-side window. Should I be happy? I did think Rasha was “the one,” but I hadn’t imagined this scenario. I felt like a half-man, half-child at the ripe age of twenty-eight.

We had spent the Saturday afternoon in light, polite conversation. Rasha’s family had prepared a sumptuous lunch. Her parents, brother, grandaunt, and grandmother, as well as my parents and sister, had all been there. We’d taken chai and cake afterward in the drawing room. She’d sat across from me, dressed in traditional Pakistani dress, a blue salwar khameez. She’d barely looked at me, and gazed at her feet shyly.

I squirmed in my sofa seat, choked by my tie, unsure of what to say next. Eyes fell upon me, appraising me, while everyone sipped away. The weather is quite muggy for this time of year, don’t you agree? Faces nodded. At some point Rasha’s father had suggested we go for ice cream with our younger siblings as chaperones. How embarrassing. Upon our return, my father had told me to wait outside while her brother led her indoors. My parents had emerged shortly afterward, my father lingering and then shaking hands with the man he had chosen to be my father-in-law. It was then he had turned from the front door and thumped my back with the news.

I was confused. What happened to proposing on bended knee? To eating the same strand of spaghetti from opposite ends, à la Disney’s Lady and the Tramp? No question Rasha and I were in love—we had spoken on the phone and e-mailed each other for months. But today was only the second time we had met face to face, and even that had been under the watchful eyes of two generations of parents.

True, I had decided to go the traditional route, which customarily brings to mind the words arranged marriage or the recent film by Mira Nair, Monsoon Wedding, in which neither party knows the other at all. Nothing could be further from the truth for me; I cringed watching the film. On the other hand, I knew my fiancée well—but how well? I knew Rasha had a healthy, sarcastic sense of humor. I didn’t doubt she would make an excellent wife, personal adviser, mother, and physician. But I’d never spent time with her in a grocery store. Did she like her orange juice with or without extra pulp? Did she have a penchant for high heels? Would she run an hour late to every dinner party? I knew we saw eye-to-eye on the issues that mattered to us: religion, education, charity, community service, caring for our parents in their old age, and the primacy of family. Oh, and we both loved chocolate. We were traditional in our morals but remained fiercely independent and willing to speak our minds.

It’s a funny thing, this knowing without really knowing. It’s a gamble or a leap of faith. The search for my spouse had started a long time ago, without me, when mother had consulted the “Auntie Network” and had sent out an all points bulletin for the “ideal girl.” I had agreed to go along, provided I could nominate my own candidates and wield final veto power. And so I’d never felt arranged per se, but told myself that my parents were merely prescreening their future daughter-in-law. I felt like the prince holding a glass slipper while the whole kingdom was on the lookout on my behalf. After all, I was warned by the mother of a close Jewish friend, when you marry a person, you marry her whole family. (As it turns out, she was trying to run the same service for her son, who mirrored my own concerns: “But, Mom, why can’t I marry goy?”)

I warmed to the concept. Too often, I thought, we succumb to the novelty of puppy love, not able to perceive the larger, pragmatic picture of a marriage built by hard work. Moreover, since we had each approached the other with a serious mindset and a full commitment to making things work, our families were ready to support us in any way possible. After our families had completed their prescreening, all we had to do was like each other. Except for when I desperately wanted to talk to her on her front porch instead of my father and wanted to drive away with her instead of my family, the process had never felt “arranged” or “forced.” It felt oddly romantic, in fact, this veil of mystery covering her face as the go-betweens hammered out the details. I felt strangely content and at ease.

Sometimes I feel sad for my single friends who are left to find their significant others at cocktail parties or various eight-minute dating rounds. Some are the same friends who once teased me for having parents so intimately involved in my romantic life. There is comfort in tradition, though, and in families this close. Sometimes progress is in learning to embrace what has survived for centuries unchanged and to adapt it for today.

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September / October 2005