Before entering the room I carefully adjusted my expression. It was the standard all-feelings-wiped-out and polite-fake-smile-plastered style that had a proven track record of working. I scanned the room for an appropriate place to sit. There was a chair placed in the centre of the room like an interrogation chair. It stood out like a sour thumb. I knew by experience I was the lucky occupant of that chair. My mother and my ‘could-be’ mother in law sat on one of the sofas on the side against the wall and the prospective groom sat on the sofa against the bay windows which was directly opposite the interrogation chair. I muttered a hardly audible greeting and shot forward to the chair.
I sat with hands folded in my lap, back straight, the aforementioned expression still intact and looked up. I was ready for Act 1. My mother smoothly slipped into the pseudo introductions for appearances, although everyone knew who everyone was except me. I didn’t, so I found this part of the proceedings quite helpful. There were so many families rushing in and out on the weekend, like our house was a museum, that it was impossible to keep up with the current week’s attraction.
‘This is Shama Aunty and her son Jawad,’ she said with an enthusiastic smile on her face. ‘And this is my daughter, Zarafshan.’ Her voice sounded almost apologetic as she introduced me.
Shama Aunty’s henceforth shrunken and lined face, resembling a walnut, lit up like a candle at the prospect of obtaining a daughter in law. I mildly registered this phenomenon as unusual. Normally, prospective mother in laws never showed exuberance even when ecstatic that some decent woman would take on the hopeless project AKA their son.
‘Your mother tells me you work in the City as a management accountant?’
I nodded. Fixed smile intact.
‘I used to work as a Tax consultant in the HMRC for many years,’ she informed us proudly.
‘How long have you been living in London?’
‘And how long have you been working?’
‘Where do you work?’
‘A tech company in Central London.’
‘How many hours do you work?’
‘It’s 9 to 5, sometimes I have to stay late.’ My mother gave me a warning look at the last line.
By this point, I was a little confused. She could also be interviewing me for a job opening in the HMRC. Two birds with one stone. I knew that some of these questions had already been answered by my mother but they had to be repeated again in hope of catching the candidate out.
‘So, have you made many friends in London?’
‘A few.’ I was sure Shama Aunty would not have approved of those few friends.
‘Do you miss Pakistan?’
‘Yes, but I am used to London now.’
‘What else do you do in your spare time?’
‘I like helping my mother in the house work, I also like reading and cooking.’ Standard pre-approved answers by my mother. I was instructed to stick close to the script that I had mostly memorised by now. I wondered how my answers weren’t coming across as robotic but then it didn’t matter.
‘You like cooking? What’s your specialty?’ She was beaming at me approvingly.
Specialty? I wasn’t a Michelin and star chef.
‘Biryani.’ I replied with the right amount of enthusiasm. ‘It has so many variations and it is a complete dish with meat and rice, I love the heat of the different spices blending together, complementing each other specially when served with cool yogurt and mint chutney.’
I had surprised myself with my eloquence. But then I was being honest. It was my favourite dish. A Michelin and star chef would nod approvingly and be tempted to taste my imaginary dish. My prospective mother in law beamed. I was through level 1 of examination.
My mother realised that the interrogation was proceeding one way and jumped into the conversation to make her presence felt.
‘Jawad beta, what do you do?’ My mother expertly maneuvered the conversation to the man seated opposite me.
I hadn’t had a chance to look at him directly. This provided me an opportunity to observe him without appearing too forward or interested. I started from the feet discretely directing my gaze upwards. He wore black slip on sandals, jeans that were torn at several places, (thankfully, they covered most of his hairy legs), a t-shirt and an amulet along with some pagan symbol of some sort hanging from his neck.
‘He works in Operations management.’ Shama aunty answered quickly on her son’s behalf, glancing at my mother reassuringly.
He ignored his mother and looked straight at mine. ‘I am a musician, Aah-nty.’
‘It’s a great hobby, I have the radio on all the time myself,’ Shama Aunty intervened quickly, looking embarrassed.
‘Well, I am trying to make a career out of it, if that isn’t too much of a problem, mum?’
My mother laughed as if Jawad had cracked some hilarious joke. ‘Operations is such a useful field,’ she exclaimed, ‘You need to know a little of everything to be good at it. I say, nothing in a Company can really work without a good Operations Manager to oversee it all!’
‘I only do it part time, though.’ Jawad continued, dismissing my mother’s friendly monologue. ‘My first love is and always has been music, Aah-nty. I have a band and we make rock music. I am their lead singer. You can make a lot of money if you’re successful in the music industry Aah-nty, much more than you would do in a 9 to 5 job.’
My mother looked very doubtful. He had a funny way of saying aunty but my mother didn’t seem to notice. She turned her attention to me. ‘Zarafshan, please serve the guests tea.’
I shot up promptly like a bullet. I pushed the second-hand tea trolley that squeaked noisily ahead of me.
‘Would you like some tea, Shama?’ My mother asked. ‘Serve aunty first.’
I glanced at Jawad. ‘Would you like some tea as well?’
‘Please, that’s very kind of you.’ He raised his eyes very briefly to glance at me and smiled.
I asked the mother and son their required levels of diabetic poison, obediently mixed it in their cups and then handed them their brew. When the demonstration of a good hostess was over, I retreated to my chair and sank down with some relief.
‘Offer aunty some snacks as well, you must try the samosas, Zara has made them herself….’ My mother frowned at me for a job half done.
‘Don’t worry, beta. We will help ourselves. You should take a seat near Jawad. Maybe you can talk to each other a little. Is that ok, Sadia?’ Shama aunty exempted me.
‘Yes, of course, I think they should move to the dining table so they can talk more comfortably.’
This made Shama Aunty uncomfortable but the matter was out of her hands now. She might have wanted to monitor the conversation. Jawad was quick to oblige and proceeded to the dining table which was placed at the furthest corner of our open plan living room. I walked after him and took my place opposite him.
He grinned widely rubbing his hands together, ‘So, ready to start your interview?’
I gave him a blank, terse look. He obviously lacked observation skills. The interview had started a while back.
‘Sorry, lame joke!’ he apologised. ‘I will start by thanking you for serving tea, it was delicious. I loved the samosas you made.’ He made a mock drooling face.
‘Jawad…’ I tried out his name, to see how it sounded to my ears.
‘My friends call me Jad.’
I wanted to point out that I wasn’t his friend but restrained myself.
‘My mother made the samosas.’ I corrected him. He seemed at a loss for a bit then an idea flickered like a dim light across his face.
‘What are your interests, do you like music?’
‘I like Pakistani music, like Atif Aslam’s songs …’
‘Who? Oh Ok.’ This time he couldn’t stop the disappointment trickling into his voice. The hopeful light that had flickered momentarily now ran out of battery and died. Probably he hated Pakistani music. I gave him the same blank polite smile, expecting more questions. He wiped his face with his hand. This must be hard for him as well.
‘Right, well, let me be honest with you Zarafshan. You seem lovely, your mother seems lovely and the hospitality was lovely…’
Was, was it over? I expected the ‘but’ to fall anytime soon and he didn’t disappoint.
‘But I have to be honest with you….’
Uh oh, I thought. Normally, the matrimonial visitors were far from honest. They reserved that for the phone call that came in later. Usually a sheepish mother called in to say her son had not clicked with me like I was a faulty switch.
‘Is something wrong?’
‘Yes.’ He looked anxious for a few seconds and then a rush of words spilled out like bile. ‘Actually, I am in a live-in relationship already. My mother will not accept her and Karen can’t stand my Mum. I have agreed to get married to a girl of my mother’s choice for her sake but this will not change my relationship with Karen. I want her happiness as well. I thought you should know all this because I want to be honest with you or anyone I marry. This marriage is really for my mother. I would expect my wife to look after her, be her companion, you know?’
I didn’t know I was to be wed to the mother after all. I also didn’t know whether to laugh or fume at this absurd declaration. But I was so conditioned to being robotic that I didn’t even blink. I just stared at him.
‘This must come as a bit of shock, right?’ He questioned, searching my face since I wasn’t looking shocked. I nodded mutely.
‘So, would you consider going ahead with this arrangement….’ he left the sentence hanging.
The ridiculousness of the question as a serious preposition caught me off guard. I half snorted and half laughed. ‘Of course not!’
I could tell he was shocked now. Realising I had been rude, I apologised quickly.
‘Oh no, that’s fine,’ he recollected himself with a sorrowful look. ‘I appreciate your honesty. Well, I just have one request, if you could please keep this conversation to yourself that would be great. My mother would be heartbroken otherwise….’
‘Sure,’ I promised. ‘Should we join the family?’
We quickly got up from our respective seats, a great weight lifted off our shoulders. For the first time he gave me a genuine smile instead of the strained one he was forcibly wearing on his face. It was a sweet smile, and lent a relaxed look to his face that made it almost palatable. He must have that smile around his girlfriend.
A pang of loneliness hit me suddenly. Fate had struck another fail on my attempt at finding a life-long companion approved by societal norms. If this kept happening, I would have to do something else to get myself a husband. Probably even stoop to dating. My prim brain fused at this horrific idea. No, no. Dating wasn’t respectable at all. Nice girls didn’t date. They just smiled coyly at suitable men to show them they were somewhat interested. Ok, maybe that was an idea. But where could I find a suitable man?
I returned back to the living room area followed by the unwilling suitor. I caught Shama Aunty’s eye and I knew she sensed something fishy had indeed happened behind her back. She glanced at her son suspiciously and turned to my mother.
‘Well, we will take your leave now.’ She said abruptly much to my mother’s dismay. Her attempts to make them stay longer failed.
Both Jawad and Shama Aunty walked out of the door never to be seen again. I relaxed my jaw muscles that had begun to hurt with the fixed smile and started taking off the earrings as I climbed the staircase leading to my room.
‘So, how was it?’ My mother asked with a conspiratorial wink.
‘It was…… interesting. As always,’ I replied noncommittally, halting mid-way up the stairs.
‘What do you mean? Can you reply properly for a second?’ her tone had lost all it’s politeness.
‘Not now! Can we talk after a while? I’m tired.’
‘Tired! What have you done? I cooked everything.’ My mother’s voice rose to its usual, irritated tenor.
‘Later,’ I persisted stubbornly.
‘Ok, I will call Shama aunty to find out right now.’
‘You cannot call her so soon! You’ll embarrass all of us!’
‘Of course I can. You must have said something stupid to Jawad. That’s why they left in such a hurry. I need to make sure they know you didn’t mean it.’
‘I didn’t say anything stupid! In fact, he said…’ I stopped myself in time.
‘What? Did he say something?’
My mother dashed to the phone and I ran down the stairs to stop her.
‘No, don’t do that. He said he had a live-in girlfriend and he wanted me to be his wife on the side to look after his mother.’
‘What? Stop joking!’
‘I’m not joking!’
‘This cannot be true, I will talk to Shaista, she sent these people over!’
‘Oh God please, he said that he doesn’t want his mum to find out because he doesn’t want her to be hurt!’ But my mother had already proceeded to dial Shaista’s number on her mobile phone.
I could see poor Shama aunty’s heart breaking in a million pieces. I searched in the depths of my heart for any sympathy but found none. Oh well, I thought and walked up the stairs to my room.