Mama pours milk into the pot. She grabs a box of tea leaves and puts some in. Chai patti, we call it. I don’t know what she does next or how much of each ingredient she adds. I don’t know how long each step is supposed to take, even though I’ve watched her do it for years. A few minutes later, she grabs the pot and pours the liquid into a cup through a strainer. It is latte-colored and smells like serenity. She places the cup on a tray and hands it to me. I grab it and slowly walk over to Baba. “Don’t fall,” I whisper. He takes the cup and drinks a little sip — little because it is supposed to be drunk while it is hot. If comfort had a sound, it would be the sound of him sipping. I bring the tray into the kitchen where Mama is brewing another pot. She doesn’t like it dark. Making chai never ends.
I don’t know anyone in my family who married after falling in love. I had always assumed an arranged marriage meant your parents showed you a bunch of suitable men and you got to choose which one you wanted to end up with. And if you said no, the choice was respected. I think in some cultures and in some Pakistani families, that is the case. But it is not in mine.
Where are you from? people ask. I am American. I was born in New York City and sleep to the sounds of honking cars and fire trucks. And now I’m a college student in this big city. No, I meant where are you from from? they ask. I pause. Pakistan. My parents are from Pakistan.
I can speak fluent Urdu. My tongue can easily sway from English to the flows of the first language I ever learned. My mom cooks food made with spice. She makes rotis. She has taught me to properly knead the dough. I always laugh and think Pakistani girls must be very strong because kneading the dough requires using your knuckles. You make two fists and pound into the dough — we call it atta.
In my house, my sisters and I can’t just step out of the house because we feel like it. Need fresh air? Open the window. Angry? Go to the room you share with siblings. Sad and need to cry? The bathroom is your best option. The living room won’t work because Baba will be there watching TV. Mama is in the kitchen making chai. The rooms are occupied. I don’t cry in front of other people, because then they ask questions I do not have the answers for. So the bathroom it is. If I’m lucky, no one will need to pee. If I’m not, somebody will already be in there. And now I’m taking large breaths trying to figure out where to sit or lie down. Where to cry.
In my house, girls cook and clean. Boys get to leave the house to buy biryani masala that Baba forgot to pick up the other day. Boys leave their plates and glasses and spoons on the dinner table after they’re done eating. Girls pick them up and bring them to the sink and wash them. When guests come over, boys sit around the table. Girls grab a mat, lay it on the floor, and eat there. If you are a curious girl like me, you might ask your mom why this happens. Why are boys respected more than girls? I ask. How can you ask that question? she says. Men work all day. They provide for the family. When they get home, they are tired. That’s not fair, I say. Why can’t girls work? If girls worked, then who would take care of the children? Who would clean the house? Who would cook the food? As an American girl, I think, They could do it together.
I grew up thinking my life would be different. My dad wanted me and my siblings to do well in school, to go to college, and to become something in life. So I thought, If Baba wants me to go to college and become whatever I want, then that means I could surely work one day. So I did well in school. I got A’s in my classes and got praised by my teachers. “She’s going to do great things one day,” one teacher said to my dad during a parent-teacher conference in middle school. I was happy. He was happy.
I wondered if I could have a career after marriage. When I asked, my parents told me it was up to my husband. But their response made me wonder why I was trying so hard to become something. Why couldn’t I just stop? Girls need to be educated just enough to be able to teach their children, my mom told me.
In my own experience, I have learned that Pakistani parents are afraid of their American children assimilating into American culture. My parents are particular about their expectations about how to maintain our traditional Pakistani identity: They want us to speak and understand Urdu, wear Pakistani clothing, marry another Pakistani, and of course, for the woman to serve chai. But it’s not like I’ll somehow lose my culture if I marry someone I want. I won’t suddenly stop eating the exceptionally yummy pakoras my mom makes when it’s raining. Or not devour a bowl of cold kheer on the morning of Eid. Or cheer on India instead of Pakistan in cricket. No. I’ll still be the same person who’d copy her dad and scream at Shahid Afridi because is that how you play cricket? It is my culture and faith that has made me me. It has taught me to respect my elders and love the young; to give back to my community and help the less fortunate. It has taught me to have a big heart. And these are the beliefs and traditions I will forever hold on to.
But like everything, culture is flawed. And what my parents fail to recognize is that they’re giving more importance to this flawed culture than to the perfect faith that is Islam. I can still be Muslim and be American. In Islam, a marriage doesn’t count if I don’t approve it with my own heart: “A matron should not be given in marriage except after consulting her, and a virgin should not be given in marriage except after her permission.” It says so in the Prophet’s hadith. But after constantly bringing that up to my parents, they hit me with the “Well, Islam also tells you to listen to your parents” logic.
I used to read a lot of books. Every day my nose would be stuck between pages. I didn’t necessarily read just romance novels, but whatever genre I read had a little glimmer of love in it. I became obsessed. I would take out dozens of books from the library at a time. Love was a real thing, I had learned from books. And I wanted it.
I looked for love and saw it all around me: couples holding hands, couples kissing, a guy with his hand placed on his lady’s back as they crossed the street, an old woman touching her husband’s wrinkled face. I see love inside my home, too. I see my parents laughing together. I see the way my dad stares at my mom when she gives him a cup of chai.
As a Muslim, I knew dating was haram. And I didn’t want to date. I always thought I’d know when I met the guy who was The One. You just know, I had learned from people around me. And when I knew, I’d marry him. I lived with the idea that I’d find him one day. But I also knew arranged marriage existed.
One day, my mom told me that a family member had asked for my hand in marriage for their son — my cousin. She told me she and my dad had agreed and they just needed my permission to finalize it. I remember looking at her hopeful face. She was tearing up from happiness. And then, I told her no.
I watched her smile turn to confusion. I don’t want to marry him, I told her. She asked why and I answered: Because he’s my cousin!
While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with marrying your cousin — there are married cousins in my family — I just never wanted it to be me. But I never thought I would have to. I am American. I live in America. He lives in Pakistan. He has a totally different outlook on life. He grew up never being expected to cook or clean or have to one day change a child’s diaper. I don’t remember having one conversation with him, except the usual assalam alaikum. He’s never made me laugh. I’d have to move to Pakistan, a place that is not my home, after marriage because it takes time to sponsor your husband. I didn’t want any of that.
I didn’t want to be like my mom. And my grandma. And her grandma. And her grandma’s grandma. And my aunts. And my female cousins. They all spend their days at home. They cook and clean and take care of everyone. They don’t have careers. Even if they had them once, they put them on hold and invested themselves into making their homes. They are all superheroes — but that didn’t mean I wanted to be like them.
My mom was shocked by my defiance. I told her I was just 18. I still had to go to college. I still needed to get a job one day. I still needed to look at the world and find myself. I wanted to travel to Morocco, Cuba, and Palestine, and Lebanon, and Spain. I didn’t want to get married so soon.
Oh, don’t worry, we’re not going to get you married now, she said. After you graduate, then you will get married. Right after you graduate. I balked. What is the problem? she asked. I am not attracted to him, I told her.
When I was growing up, whenever somebody was to get married, my mom used to say “Jore asmaano pe bante hai.” Pairs are created in the skies. They’re called soulmates. They complete half of your deen. You want to know who that other half will be? Squint your eyes in the sky and you’ll see his name right next to yours. Every night I’d look out my window and face the sky. Would I see his name? No. All I saw was pollution. I wasn’t attracted to my cousin — physically or mentally.
I always pictured myself sneaking onto the roof of an abandoned building at night with the man I’d marry. We’d look at the sky and talk about the entire universe. He’d be my best friend and my lover. He’d be the guy I looked at from across a room. He’d be the subject of my never-ending poems. I’d rush to grab a pen because I wouldn’t want to forget the way he looked at 7 in the morning. Or when he was writing a story. Or the way he stared at me.
You know when you want something for so long, you begin to crave it? And your body aches because it’s becoming restless? Your mind won’t breathe until your stupid beating organ gets what it’s always wanted.
Whatever it was, I wasn’t going to get it with my mother’s nephew.
I was called stupid and ungrateful and dumb. I was told the only reason for my “behavior” (really all I was doing was questioning and crying) was because I was in shock. In the end I realized I was hurting my entire family. So I said yes, I’ll marry him.
You’re not just saying that to make us happy, right? You’re saying it because you mean it, right?
It’s been a few years now since I agreed to be married. Everyone believes I am excited about marrying him. Sometimes my aunt will call and ask to speak with me. I’ll throw a quiet fit before grabbing the phone. Birthdays are even worse. They mean I’m obligated to speak to my cousin. Sometimes we’ll have to FaceTime and I’ll look anywhere except at him. After the most awkward conversations, I’ll tell my mom I never want to talk to him again. And then my mom will ask me why I’m being unappreciative. Why do you say things like that? she asks.
My dad called me ungrateful recently. You can’t appreciate what you have. You have a good guy who wants to marry you. He’s educated. He is good. Do you know how sharp the word “ungrateful” is? Na shukri. I sat there as he said it, my eyes looking anywhere but at him. Sometimes, to get my heart to stop racing, I whisper to myself: It’s OK, it’s OK. My throat burns, and when I swallow, it hurts. My body rebels against the world.
On the days I feel terribly alone, there’s a strange sensation in my chest and sometimes it seems like I can’t breathe. I keep it inside until it seeps through my bones, through my skin, pinching my nerves. Sometimes, I’ll wake up in the night when the birds are sleeping, the moon is a pearl, and not a soul speaks. I’ll walk to the window and stare out to the world. I can hear the beats of my cardiac muscle going thumpthumpthump and I think, I am fucking alive. I could be out there, under the stars. I could be free.
My mom always tells us she loves us more than we love her. I always think, That’s impossible. She says she carried me in her belly for nine months. She says she loved me before I took my first breath, before I blinked, before she ever saw my face. She constantly tells me that a parent can never make the wrong decision for their child, because why would the same mom who stayed awake all night to hold me in her arms ever want me to take a wrong turn? She tells me children should always listen to their parents because they have much more life experience. Sometimes I think maybe she’s right. Sometimes I wonder what I would do in her position. I certainly don’t believe she meant any harm when she urged me to marry her nephew. She told me she knows my cousin and his family, knows they would never hurt me. She believes I’ll be happy there. I think she won’t let me find love on my own because she’s afraid of the unknown. But aren’t we all?
I’d like to believe that if I were a mother, I’d know when my kid was hurting. And then I think maybe my mom does know. Maybe she’s just too afraid to believe it.
In my family, when the men come home from work, or when there’s a gathering and everyone’s done eating, the women go into the kitchen and make chai. Some like it with sugar, some like it strong, some like it green. And so every girl is expected to know how to make it. And it needs to be good. Otherwise the aunties will say, Is this chai? I’ve never tasted chai so bad in my life. These American girls, their mama didn’t teach them the most important thing. Who is going to ask for her hand in marriage? My daughter can make chai so much better than her, and my daughter is only 3.
If I learn how to make chai, there’s no turning back. Every pebble of hope I have left of finding love on my own before I get married will vanish. It’s like the clock in my head is ticking and I’m running out of time. But even if I find someone I love on my own, what will I do? Run away with him? Go to the masjid, just me and him, and get nikkah-fied? Do I tell my parents? Hey mama, you know that cousin you need me to get married to? Yeah, no. She’d have a heart attack. Or disown me. Or both.
When I first told my mom no, I remember asking her, What if someone better asks for my hand in marriage? She looked at me and said, No one else will marry you. Sometimes I think she may be right.
I still love asking married people how they met. Every couple has a different story, and it almost always starts with Oh, it’s nothing romantic. But to me, it is always so romantic. Some couples met at work. There was this one girl who rented an Airbnb, fell in love with the guy who rented the room right next to hers, and married him. Some couples meet at high school ball games; others, in conferences around the world. I believe in fate. It is fate that has brought these couples together, and to me, that’s what’s romantic.
Sometimes I think I’ll give up fighting and learn to make chai. But I can’t help but think, What if I really do find the other half of my deen in the polluted sky? That is the hope that makes me believe the chai will have to wait. ●