The girl was unbelievably beautiful. The boys' sisters, having heard about her looks, had come from their nearby town to look at her. They were speechless with admiration. She was tall and slim, and had a spotless complexion as white as any European's, with a pink flush in her cheeks. Her rich chestnut hair was done in a conservative pigtail, of luxuriant length and thickness. Her features were flawless. Her eyes, they saw when for a second she raised them, were large and of a beautiful sparkling green, fringed by long, thick lashes.
"She's as pretty as a fairy," they reported to their father. "But the family is in a very bad way. They live in a tiny flat in a run-down area of the city. There was hardly any furniture. We sat on the ground on a coloured cotton sheet they had spread out to hide the frayed carpet (which could be seen round the edges). But the mother is outstandingly decent and dignified, and clearly highly educated, as we had heard."
"It is a very cultured family," said their father. "The grandfather was a widely acclaimed scholar, and the girl's father is also a well-known educationist. They have come down in the world materially, but that can happen to the best of families. It is an honour for us to form an alliance with such refined people." Because though they were the wealthiest and most respected family in the region, the boy's family could not claim such high educational qualities.
The great patriarch allowed his gaze to rest on his son. On the darker side, thin, short, definitely not handsome. None of his children was attractive. That is why he had married his elder son to a very pretty girl, hoping to get a goodlooking new generation. But they had had no children, though over three years had passed since the marriage. If this outstanding beauty were inducted into his family, he had great hopes of improving the looks of the well-known aristocratic family, just as he hoped that she would bring refinement to their basically rustic background.
"Well, we should send the formal proposal, and expeditiously, before any one else gets to see the extraordinarily beautiful girl, as you describe her."
"Their problem is their poverty. Abba Jan, you are among the rare people who do not demand or expect a dowry, but almost every one else does. It is plain they cannot afford even a minimum to give to their daughter."
The old gentleman lived by a set of strict principles. He strongly condemned the practice of enticing proposals with the lure of dowry, and even more, the system of demanding, or even expecting, large dowries. When his two daughters had got married he had withheld for over a year the huge properties he had kept aside for them, so that the grooms' families should not consider them part of the deal. He now declared clearly that he wanted nothing except a good looking, and enlightened daughter-in-law of a good family background.
When Tahmina's mother received the proposal, she almost wept for relief and thankfulness. She had prayed so often and so long for her lovely daughter's marriage into a noble family. But with their desperately straitened circumstances, it did not seem possible. Prospective match-seekers, when they visited the house, were aghast at the poverty of the family, and invariably failed to follow up on the visit.
There had been a proposal from a very well-off family, who had so much of their own wealth, they did not need more. But their ill-concealed disgust at the poky little flat, and their efforts to avoid letting their friends meet with the impoverished family enraged Tahmina and her parents. The boy's family was the first generation to have savoured affluence, and the money had come through some sort of van and bus business. They were the typical nouveaux-riches. "You must come and see our house," they had boasted, "and you will see in what comfort your daughter is going to live, with servants to do everything for her. But, we have to request you, please tell us beforehand whenever you plan to come so that we can send one of our cars for you with a chauffeur. Some of our friends might be here, and we cannot let them see you come in a taxi. Also, please, we request you; do not invite them to your house. You can invite them to a five-star hotel, for which we, of course will pay."
"And I shall send some decent clothes for your daughter to wear before we bring our friends to see her," said the mother.
"Upstarts," said her father, contemptuously turning down the proposal without even a brief consideration.
But now there had come these ladies with the wonderful good manners. They had not cared a bit for the seedy neighbourhood, the dingy, long-unpainted rooms, the absence of any sofa-set. They had only checked discreetly on the family background, which their father already knew about.
The proposal had been sent with proper formality and honour. The boy waited, counting each day for the answer. Will they accept me? Will I really get such a wondrously beautiful girl, as they describe her, for my very own wife?
The bride's parents had heard so much of the high character and the noble background of the boy's family that they did not really want anything more. Still, for form's sake, they sent a relative to the boy's home to interview the would-be groom. The relative was so overawed by the huge, castle-like house, the dozens of servants, the great hospitality lavished on him, that he thought it of no significance to ask to see the candidate. Nevertheless, the boy told his father that it was only fair that they should see him, and see that he was not by any standards handsome, and the father unhesitatingly agreed. His son may be unprepossessing, but he had breeding and aristocratic blood, and had recently started on a paying profession.
The visiting relative did not even dare to raise his eyes to the father or the son, and just bowed low over their courteously held-out hands, and pressed his hand to his heart to indicate the great honour he felt in being received by them.
Tahmina's mother, whose heart was beating wildly with happiness at the wonderful prospects opening out for her beloved daughter, nevertheless maintained the dignity of her background by taking over a month to give her answer. The acceptance was couched in formally polite terms.
The would-be bride's 'chachis' were green with envy. What a giant step upward for the impoverished family! Why, only last month they had had to sell their radio to these same aunts. They knew for a fact that practically all the famous family jewellery had been, one piece at a time, pawned, and never redeemed.
The girl's father could not hold down a job. He was extremely intelligent, highly educated and widely-read, but his habits were erratic and he could not change himself. He had never been on time in any office, and he had never been able to comport himself as a subordinate in front of any officer.
He turned to writing books, being prodigiously well-read and of a literary bent. The first book was well-received and highly praised by the reviewers, but not being of popular interest, it failed to be a commercial success. He had now given the second manuscript for printing to a well-known publishing firm.
His highly educated wife, unable to afford schooling for her children, had taught the girls English and Urdu herself at home. The father found time from his irregular jobs to give them grounding in arithmetic. Tahmina and her sister on their own laboured hard to master history and geography from the books which their father brought secondhand for them.
To be continued...