I do love him, but I won’t say it
(Originally published in the San Diego Reader March 31, 2010.)
Afra Khan, a grad student who recently emigrated from Hyderabad, India, wears jeans and a long-sleeved gray T-shirt that says SDSU across the front. Before I spend an afternoon with her in a tiny two-bedroom house in University Heights, all I know about arranged marriage is limited to a handful of stories told by first-generation American women of Indian descent. Those were the tales of women who detest what journalist Anita Jain once referred to as “horribly crusty notions passed down” from their parents. In 2005, New York Magazine published an article Jain wrote in which she recounts the first time she let her parents set her up with a date.
“I lodged my protest against him and arranged marriage,” she wrote, “by getting ragingly intoxicated and blowing smoke rings in his face.”
Afra Khan is nothing like Anita Jain. Never mind the smoking and the drinking, Afra wouldn’t even allow her fiancé to meet her at the Chicago airport a month and a half before their wedding because she didn’t think it was appropriate to be alone with him without the company of her parents. Despite the jeans she wears and her affinity for computers, Afra seems at times to be straight out of Jane Austen’s era.
She sits, feet curled beneath her, on a wood-framed futon couch in the house she shares with her brother, his wife, their 18-month-old son, and his mother-in-law. She is calm and relaxed, not at all what I imagine for a woman who is leaving tomorrow to go to Chicago to marry a man she’s seen only once — six months ago, during a formal interview between his family and hers.
Instead, she chats amiably, alternating between techie-gibberish about scripting languages and girlie-giggles about the love that awaits her, some two thousand miles and two weeks away.
At 30, Afra isn’t exactly a “girl.” But this is the word she uses as she explains the process of her engagement. She also refers to her fiancé, Fayyaz, as “the boy” (or sometimes, “the guy”) despite the fact that he’s a 33-year-old man who owns four Little Caesars pizza franchises in Chicago. Her use of these diminutives seems incongruous in this context, but I’ll later learn it’s a common way, among Indians at least, to refer to unmarried men and women, especially in the arrangement of their marriages.