By Maryum Saifee
W hen I was growing up, my parents never talked about sex. They left that to my middle-aged eighth grade biology teacher who terrorized me and the rest of my class with pictures of diseased genitalia. I grew up in a small farming town in Texas, in the heart of pro-life country. Talking about contraception two decades ago was virgin territory. Throughout my teens and twenties, my parents and I had this unspoken, mutually agreed upon “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it came to dating. So when my older brother hit 30 a few years ago, I was curious how they were going to handle finding him a mate.
Unlike the rest of my extended family who migrated to cities with large Muslim populations like New Jersey and Baltimore, my parents lived on fifty acres of farmland in a town that’s only claim to fame is being the KKK’s former headquarters in Texas. My parents bonded with a few other Indian doctors, mainly from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, almost all Christian and Hindu. Aside from female cousins, my parents’ pool of eligible Muslim girls for my brother was pretty nonexistent.
My brother confided in me that his hairline had started to recede and it wasn’t just parental pressure inspiring him to find a wife. Based on the awkward comb-overs of my maternal uncles, I realized he was absolutely right. Time was not on our side. I tried to think of a few friends for him, but none of them were quite right as long-term partners. I was feeling helpless and unsure of what to do. In a state of confusion, I made the fatal mistake of telling my parents of my brother’s state of panic over his hairline and rapidly receding marriage marketability.
With the kind of gusto I’ve only ever seen when my Dad is buying goats for our farm or selling naked shorts on E-trade, my Dad rolled up his sleeves and ramped up his search. He knew his Muslim networks in our Texas town were limited. Although common practice in our family, I told him cousins would be a tough sell. He wasn’t sure what to do so he turned to the Internet. I told him to be careful. I told him these sites could be shady. He, of course, found a website called: Shaadi.com (translating into marriage in Hindi) and the search began.
I sat over his shoulder as he marveled at picture after picture. There were drop-down menus for everything. You could filter based on religion, sub-sect, caste, profession, income, language dialect, and even skin color! Yes, there were actually filters for fair, wheatish, and dark. I got upset when I saw the skin color menu and threatened to write a letter to Shaadi.com for perpetuating the need for South Asia’s toxic skin-bleaching industry. I had just finished two years of studying postcolonial theory with a focus on the Middle East and South Asia, so my Dad had grown accustomed to these outbursts. He dutifully said he agreed wholeheartedly, but that I could write a letter later. The world is full of injustice he lamented. But right now, he urged me to focus all of my energy on the search.
I told him under no circumstances would my brother agree to him putting up a profile. My brother has always found my Dad eccentric and I knew he would be horrified at even the thought of my Dad’s meddling. He knew I was right. So he decided the only solution was to make a covert Shaadi profile with an inscrutable alias. I reluctantly agreed. Once my Dad put his mind to something, it was pretty much impossible to convince him to step off the gas. I started to feel guilty for confiding in him. I knew if my brother found out of my breech in his confidence, I would be in big trouble. I was already in too deep, so I decided the only thing left was for me to try and minimize damage.
I told my Dad the alias was a good idea- something very different from my brother’s actual name. He told me not to worry. He had it covered. The alias would be “Abido” (my brother’s name is Abid). I told him that was a bad idea, but the profile had already gone live. I pleaded with him not to put up a photo. But, sure enough, my Dad found his favorite picture of my brother. It was taken at high school graduation when he was sixteen. His skinny brown arms are folded across his chest and he’s uncomfortably leaning against the kind of big, round tree ubiquitous in Bollywood films. I told him the photo was misleading. I said the alias was a dead giveaway. My Dad didn’t care and said not to worry. He was already swept away by Shaadi.com and its limitless potential. He was unstoppable. I had created a monster.
I kept my Dad’s activities on Shaadi.com a secret for as long as I could. I finally broke down and told my brother out of guilt. He shrugged his shoulders and was not surprised. My Dad’s profile for my brother mentioned he went to Harvard, but the narrative box was full of so many spelling errors, that my brother’s Ivy League claim to fame did not even look credible. He produced the most random facts. “I like sking and flying single engine planes.” His description of a mate was basically my Mom in a nutshell: “seeking a Muslim professional woman preferably from Hyderabad.” My brother pretty much lives to ski so he checked the “athletic” box for both his body type and the preferred body type of his prospective match. Out of deference to me, he left the skin color box unchecked.
I’d check-in every now and then. I asked my Dad who was responding to my brother’s profile. He bragged that his beloved Abido was indeed quite popular and he had actually been flooded with responses. I told him to be careful because it’s hard to vet who’s who on the Internet. He said I was right. In fact, the majority of responses were not actually of the girls themselves. I tried not to gloat, but was curious, and honestly a little afraid to ask who these people were.
He said they were in fact, other mothers and fathers, sometimes aunties and uncles, just like him. All had set up profiles, some in secret like him, to help find a match for their sons, daughters, nieces and nephews. Even if he realized a match was not realistic, he enjoyed the correspondence with empathetic kindred spirits. I had forgotten that life in the small Texas town my parents had adopted as home thirty-five years ago could feel isolating. Through the unlikeliest of outlets, a matrimonial website, my father had found community.
My brother ended up finally getting married a year later. He met his wife, rather ironically a South Asian doctor just like my mother, through a mutual friend at a dinner party in Seattle. I resurrected the Shaadi.com story at my brother’s wedding. He rolled his eyes with embarrassment as I delivered the roast. My father held his head up high, totally unfazed. His Abido had gotten hitched. The search was over.
January 31, 2012