Single Shmingle

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It’s a tough world out there in the desi dating game

Recently, I searched on the Internet for ‘single happy’. The search engine returned over a million hits in 0.29 seconds. I am hesitant to add to the impressive array of material already out there, but this article is not only meant to be informative, but also reassuring, especially from a Bengali/Indian point of view. Everything I have read so far on this subject seems either very Bridget Jones or very Margaret Atwood, when I am living proof that you can be either, or both, or neither, on any given day.

So for the one or two people who haven’t heard my mother’s huge sigh of relief reverberating around the globe, I got married on the 22nd of March 2014. After 10 active years of dismissing proposals, arguing with my mother, looking for love, being despondent, being angry, being lost and finally being resigned to being single I gave up.

I gave up thinking that my single status is something that I could change.

I gave up thinking that I was in charge of my destiny and I truly left it to God.

This is easier said than done. I know because for the past two or three years I had been SAYING that I had ‘given up’ and that ‘God knew best’, but deep down I didn’t truly believe it. Deep down I was still scrambling to control my relationships and, whether or not anyone else saw, I was still desperately hoping that I could do something to change the course of my fate.

The start of the beginning

The moment you are born a Bengali/desi child, your parents begin to worry. They worry as you grow up, they worry as you start school, they worry when you get to university but none of that compares to the worry that begins when the first person casually mentions to them, ’She’s all grown up now! She’ll be getting married soon’. There goes a peaceful night’s sleep for the parents of a Bengali girl. From now until the day she says ‘I accept’, every waking moment is haunted by:

What will happen to my daughter? Who will marry her? Is she educated enough? Pretty enough? Good enough? Talented enough? Religious enough?

It isn’t long before this worry, and sometimes frustration, finds its way, displaced or directly, to the child in question. And that my dears is when a girl TRULY becomes a woman. It’s not when your body changes, it’s not when you begin to notice or like boys, but it’s when you start realising that you parents cannot sleep because they are so worried about you. And that brings with it… Guilt. LOTS of guilt.

The beginning

Two things happen at this point.

1.       The very select lucky few women on this planet find their Prince Charming (or their Prince Charming finds them) and they can happily dispel their parents’ anxiety and work towards their happily ever after. If that’s you, pat yourself on the back. Good job. Now go away. Because for the rest of us your life is just as dreamlike and just as elusive as Jasmine and Aladdin or Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. We don’t hate you. We ARE genuinely happy for you. But seriously… don’t tell us your life is hard ever again because what we go through, that you are spared, is much harder.

2.       The rest of us are primped, primed and positioned to within an inch of our lives as we are dragged to dawats. Any remotely nice picture of us is tacked to a biodata, which is a resume for marriage purposes, listing your life history, hobbies that show what a good girl you are (gardening and knitting anyone?), your family tree and their respective occupations to show you come from good lineage. And the worst part of all of this is that every single family friend is now eligible to ask you, ‘When are you getting married?’ People will delight in projecting your life for the next five years, including who you will marry and where you will live. More often than not these ruminations from an overactive imagination become firm fast rumours doing a marathon around your respective social circle, so the next time you are out you have to start every sentence with, ‘No I am not getting married. Where did you hear that?’

If this is you, in the latter situation, please sit down with some chocolate and give yourself a hug. You will need it. This is only the beginning of a process which will define your womanhood. It will thrust you into the reality of social circles, it will enlighten you, quite harshly at times, to who your real friends are, and it will teach you how to deal with unwanted attention, grief, guilt and depression. But know, through all your turbulent emotions, that your parents are doing this out of their love for you. A Desi parent has no other avenue of showing you how much they care. Trying to find you someone who will love you anywhere near as much as they do is their sole ambition in this elaborate and sometimes painful process. So strap yourself in, thicken your skin and buckle up for the ride. It gets harder before it gets easier.

The process

Typically by the time the first serious proposal that your parents consider comes around, you are around 18. Just beginning uni, just getting over that first high school crush, and there are too many firsts going on in life that you are still trying to figure out for you to deal with the idea of marriage and the notion of ‘forever’. But this first proposal will set the tone for the countless others you will deal with. Because it will be the precedent on which your parents and you interact on this subject.

Typically this conversation is mother-daughter domain, and it is a conversation so electrically charged it has very real potential to quickly disintegrate into a shouting match. Your mother will see this ‘boy’ to be a ‘great match’ and ‘exactly what we are looking for for you’. She will be astounded by the fact that you will say, ‘I am not ready’ and ‘I don’t even know him’ and you might get the ‘in my day’ story. My advice to you: Shut up.

Your mum or dad is not interested in what you have to say, so save your breath. They are here to advocate and advertise their IDEA of what they think is best for you. So just let them. This is important. Because it shows them that you respect them, understand them and value their opinion. In doing this you set the tone for future conversations so that when YOU want to be heard, respected and understood – they will do so (hopefully). With this first conversation out of the way, just keep quiet and wait. Because the first proposal will come and go and so will a fair few others before THAT ONE DUDE comes along and you need to be ready for this one.

That one dude

Every single person that has gone through the arranged marriage process has encountered what I call the ‘That one dude’ phenomena. He is that one person that makes you question every single argument you ever put to your parents. He is the one person that makes you want to give up because it’s just too hard to keep fighting. This may have nothing to do with the guy himself or the proposal, and everything to do with the time at which this phenomena occurs in your life.

Nevertheless ‘that one dude’ will come along. He is the ‘perfect’ potential on paper. He is tall (or so his bio-data says), fair and handsome (refer to the ‘best of 100’ picture that his mum sent with the bio data), and has a great job (doctor, lawyer, accountant, engineer). So you agree to meet him in person and the meeting might happen at a dawat, gathering or over coffee by yourselves or in a group.

It won’t take you long (30 seconds) before you realise you have ZERO chemistry with this guy and he is BORING you to death. I need to clarify here that this has NOTHING to do with the guy (if you are THAT guy reading this…you are REALLY nice. And sweet but just not the right fit). It’s just something is missing and you sense it right away. So you go home and when your mum asks you how it went you say ‘it was ok’ because it was. He wasn’t rude or smelly or stupid. He was a perfectly nice guy. And so the internal struggle begins. Because by now your about 23-25 and the pressure is really on. Your friends are getting married, you’re going to weddings every other weekend and there is always wedding talk going on in the house, and your parents have already gone through a cycle of potential hope, frustration and then despair. This is when you are at your most vulnerable.

It is when you open Facebook and the plethora of wedding pictures that affront you is assaulting. It is when you have conversations with your mum that sound like Simon Cowell judging a contestant: ‘You gained a fair bit of weight. You have crooked teeth. I really think this is the best you can do. I am saying this because I love you’.

It is when this whole process comes very close to breaking you. When you lie awake at night and think, is this really the best I can do? Maybe it is. Maybe those butterflies aren’t meant to flutter in my stomach after all, I mean he’s a nice guy, sure he bores me but he can provide for me. So what if we have nothing in common? He’s got a good job. So what if he has no interest in asking me about myself? He comes from a good family. So what if he never asks me for my opinion? Marrying him will make my parents happy. And all that guilt that’s been building up inside you throughout this process of tug of war with your parents will come to a head and you will be very, very tempted to give up. Don’t. I repeat. DO NOT GIVE IN.

You are so much more that you perceive yourself to be. You are worth SO much more than you think and you deserve so much more than you could possibly imagine. DO NOT SELL YOURSELF SHORT. If you want chocolate cake then hold out for chocolate cake dammit! No matter how good vanilla cake is… it will never be chocolate cake and you will never be satisfied. You might be able to fake it for a day, a week, a month, a year, but eventually your parents will see that you are not satisfied and they will not be happy. If you feel like giving in for your parents – it won’t work.

Listen to your parents when they talk to you about him. But be polite and firm in your refusal. Use that thick skin you built up earlier, and the guidelines of open conversation you established earlier, to maintain your position of thanks, but no thanks. I want chocolate cake and I will wait. For my Chocolate. Cake.

The emotions

This whole process can last from anywhere from a year to a decade. It can happen to a girl or a guy. It can happen to a Bengali or non-Bengali. It can happen whether you are rich or poor. And so there is no one way of handling your emotions except the one cardinal rule you must never forget: Love yourself. I know. As lame, corny and clichéd as it sounds this process, more than any other process in life (so far anyway), will make you feel like crap. So many times along the way family and friends intentionally or otherwise will make you feel unloved, unwanted, and undervalued. Passing comments from people you do not know will sting. Nights will be spent crying and sleep will evade you. Be strong. Be the one voice in your head that is consistently loving to deflect the barrage of negativity from others. Because you ARE amazing and you ARE gorgeous and you ARE worthy and very soon a person WILL come along that will see that and be worthy of you.

There is a reason that it doesn’t happen automatically. The process of choosing your life partner is hard BECAUSE it is so inextricably linked to the direction your forever will take. You need to get through a stage of angst and despair and pain and hurt to come out stronger and with more self-belief so you can choose with confidence your life partner and life path.

Find friends that love you and understand you for who you are and not who they want you to be. And laugh with them. Laugh the kind of laughter that will make you realise that it doesn’t matter if you are single and who knows it. What matters in life is having the right people around you to keep you on a path that takes you to your destination.

The Desi way

When I told a friend at work about the arranged marriage process through which I met my husband, I expected some sort of remark. What I didn’t expect was her tone of wistfulness. She actually wished that she had parents and an extended social network that could facilitate arranged meet-ups because ‘meeting a good man in town is impossible’. Through that conversation I realised that no matter how frustrating the network of ‘aunties’ can get, they actually provide an invaluable service of vetting men and women and forming connections that would be otherwise impossible. For her, the process to meet someone was at work, the gym, a party, a bar and go on at least three to five dates (think endless excruciating decisions on clothes, hair make up, venue, shoes, not to mention the expense!) before she knew even half of what was provided in a biodata.

So, as much as I made fun of the aunties in my spiel above, I am grateful for the vetting and ‘flow of information’ they provide. Just… can we stick to the facts please?

While the arranged marriage process definitely works, there are definitely a few improvements that can be made:

1.       Aunties, reduce the cattiness. You were all young once, you went through a similar phase. Have some compassion. Don’t kick a girl when she’s down. Don’t keep asking her when she’s going to get married. Trust me. When she does you will know. You are part of a network much stronger than Facebook.

2.       Parents, please be nicer. You are the people who love us the most in this world. Your every word is taken very seriously whether we show it or not. When you say things like we are not good enough even though you may not have meant it – it hurts. Be our support system instead of our critic.

3.       Everyone else, tone down the gossip. This process is hard enough as it is without having to contend with the endless ‘he said, she said’. If something is happening, let it happen. If someone wants to know what you think they will ask you. Otherwise. Just wait and watch.


What it all boils down to

Have faith not only in God, but in YOU who God created. Have faith in your ability. Yourself. Your belief. Your feelings. Have confidence to act on them.

Don’t compare yourself with the girl who married her high school sweetheart. Don’t see her as having more than you. Instead see what you can share with her. Develop the skill of sharing because marriage is about sharing parts of you to make a whole.

Don’t look for perfection. No one is perfect. Look for someone who is a good person. Someone who respects you. Someone who has ambitions and has a purpose in life.

This process doesn’t always end in marriage. Or even a happy marriage. Nothing is guaranteed. No one knows what is in store for us. But if you learn the lessons of patience, respect and love, it will put you in good stead to tackle any situation life throws at you – no matter what your marital status.

Shafeen Mustaq
Shafeen Mustaq
Shafeen is a Sydney based writer

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