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.
The youngest of three children, Afra was born and raised in Hyderabad, the sixth-largest city in India. In 2008, three years after she received her undergraduate degree in computer science, she moved to San Diego to get a master’s degree at San Diego State University. She would have gone to just about any university in the country as long as it was in the same city as her brother Abid and his wife Allison.
Studying in the United States is something she wanted to do for a long time. The schools are good, she says, and there’s a future for anyone in the IT industry. Even if she were to move back to India, her American master’s degree would come in handy.
“American master’s programs are valued throughout the world,” she says, tucking a strand of shiny black hair behind her ear. “It doesn’t matter what university you’re coming from. If it’s a degree from the United States, it’s valuable.”
Not that she’s planning to return to India anytime soon. Fayyaz is also from Hyderabad, but he moved with his family to Chicago when he was 16 or 17 years old. According to Afra, her fiancé claims Chicago as “his city.” It’s where he grew into a man and where his immediate and extended family resides. He has also rooted himself in the pizza business. More important, Fayyaz is a patriotic American. He even planned a Hawaiian honeymoon so that the money they spend will stay in the country. Although that particular plan fell through when his brother promised to gift the soon-to-be-wed couple with a two-week honeymoon in Tahiti, it’s still a fair guess that Afra will make use of her degree in the United States, likely somewhere in the Chicago area.
When Afra came to San Diego to live with her brother Abid, he became her guardian; and so, in the spring of 2009, when a woman called from Chicago to inquire about Abid’s unmarried sister, he spoke on behalf of their parents, who both now live in Saudi Arabia. (After Afra left India, their mother returned to Saudi Arabia, where their father works.) The woman explained that she had gotten Abid’s number from his mother’s cousin and then stated that she was looking for a girl as a match for her son. She asked questions about Afra, what she’s studying, how long she’s been in the United States, what her father does, and so on. Abid asked a few questions of his own, then the two parties agreed to exchange biodata, which are, for all intents and purposes, résumés.
Marriage biodata templates abound online and include space for a photo, all the standard data about education and work history, as well as personal facts about height and weight, skin and hair color, religion, caste, habits, and income. The required familial information is often as detailed as the names and occupations of maternal and paternal grandfathers and uncles.
While all of these particulars are considered important in the making of a good marriage, Afra suggests that the match begins at the surface level.
“Somehow, in the arranged marriages, what I have noticed in India and in our culture is that they first match the physical attributes, like height and color.”
She explains that it would be no good to have a tall boy matched with a short girl. Nor would it be right to match a boy with a girl who’s taller than him.
“The basic criteria,” she says, “is that the boy should be taller than the girl.”
At 5’6” and 5’7”, respectively, Afra and Fayyaz are nearly the same height. Their complexions, however, don’t fall into the same category. She’s considered “fair,” and he’s what they call “wheatish,” or light brown.