The engagement had been announced before the terrible thing happened. Sometimes it was hard to remember that. And at other times, when one was deep in the midst of choosing table linens and centerpieces, it became possible not to think about the terribleness at all, to let it drift into a distant corner of one's mind as if it had happened in a distant corner of the world. Even so, there were some on Nasr's side who, as late as November, suggested that postponing the wedding (perhaps even indefinitely) would not, under the circumstances, be an unreasonable request to make of the bride's family. Eventually, it was the "perhaps even indefinitely" part that would catch Nasr's attention--what, exactly, had that meant? But at the time he was simply annoyed. He wondered how long he and Farah were expected to accommodate world events. And he knew that the people who had made such remarks were letting themselves see bad omens and connectivity even though one thing had been set in motion before the other.
But before all that, in August at the engagement party, there had been a sharp, satisfying little gasp from the crowd when Nasr pulled open the blue clamshell box containing the ring he had secretly purchased. Sitting beside him, Farah had drawn back, too. Her face was concealed behind a filmy green rupatta, so Nasr couldn't tell by her eyes whether her slim shoulders had reacted to the flash of the carats or to the sound of their reception. He paused to wait for an instruction from one of his elders on how to proceed. He didn't mind extending these little courtesies; to him, they were not acts of blind deference but facets of a sensitivity to the benefits of accommodation that he had long cultivated in himself. A pinch of patience cost the younger generation so little and meant so much to the older set.
Hosted by Nasr's mother, the party was originally meant to be a small affair, as the proposing and accepting had already happened twice, first in July, over the phone, with Nasr in New York and Farah back here in Canada. When he called to deliver the happy news to his mother, she'd exclaimed, "Arre, but Hamid Uncle hasn't even met them yet," which was her way of reminding him that she herself, by an albeit unexpected turn, had yet to meet Farah or the other Ansaris. To banish entirely the notion that Nasr and Farah had acted of their own accord, the two families convened a few days later for the presentation of a peghaam, a formal proposal written and recited by Hamid Uncle, who was a close friend of Nasr's family.
This party in August was, therefore, the third marking of Farah's acceptance, and although Mrs. Ansari had originally wanted to serve as hostess, when the guest list swelled to fifty she conceded that the Ansaris' tiny bungalow plus basement wouldn't suffice. Instead, the Siddiquis' living-room furniture was pushed to the walls, white sheets were laid over the carpet, and heavy, log-shaped cushions were strewn about. A low sofa was put out in the center of the room, where the bride and groom accepted blessings and were subjected to all manner of related but unsolicited attention: chin-squeezing and cheek-pinching. But the crowd now looming above Nasr and Farah, though several bodies thick in every direction (the closest layer being all ladies: mothers and aunts, brightly dressed and elaborately bejeweled), was watchful and strangely unassertive. Also strange was that Nasr didn't recognize many of the faces before him, even though it was his own side that had run up the numbers, while Farah's had arrived in only three minivans.
Eventually, one of Farah's aunties stepped forward and thrust a palm under his nose. She wore a shalwar kameez of a shiny peacock blue that Nasr's mother would have deemed inappropriate for the woman's age, and her wispy gray hair had mostly escaped from the rupatta tied about her head. She wasn't smiling, but her teeth were somehow visible, unevenly spaced and stained red from paan. Nasr could guess what the old woman wanted--under the pretense of preserving the bride's modesty, she was demanding to have the honor of putting the ring on Farah's finger herself. Had she been sent by the Ansaris, he wondered, or his mother? Where, come to think of it, was his mother? While prying the ring out of its tight velvet casing, Nasr made the mistake of looking up and found himself exchanging awkward smiles with yet another unfamiliar woman. She had been craning her neck, as though viewing an exhibit at the zoo, but then seemed surprised, even dismayed, when the main attraction stared back.
Much of the evening had turned out like this: fretful speculations--Who ought to be assigned to greet the guests? When should the giving of the blessing be scheduled? Who is deciding whether the bride and groom should be allowed to face each other?--followed by elaborate, well-intentioned stagings that begat mixed signals and improvisations. Nasr supposed he shouldn't have been surprised. Although an Indian wedding usually involved a number of ceremonies, the engagement party was a relatively recent addition to the sequence, an attempt to harmonize with the traditions of Western society. But even now that it had become decidedly fashionable to hold such an event, there was still uncertainty about what, exactly, was being celebrated--no actual marriage, after all, just a promise. And not even a promise that held any religious import. The Ansaris were initially resistant to the idea, and then wanted to keep the event dinner-party-size (a proposition Nasr had heartily seconded), but Nasr's mother had strong ideas about the duties required of families like theirs--to not fall behind trends, to establish standards, to lead by good taste--and she was keen on doing all that was expected. After a few slips, she was careful to extend the "theirs" to include the Ansaris.
"Perhaps it is a good sign the boy is having so much trouble managing ladies' jewelry," said Farah's aunt. Impatient fingers brushed against Nasr's cheek. At this, he plunged his arm into the heavy, brocaded folds of fabric in Farah's lap and drew out a soft cold hand.
There was another gasp from the crowd. Nasr caught a glimpse of Farah's chin, a blade of nearly white skin dipping out from below her rupatta. The band was too big--the thick platinum slid easily over the knuckles--but the fingers Nasr held curled around and tugged slightly against his own, and the lips above the finely pointed chin were red and smiling before they slipped out of sight again.
A round of cautious applause followed, and a few uncles came forward to shake Nasr's hand and deliver congratulatory pats on his back. But when he glanced in Farah's direction she was turned away from him even more than before, and her aunt's head was bent over hers in deep consultation. He was glad he'd thought to buy the ring and keep it a surprise (even if this Western touch made the party more redundant than it already was), and he knew, of course, that Farah would never actually look at him, not with all these people expecting to see a classic Indian bride. But a man didn't give a woman a diamond only to stare at the back of her covered head for the rest of the evening. He stole another glance, hoping she'd make her profile available. Later, Nasr would wonder how he could have thought a piece of jewelry would instantly cleave a daughter from familial duty and allow her to favor her fiancee with anything more than a smile on a half-hidden face. How could a mere diamond (even one whose carat size alone was proof that he hadn't entered the engagement lightly) procure for him the privileges that many husbands enjoyed only tentatively? But for the moment Nasr indulged a pleasant reverie. Perhaps that first and unmistakably spontaneous smile meant that Farah had come to the same realization he had when she saw the ring on her finger: that the two of them had crossed a threshold, and from now on they would no longer need go-betweens.
More guests began streaming by, and as the wall of people shifted and cracked Nasr finally spotted his mother, smiling in that proud but embarrassed way she had when accepting compliments she more or less expected. At all such events in their community, the older generation's measure of success was tied to the question of what had been lost in the transplantation of old customs into new soil. Nasr's mother and Hamid Uncle, especially, were experts in identifying which silly concessions (pizza ordered for the children who had declared that they didn't eat Indian food) corrupted the authenticity or solemnity of an occasion and which substitutions were so imprecise (plastic garlands instead of those made from fresh flowers) that they ought to have been left out altogether. Nasr was satisfied that Farah was a person who would, like him, recognize that, despite a few moments of indecisiveness and vague orchestration, tonight's event had struck the right note. The congratulations he accepted now were as much for his engaged status as they were for the gleaming and immaculate Siddiqui home, the sleeves of jewelry his mother had gifted the Ansaris, and even the way her three days of cooking lingered lightly in the air without giving the impression that the whole place had been fried in oil. But Nasr still wished he could have seen Farah's expression when he grabbed her hand. Had she really been surprised? And if so, what had that surprise looked like on her features, lit by that moment?
"Found it!" said Farah's aunt, cackling victoriously. Standing over the bridal couple, she held up a white box and pulled it open to reveal a silver watch. Farah's palm was outstretched but waiting too modestly to be noticed. After circling the box in the air for display and collecting a murmur of approval, the woman turned, made a rough grab for Nasr's arm, and slipped the watch on his wrist with a toothy, triumphant smile.
Just as a round of polite cheers subsided, Hamid Uncle's daughter, Jameela, said above the din: "I hope this doesn't mean, Auntie, that he's half engaged to Farah and half to you."
Jameela was always making jokes. She was a tall, angularly framed girl with dark curly hair (the color of which was constantly being adjusted), a permanently wry mouth, and a flat, amused voice that seemed to reside somewhere in the back of her throat but could spring into an exasperated or persuasive pitch with sudden energy. She wasn't pretty, exactly. There was always something distracting about her person--a strangely ornate nose ring, ill-fitting or floppy fabrics, an oddly boyish haircut, a dramatic use of makeup--that promoted her looks to striking or eye-catching, but probably nothing could bring them all the way to beautiful.
This latest joke of Jameela's, launched from somewhere deep in the back of the living room, inspired an eruption of laughter and applause that was, to Nasr's ear, the first genuinely comfortable moment of the evening. As though released from a semi-frozen state, the guests finally began embracing and calling out hearty mubaraks. The noise of their chatter gathered high above Nasr's head, as if it were happening at the mouth of a well, at the bottom of which he sat with his fiancee, whose hands were again buried in her lap. Nasr couldn't imagine what Farah thought of Jameela's comment; he could envision neither the arrangement of her features nor the emotion that might be assigned to them--and his inability made him remember, belatedly and with a stab of shock, that this was only the second time he and Farah had met.
A moment later, however, when Nasr's mother came forward and with much grave affection placed a garland of fresh roses around Farah's neck, he dismissed this shock. It was not, after all, so unusual that he'd seen Farah only twice. Their previous encounter might have been brief, but it had told Nasr all he needed to know: that the being behind the rupatta was composed and private in the very best sense. She knew the value of holding herself back, and her moderation was practiced not simply in the service of rituals but because she was receptive to forming a life with another person.
But just as he was thinking this, Nasr became aware that even though Jameela was hidden by the crush of bodies, he could picture, without effort and quite clearly, the expression that would be on her face--down to the tartness about the eyes and the missing warmth from what would have been her natural smile.2
Everybody knew that arranged marriages were for desperate people: old-maidy, overeducated, semi-Westernized girls who weren't pretty enough or meek enough to attract men on their own and straight-from-India, computer-degreed guys who had adolescent expectations and weren't patient enough, or suave enough, or were altogether forbidden by their mothers, to date. Nasr wasn't desperate, and this, he thought, when he finally agreed to let his mother find him a bride, would be his chief tactical advantage.
Before consenting, he'd performed the usual evasions. He pretended, during his entire first year in New York, not to hear the long, martyred sighs his mother sent through the phone lines from Montreal, nor to follow her logic that while it was good to put efforts into one's career, one must remember that it was merely a stage in life--a time when one's focus, rightly so, was on oneself. But, like any stage, it must end, and other stages must be allowed to take their natural courses. Also, Nasr's mother didn't like that he'd changed countries, that she knew no one in Manhattan, that he wouldn't even go to meet their distant relations in New Jersey so that she could be assured he was eating well. During these conversations--the same conversation, really, reprised for weeks and then months--Nasr never mentioned how her own parents had let their children fling themselves across oceans without calling every other day. But his silence on the matter was, apparently, only encouraging. His mother became convinced that he was lonely and unhappy.
"Lonely for what?" he asked in a frustrated moment, one weekend evening when she'd called and seemed both satisfied and concerned to find him home alone, with no plans to go out.
"This is New York, Ammi. Just what kind of companionship is it that you think I don't have?" he asked, then mumbled, "Or couldn't get?"
"Someone of your own," she replied, "who will know you better than anyone--at least better than I do."
This remark, more than all her other words, made an impression, though Nasr didn't know whether to credit his mother for being astute or just getting lucky. He had begun to feel, after years of living on his own, in danger of becoming a cliche: the determinedly striving immigrant professional who'd been at his accounting job long enough that it was no longer something he set out to do every morning so much as something he was--a person who often attended meetings in cities across the Atlantic but for whom goeng out with his colleagues in London was beginning to feel a lot like going out with another set in Paris, a different map but the same bars and clubs.
Excerpted from The Groom to Have Been by Saher Alam. Copyright © 2008 by Saher Alam. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.