This blog was featured on 01/09/2019
Soniah Kamal: An Excerpt
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
January 2019
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
January 2019

This month our guest editor is Soniah Kamal, author of Unmarriageable which is described as Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan. Below is an excerpt from her book.

Chapter Five

 

At the dessert table, Jena, Alys, and Sherry wished they’d eaten a little less dinner. Still, they managed to sample everything: gulab ja­muns in sweet sticky syrup, firni gelled in clay ramekins and deco­rated with edible silver paper, snow-white ras malai, tiramisu cups and lemon custard tarts, kulfi ice cream and sweet paans from a kiosk preparing them fresh on the spot, the bright-green betel leaves stuffed with shredded coconut, betel nuts, fennel, rose-petal jam, sugar syrup, and then folded into perfect triangles.

Jena was taking a dainty bite of an unsweetened paan when she was approached by two girls with cascades of highlighted hair. Some extensions, for sure, she thought, and a healthy amount of makeup, just shy of too much. They were dressed exquisitely in heavily em­broidered lehenga cholis with their flat midriffs bare, and diaphanous dupattas, clearly the work of an established designer. Jena noticed their single-strap matte-silver heels. She’d been searching for shoes like these, but all she’d been able to find were horrendous wide-strapped glittery platforms.

“Where did you get your shoes?” Jena asked, smiling her admira­tion.

“Italy,” one of the girls said. “I love the detailing on your sari blouse and border. Whose is it?” She rattled off a few designer names.

Jena shook her head. “No designer. My tailor, Shawkat. He has a small shop in Dilipabad Bazaar.”

“Oh, I see.” The girl’s face fell for a second. “I’m Humeria Bingla—Hammy.”

“And I’m Sumeria Bingla—Sammy,” said the other girl. “Actually, Sumeria Bingla Riyasat. I’m married. Happily married.”

“Jena Binat,” Jena said. She proceeded to introduce Alys, Mari, and Sherry. Hammy turned to Sherry with a huge smile.

“Are you Sherry Pupels from the Peshawar Pupels clan?” she asked. “The politician’s wife?”

“No,” Sherry said. “I am Sherry Looclus from Dilipabad, born and bred.”

Alys would swear Hammy-Sammy’s noses curled once they real­ized that Sherry was not the VIP they’d mistaken her for.

“Hi.” It was the sweet-looking sandy-haired fellow.

“And this,” Hammy said, turning as if the interruption was pre­planned, “is our baby brother, Bungles.”

“Fahad Bingla,” he said.

“Bungles,” Hammy said firmly. “Because, when we were children, he kept bungling up every game we’d play, right, Sammy?”

“Right, Hammy,” Sammy said.

“And,” Hammy said, “he’d still keep bungling up if Sammy and I didn’t keep him in check.”

Bungles laughed and shook his head. He held his hand out to Jena. Jena shook it and Bungles held on for a second too long. Jena blushed. Bungles shook hands with Alys and Sherry, but Mari wouldn’t shake his hand, because, she said, Islam forbade men and women touching.

“Are you all very Islamic?” Hammy said.

“Clearly not,” Alys said, a little annoyed, though she wasn’t sure whether it was at Mari’s self-righteous piety or Hammy’s supercil­ious tone. “Anyway, this is Pakistan. You’ve got very religious, reli­gious, not so religious, and nonreligious, though no one will admit the last out loud, since atheism is a crime punishable by death.”

“What a font of knowledge you are, babes!” Hammy said. “Isn’t she, Sammy?”

“She is,” Sammy said, as she turned to a stocky man lumbering toward her with a cup of chai. “All, this is my husband, Sultan ‘Jaans’ Riyasat. He’s thinking about entering politics. Jaans, all.”

Jaans gave a short wave before plopping into a nearby chair, his stiff shalwar puffing up around him. He patted the empty seat beside him. Sammy glided over, perching prettily, ignored the fact that Jaans was taking huge swigs from a pocket liquor flask. She pro­ceeded to take elegant sips of her chai.

The out-of-town guests had come to Dilipabad to attend the mehndi ceremony tonight and the nikah ceremony the next day and were staying at the gymkhana.

“So basically, babes, we’re bored,” Hammy said. “We got into Dil­ipabad two days ago, because Nadir wanted to make sure everyone was here, but there’s literally nothing to do. We went to that thing this town calls a zoo, with its goat, sheep, camel, and peacock. And we went to the alligator farm and stared at alligators, who stared back at us, and I told them you can’t eat me but I’ll see you in Birkin. And Nadir and Fiede arranged for a hot-air-balloon tour over what amounted to villages and fields.”

“The hot-air balloon sounds like fun,” Alys said. “A bit of Oz in Dilipabad. You know, The Wizard of Oz?”

“Babes, for real, it was all green and boring,” Hammy said. “What do you locals do for fun in D-bad?”

“We have three restaurants,” Jena said. “And a recently opened bakery-café, High Chai.”

“Oh dear God!” Sammy said. “Fiede took us there yesterday.”

“There was a hair in my cappuccino,” Hammy said. “A long, dis­gusting hair.”

“And the place smelled like wet dog,” Sammy said.

“We’ve been multiple times and everything was quite lovely,” Jena said. “Nothing but the scent of freshly baked banana bread. And the staff wore hairnets and gloves.”

“Oh my goodness, Jena!” Hammy took Jena’s hand and stroked it as if she was speaking to a child. “The hair was bad enough, but the Muzak was some crackly throwback tape that played ‘Conga’ and ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ on repeat. Get with it, D-bad. It’s the year 2000.”

Alys was suddenly offended on behalf of “D-bad.”

“I’m sure the hair was an aberration,” she said. “And you should have asked them to change the songs.”

“Oh,” Hammy said. “We abhor being a bother!”

“Yes,” Sammy said. “We’re guests. Passers-through. If you locals are happy with the state of things, why should we try to change any­thing? We can live without fun for a few days. Right, Hammy?”

“Right, Sammy,” Hammy said. “Boredom is a bore, not a killer.”

“And what,” Alys asked, “according to you constitutes fun?”

Before Hammy-Sammy could answer, Lady, Qitty, and the fine-eyed guy on the dance floor descended upon the group at the same time. Alys glanced at him. His eyes were intensely black, with thick lashes their mother always claimed were wasted on men, as was his jet-black hair, which fell neatly in a thick wave just below his ears. He was taller than Bungles and had broader shoulders. He frowned and glanced at his expensive watch, and Alys noted that he had sturdy forearms and nice strong hands. Lovely hands.

“Hello,” Lady said. She was carrying a bowl full of golden fried gulab jamuns. “Have you tried these? To die for. Isn’t this the best wed­ding ever? I have a good mind to tell Fiede to get married every year.”

“Is that so?” Hammy said. “I’m sure Fiede will be thrilled at your suggestion. And who are you?”

“Aren’t you,” Sammy said, “the girl who crashed the dance floor?”

Lady nodded, unabashed, even though her sisters cringed.

“I’m Lady, their sister.” Lady pointed to Jena, Alys, and Mari. “And this is our other sister, Qitty.”

“I can speak for myself,” Qitty said. “Hello.”

“But a moment ago,” Lady said, “you told me you’d eaten so much you could no longer speak.”

“Because I didn’t want to speak to you,” Qitty said.

“Qitty!” Alys said. “Lady!”

“Ladies’ Room,” Jaans called from his chair. “Everyone wants to go to the Ladies’ Room. Is it open?”

“Oh, you!” Sammy smacked her husband on his hand. “Such a joker.”

The guy with the intense eyes and lovely hands, Alys noted, was watching as if he’d decided the entire world was a bad comedy and it was his punishment to witness every awful joke.

“Bungles,” he said, “if you’re done entertaining yourself, can we—”

Bungles interrupted him. “This is one of my best friends, Valen­tine Darsee.”

“Valentine,” Hammy said, “say a big hearty hello to the sisters Binat and their friend Cherry.”

“Sherry,” Sherry said, flushing.

“Sherry,” Hammy said. “My sincere apologies.”

Darsee seemed to be taking his time giving them a big hearty hello, Alys thought, but before he could get to it, Lady began to laugh uncontrollably.

“Valentine!” Lady doubled over. “Were you born on Valentine’s Day?”

Spittle sprayed out of Lady’s mouth, and Darsee and Hammy jumped out of the way, revulsion on their faces.

“Lady!” Jena said, mortified.

“Oops!” Lady wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Sorry. Sorry.”

“I’m sure you are,” Hammy said. “But I’m not sure I’m getting the joke. Valentine is such a romantic name.”

Everyone waited for Darsee to say something, but after several moments Bungles spoke up.

“Valentine’s late mother,” Bungles said, “was a big fan of Rudolph Valentino, and she named him Valentino. The staff at the hospital mistook it for Valentine and, by the time anyone checked, the birth certificate was complete and so that was that, right, Val?”

Valentine Darsee gave a curt nod. It was unclear to Alys whether he couldn’t care less if they knew the origin story of his name or whether Lady’s spittle had caused him severe trauma.

“Same thing happened with Oprah,” she offered in a conciliatory tone.

“Pardon me?” Darsee said, as if he was seeing her for the first time and not liking what he saw.

“Oprah. She was named Orpah, after a character in the Bible, but her name was mistakenly recorded as Oprah.” Alys added, “I read it in Reader’s Digest, I think, or Good Housekeeping.

Darsee turned to Bungles. “I’m going to check in with Nadir for the night and then head back to our room.”

He left without a smile, without a “pleased to meet you,” without even a cursory nod. Hammy at least nodded at the group before run­ning after him. Lady decided to get more gulab jamuns and dragged Qitty with her. Sammy and Jaans turned to each other. Bungles ex­plained, sheepishly, that Darsee had recently arrived from Atlanta, where he’d been studying for an MBA, and was still jet-lagged. Alys and Sherry exchanged a look: Valentine Darsee was the British School Group.

“Jena,” Bungles said. “Can I get you some chai? Dessert? Any­thing?”

“Jena,” Sherry said, “why don’t you and Bungles Bhai go get chai together?”

Bungles thought this a fabulous idea, and Jena, with no reason to refuse, walked with him to the tea table, where teas, pink, green, and black, were being served.

“That was obvious,” Alys said. “A great ‘grab it’ move. My mother will be so proud of you.”

“You and Jena need to listen to your mother once in a while,” Sherry said. “Clearly Bungles Bhai is interested in Jena, and she needs to show a strong interest in return.”

“She just met him,” Alys said. “Two minutes ago.”

“So?” Sherry said. “If she doesn’t show interest, a million other girls will.”

“If he’s going to lose interest because she’s modest, then perhaps he’s not worth it.”

“Of course he’s worth it. And aren’t you the sly one to use the word ‘modest.’ ”

“Huh?”

“ ‘Modest sanitary napkins for your inner beauty, aap ke mushkil dinon ka saathi, the companion of your hard days,’ ” Sherry said, spouting the jingle that played during the animated advertisement for Modest sanitary products. “Bungles, Hammy, and Sammy are Modest. They own the company. I recognize them from interviews. And soon our Jena will be Mrs. Modest.”

“You’ll be naming their children next.” Alys shook her head. “They barely know each other.”

“Plenty of time for them to get to know each other once they’re married.”

“I think,” Alys said, “better to get to know each other before de­ciding to get married.”

“Big waste of time,” Sherry said. “Trust me, everyone is on their best behavior until the actual marriage, and then claws emerge. From what I’ve gleaned, real happiness in marriage seems a matter of chance. You can marry a seemingly perfect person and they can transform before your eyes into imperfection, or you can marry a flawed person and they can become someone you actually like, and therefore flawless. The key point being that, for better or for worse, no one remains the same. One marries for security, children, and, if one is lucky, companionship. Although,” Sherry laughed, “in Valen­tine Darsee’s case, good luck on the last.”

“I can’t believe Lady!” Alys said. “No one deserves a spittle spray. Actually, I take that back. Hammy probably does deserve it.”

Ten minutes later, Alys believed Darsee deserved it too. She’d gone to congratulate Fiede and was about to climb down off the stage when she heard Bungles’s and Darsee’s voices. Their backs were turned to her and, despite knowing it was a bad idea to eavesdrop, Alys bent down to fiddle with her shoe.

Reader’s Digest?” Darsee was saying. “Good Housekeeping? She is neither smart nor good-looking enough for me, my friend.”

“I read Reader’s Digest,” Bungles said, laughing.

“Yes,” Darsee said, “sadly, I know.”

“You have impossible standards in everything,” Bungles said. “Alysba Binat is perfectly attractive. But you’ve got to admit, Val, her elder sister is gorgeous.”

“She is good-looking. But, please, stop foisting stupid, average-looking women on me.”

Excerpted from Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal. Copyright © 2019 by Soniah Kamal. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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