Portia and Prejudice

By Raisa Bashar

It wasn’t until midnight that I realized what the talk I had overheard would mean for me. I had been training hard the whole day for the university play where I was portraying Portia, the brave and independent heroine of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. I felt exactly the opposite of Portia’s character at that moment, as I sat staring at nothing in particular.

Later in the night, under the cover of my comforter and the silence of the dark, my mind cleared and I could visualize what the future held for me if my parents went ahead with the decision they were discussing that morning. Although I wasn’t meant to hear the conversation, I felt glad that I had: at least now I would be prepared for what came next.

Truly speaking? As an independent, modern girl I did not particularly believe in arranged marriages, even though all the couples in my family, including my parents, were chosen for each other by their parents or elder relatives. I always laughed along with my friends at the thought of undressing in front of a total stranger on that first night after marriage – how did the ladies do it in the past?! And now…I could be a potential ‘victim’ of that exact same phenomenon. “Noooo…,” I expressed out loud. A little scared and embarrassed, I crawled further into my comforter.

It was early next morning when I opened my eyes, unable to sleep through the ruckus the birds were creating just outside my window. But why was I feeling so restless, I wondered, until, that is, my eyes fell on the date circled on the bedside calendar. Today… Just before going to bed a few days ago, I had cheerfully marked the arrival date of my favorite Rafi Uncle, Papa’s childhood friend. The prospect of meeting Rafi Uncle was very pleasant to me as he was (still is) one of my most beloved persons and also, because, unlike the last times when he had visited Bangladesh alone for business trips, this time round he was bringing his family over from Germany (where they were settled) for a vacation.

But, but, but… I hadn’t thought of him as my future father-in-law, let alone marrying his son and going to Germany to spend the rest of my life at his house. I was happily contemplating meeting Uncle and going sightseeing with his family, along with thoughts of consuming as much junk food as possible, until I had overheard the conversation between my parents that had changed it all. You see, this particular visit of his wasn’t only a vacation; it was one that could decide my fate and future. Irfan, Rafi Uncle’s one and only child was The Chosen One for me. The Chosen One; the Harry Potter reference brought a smile to my face, and I started wondering whether this guy, who was to be my “soul mate”, my so-called “life-partner”, had ever even read one of the HP books. During my school days I was so into HP that I had decided never to marry a guy who wasn’t an HP fan. “I mean, or else, what would we talk about?” I had imagined as a teenager. Maybe, that was all going to change now…

When I went down, later that day, I found the whole house in uproar: my mother was supervising the domestic helpers cleaning the house and cooking special dishes, while my father was on the phone making sure the car went to the airport on time and ordering tonight’s special dessert – a ‘Welcome to Bangladesh’ cake for the guests.

Around 11am Ammu (my mother) started bugging me to go upstairs and get ready. She had already laid out the new gown I had bought to wear at the university play’s after party; “…as if I was going to wear that…,” I thought and rolled my eyes. At exactly 20 minutes past noon, I came down in jeans and a yellow t-shirt to greet Rafi Uncle, Aunty and Irfan at the door. I was trying my best to hide behind my mother, but Uncle gave me his usual bear hug and pulled me towards his wife, who kissed my forehead and gave me another hug. Irfan was standing just beside her, but I was too embarrassed to look up. All I saw were green canvases, light-colored jeans and two hands protruding from a green jumper of sorts. That was it.

They went in, and as I had planned earlier I slipped out of the house to the Merchant of Venice rehearsals, leaving a message on my mother’s phone. “Phew…safe for the day at least.” Throughout the day I avoided my parents’ and even Rafi Uncle’s calls with short replies and excuses and it was way past dinner time when I finally decided to return home. Taking advantage of the deserted hallway and landing I rushed to my room clutching my bag of sustenance for the night, opened the door, shut and locked it and stood against it breathing heavily before turning to collapse on the bed. Trouble was, there was already someone sitting on the bed, my surprise reflected on his face. Irfan. Hadn’t I been shifted to Papa’s study as a form of sacrifice for the ‘guests’ that very morning? Oops! I had forgotten.

I tried saying something; I really did. But all I managed was a feeble reply of “Hii-llo” to his strong “Hi” as I decided to say ‘Hi’, but changed to “Hello” midway. Okay, so what does Irfan look like? He is quite good-looking, taller than the average guys, with dusky skin and glasses that are more square than rectangle. At that moment, his legs were half-hidden under my comforter and he was wearing a green “YOLO” t-shirt. “What’s up with this guy?” I thought. “What’s with him and green?” (Later I got to know that it is his favorite color). And then my eyes fell on the thing he was holding: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – my copy of the book!

He caught me staring at it and said, “It’s one of my favorite series. It was lying beside the bathtub in the washroom. I hope you don’t mind. I read it quite a few times before, but couldn’t resist reading it again”.

…and the rest, as they say, is history. Well, not really. But that was the moment I decided to give Irfan a chance. You know why? Because, I realized in that moment that the only reason I was running away from this guy was because my parents had chosen him as my potential husband and not I. And my parents had always chosen and given me the best; many times, even before I wanted something. Maybe the guy had almost all the qualities I would like in my life-partner (not that I had given much thought about these “qualities” previously). Maybe he would make me happier than any guy I would chose for myself: maybe he was indeed, The One.

Our wedding took place a few months later. From that day, when I had accidentally met Irfan, to today, 5 years into our marriage, there have been ups and downs, differences and similarities, fights and make-ups, and even a child! But to this day Portia’s words echo in my conscience when I think back to the days before he arrived in my life:

O me, the word choose! I may neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I dislike – so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?”

Fortunately, just like Portia, I had found my soul mate; not because I had chosen him, but because my parents had known better… and, and, and of course because of Ms. Rowling. I’m sure there’s somebody out there for you too – arranged or love, that is the question…

Photograph: Pete via Flickr and Creative Commons

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