A Suitable Groom
Mullah Mchungu sits on his easy chair slurping steaming chai from a saucer. His blinding dentures sit by the side table, ready for action as soon as the old man is done with his breakfast. Hameesi, the Mullah’s personal assistant and in-house manservant stands by patiently, a half-filled cup of the chai clutched in his fingers. As soon as the Mullah finishes drinking the chai from the saucer, Hameesi dips a fluffy mandazi into the cup, dunks it a couple of times, and feeds the mush to the old man. The Mullah struggles to chew the goo, his toothless jaws frantically working to break it down, and swallows. After a last few sips from the cup, the Mullah burps audibly, heralding the end of the daily breakfast routine. Hameesi wipes his master’s lips gently, just as a mother would of her infant child, and inserts the ghastly dentures into Mullah’s gaping mouth. The Mullah is thus restored, smiling at me goofily.
Sitting under a rotating fan in the living room of the Mullah’s ancient apartment in Dar es Salaam, I marvel at them both. Here is a man, as a baby, his mother would most probably have fed and cared for him in this exact same manner as the manservant was now doing. A complete cycle of life almost ended. A perfect example from the Quran’s reflected here. And at Hameesi. He came to work for the Mullah’s family when he was a mere teenager and has been a loyal employee through all these years. More than a manservant for the Mullah, Hemeesi is a lifeline without which the old man will not survive. Period. There’s a relationship that always surprises me, considering the inherent racist mindset of most Asians in the larger Khoja community. The Black Hameesi realizes this yet is unwilling to leave his employer’s side and takes care of him as his own family.
I’m here because the Mullah had summoned me to his place last night. He is a bit of a tyrant, this guy. He does not request, he demands. I could ignore him of course, but just like Hameesi can’t leave his side, I, too, cannot simply shun my ingrained upbringing. He had asked me to visit him last night, saying the matter he wanted to discuss was urgent, but I had other plans.
So ghadhero, grin the false teeth at me, you consider yourself so important that you cannot spare a mere 10 minutes with an old man?
The Mullah is the only man who calls me a donkey every time I visit him. And gets away with it. Also, I have more important issues at hand this very minute. Hameesi has just placed piping hot bajeeas with coconut and tamarind chutney on the side table next to me; my mouth is already watering. He follows with a cup of elaichi-free cup of chai. Am I in heaven or what? Hameesi is the best. The Mullah, sensing I will not pay him full attention while I’m feeding my face, stays quiet and reads today’s edition of Daily News. I have fond memories of that paper, I used to read every word in it as a teenager. I devour all the bajeeas, all ten of them, including the fiery chutneys. I am sweating slightly after the exercise, even though it is the middle of our winter here and the weather is refreshingly pleasant. I finish the chai, which beats any of the overpriced ‘Tea’ shops in Dar, blow my sinuses clear, and am ready for battle with the Mullah.
Tell me, Mullah Saheb, how can I help you?
I want you to find me a suitable groom.
I’m not sure if I hear him right, so I look at his face to see if he’s messing with me. All I see are the grinning dentures and wizened, rheumy eyes. The guy looks serious. What does he think, I run a matrimonial bureau?
Before you give me one of your usual snide remarks Kisukaali, listen up. I have a granddaughter, Shana, my daughter’s daughter, who is past the ideal age of matrimony. She’s a bit overweight, but nothing that can’t be managed with a bit of exercise and diet. The problem is she can’t find a suitable Khoja man. She’s smart, she’s a speech therapist, and she’s lonely. My daughter is sick with worry that her daughter will end up a spinster all her life. But I blame Shana for the mess. She used to get proposals by the dozen when she was in her teens and early twenties. I urged my daughter to accept any decent one and get her daughter married. But Shana was adamant she wanted to study. So, her parents sent her off to the UK and she finished high school. But then she wanted to become a doctor, and that was taking too long, and costing an arm and a leg. So, she became a speech therapist. I’m not sure what that means and what use that’ll be here in this country but I guess it can be useful in the west if she can find a partner there.
I sympathize with the old man. This is not an isolated problem and is not confined to the Khoja community only. Girls, especially educated ones, past the ‘suitable’ age of marriage, between 18 – 25, see their prospects of finding a partner diminish considerably. Boys, particularly ones with lesser education levels are very wary of a relationship, and so is the prospective mother-in-law. I still do not know how I can help.
Mullah saheb, I start cautiously, craning my neck to spot the vicious waking cane he sometimes has waged at me, I do not see how I can help. I do not have any children of marriageable age…
Aree Ghadhera, I am asking you because of your contacts with the Khojas. Surely you come across many in your frequent travels? All I want you to do is keep a lookout for a suitable groom for Shana.
And this was supposed to be something urgent, I want to ask sarcastically, but I keep the peace by keeping quiet. The Mullah is asking for a miracle. I know of more parents on the lookout for a suitable rishta for their daughters than there are takers. This is a sad reality, especially for highly educated girls past their prime.
Kisukaali, my daughter is very disheartened. I am not too fond of Shana because she is stubborn as a mule, especially because she thinks she is western educated and her attitude is also to blame for her predicament. She also likes English chocolates, and there are consequences to eating them like daal curry and rice, especially if one has a sedentary lifestyle. But I feel sad for my daughter and I want you to help her out. Please?
This is a new side to this man, who has always been combative and arrogant on all matters under the sky. It must be hurting his pride a lot for him to be asking me for something so private. My heart goes out to him. But it also makes me very uncomfortable being exposed to a family issue that is so intimate. The Mullah hands me a photograph of Shana as I leave him. She is smiling at the camera, a glint reflecting from her glasses, a chubby shortish girl with dimples. I honestly doubt I’ll be able to help the old man but I don’t want to be the cause of his melancholy either. Hameesi escorts me to the door, giving me an ear-to-ear grin as I transfer his tip from my fingers to his.
Now, I’ll have to keep my eyes open for a suitable groom for Shana. A tall task, I say.