Toma flopped onto the cushioned sofa in resignation and disgust. She cursed herself for being persuaded into believing that it would be a nice evening. She should have trusted her instincts. Now she regretted her decision to come to the party. Nothing to look forward to but the time when her uncle and aunt would decide to leave.
She sighed and took a sip of lemonade, and noticed her uncle casting a worried glance at her. Feeling somewhat sorry for him she smiled to assure him that nothing was amiss. It was not his fault, really. Her Latif Uncle and Rashida Aunty were doing their best to introduce Toma to the Bangladeshi community in Arlington. Back in Dhaka, Toma’s mother had lately been upset by her wayward daughter’s decision to stay on in the US to pursue a PhD after completing her Master’s. So to appease her mother, she agreed to go to this party while visiting her maternal uncle and aunt in Virginia—a place to meet prospective bridegrooms and such. Toma herself had not been completely averse to the idea—she wouldn’t mind settling down eventually—but what she had seen so far was not very encouraging.
Early in the evening she had met Faiyaz, son of an eminent Bangladeshi doctor living in Fairfax, and himself a well-paid systems analyst with an MS from MIT. His mother had been crowing to the crowd about his recent raise. Toma could not help cringing. To her, such information was absolutely private, and she considered it as distasteful as a display of undergarments. Faiyaz, a stocky fellow of about 5’ 4”, smiled coyly at Toma, who was taller than him, poised, and very attractive. Throughout the evening she had noticed quite a few men looking her up and down. An elderly man even asked her if she had been in the Girl Scouts as she seemed to have an athletic body. Toma smiled politely and answered “no” before moving away feeling irritated and embarrassed.
Next came Tanvir and his parents. “Oh, how interesting! Both Toma and Tanvir begin with a T!” the father said with great mirth. Tanvir worked in a law firm in New York, and was on the lookout for a prospective bride who would be smart and attractive, but not too career-oriented. He would be earning a lot, so he was more in need of a home-maker. The first question he asked Toma was what she planned to do after her master’s. When she replied that she would be pursuing her PhD, he looked at her very seriously and said, “You are in physics, right?” Before Toma could reply he ploughed on. “You know, girls don’t have the right kind of aptitude for science. I don’t mean any offense. It’s just that research has shown that girls are better at languages while boys are better at mathematical and spatial cognition. In any case, with your degree and looks you can get a good job – why would you waste several years of your life on a PhD?”
Toma felt like scratching her eyes out. She took a moment before replying. “It has been my dream to become a physicist since I was in eighth grade,” she said. “Besides, I got accepted and funded at Purdue, so presumably, they didn’t find any problems with my mathematical and spatial skills.” Toma forced a smile before moving away.
After meeting Habib and his blabbering fool of a sister, Toma decided to take a break. After all, there was only so much one could take. She heaved a sigh and took another sip, no, a gulp of her drink. She could not understand why these people, who claimed to be so well-educated and cultured, acted the way they did. She looked across the room at the bevy of women in all their jewels and finery. To think that some day she might have to join their ranks made her feel nauseated. She saw a fat Mrs. Zoardar gesturing with her hands in such a way that everyone could see her emerald-studded bracelets. Another woman in a pale purple muslin saree was talking in a high-pitched voice, “Daud and I are planning to visit Europe next summer. I simply love Paris—the Louvre is my soul. People here boast about cars and houses. You should all open your eyes and try to see the world. What is there in life, eh? Enjoy it!”
Toma grimaced and thought that the only person she could confide in about such nonsense was Mayeesha. Like Toma, Mayeesha too had faced these situations recently. Actually, her case was worse since she lived in a city with a larger Bangladeshi community, whereas Toma had only come here to visit. Soon she would be back in the small university town in Indiana where the community would leave her largely at peace.
“Why so sad?” said a voice that sounded rather amused. Toma saw a woman occupying another sofa across from hers. She remembered seeing her before – a young woman who was accosted by a mother with two marriageable sons. She had deflected her by saying that she was already married, and then had moved gracefully away from the vicinity. She was holding a glass in her hand, probably fruit punch, and Toma could not help noticing her fingers – the long, tapering fingers of an artist. She had an amused smile on her lips, but it was her eyes that made Toma take a second look at her. Her eyes were almost violet – a very unusual colour for a Bangladeshi woman. Must be coloured contacts, Toma thought. Still, there was understanding and compassion in her eyes. Unlike the other women in the room, she wore a simple vegetable-dyed, earth-toned cotton sari which made her all the more attractive.
“My name is Urbee. I’m visiting too,” she said.
Toma smiled back. “I’m Toma.”
“And you’re in the marriage mart?” said Urbee with her eyes dancing. It was more of a statement than a question.
Toma squirmed, and then tried to change the topic. “I heard you say that you’re married. Is your husband around?”
“No,” replied Urbee solemnly. “I am actually separated from my husband. But I say I’m married to save myself from the old vultures. A woman here has no place unless she has taken a man’s name.” She made a face and said, “Pathetic, isn’t it?”
Toma didn’t know what to say in response to this frank admission. “You’re not dressed like the other married women though,” she said.
“I’m still a student. So I can wear what I want. Besides, my husband is not here, right?” came the reply. “But there are also exceptions. See that lady over there? Urbee inclined her head and Toma followed her gaze to see a woman with a child seated on a sofa. She wore a crumpled silk salwar kameez, and seemed oblivious to the world. Her hair was casually tied at the back and she wore no make-up. As far as Toma could see, the only jewelry she had on was a pair of earrings – nothing gold or glittering. “Her husband is an economist, and she herself is a doctor. But she does not give a fig as to what people think of her,” murmured Urbee. “And now take a look at that decked-up camel.” Toma turned to see a tall, lanky woman in a bright fuchsia pink lehenga passing by. She wore false eye-lashes. The kohl eye-liner reminded Toma of Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. She gave Toma and Urbee a fleeting glance as she walked by. Toma could almost see a camel in her awkward gait.
“She is a grad student at Virginia Tech—does she look like it? Her father pays for it, of course,” whispered Urbee. “And there’s her sister who is visiting from Texas.”
The sister looked normal, thought Toma. As if reading her thought Urbee said, “Wait till you see her with her son. They have a birthday bash for him once every month in anticipation of his first birthday this coming February. Oh, and they order several identical birthday cakes: one for the photos, one for the kids to smash, one for the kids to eat, one for the diabetic grandparents – you get the idea.”
Toma turned to look at her companion. “You’re kidding! ” she spluttered. Urbee shook her head sadly. “Nope. Their father is a ‘notorious’ government officer in Bangladesh. He’s filthy rich. They have a ranch somewhere in Texas. The whole family spends time there every year. The decked-up camel is also in the marriage-mart, by the way.”
“She looks like she’ll fit in very well, I think,” answered a disgusted Toma.
Urbee smiled. Suddenly, a woman appeared from nowhere. “There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you.” Toma looked up to see a rather pretty but anxious-looking woman bending towards Urbee. “Don’t you think we should leave now?” she asked.
Urbee hid her annoyance and replied in an even voice, “Come Rehnuma, I’ve just started enjoying myself. Don’t spoil it. Meet Toma. She’s visiting too. Toma, this is my cousin Rehnuma.”
Rehnuma glanced at Toma uncertainly and her lips stretched in a tight smile. Then she left abruptly but looked back at least twice. Toma felt somewhat uneasy. “Is something wrong? I don’t think your cousin likes me.”
Urbee laughed. “It’s not you. The problem is with me. I don’t fit in, you see. And she thinks I’ll get into trouble.”
“Do you get into trouble?” Toma was curious.
“Oh yes,” Urbee giggled. “If people bother me too much, that is. I told Mrs. Zoardar that she has a lot of similarity with the queen of pigs. And when Harun Ali’s brother came to look for a prospective bride, I told him nobody would be interested in a bald dwarf like him!”
Toma’s jaw dropped open. “What? No way! But why? Because they’re stupid?”
“Not just because they are stupid. Mrs. Zoardar has a daughter-in-law whom she treats very badly. And look at the woman – she thinks she looks like a queen.”
“And the other one?”
“That one is an absolute ass. He is a short, bald, hirsute fellow – not to mention almost middle-aged – and yet he’s looking for someone ‘beautiful and fair.’ Also, the bride must be less than twenty-five years old. So I told him the truth. He has not found his bride yet, and that was three years back.”
A thought occurred to Toma. “You seem to know a lot of people. How long have you been here?”
Urbee looked away. “I come here every December to visit my uncle. This is my fourth year in the US.”
“And Rehnuma is your cousin – I mean your uncle’s daughter?”
“Yes.” Urbee smiled. “She is rather cautious, doesn’t like my ways.”
“Well,” laughed Toma. “I admire your courage, but I won’t be able to do what you do.”
“Oh, but you will,” replied Urbee with conviction, turning her shining eyes on Toma. “I was polite and courteous too once. But that was a long time ago now. Sweet and enduring as my name. ‘Urbee’ means earth – did you know that? ”
“I was thinking that yours is an unusual name. I have known a couple of Urmees, but no Urbee. Seriously though, you’re talking like you’re my grandmother,” Toma laughed. “You can’t be more than three or four years older than I am.”
“I’m thirty-seven. I may not look it but I am. When you reach my point in life, you will start to think and feel differently too.” She looked at Toma directly. “You don’t fit in either. You see things differently already.”
Toma shuffled uncomfortably. “A lot of girls feel the way I do. My best friend Mayeesha, for example.”
Urbee laughed. “I don’t know your friend. But you remind me of myself ten years back. I married because I thought I was in love.” She shrugged.
“I won’t get married until I find the right person,” Toma replied quietly.
Urbee peered into her face and laughed again. “And are you sure you’ll recognize the right person?” She shook her head. “You’re a romantic, just like I was,” she paused. “There’s no right person,” she whispered. “There’s no man in this world who can fit into those shoes….” Her voice trailed off. Then suddenly she got up and smiled brightly. “Best of luck in your groom hunting.”
Toma was suddenly angry. “I’m not looking for a husband,” she said firmly.
“Nooo?” Urbee looked at her wide-eyed. “What are you doing here then? Haven’t you been looking around and passing judgment too? ‘This one has a nosy mother, that one is too short, this one is too bossy’—isn’t that what you’ve been doing all night?”
Toma was too flustered to reply.
Her companion observed placidly, “We all do it, Toma. All the time. We’re all in the same boat, but we think we are different.”
Toma found her tongue. “But you just said that I don’t fit in.”
“That too,” Urbee nodded. “You don’t fit into their world. You belong to another and that’s the problem. Good luck.” Urbee walked away before Toma could stop her.
* * *
“Come dear, it’s time to leave,” Toma’s reverie was broken by the voice of her aunt. Rashida was smiling at her niece with genuine affection. Toma got up, relieved at the prospect of getting out of this place at last. Latif was already at the door, collecting their coats.
“I saw you talking to Tonima,” Latif observed when they were seated in the car. “What do you think of her?” he asked.
“Tonima?” Toma asked blankly. “Who is that?”
“The girl you were chatting with,” her aunt supplied.
“Oh! But her name is Urbee – was that her nickname, then?” Toma was a little perplexed.
Her uncle and aunt glanced at each other. “That was Tonima. What else did she say?” her aunt asked.
“I rather liked her,” Toma smiled. “She seems nice, though at the end I thought she was a bit strange. I would love to meet her again.”
“Did she say anything about herself?”
“She said she’s a grad student. But I don’t know what her discipline is, or where she studies. Why do you ask?” Then Toma added hastily, “She did mention that she is separated from her husband. . . you don’t disapprove, do you?”
Latif sighed. Toma went on, “She seems like a good person, but she struck me as being different from most of the people there.”
“She is not…er, normal,” her uncle blurted out, a little embarrassed.
“Not normal?” Toma echoed.
“She used to be a scientist, a molecular biologist doing cancer research, but then she went crazy,” Rashida said quietly. “She lost her only child in an accident and never recovered from the blow fully. Her mother-in-law blamed her for being careless. It was not her fault though. She tried having another child, but miscarried. Her in-laws interfered and poisoned her relationship with Biplob. A year later, they were divorced. Tonima and Biplob used to be a lovely couple, always the life of the party.” Rashida looked out at the lighted building they had come out from. “She was such a talented young woman – such a waste,” she sighed.
Toma fumbled for words, “But. . . uh. . . why was she . . . what was she doing at the party, then?”
“It’s her uncle’s house. She has a nurse, I think, who checks on her from time to time.”
Toma remembered Rehnuma and her anxious face. “Rehnuma,” she whispered.
“She has this weird habit,” Latif asked absent-mindedly, “I’ve heard that she sometimes pretends to be someone else at parties and makes up strange stories.” He looked at Rashida. “Do you remember how she freaked out poor Ashraf by telling him that she’s the re-incarnation of some Indian goddess?”
Rashida laughed. “Yes, Kali. I thought that was hilarious.” She looked at Toma explaining, “I don’t like Ashraf. He acts like Mr. Know-It-All. I thought Tonima gave him a good put-down.”
Toma was still struggling to grasp it all. “But she seemed quite normal to me. I mean – I mean the way she observes people.” Toma repeated some of the things she heard from her new friend. “And she has a very good sense of humour,” she added.
Latif sighed again and started the car. “That’s the problem. She seems normal – almost. But then, she has these hysterical fits when she remembers what she had and lost. Her uncle loves her very much and takes care of her. Sometimes she is very charming, but. . .”
“And that Biplob!” Rashida grumbled. “He simply relocated. Married again – he lives somewhere in California, I heard.” Then she added viciously, “The only good thing is that the new wife asked him to send his mother away from the house when she tried to meddle too much.”
Toma sat quietly, thinking of all she has heard. Urbee seemed so natural, intelligent, sane, and normal. Her observations on the people in the room were accurate and exactly as Toma thought. Suddenly, she jolted and felt a shiver run down her spine. Tonima – that name was so much like her own. And she used to be a scientist, just like she hoped to be. But what was she actually looking for in her prospective husband? Was she just a husband-hunter, as Tonima had said? Would she find the right person, or the right direction? Didn’t Tonima say that Toma will become like her?
As the car sped into motion, Toma sat still and looked out into the darkness, trying to imagine what the future had in store for her.