That’s what the pretty little card said. Over-embellished with purple glitter, paper hearts and a badly disfigured crayon-coloured bride, the invitation was from my 9-year-old student, Maryam. Of course I had to honour the holy matrimonial with my (reluctant) presence. Those kids, darn it. Maryam, however, grappled my interest (and concern) when I asked her about the chosen date for the big day. “Why can’t Barbie get married tomorrow? Why after a week?” I inquired while rubbing the sticky frippery off of my hands. Maryam looked up at me, slightly offended, and answered with adult-like patience, “Teacher, I have a lot to do na. I have to get her clothes made, I need to clean my room for the wedding and I have to buy her jahaiz. Teacher, what do you call jahaiz in English?” Oh, that’s easy. “It’s called dow – what? You have to buy what?” I controlled myself from doing a double-take. “Are you mad at me, Teacher?” worried Maryam. I had glitter on my nose. “Of course not. I mean – well. Can I know who Barbie is marrying?” “Aleeza’s son, Ken!” Aleeza? The 5th grader that I taught how to spell recipient? The one who picks her nose in my class? I mustered up the courage to ask her one final question before I confirmed my fear. “Maryam, honey, is Barbie your – your daughter?” The affirmative delivered by my erudite little pupil gave me a mini-aneurysm. Recess bell rang and Maryam, the 9-year-old spiritual-mother of Barbie, ran off to the playground to discuss the budget, guest list and dowry preparation with her short, giggling peers. It all brought back memories from nearly a decade ago.
Circa 1999: The war has begun. Fuhrer Mehreen, aged 9, and her junior officer Taimur AKA Sohna Habshee, aged 5, have infiltrated Barbie’s base (no pun intended). The sister-enemies, aged 7 and 5, remain oblivious of such a sinister development. The Fuhrer has managed to shoe-slap Pocahontas Barbie and chew Stacey’s arm off. Officer Taimur, in a febrile search for Hawaiian Barbie, has destroyed her cardboard house. Mehreen’s youngest sister is now aware of the violent intrusion. She has informed the highest authority BMK (Big Momma Kasana) and has requested external assistance immediately. Officer Taimur has been shot down by Lieutenant Sunny’s sobbing. BMK has arrived with the ultimate destruction of all times: An overseas call to Daddy Kasana.
Circa 2001: Defeated by social conformity and whiny siblings, Fuhrer Mehreen remains a persona non grata even among her own supporters such as the one-armed Space Ghost action figure and Johnny Quest. She quietly but resolutely contemplates revenge.
Fast-forward to present time. Of course I realize that playing with dolls comes as naturally to girls as hurling obscenities during sports comes to most men. But there are exceptions and I was one of them. Unlike most girls, I never enjoyed playing with dolls. And yes, I did chew plastic limbs off.
Back to the story. Maryam left me thinking about her plans. I knew she watched Pakistani and Indian soap operas religiously and, in addition to that, her eldest sister had recently got hitched. Maybe those dramas introduced her to the concept of “jahaiz”. But that wasn’t enough for me to conclude my apprehension at. Her premature concern for an inanimate object’s dowry was a little strange. I mentioned this in the staff room. Several teachers found nothing wrong with the little girl’s statement. “Jahaiz hi se to izzat banti hai!” an Urdu teacher exclaimed. This compelled me to hold a survey among girl students from 4th grade to 10th grade. The question was simple: Is dowry compulsory for a girl to get married?
8% did not know what dowry was.
71% believed that dowry was necessary.
21% believed dowry was unnecessary.
Upon my candid discussion with every class, I learned that sources that promoted such orthodox and unyielding practices were, ironically, tools of modern age. According to the questionnaire, 37% learned the significance of dowry via television, 18% concluded such after reading stories of proposals being rejected due to insufficient dowry while 19% had witnessed real-life incidents that occurred to their sisters, cousins and/or aunts. A few even confessed that their mothers had already started saving for a grand jahaiz. For some girls, it meant competing for a higher social status while, for others, it simply implied acceptance among the in-laws. The nub of their argument pointed in one direction: Stellar dowry or you’re doomed.
Days passed by and I could see 5×5 invitation cards being distributed among 4th graders for Barbie’s wedding. Cash was accepted and expected by the Martel couple. Imagine: A 50 rupee note bigger than Barbie’s head presented as salamee. Aw, isn’t that precious?
A week went by and things seemed a tad dull for such a festive time. Maryam was not as jubilant as she was a week ago. She had collected enough jahaiz in my boring opinion: Barbie-sized couture, a pink jeep, compact kitchen, two puppies and plastic dollars. What else do you want, Ken? It turned out, however, Aleeza, Maryam’s samdhan jee, did not approve of her presented dowry and called the shaadi off. If Barbie was heartbroken, Maryam was indignant. She wept her eyes puffy and wiped her nose with her pink handkerchief every five minutes during class. It all looked like Star Plus, but only 15 times smaller, younger and inexperienced.
I really didn’t know how to calm the poor soul down. In that moment of confusion, I had an epiphany. My only toy left, Winnie the Pooh, was single and you-bet-your-sweet-ass ready to mingle. Chubby, friendly and ever-so-understanding, Pooh would be the perfect match. Fine, the pot belly was a little disappointing but beauty is skin-deep so shut your mouth. I brought him over to school the next day. Choosing my words carefully, I went to Maryam and placed my humble offer before her. No dowry was demanded. After a few seconds, her face lit up. She pulled Barbie out of her back pack and accepted Pooh as he was. We had a small wedding in the playground. Teachers and friends joined us. Refreshments included Lays, orange juice and Éclair toffees.
Barbie went home with an adorable hubby, Maryam learned that dowry is not a prerequisite for a successful marriage and I finally got that god-awful glitter off of my face.
As far as dowry-hungry Ken is concerned, well, Fuhrer Mehreen would know what to do with him and his abominable kind.