Is it racist to reject a marriage partner because they are dark green? This is merely one of the many intriguing questions arising from an incident recounted to me recently, which highlights the contrast in western and Bangladeshi attitudes to finding that perfect match. Recently I saw a small ad in a British newspaper which read “Lone wolf, looking for a partner to help with my howling.” Here marriage ads are a more serious business, as we'll see…
It began when a 32-year-old Australian woman, (let's call her “Lucy,”) placed a straightforward factual ad in the matrimonials section of Prothom Alo. It read: “Looking for a groom. Very beautiful Australian, 5ft 5in, staying in Dhaka. Speaks Bangla, well-educated, from a good family background. Seeks a suitable husband.” (Followed by the friend's phone number). The friend also pledged to include an ad of her own. Mysteriously, the friend's ad never appeared.
Lucy, when I meet her, turns out to be a professionally successful and independent woman, intelligent, attractive and assured of her place in the world. However at this stage in her life she describes herself as “happily single”, with neither experience nor need of blind dates or internet matchmaking sites, confident that when the time is right, she will meet her soulmate in a natural way.
But of course the concept of a woman of marriageable age remaining single after a full two years in Dhaka was cause for concern and even alarm among her many Bangladeshi friends. And so it was that Lucy, without taking it too seriously, agreed one evening to invest the princely sum of Tk 400, and that the ad, quite possibly the first ever in Bangladesh by a foreign woman, appeared a mere twelve hours later, nestling in a two-column section of the page, along with some sixty other hopefuls.
I wonder what became of those other singles that day, unlucky enough to be eclipsed by this unbeatable offer? What is certain is that the number given in this ad was besieged from 7am onwards the next day by an estimated one thousand calls and SMS, until the friend, who'd agreed to field the responses, could no longer speak because of an aching jaw, and had to work in shifts all day with her mother.
The many suitors were subjected to a sorting system worthy of a Swiss post office. Anyone over 40 was immediately binned (most unfairly, in the eyes of your correspondent, whose memories of being 40 are already rapidly fading). Likewise those who were too short, couldn't string a proper sentence together, or gave unacceptable answers to the question “What do you do?” were all dismissed with a curt “She's already taken”. The suitors in turn were keen to find out whether the woman in question was a real foreigner, and also curious to find out why a Bangladeshi husband was being sought. Apart from these cursory checks, none of the applicants troubled to ask what kind of criteria Lucy had for the new man in her life.
Those that made it past the first hurdle were asked to submit further details and biodata by email: a test in itself. Messages began first to trickle, then to flow in, and it is here, in the way these men chose to present themselves as suitable candidates, that the real cross-cultural dimension emerges.
Growing up in the west the whole notion of love is presented to us as a romantic undertaking. From our childhood years we are bombarded with magazines, advertisements, love songs and films all reinforcing in us the concept that there is someone special out there for us, an ideal partner, a person who will sweep us off our feet and make us happy in every way. It's a heavily individualistic concept it's about you and your partner, your feelings for each other, and the joy of being head over heels in love with someone. Arguably of course, that strain of romanticism exists too in Bengali love songs, and by the bucketful in the Hindi films which dominate the subcontinent.
But when it comes to actual marriage, our two cultures part company. As a friend once succinctly put it: “the difference is that you are marrying a person, whereas we are marrying a whole family”. In an era in the west where many women are no longer dependent on men for income, and where couples live alone rather than with their in-laws, the two supporting columns of a Bangladeshi marriage -- the husband's economic viability and his family background -- are no longer as important as they were in the past. These things may play a part of course, but they are definitely “desirables” rather than “essentials”.
As Lucy's experience shows however, these qualities are very much to the foreground in the minds of her suitors. Most of the emails she receives treat this as a serious business transaction. Many include straight CVs, complete with career objectives, as if they were applying for a job at Microsoft rather than for a bride.
Those that go into any detail about the suitor's life rather than work often spend an inordinate amount of time listing an entire set of relatives. Clearly it's thought this information really swings the decision, as it does in a Bangladeshi match, where families are very carefully scrutinised. So it is we learn that X's grandfather was a businessman, or Y's uncle is a successful lawyer, while Z's brother is studying in Harvard. Fine if you want to marry all three, but to Western eyes this information doesn't make that much of a difference, particularly when all suitors can muster up a whole roll-call of successful male relatives. They may even be the same ones, given the way everyone always seems to be everyone's cousin here. What's curious is that no-one seems to have any sisters, or at least can be bothered to mention them. In fact, Lucy singles out the very one who appears proud of his mother's and sisters' achievements as worthy of note.
What makes some candidates stand out from the crowd in Lucy's eyes is a sense of personality, of individuality. The photographs help, (some indeed are quite handsome), but more is needed than that. There's one, for example, who describes himself as “candid, frank, jolly and polite”. Not a bad start. An eligible rival says he is a “good-looking, aristocratic young man”. Fine, but the age of the aristocrats is long gone, my friend. You need a time-machine back to Jane Austen's era. A third lists among his hobbies, “writing poem-song, photographics, most of the time I love see the bird, green forest, river side and love to the distress children”. Now we are getting somewhere at last. Far better to learn this, than to be informed that Great Uncle Faisal was a bank manager in Noakhali.
Yet another writes in orange font, which says quite possibly that he is an Interesting Person. Then there is our unfortunate friend claiming that his complexion is dark green, who is summarily dismissed, (although this raises troubling ethical questions). Finally, one of the most intriguing applicants says “I have no possessions or riches. I am an honest simple man who wants to do something for the poorest people of Bangladesh, especially women and children”. And of course for this candour and fresh approach, he immediately goes to the top of the pile marked “interesting”, whereas such an insolvent no-hoper might equally quickly be disqualified by most Bangladeshi families.
As for what will happen next, Lucy remains secretive. Could it be that she is coming round to the idea after all? Might a date be on the cards? We'll just have to wait and see.
In the meantime, a few words of advice for would-be Bangladeshi grooms, in case you ever find yourselves writing a similar application. Make sure you are young, let your character shine through, be original and mention your sisters. In addition, buy some seriously built-up shoes if you are challenged in the height department, use orange font, and please, please ensure you are one of the rich palette of colours normally available to humanity. Green people need not apply. At least not on this planet.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007