ISLAMABAD， PAKISTAN， AUGUST 2001
Each day she remained unmarried， Farida Basra played At Least.
She turned to the game as she waited for her bus on a street lined
with high， bougainvillea-adorned stucco walls that shielded the homes of
Islamabad’s wealthy from the envious and resentful. A woman squatted
knees to chin beside her， scraping at the flthy pavement with her broom
of twigs. Her skin was nearly black from long hours in the sun. Farida
drew forward her dupatta， the flmy shawl-like scarf that covered her chest
and shoulders. She reminded herself to be thankful.
I may be poor， but at least I’m not a street sweeper.
She stepped back as a family approached on a motorbike. A graybeard
husband drove while his young wife clung to him from behind with one
arm， cradling an infant with the other. An older child sat in front of the
husband， a younger behind the wife. Dust boiled in their wake.
I may still be unmarried， but at least I’m not bound to a man old enough
to be my father.
She nodded to a group of schoolgirls in their blue uniforms and white
head scarves， and directed the game toward them. No matter what happens
to you， at least your education will protect you—that was the mantra herfather had taught her. He was a professor whose own professor father had
made the mistake of opposing Partition from India and spent the rest of
his life in unwilling atonement， opportunities snatched away， income and
status dwindling apace.
“But he gave me an education， and I have given you the same，” Latif
Basra would tell his daughters. “It is how this family will work its way
back to its rightful place. I have done my best. Now it is up to your
sons.” At which Farida and her sister， Alia， would study the ？oor， saving
their rebellious responses for whispered nighttime conversations in their
Farida let the dupatta slide back to her shoulders and held her head
higher， mentally commanding the schoolgirls to see in her what she saw
in herself—a professional woman， heading home from her job as an interpreter in the commercial Blue Zone， her satchel stu？ed with important papers， her brain buzzing with phrases in English， German， French.
Men， her own countrymen and even some foreigners， might disparage
her skills and regard her work as little more than a front for prostitution.
But those were old attitudes， fast being discarded in Pakistan’s cities， if not
the countryside. No longer， as she told her parents nightly and to no avail，
did a woman need a husband. Not in the year 2001， when so many things
were possible for women.
Te girls rounded a corner， laughter floating behind them like the
trailing ends of their head scarves. Farida tamped down envy. Old enough
for some independence， still too young for the pressure of marriage， the
girls had one another. Alia had departed the household for her own marriage， one that so far had produced only daughters， leaving Farida alone
with her parents’ dwindling expectations.
She braced herself for another evening involving a strained conversation over indifferent food prepared by a cook who also doubled as a
housekeeper. Most of Farida’s inadequate salary went to her parents for
household expenses and helped maintain a toehold on the fringes of respectability， even if that proximity had yet to result in a marriage for her.
Her father and mother were too polite to remind Farida of howquickly she had taken to the unimagined freedoms she’d found when the
family lived in England several years earlier. She was still paying for it.
Te fact that her work as an interpreter required constant contact with
foreigners did not help her case. Despite her beauty， her parents had not
been able to arrange a match with an appropriate civil servant， a teacher，
or even a shopkeeper. According to her parents， these groups were the
only ones who could accept her level of education along with the faint tarnish to her reputation from the time abroad. It clung to her like a cloying
perfume， even after all these years. She had faced a dwindling procession
of awkward second cousins and middle-aged widowers， men with strands
of oily hair combed over shiny pates， men whose bellies strained at the
waists of wrinkled shirts， men whose thick fngers were none too clean，
men who nonetheless frowned at her with the same suspicion and aversion with which she viewed them.
By now， despite her mother’s attempts to persuade her otherwise，
Farida knew there was no man she could ever imagine herself loving.
Even as her potential suitors drifted away—marrying other girls less
beautiful， perhaps， but also less questionable—so did her friends， into
arranged marriages of their own， quickly followed by the requisite production of children. Teir paths diverged， and she instead hid behind
Farida shouldered her way from the bus and pushed open the gate
to the pounded-dirt courtyard. What should she expect from her parents
tonight？ Te silence， her parents retreating after dinner into the solace of
books and music？ Or more badgering？
“Farida！” Her father burst out of the front door， arms spread wide.
He folded her into an embrace， an intimacy he’d not permitted himself
since she was a child.
She extricated herself with relief and suspicion， the latter ascendant as
she took in his appearance. “Is that a new suit？”
He stepped back and turned in a circle， inviting her admiration for
the summer-weight worsted， cut expertly to disguise his sagging stomach
and spreading bum. “What do you think of your papa now？”
“What happened to the old one？” A rusty black embarrassment， gone
threadbare in the elbows and knees.
He waved a dismissive hand. “Gone.” Sold， no doubt， to a rag merchant.
Farida’s mother appeared in the doorway. She raised her arm in greeting. Wide gold bangles， newly bought， rang against one another， their
hopeful notes at odds with her stricken expression. “Your father has a
Which was how Farida discovered that for the bride price of some
twenty-two-carat jewelry， a knocko？ designer suit， and almost certainly
a newly fattened bank account， Latif Basra had betrothed his remaining
daughter to the illiterate son of an Afghan strongman.