Chapter 1Chapter 1 Bangladeshi weddings can be brutal. Sure, like most South Asian ceremonies, they seem magical. There's a reason why everyone from Selena Gomez to Coldplay has attempted to cop our glamour. The vibrant clothes, plentiful food, and impromptu dance numbers will take the most average wedding and turn it into something straight out of a Bollywood blockbuster. Or, in this case, a natok. But the ugly truth is, in or out of the movies, weddings are as treacherous as a jungle--the prime hunting ground of matchmaking aunties and uncles, who herd together in the buffet line, dressed in their peacock-bright sharis and fanjabis, munching on somosas and zilafis as they set their sights on any Bengal tiger cubs foolish enough to stray from their streaks. Enter me: Zahra Khan. I may be a cub, but I'm hardly a fool. Usually, I'm smart enough to avoid weddings and busybodies. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not immune to the occasional fairy-tale wedding fantasy. It's hard to be when all my favorite stories are romances. Pride and Prejudice, Crazy Rich Asians, When Dimple Met Rishi, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani ... If it involves extended eye contact, an eventual kiss, and hand holding, sign me up. But a love story of my own is a fantasy for a future-Zahra. One with time to date and dream. Present -Zahra is only eighteen, graduated from high school less than a week ago, and has plenty on her plate already, thank-you-very-much. Too bad I can't get that through my mother's stubborn skull. Since senior year began, she's been dropping less-than-subtle hints that a proper--read: rich --match for me would be the end of all our woes. You see, since my father's passing two years ago, Amma and I have had to work our butts off to keep food on the table for our family of five. A well-suited match, Jane Austen-style, would certainly help pay the bills. So here we are at yet another ritzy banquet hall as Amma scopes out potential suitors, dragging me around like a show poodle on a leash. Her eyes flit toward a boy a couple of years older than me who sat in front of me in public speaking. He lifts a hand to wave. Before I can return the gesture, my best Good Bangladeshi Daughter smile glued in place, I'm yanked unceremoniously into the buffet line. Jerking my wrist out of my mother's grasp, I exclaim, "Amma, that was so rude! I thought you wanted me to mingle." "Rude?" She frowns between me and the table, laden with heaping platters of fragrant jasmine rice and vindaloo, before responding in exasperated Bengali, "Hireh, rude is the earful I'd get from your aunties if you married Mahmud Miah's bedisha son. Two years out of high school, and what is he doing with his life? Last I heard, he's waiting tables and planning to go to Hollywood to act ." Disdain drips off every word. " I'm a waitress too," I bite back, swallowing a lump of rising hurt. "Besides, we went to school together. He was only saying hi, not declaring his undying love." Not to mention, he's the only person I know here, if doing his share of our group project on, ironically, dream careers counts as "knowing." I catch glimpses of other people who live in our hometown, but it's Amma who knows everyone who's anyone in Paterson. I've always been too busy with work and school to socialize. When I told her I was too tired to take a bus all the way to New York City for this dawath after my shift, she claimed we simply couldn't skip my prio cousin Anika's wedding, but I doubt I could pick Anika Afa out of a police lineup even with the romantic slideshow of her and her fiancé flickering across the mounted television screens around us. Oblivious to my misgivings, Amma continues darkly, "I'd let a boy like that steal my daughter across the country over my dead body. Your fufus in Bangladesh would happily finish the job for me if they found out." My lips press together, the reminder that I'm here as a favor to her, not to hunt for a boyfriend--much less a husband --trapped behind them. I don't like how often she makes light of dying, but I've never met a Bengali mother without a flair for the dramatic. She ushers me forward with an impatient wave of her bangled arm. I decide to let it go, not wanting to pick a fight in public with so many onlookers. As she seeks out a table, I totter behind her in three-inch heels, the flared skirt of my glittery purple lehenga swishing around my ankles. She flings her purse onto an available chair, casting a challenging scowl at the unsuspecting woman who'd been about to take it like a tigress marking her territory. The poor lady scuttles away faster than a fleeing antelope, two empty seats in her wake. Having attained her prize, my mother appraises the other faces staring back at us over a centerpiece strung with pearls that matches the ornamented decor of the banquet hall. "Assalamualaikum. Amar naam Zaynab Khan are oh oilo amar furi, Zahra." I sigh, then greet the guests as well. "Assalamualaikum, Khala, Khalu." Hardly giving them a chance to reply, "Walaikum salaam," Amma begins interrogating them about where they're from "back home." By "home," she means Bangladesh, of course, although our family settled in Paterson, New Jersey, on the outskirts of New York City, almost a decade ago. It's the question all Bengalis of her generation ask whenever they happen upon each other. "Afnar bari koi?" my mother inquires. Two of them are from the same family, sisters-in-law accompanied by their respective husbands, who chat with each other while sipping steaming cups of saa, keeping an eye on a trio of toddlers in pigtails and frilly dresses playing tag. The third is a woman wearing more makeup and jewelry than the mother of the bride, perhaps the bride herself, with henna-dyed hair in such a striking hue of red, it might be visible from space. "And where are you from, Zaynab?" the bejeweled woman shoots back at Amma. My mother takes a deep breath. " Well , Pushpita Afa--" Here it comes. The princess story. "Sadly, I haven't returned to my father's bari in decades, but perhaps you've heard of it? The Choudhury Zamindari of Sunamganj?" She pauses dramatically as the women around the table exchange eager glances, then drives her point home. "But my husband, Allah yarhemuhu, hailed from the Khan Rajbari of Moulvibazar." The many-ringed lady emits a theatrical gasp audible over the clink clink of forks. Regardless of whether they've been to Sunamganj or Moulvibazar, Amma has name-dropped plenty. Zamindars, Khans, Rajas--all are titles associated with the people who ruled princely estates and kingdoms in Bangladesh, making us the descendants of royalty . Or... well... close enough. Never mind that my parents' families fell onto hard times after the Partition and the Liberation War. Never mind that we can barely pay our rent in New Jersey. Never mind that I have to take a year off before college to save while the rest of my friends move on. Amma reclines in her chair with an imperious smirk, a queen among her fawning subjects. I resist the urge to roll my eyes, shoving another bite of beef and potato into my mouth. Debt collectors don't care about our family lineage, so why should we? But she has had so few pleasures since Baba's death that I can't take this from her. Better she tells these aunties about our vaunted bongsho than me or my brother and sister, at least. The many-ringed lady parts her very red lips to answer when, suddenly, "Leelabali" fades from the speakers. Aside from hushed murmurs, the banquet hall falls into silence as everyone's wonder-struck eyes rise to the stage. There, under an archway lush with marigolds and roses, on a gilded bench that looks like a throne, the groom sits, attired in a scarlet sherwani with gold buttons down to the knees, feathers in the ornate pagri crowning his head. He can't take his eyes off the bride, who enters from an adjoining hallway. Her mother, sisters, and other female relatives hold a fluttering scarlet urna above her head as she sashays slowly over to the stage, a vision of beauty in her matching shari and the floral mehndi that weaves like vines through her dozen bangles. When she reaches the stage, the groom springs off his bench to offer her a hand. Their fingers intertwine and linger. My heart stutters in my ribs as I watch. This-- "Must be a love marriage," Amma exclaims, in an awed whisper of her own. The women at our table begin to chatter anew. Someone says, "Kids these days, so reckless and romantic ." She spits the word like a curse. "Love marriages never last. Children should trust their elders to arrange suitable matches." "The divorce rate is so high now," another laments. "Nearly fifty percent." I swallow the urge to inform them that's only because women of older generations were blamed if they couldn't make marriages work, and were looked down on with pity, no matter how young they were, if they became widowed like Amma. As if their lives began and ended with their husbands'. The rebuke burns down my throat, hotter than the not-particularly-spicy vindaloo, but if I unleash it, it'd be about as unseemly as throwing up. Despite my best efforts to tune them out, I sense someone contemplating me and turn to find the bejeweled woman. She introduced herself to Amma earlier as Pushpita Emon, but like most other aunties I meet through my mother, I simply call her Khala. Her lips quirk upon catching my gaze, her eyes as glittering and sharp as the knife near my plate. "Your daughter is such a shundori, Zaynab," she declares in Bengali. "How tall is she? Surely five-four, five-five? And what a sweet complexion! Even that dress is the most stylish thing I've seen this entire evening. You must beat the boys away with a broom." My cheeks flush beneath the shade-too-pale foundation Amma caked on them earlier. It's not the first time an auntie has called me pretty. If you're paper-bag fair, thin, and taller than the Bangladeshi national average of four feet eleven, you're practically pageant queen Manushi Chhillar in their eyes. I try not to let their gross Eurocentric beauty standards give me a big head, but gift her a pleasant smile for my mother's sake. "Goodness, no," Amma says, to my great relief, though she's preening at the compliments to both of her creations: me and the lehenga she designed for the occasion. While I love that she's taken an I'll-do-it-myself approach to our wardrobe situation after learning how expensive it could be for a single mother to dress three kids, I feel like a walking advertisement for her seamstress service tonight. Better than making me stand up and twirl, I suppose. "My Zahra worries about me and the little ones too much to think about a husband yet. But what mother doesn't dream of her child's wedding day?" "Oh, I know a thing or two about weddings," Pushpita Khala replies. "Gitanjali is my restaurant, you see. We host many receptions here." Amma chokes on a swig of mango lassi. " Y-your restaurant?" "Technically, the restaurant is attached. This banquet hall is where we host events." Pushpita Khala grants us a self-effacing smile, then sighs. "We're set to open a second in Paterson by the end of the summer, but I worry.... With our son preparing to study engineering at Columbia, what will Mansif and I do with the Emon family business when it's time to retire?" My gut clenches at the mention of college. And why does it have to be Columbia of all places? Amma's eyes, meanwhile, dart all around us, as if expecting a perfect specimen of a brown boy to materialize out of thin air. "Is he here? Your--" "Harun," replies Pushpita Khala, reciting her son's name like a prayer. In her plump hand is an iPhone, and Harun's photo must be her wallpaper, because she slides it across the table for Amma's perusal, beaming at my mother's awed, "Mashallah." I frown between the two women, but my mother has all but forgotten my existence, as if I'm no more than a spectator at a chess match. She leans forward, the brown eyes we share bright as polished mahogany, while Pushpita Khala sizes me up. I can't fathom which queen is about to checkmate the other's king, but I know one thing with 100 percent certainty. Harun and I have just become their pawns. Excerpted from The Love Match by Priyanka Taslim All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.