In a wealthy suburb in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, a group of young Pakistanis veered between laughter and distress as they played a board game that echoed their lives in both funny and painful ways.
The name of the game is Arranged and the goal is to avoid at all costs an arranged marriage — and the matchmaker who sets them up. She's known as Rishta Aunty, slang in Urdu and Hindi for a certain kind of middle-aged, busybody matchmaker who knows all the single men and women.
To stay out of her grasp in the game, you draw cards that tell you how many spaces to move. It's a good thing if you get a card that tells you to act scandalously according to the conservative standards of South Asia. Because that would be a dealbreaker.
"You are in the contraceptive aisle of a pharmacy! Run before somebody sees you!" reads Ahmed. Since tradition has it that women aren't meant to have sex before marriage, shopping for contraception definitely puts you on a matchmaker's "do not match" list.
"The Aunty moves five spaces away from you," Ahmed continues. "Thank God."
One night she began listing the ways she deflected pressure from matchmakers to meet a man. She tried to make herself as ineligible as possible.
She wore a fake wedding ring. She pretended to have a boyfriend. She got a tan, in a country where pale skin is prized.
"I was like, my life has been a struggle to run away from the matchmaker!" Balagamwala said, laughing.
And then she had a eureka moment: "I turned it into a lighthearted game of running away from the matchmaker!"
Lighthearted, yes. But the board game Arranged is also darkly funny as it skewers the South Asian tradition of arranged marriage.
In Pakistan, the tradition is for parents to put forward a marriage candidate. Their children are expected to agree. The ideal woman is young, pale, slim, meek, educated and moneyed — and from a good family. An ideal man has an M.B.A. and a foreign passport. Marriages fuse families together, not just individuals.
For most women, "omnipresent in their lives is the expectation that they will get married at a young enough age that they can start having children," says Bina Shah, a feminist writer.
Even if women don't want to, "we have been raised in such a way that we feel obligated to our parents," Shah says. "There's the emotional blackmail: You're going to give me a heart attack! What is the family going to say?"
In the game, while some cards help players evade Rishta Aunty, other cards force them to move closer to her by making them conform to South Asian standards of what makes a good, demure wife. And every player — even the guys — is a potential bride.
"Your rotis are perfectly round," read another player, Rabia, referring to homemade flatbread that is a staple of Pakistani meals. The Rishta Aunty — a smiling, rotund cardboard figure of a woman on the game board — inched six spaces closer.
"Oh God!" Rabia cried, visibly distressed.
Arranged hit a nerve on Kickstarter, where Balagamwala raised $21,788 — far more than the $6,000 she sought. It was enough for her to start producing the game. It will go on sale in Pakistan in December.
And there's an unexpected prize for Balagamwala.
When the game makes its debut, she says with a laugh, "I essentially become the least eligible lady. Now I can go and marry whoever I want!"
What would a Rishta Aunty say to all this?
For 36 years, Mumtaz Qureishi has arranged marriages for the rich and powerful. In her apartment on a recent day, two women who work for her were answering four black landlines and buzzing mobile phones.
They frequently flipped through binders. One was simply titled "Doctors." Another was titled "Overage" — it means women over 30. They were crammed with detailed application forms that demand excessive detail: Education. Province. Religious sect. Caste. Employment. Phone number. Marital status: Single, divorced or widowed. Father's job. Siblings. Address.
And then: Appearance. Qureishi fills that section out herself, grading the women A, B, C.
The A's are white. "Fair complexion," she says. "Tall, slim, smart," she says.
She says it is what future mothers-in-law want in a bride — and they usually select women for their sons.
But there's a broader, quiet shift going on in this conservative country. In urban areas of Pakistan, about half of all marriages are no longer strictly traditional, says Naeema Saeed, a professor of sociology at Karachi University.
She calls them "arranged-plus-love."
Her research showed the trend now is for men and women to meet before they marry.
Then the man asks his parents to set up the match — a nod to tradition without being totally traditional.
The new approach reflects a society where social media are connecting people, where women are studying and working alongside men. Women are earning their own money, empowering them to make more independent decisions, she says.
It's a quiet negotiation, not dramatic change, says Shah, the feminist writer. "In Pakistan our way of obstacles is not to smash through them but to go around them."
And even a Risha Aunty can't buck the tide. On a wall of Qureishi's office, there are family wedding photos. She points to her son, beaming beside his wife.
He picked out his own bride — putting his mother out of a job.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next, we have a story of grace under pressure - to be precise, the story of a woman showing grace under the pressure to marry. She lives in Pakistan, where women are urged to get married early. This young woman wanted to wait and began listing ways that she had deflected Pakistani matchmakers. She wore a fake wedding ring. She pretended to have a boyfriend. And then she realized that all this would make a great board game. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from a Karachi, Pakistan, living room.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: One, two, three, four, and she is gone.
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: I'm sitting with Nashra Balagamwala and her friends - three women and a young man. They're testing out her board game - Arranged.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: One, two, three, four.
HADID: The game revolves around the rishta aunty - that's slang for a matchmaker. She's famous for her meddling and sizing up young women for available matches. You, the player, must dodge rishta aunty by drawing cards that allow you to act scandalously. The aim is to shock her enough to make yourself less appealing as a match for a nice conservative boy. One of the players, Ahmed, has just drawn a card.
AHMED: You're in the contraceptive aisle of a pharmacy. Run before someone sees you.
HADID: If you draw the wrong card, rishta aunty might catch you.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Come here, darling.
HADID: The players pick a husband.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You are married. Your life is over.
HADID: In Pakistan, it's traditionally been the norm for parents to arrange marriages for their children. Sometimes they turn to a rishta aunty to help them find a match. The ideal woman is pale, slim and meek and from a good family. An ideal man has an MBA and a foreign passport. Balagamwala is 24 and a games designer. She doesn't want to get married. She says she thought of the game after she was asked to meet yet another potential husband.
NASHRA BALAGAMWALA: So I started stalking him on Facebook to find something wrong with him so I could tell my parents and get out of it. And then I was like, instead of doing this every time a boy comes up, why don't I just get rid of the problem once and for all? And so I started listing everything that I had done to get away from an arranged marriage.
HADID: That included getting a tan.
BALAGAMWALA: I think I look more attractive with a tan, but Pakistanis and older women think I look less attractive. So it's a win-win situation.
HADID: And from all her attempts to dodge marriage.
BALAGAMWALA: I turned it into a lighthearted game of running away from the matchmaker.
HADID: Balagamwala raised money on Kickstarter, and it was a success. The game will be on sale by December. She says there is other good news for her - creating the game made her toxic to rishta aunties.
BALAGAMWALA: I have essentially become the least eligible lady in terms of arranged marriages, and it's amazing. Like, now I'm free to go marry whoever I want.
HADID: You and your friends don't sound like the kind of people who would be bullied into this.
BALAGAMWALA: We get bullied and do it more often than you'd think because of the phrase (speaking Pakistani), which is, what will people say?
HADID: It's not just pressure from your family but from society.
BALAGAMWALA: They start to think there must be something wrong with this girl.
HADID: And that impacts the chances of marriage for the rest of your siblings.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
MUMTAZ QURESHI: (Speaking Pakistani).
HADID: I wanted to meet a real rishta aunty who could explain to me what they do, so I went to Mumtaz Qureshi. She's a 36-year veteran of the matchmaking craft. Qureshi shows me the applications that hopeful men and women have to fill out.
QURESHI: Name, age, education, province and parents' province - Sunni or Shia - or if you are doing some job and your phone number.
HADID: There's other details like marital status, your father's job. And then there's a section called appearance. Qureshi fills that out herself. If you're slim and pale and young, you'll get an A. But if you're overweight...
QURESHI: I suggest to them, why don't you go for exercise? Because people don't like fat girls.
HADID: There is at least a dozen binders crammed with applications. They're divided by category.
QURESHI: Doctors - their file.
HADID: This is a file just for doctors. There's another for divorced people and one simply labeled over age.
QURESHI: After 30 years, I will say over age.
HADID: Qureshi's old school, but in rapidly of urbanizing Pakistan, her skills may become obsolete. According to a prominent sociologist, about half of all young Pakistanis in cities choose their own spouses now, and that includes Qureshi's son.
QURESHI: One son also - love marriage (laughter).
HADID: Qureshi thinks love marriages, as they call them here, are OK. But regardless of how you get married, she counsels the same advice to make it work...
QURESHI: Be patient, patient.
HADID: Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Karachi.
(SOUNDBITE OF KAKI KING'S "BOWEN ISLAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.