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Nashra Balagamwala

 

Designer & Creator of "Arranged" I March 2, 2018

 

 

 

 

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Pakistani-born designer Nashra Balagamwala first came to the U.S. to study at the renowned Rhode Island School of Design, but since then has entered the public arena with her controversial yet thought-provoking board game Arranged!

 

With its tackling of the tricky subject of arranged marriage in a lighthearted fashion, Balagamwala’s game has gained attention on an international scale. This week she sat down to tell us her story, and how her life served as an inspiration for her now famed board game.

The Good News Podcast - Nashra & Bright Side
00:00 / 00:00

The Best Gift Giver on the Planet

 

A rebellious spirit had marked Balagamwala from an early age. Born to a traditional upperclass family in Pakistan, it had always been expected that she would study something sensible like medicine or law—certainly not something like art. Yet a singular obsession from childhood proved to be the catalyst to set Balagamwala on the creative path.

 

“I was always obsessed with birthdays. I still am. I always made personalized birthday gifts for everyone. It started off as terrible drawings but slowly evolved into scrapbooks and paintings. I decided to go to art school, partly to become the best birthday gift-giver on the planet!”

 

This desire was far from a passing whim for Balagamwala; if she was to become an artist, she wouldn’t settle for any school but the best. After hearing of her sister’s friend being accepted to Rhode Island School of Design, the top design school in the U.S., Balagamwala knew what she had to do.

 

“I went to my art teacher and said, ‘You have 7 years to get me into RISD.’ From that point on, RISD was all I wanted.”

Hello World, I’m your Wild Girl

 

When she confessed her plans to her family, her parents were less than impressed with her ambitions of a life abroad. The men in the family were permitted to go to foreign universities, but it was much less acceptable for the women—especially if it was to study something like art.

 

“I was always the defiant rebel child; the one they knew they had to keep an eye on. They weren’t happy about the idea, but I submitted the application to RISD anyway. I got in, and they just said, ‘Oh that’s great. We’re proud of you. But you’re not gonna go.”

 

Miraculously, a procession of cousins, friends, and teachers came to Balagamwala’s aid. Even her school’s dean of students interceded on her behalf, pleading to allow her just the mere opportunity to go to RISD. Eventually swayed, her parents assented to letting her go, but just for the first year. On top of that, they’d only be paying her tuition in monthly increments and could rescind it at any time, a stipulation meant to keep her on her toes.

What Will People Say?d Girl

 

Once stateside, Balagamwala immediately recognized the stark difference between her life in the U.S. and Pakistan.

 

I grew up in a culture where having maids and cooks and drivers is something very normal if you’re part of the upper class. It was a culture shock having to learn to do all these things on my own.”

 

Rather than turn up her nose at the new responsibilities in her life, Balagamwala reveled in them. With every new task or chore, she was building a deeper sense of independence, and before long she had realized that there was yet another benefit that came with American living.

 

“There’s a phrase in Pakistan: "Log kya kahein ge?", which means “What will people say?” We’re living our lives based on what other people will say. Every decision you make while you’re here is influenced by what society expects of you. For the first time I could make my own decisions, and it was overwhelming.”

 

By the end of her first year, Balagamwala knew that she had to stay and see her degree through to the end. More grounded, more mature, but still bearing that same rebellious spirit that had guided her so far, she devised a plan to lengthen the one year cap her parents had put on her time at RISD.

 

"I applied to a bunch of other art schools in the U.S. and I got full rides to a few of them. I came back and gave the letters to my parents and said that I was going back to the U.S. no matter what—so it was their choice if they wanted me to go to the country’s best design school or somewhere else.”

 

In the end, they chose RISD.

Learning to Play the Game

 

After finishing up her degree, Balagamwala began to establish her niche in game design. She worked as a freelancer for Hasbro for a short spell before landing a job with David Stark Design in 2017. Unfortunately, as an immigrant Balagamwala was plagued with anxieties about whether or not her visa would be sponsored. Initially, she had resigned herself to the fact that her tenure at David Stark Design would be short-lived, thinking that her new company would not be so keen to go through the whole visa process just for her sake. She was pleasantly surprised.

 

I got an email from the CEO saying they wanted to sponsor me. I remember covering my mouth and running out of the office screaming because I was so excited. I thought this was it. I was going to be one of those lucky people.”

 

As fate would have it, finding sponsorship was not the only hurdle Balagamwala had to pass—there still remained the lottery. Just two days before her birthday, she got the news that she hadn’t been picked; she would have to return to Pakistan within a matter of months. Her joy turned into heartache in a moment.

 

“I was so upset that I cancelled my birthday party—and that’s a big deal coming from me.”

 

Dejected and disheartened, Balagamwala was on the verge of simply accepting her fate when a close friend convinced her to go to a meeting with an immigration lawyer. There was still a chance that she could stay, hope in the form of the O-1B, which is only granted to those who demonstrate some extraordinary ability. The lawyer liked her design work, but said she needed to have more press attached to her name if they were ever going to get the visa. Luckily, Balagamwala had an idea.

 

“All through school I was being pressured to get married. I was always being told that I should be meeting these suitors. I started stalking their Facebooks to find something my parents wouldn’t like so I could get out of meeting them. It ended up being like a game to get out of an arranged marriage, so I decided to turn that into an actual game.”

The end product was Arranged!, a board game centered around the concept of avoiding an arranged marriage. Players choose one of three teenage girls who must do their best to avoid the dreaded the Rishta Aunty—an officious matchmaker plucked from the real life experiences of Balagamwala. Players move across the board while drawing cards that can either attract or repel the Rishta Aunty, from having a sizable dowry (a positive) to having male friends (a negative).

 

“It was essentially my life in a game. It’s filled with examples of things I’ve done in my life to avoid an arranged marriage, like wearing fake engagement rings or getting tan lines.”

 

Balagamwala tried to pitch the story of the game to a few design blogs to see if she could get any traction, but it evaded notice until one particular blogger had the idea to send it to a colleague at the Guardian.

 

“They took it, and from there it was a domino effect; all these sources covered it and it ended up going viral. It even made it to the BBC.”

 

The game’s publicity has opened up a new conversation about the concept of arranged marriage, giving Balagamwala a new platform to share her views. She’s even been invited to speak at a human rights conference on the topic, but regrettably not all of the attention has been so desirable.

 

"After the stories broke I got like 300 friend requests on Facebook. They were almost all from Indian men and the weird thing was they were all proposing to me. It was so funny because they were missing the point of the game—I’m trying to run away from marriage!”

Visa’s Up, Lose One Turn

 

The story’s viral success was a starting point for Balagamwala; her lawyer is hopeful that it will eventually be enough to let her obtain her visa for extraordinary abilities, but at the present time it was not enough to stop her current visa from expiring. Now back home in Pakistan, Balagamwala remains hopeful that her newfound fame will provide her with a means of returning to the United States, a place she claims granted her the opportunity to let her creativity flourish.

 

“I love that in the United States I have the freedom to do what I want without that fear. It’s a live and let live culture. I like focusing on these controversial topics, and I’m so glad I found a medium that lets me express my thoughts.”