This weekend, hoping to cure myself of this distaste, I decided to travel aboard the much advertised A380. As I got in, it did look promising – a little more space and a much bigger and brighter screen. I threw a customary glance across at my neighbors. No kids in the closest 2-3 rows. Thank God! It seemed like a good start – at least not a positively bad one. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I hate kids. If people could keep them at home, absolutely steered clear of my vicinity, I think kids would be lovely. I could also perhaps occasionally tolerate them if they were muted and did not put on their smart, cute or the perennial-apple-of-the-eye acts).
However, as I looked at the immediate next seat, a small wrinkle did appear on my forehead. For sitting there was a Pakistani couple. The husband looked alright, but the wife just seemed eager to break into an endless torrent of conversation at the slightest chance. I immediately took my seat and immersed myself in a thick Gogol. Thankfully, it seemed, the husband was sitting in the middle seat and I was thus relatively stacked away at a safe distance.
Within a couple of minutes, it was obvious that my concerns were not in the least unfounded. At some moment, the well made-up wife opened her mouth, and absolutely forgot to close it thereafter. Come to think of it, it is a miracle that her mouth should have been closed up till that point. The husband, who seemed much older than his wife, added to the woes by replying to her torrent very occasionally with a heavily accented Oh yeah!’s, Awright’ s and Thasite Mite’s (It took me a while to figure out that he was trying to say ‘That’s right mate’ with the last one). I tried hard to concentrate on the book, and absolutely resolved to not look into that direction and make even the slightest eye contact, for that could be fatal. But the couple was seriously loud, as most people from our side of the world are wont to do – and try as I might, I could not escape her enthusiasm about Sydney (from where she was coming), her complete disapproval of the husband’s friends, even her concerns about whether her husband will bring her back to Sydney or leave her in Pakistan yet again! Mixed with all this was their constant bickering, her dislike for the flight food, their loud laughters over the hindi movie Dhamal, and her strong objections to the husband looking askance at the flight attendants every once in a while.
I was just hanging between that acute annoyance and a slight gratefulness for the buffer of the husband, when suddenly things took a morbid turn. The husband decided to answer an ill-timed call from nature. As he left, I held the book with a stronger clasp – but as I rose up to let him pass, a flicker of my glance did somehow meet hers, and I knew I had opened the gates. I immersed myself in that heavy tome, even though it was not particularly interesting at just that point, but it turned out to be a useless defense. Immediately the words were spoken that would dislodge my isolation for the rest of the journey: where are you going? That’s how it began. That’s how it always begins, and then goes on endlessly to traverse an unwanted, partially predictable territory.
Within a minute of the conversation, she had already asked me why I did not have kids and was horrified at the idea that it could be a voluntary choice to not have them, told me how desperately she wanted children, especially since her husband already had a son from his previous marriage and she had lost a child to jaundice, and how every child in the cabin was so adorable and cute – especially the Chinese one. Before I knew it the conversation (which was remarkably a monologue, filled in sporadically by my polite nods) turned into an autobiography, a travelogue of Sydney, a shopping report, and a round of twenty questions – all in one! I desperately waited for the husband’s return – but there was no escaping this friendly chat. The woman so enamored with a different ear, nudged the husband to the window seat and thrust herself in the middle seat. And launched again. Sometimes, I tried to escape by hiding myself in the book, but each time she canceled that effort with a cutely posed : ‘Aap novel padh rahe ho?’, looking a little hurt and then trying to connect her next sentence haphazardly to my meekly worded ‘Yes‘.
But in a little while of actual listening, I realized how naive this woman was.Naive for having spent so much of her life in a restrictive small town where no one spoke English unless they were very rich (as she told me), for getting on a plane for this first time in her life, for meeting different kind of people, for seeing a new place where no woman covered her head. She wondrously kept referring to the Australian women who could walk around the beach carelessly in bikinis, and was even a little awed with me for being a career woman. With a transparency that I could never adopt – she chatted about her insecurity over her husband who was foretold to have three marriages and she was only his second wife, and about her strict mother in law with whom she was going to stay now – afraid that the husband will leave her in Pakistan to attend to the mother and return to Sydney alone.
I can’t say I began to like her, but was a little touched by this benign banter that was devoid of malice. For the rest of the journey, I gave up my resistance and did contribute to the conversation beyond the nods, and she seemed to be pleased no end with it. As the plane descended, she became a little sad and disappointed that we had to part – almost like a child who hates to part with a fish aquarium he has only recently come upon. I bade her goodbye and walked away smiling at the child-like innocence.
She lives perhaps less than 3000 km away from me, and yet my life seems far less in common with her than the lives of women who live continents away. The distance between us, perhaps is not that of kilometers but of times, and that, surely is a much wider gulf to fill.