An Indian, a Pakistani and Bangladeshi on a flight without borders

Would she have asked me the questions about Raisina or the stone deities if she were raised in Delhi? Would she have asked the stark questions about India? She would have known it, she would have lived it. Instead, she had lived the partition of India. And then the partition of Pakistan.

By Sandeep Raina (Conversations)

Published: Sat 23 Mar 2019, 8:48 PM

Last updated: Sat 23 Mar 2019, 10:58 PM

The woman on my left was in her late 60s or early 70s. She was loosely wrapped up in a large dupatta with muted colours. Her eyes were of the wise and the kind, and she had the quiet demeanour of a woman who has absorbed time.
We were on a flight from Dubai to London, which meant two movies back to back. The seat screens in the plane were large, so you knew who was watching what. The English man on my right was young, watching a fast-paced movie with destructive metal robots. The screen on my left was blank and blue.
As soon as I plugged in the headphones for a Hindi movie, a flight attendant, a young Arab, asked me if I could help the woman. I turned to her. She showed me a small diary with some questions written in English in neat handwriting. She wanted to play the Holy Quran from her screen.
"There is Holy Quran in other languages but not Urdu," the flight attendant said.
"Maybe Arabic?" I said to her in Urdu.
"Son, I should understand it, otherwise what is the point?" she said.
For some reason, as if not to offend the attendant, she put her headphones on, closing her eyes.
Plane spaces are small, movement little, and the uncommon becomes common. When she opened her eyes, we got talking. She was from Pakistan, and on her way to visit her children in England, where she had never been before.
Suddenly, a woman's agitated voice rose from the seat in front of me. A young female flight attendant was having a problem communicating with her.
The woman said something rapidly, something unintelligible, angry. The flight attendant looked worried.
When it settled, I resumed talking to the Pakistani woman. I told her that I was a Kashmiri Pandit, grew up in Kashmir, and now lived in England. She said she had heard there were not many Muslims in Kashmir now. This was the first time I had heard such a thing. I told her that I grew up with Muslims around me. That most of my friends had been Muslim. That Kashmir had many Muslims.
She listened and then said, "Don't mind my asking but did it occur to you to become a Muslim?"
The question took the wind out of my sails. I had never been asked this. In Kashmir or elsewhere.
Later, I pondered over this again. Why did I feel provoked? Have I really not been asked such questions in my life? Are you going to become an engineer?
When will you become a husband? A father? Does it occur to you to become British?
I tried to stay calm. "Actually not," I said. She said she had derived a lot of peace from her religion. The Kalma. The Quran. I said I had too from what I followed, but I was willing to absorb what other religions offered. I told her what I liked about different faiths. How any four Muslim men ate out of the same traem in Kashmir, my Sikh friends' seva service for all, the discipline of my Christian school when I was small. She tried to understand this, saying nothing.
I thought about her question again. It had hurt me. Like all those questions I have been nudged towards, reminded of, sometimes forced.
I imagined an engineering product ad. Strange how a hurt mind resorts to comic relief. Do you want to choose a deity? We have many to offer. They have the following features and capabilities. They come with a guarantee of peace and many other benefits. They have long shelf-lives, in fact, no expiry dates. We also have Eid sales, Christmas sales, Diwali sales.
The woman wanted to find out more. "Don't mind my asking, but do you bow to a stone in a temple?" she said. I said, "I do. I also bow to the trees and the rivers, the sun and the moon."
She listened quietly.
"I also bow to my parents and my teachers." At this, she smiled. She had seen this in Hindi movies and had liked it. Did she watch movies, I wondered?
"For me, kan kan mein bhagwan," I said. I translated this to zarrey zarrey mein khuda. God in every particle. So, why not respect everything we see around us, including each other?
"I've heard that many people in India are uncivilised. They kill each other for what they eat." If there was room in my seat, I would have squirmed. If the young man on my right was not in a robotic trance, I would have started a conversation with him. But I had no escape.
We talked for four hours, confined spaces allow you this. I spoke about Kashmir. And my family's forced flight many years ago, the destruction of Kashmir.
"When you break up someone else's country, it breaks your heart," she said.
It was my turn to keep quiet. We were agreeing, finally. But, maybe she was talking of Bangladesh and its break up from Pakistan?
"Is there a place called Raisina in Delhi? My mother always talked of it," she said.
"Yes, there is," I said.
She was talking of India. She had suffered the breaking up of India. Her father and mother had fled from their home in central Delhi in 1947. Her father had taken them back to Delhi 10 years after the partition, just before he died, and her mother had visited the flat where her children were born, but not stepped inside.
Would she have asked me the questions about Raisina or the stone deities if she were raised in Delhi? Would she have asked the stark questions about India? She would have known it, she would have lived it. Instead, she had lived the partition of India. And then the partition of Pakistan.
Each break up had left sharp edges. And many difficult questions.
The flight attendant was back. She was again having a problem communicating with the woman seated in front of me. The attendant looked at me. She asked me if I could help. I unbuckled and stood up, leaned over the seat in front.
The woman in front was Bangladeshi, she had a black hijab on, she could not speak English, or spoke just a bit. Her three-year-old daughter sat next to her in a bright frock, looking at me curiously.
The woman's bag had not been loaded into the plane, and she had to be told this; she needed to fill in a long form in English, to receive the bag on the next day. I spoke Urdu, but she didn't know Urdu. She spoke Bangla. I did not. I resorted to slow English and gestures and let her know about the missing bag.
"Why just me?" she demanded, very upset. "Not just you, there are others too," I explained.
She showed me a picture on her phone, of her husband in a hospital bed in London, very sick, and that she would not know what to do, everything she needed was in that bag, and now it was gone. Her daughter's warm clothes. She had never travelled to England before. Things were falling apart for her. She burst into tears.
The flight attendant tried to calm the Bangladeshi woman. I helped her fill in the form so that she could receive her bag the next day. When I finished, half an hour later, the young English man moved my seat belt and blanket out of the way as I sat. He nodded at me.
The flight attendant looked relieved.
As we began our descent, I filled in the Pakistani woman's landing card for her. Shazia Begum's siblings were born in Delhi, she in Karachi. Her entire life fit into the square boxes of the small card. She signed on it. "You have an old Delhi accent," I said to her.
"My mother spoke with the Delhi accent. Now, there's no Delhi left in us, none," she sighed.
When we landed in London, I helped her to a bench near the gate, where the wheelchair person would find her.
"I felt I was talking to my son," said Shazia Begum. An old response kicked in. I bowed slightly and folded my hands in a namaste. I think I saw her raise her hand.
A little ahead, I saw Maimoona in the crowded immigration area. She was talking in anxious tones to another Bangladeshi woman. She paused when she saw me. I pointed out her queue to her. An uncle of hers would receive her at the airport, she told me. He had called. The little girl held her mother's hand tightly.
I am not sure what religion we all followed in those flight hours. Or what nationalities we belonged to. And whether we belonged to partitioned nations, or warring nations. Whether we spoke the same tongue or not. Whether we were men or women.
Sandeep Raina was born and brought up in Kashmir, and writes short stories about Kashmir. He lives in London.

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