We check each other out.
Her cream and mint salwar-kameez is conservatively muted with fine emblem work that I have never seen in the popular clothing stores that I frequent in India. I’m wearing a linen kurta and thin dupatta in the fashion of a foreigner, not a local; but my attempts are noted with a half nod of approval. She unrolls her silver hair from a bun and it disappears far down her back. I take off my shoes and tuck them tightly together under the seat in front of me; for this good-mannered task of organization, I get another half nod. Then I pull out my Hindi flash cards.
She reaches over, touches them, and continues the conversation we have already started without words, “but what is this?”
I answer, “Hindi flashcards. So that my teacher does not punish me for not studying while I was away.”
An amused chuckle escapes and having finally hurdled an unseen bar, she rewards me by pulling out her boarding pass; “in which seat are you sitting in the next leg of this flight?”
I am pleased at having earned, so quickly, such an association of warmth. And together we begin to banter. She allows me to practice a few easy phrases and humors me with slow responses in Hindi. I don’t recognize the place, outside of Delhi, where she lives, and so ask her where she was born.
She grins and pauses; a sign I have inadvertently hit a story spot. She slowly replies, “Pakistan.” And scans my eyes for understanding of that implication. I cast my eyes down, knowing exactly the implication, but not knowing what permissions I have to explore the sensitive history. She catches this, and when I reply, “I’ve only read books and seen movies…” she cuts me off and points to her long silver hair, “An old woman of 70 now. I was only 10 at the time of partition.”
As I am clearly hanging onto her every word, she accepts my eager permission to proceed: “I saw the massacres; for many years I didn’t sleep after what I witnessed that day. Bodies. Women whose children were left running after the train. Children handed into the arms of strangers, their mothers left crying at the platform. We were not allowed to bring anything. Nothing but the clothes on our backs. That and chapatti and water. We knew that we could live without almost anything; but chapatti and water, that’s all we really needed to survive. Our houses, we left in full order and standing as if we still lived in them. Never to be seen again. On the train, it was only bodies, stacked and lined up, side by side, up and down the aisles; limbs hanging out everywhere. We were only happy to have found a space on the train. The night before, all the women and girls were rounded up and we slept in one building; one building surrounded by male attendants whose only directive was to set our building on fire should the rioting come to the doors of our house; better that the wives, daughters burn, than have their honor and dignity stolen.”
I try to imagine, for a minute, sleeping in that building, curled up between my mother and sister, listening for the shouting that would engulf and smolder my small world. But of course, I can’t.
She continues, “but the rioters did not come that night. And we got on that train. When we arrived in Delhi, we had nothing. The government provided everything; clothing, blankets, food, shelter and even jobs. And slowly, slowly, things came together again for my family. We made a new life. Have I ever been back? Oh no. Never.”
After a sober silence, our chatter has no choice but to grow lighter. I learn of her sons; an engineer in Maryland and another working for Microsoft in Seattle, and of her daughter in Switzerland and the multiple languages she now speaks with fluency. Her grandchildren speak mostly English, and a little Hindi in the home. She’s currently looking for a suitable girl for her youngest son, and I am deeply embarrassed when I ask, “an Indian girl?” and the question is received as clearly ridiculous. She doesn’t need to answer as I look down and apologize, “Sorry. Of course an Indian girl.” To cover up the tracks of my mistake, I move quickly to a good question, “but don’t you miss them all?” To which she answers, “of course. But I am happy they are all well-settled.”
As the plane takes flight and the seatbelt light turns off, I help her recline her seat and pull out the inflight magazine to tell her what movie will be playing. As I flip through the pages with her, I’m horrified at the pages of women in tiny bikinis advertising romantic adventures to remote islands, and flip even faster through an advertisement (for Argentina?) prominently displaying a 4-inch thick slap of raw steak; as the cow is held sacred for most Indians, an image of a marbled thigh of Jesus Christ or flank of family pet black lab flashes through my mind as I try to conjure up an image that would be equally offensive to a American culture. To my great luck, the movie is animated and G-rated, which is the only rating appropriate to Indian audiences for whom a single kiss, on screen, was only permitted, for the first time, in early 2000.
When we’re not sleeping, she corrects my Hindi pronunciation, tries to grasp my profession (which fits into none of the standard Indian classifications or credentials), and asks me simple questions about my life. I try to navigate a way around admitting the fact that I live with my boyfriend, as I know she’ll disapprove, but she traps me into the confession. “In India, we never leave the girls alone. We always surround them, protect them; it is our culture.” She hopes, sincerely, that I will consider marriage soon.
When the plane lands, I help her gather herself and things together. And suddenly, seeing the world through the eyes of a 70-year old, I realize how cruel our youth-oriented world is set up against those of limited mobility. The overhead bins are too high and require upper arm strength far above that of even a young senior citizen. The step from the plane to the ramp is deep, and requires at least an arm or two for balancing. The metal stairs leading to the ground are too shallow and too inclined. The directions indicating paths to other terminals are scarce, hidden and misleading. The escalators move too quickly. The elevators are hidden. The departure boards are hard to read. And even within our terminal in Frankfurt, it still takes us 25 minutes just to walk to our gate. I carry her bag which, though small, is still certainly too heavy for the distance. When we finally find our gate, she is ready for the rest, and so I offer her coffee and watch her bags while pointing to the restroom. I will never look at airports the same. And I suddenly value, deeply, the inherited respect, sense of duty, and care, of Indian youth for their elderly relations.
After storing her bags and getting her comfortably seated into her assigned chair, I take my leave to my own aisle and immediately miss her presence as my new seat neighbor insists on making me watch him do his prana yoga breathing exercises. I conservatively wrap my shawl around my head and, hidden from the world and new intruding neighbor, sleep through the rest of the flight.
It’s only in baggage claim when I hear my name and turn around to her eager hands, shaking my own, wishing blessings upon my life and journey, and touching my heart in a simple show of sincere gratitude. But the honor has been all mine, and while I know not all Indian-daughter to mother-in-law relationships are so kind, I’m deeply thankful for my tiny taste of one.