The huge poster at the mall grabs my attention. There’s a mom in her kitchen with her kids around her. The children are creating a supreme mess in the kitchen (in said poster), as expected, but mom is peaceful – levitating in a yoga-like posture, seemingly practicing mindfulness meditation, hence the caption ‘Breathe Mama, Breathe!’ is quite appropriate, I think.
Happy Mother’s Day it says at the bottom of the poster, albeit in small print. That’s what it’s likely advocating for. It is, after all, one of the busiest ‘C’ days per my lexicon, i.e. commercialistic/capitalistic/consumeristic, when people shop till they drop at all kinds of sales events at malls. Perhaps some of what they purchase is for their moms.
I’m also there, but unlike most, I believe I’m actually there shopping for my Ma. She has given me a list of what to obtain for her kitchen in Karachi. I’m in Houston for a work-related trip and on that last day of my visit there, the mandatory stop at a mall – any mall – is needed to pick up Ma’s stuff. That it happens to be around Mother’s Day is an intriguing coincidence. Ma has asked me for a specific kind of lemon squeezer from Bed, Bath & Beyond. I’m in a time crunch as I have to be at the airport in an hour. So, I decide to pick up any lemon squeezer that I can find in that mall – the adjoining Target comes to my rescue, and I do the needful.
Armed with a few more (presumably) random things for Ma that I pick up from the mall, I head out to the airport.
After checking in and screening I barely have enough time to make my way to the gate and board the flight.
I get to my seat and I curse the travel agent for assigning me to the middle of a row of three seats. The thought of a ten-hour flight squeezed between two passengers is far from pleasant. Someday perhaps work travel will be escalated to business class and such space restrictions will go away?
I put on my seatbelt and try to make myself as comfortable as I can. I switch my cell phone to plane mode, put on my headphones to listen to my playlist, and then I pull out my book that I’m really excited to read during the flight. The book is titled ‘Homo Deus – a brief history of tomorrow’ by Noah Yuval Harari. If you haven’t read it then give it a shot. It’s worth your read.
I must have read no more than a few lines when I feel a tap on my left shoulder.
It’s a really old lady in the more desirable window seat next to mine trying to get my attention.
“Kiya parh rahay ho?” (What are you reading?)
My excitement to read about humanity’s future fizzles out promptly and I put the book aside. I have a premonition that the interaction that shall ensue over the course of the flight will not be a brief one. I fleetingly recall the encounter with Ernie several years back on a flight from New York. He was a septuagenarian with whom I had struck a fascinating discourse while up in the air, albeit hesitatingly as I don’t belong to the small talk brigade. This time it is happening with an even older person – very likely a nonagenarian I think.
Her head is covered by a large chador that she’s tightly wrapped around herself because it’s quite cold in there. Her spectacles are perched on the tip of her nose; they have really thick lenses that magnify her eyes manifold. She’s clutching a plastic bag. History really seems to be repeating itself. Ernie too had been clutching a plastic bag in his lap all those years ago. Perhaps this is the norm for the very elderly in long-distance flights – they hold on to plastic bags for dear life.
“Kitab mein kiya hai?” (What’s in the book?) The old lady asks again.
Unsure how to explain complex concepts of artificial intelligence and virtual reality and their impact on humanity’s evolution in Urdu – or Hindi as I’m still unsure whether she’s from India or Pakistan – I keep the answer simple and noncommittal.
“Ma ji, science kay baray mein hai” (Mother, it’s about science)
Calling her mother is quite inadvertent and spontaneous. In fact, ‘Ma ji’ is even more of an endearment than just ‘Ma’ as the former reverently addresses an elderly mother or mother-like lady. Hence it feels appropriate, given her age and South Asian lineage.
By that time boarding is complete and the announcement for seat belts to be secured and seat backs to be upright is ongoing.
I glance at Ma ji. She looks back at me and then down at her unfastened seat belt. She unsuccessfully tries to belt herself into her seat. I note the characteristic hands of the elderly – frail fingers bent out of shape because of arthritis.
I ask if I can fasten her seatbelt for her. She mumbles something so without waiting for a coherent answer I do it for her while explaining what I am doing and apologizing too as I’m uncomfortable encroaching on her space.
Once settled and belted into her seat, she opens the plastic bag and reveals to me her cache of chocolates within – Snickers, Mars, and Bounty. She takes a bite of a Mars bar and then offers me some. I politely decline. I wonder if she’s diabetic. I’m like that; the itinerant doctor in me closely observes the young and old to generate differential diagnoses (disease possibilities, in other words) all the time. Thus far I’ve given Ma ji two potential diagnoses: arthritis and diabetes. Along with that and the backdrop of extreme elderliness, she’s likely high risk to have an event in flight. A cardiac event, to be precise – heart attack or such. My mind gets even more creative and imaginative: what if she does have an event and I respond to the overhead call ‘is there any doctor on board to attend to a medical emergency?’ I’ve responded to two mid-flight emergencies before. Dealing with those was fine as I happen to be a pediatric emergency physician. But will I be able to do anything useful for Ma ji given the other end of the age spectrum?
“Tera Naam?” (Your name?) she asks curtly, and that brings me out of my reverie.
“Asad” I respond, realizing once again the inevitability of further conversation.
“No…no…Asad”. I respond louder.
“Ajay, mein Houston apnay baray larkay kay saath thi. Ab India wapas ja rahin hoon” [Ajay, I was with my older son in Houston. Now I’m returning to India]
I don’t correct her anymore. I start enjoying the interaction. Might as well.
I expect a high likelihood of ‘where are you from/where are you going/what do you do’ type flight-like interrogation, but it seems like Ma Ji is more interested in venting.
“Meray teen larkay hain, koi beti nahin. Lekin meray do betay jo India mein hain who mujhe der tak nahin rakhtay”. [I have three sons, no daughter. But the two sons in India don’t let me stay with them for long periods]
Although Ma Ji goes on to describe her eldest son’s job in Houston, I’m unable to grasp exactly what it is that he does. The closest I can get to is that he’s either in construction or truck driving, perhaps both based on her description. She also gives ample coverage to her ‘gori’ (white/Caucasian, I assume) daughter-in-law. Ma ji sounds a bit disapproving talking about her daughter-in-law: a primary school teacher, unable to spend time tending to her sick mother-in-law, nor doting enough for her hubby and kids.
I just nod my head a lot and that seems sufficient enough for her to continue her monologue. No questions are asked, nor comments elicited, as her narrative unfolds and that is fine by me.
It’s been almost two hours into the flight now and I’m pleasantly surprised that my fellow traveler has managed to keep me quite entertained thus far.
By that time the flight attendants are busy serving dinner and beverages.
“Will you have the chicken or beef?” The attendant asks Ma ji.
“Halal?” is her curt response-cum-question.
“Meat is not kosher. Shall I get you the vegetable pasta, instead?”
“Na!” she responds with an edge in her tone. Monosyllabic answers I also note. Likely because her English-speaking skills aren’t up to mark, although her comprehension is good?
However, I’m intrigued as to why she’s unable to comprehend my very Muslim name – in fact, she creates a Hindu version of it – and yet she’s adamant about halal food. Is she Hindu or Muslim? I’m curious but too polite to ask. Although truth be told, does it even matter what faith she subscribes to?
There’s silence over the next hour or so as I consume the chicken entre that I’ve selected, while she periodically partakes of candy from her plastic bag.
Once I’m done with my meal and everything’s cleared up, I’m recharged enough to continue the conversation, if it even can be called so. When I look over I realise she’s nodded off and is snoring. Thus, obstructive sleep apnea also enters my list of differentials.
Over the next few hours I also try to catch some sleep, but as is always the case during long-distance travel, a meaningful nap eludes me. I try watching a movie or two from the in-flight entertainment list, but I’m quite unsuccessful there too. Between the alternating attempt to sleep and focus on a movie, I likely fall asleep and even dream because the next thing I remember is being woken up by Ma ji.
“Bathroom jana hai” (I need to go to the bathroom) She says.
I let her pass. She returns after what seems like an eternity as I’ve dozed off again.
Once she’s resettled in her seat, she goes back to her chocolates and offers me one. This time I don’t refuse and accept a Bounty bar.
And before I realize it, she’s resumed her monologue.
What I piece together is that she gets bounced back and forth between her sons in India and the US. Once she’s revealed quite a bit of her fragmented life in India and the US, she presents a detailed assessment of the many more pros of living in the East versus the West. She doesn’t have a permanent home of her own anymore. Her husband passed away decades ago. She disapproves of the peripatetic turn that her life has taken since she’s been widowed.
Although she comes across as fiercely independent, I realise how fragile she really is. Her façade of ‘being able to do it all still’ falls by the wayside by a bit of cajoling on my part. She succumbs quite easily to my attempts to make her flight more comfortable when I ask her if she would like some fruit, water, chai, etc. (all halal).
And in such a manner the rest of the flight is completed.
Once the airplane lands and I walk down the aisle towards the exit, I turn back to get one last look at Ma ji; she appears quite forlorn and lost. I wave to her, but she does not respond. She looks through me as if she’s already forgotten. I feel pensive leaving her behind, still seated, but the flight attendant reassures me on my way out that the old lady will be taken care of; a helper is on his way with a wheelchair.
I then let go of her and think of my Ma instead. I wonder if some stranger in a parallel universe is assisting Ma either at an airport or in flight to ease her journey?
Although I am a pediatrician, ER physician, and researcher by profession, at the Aga Khan University, my proclivity to writing is my means of creative exploration and expression. My articles on health, education, children, humor and popular culture have appeared in newspapers in the US and in Pakistan. Other than the Biloongra series of bilingual books for children, I have authored 'an itinerant observer' a book of short stories/essays first published in the US in 2014 that was updated and then reprinted by Bookgroup in Pakistan in June 2020.