Ammah’s First Flight

Karachi Scribbles IV

My mom is without inhibitions when it comes to love and affection. She’s the kind of person who says salam to strangers, goes up to cute babies and asks their parents if she can play with them, who strikes up conversation with anyone and talks to them like they’re best friends. She’d go up to a crying stranger and ask them what’s wrong, or gently chide two young men yelling in public in a way that would make them change their tone and instead start whining to her about each other.

I’m not exactly like that. I’d think it all but I’m afraid of the people who wouldn’t say salam back, or glare at me for being intrusive. Basically, I’m an introvert. And afraid of benign repercussions. But sometimes, life makes it easy to be kind.

Traveling by yourself is great for sociological observations. It’s stressful to travel these days – are my bags too heavy, did I misplace my ID, is it dangerous for my four-year old to be bending down to touch the escalator belt – and a thousand other little anxieties that come crowd over your shoulders, adding to the weight of your overstuffed backpack.  And although we live in a time where we’d rather check our email than offer help to a stranger, sometimes you see it. And kindness to strangers during such times can really go a long way. It could be offering to help with a bag, or volunteering to give up your seat so that a family can sit together, or just smiling at a young mom whose toddler keeps running his toy car up your arm and letting her know it’s no big deal.

On my way back from Islamabad a few days ago, there was a wrinkled old woman with orange henna-dyed hair, a hairy chin and very few teeth standing in front of me in the boarding card line.

Kithay ja rai ho?”  she asked me in Punjabi, kind of cute in a strange geriatric way.
“Karachi,” I told her and she became so excited she grabbed my hand.
“Me too!” she told me (obviously still in Punjabi. Assume for the remaining story that she conversed solely in Punjabi.) “Can you help me out?”

She told me it was her first time travelling on a plane and she was terrified. “Mein unparh han na, kuch perhna likhna nahi aanda,” she was unabashedly honest about how she couldn’t read. She asked me to stick with her till the end and so I agreed, we even got adjacent seats on the plane. 

Ammah jee was mystified by the baggage belt and how she’d get her bag in Karachi. Instead of a purse she had a plastic theli she tied around her wrist and she kept putting her boarding card into it even though I told her we needed it at the next checking point. “I’ll lose it,” she explained just as a surly security man came holding a bag of biscuits. “Is this yours?” he glared at her and she nodded, petrified like a child got with her hand in a cookie jar. He gave it to her and stalked off, still giving her the look reserved by mothers for disciplining their children in public.

It was her first time on an escalator, and you probably don’t remember your first time but it’s the slight fear of mis-stepping and falling face first into the sharp metal steps that makes you miss your step and totter. Which is what she did but then stepped off expertly.

Our time in the waiting lounge was well spent. She refused to let me out of her sight, afraid I’d disappear into thin air and she’d be left alone to fend for herself on the airplane. By the end of those 30 minutes, I still didn’t know her name. But I knew she was married into strangers, her daughter was divorced by her cousin and her son had an unhappy marriage with another cousin. “It’s better to be married into strangers than your own family,” she told me sadly and I nodded awkwardly.
“You don’t look married at all!” she said with empathetic cheer, “not at all!” shaking her head to emphasize the incredulity of it all. “Is he nice?”
“What’s his relation to you?”
“He’s my husband.”
“No silly, I mean is a relative?”
“So you got married into strangers too!” she was happier still about our common state of affairs. 

“How will we get to the plane?”
I told her by bus (since we were at the village-airport of Islamabad) and pointed outside the windows overlooking the runway.
“Do I need bus fare?” she got worried and I told her it was a free ride.

Ammah and I had a grand old time on the plane. She had the window seat which I had my eye on. I was hoping I could swindle her into getting it (especially since she couldn’t really read) but she said, “nahi nahi, mein aythay betha gee” and so I had to sit in the middle seat. I taught her how to put on her belt, bring down the dinner table. I introduced her to the miracle of bathrooms on planes. When the airhostess came around, Ammah jee wanted the apple juice that I chose and the Miranda that the lady next to me was having. And for refills, she had chai.

When her son called her on the phone she told him all about the itni neik aur  achi bachi that was helping her make this journey.

Ammah and I were together till the baggage claim, where thankfully our bags came together and we rolled our trolleys out to be received by our respective men.

“How was your flight?” he asked as I came out, and I told him it was pretty good.


  1. Could picture the entire flight while I read this.very you. I guess people these days are too scared the benign old amma could have a pack of coke in one of those thelis. Sad really...anyways, good one


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