The Emirates A380 long haul flights can be comfortable, but rather lonely. Gone are the flights where I could chat with a fellow traveler and while away some of the long hours. I can eat a bunch, watch a couple of movies, nap a bit or read some, but the conversation certainly helps, especially to somebody interesting, from a different country, another culture. But the A380 isolates, imprisons me, providing a lot of privacy and space of course, but loneliness surely.
So it is with pleasure I find myself next to a pricey perfumed, young attractive damsel on a smaller 777-300 flight from Dubai to Mumbai. I nod to her in friendship and she gives me a bright smile in response, lifting my spirits; perhaps the final three or so hours of my long thirty hour haul from Orlando to Mumbai will conclude with some stimulating conversation?
Hello Uncle, kaise ho?
She greets me gaily; my smile slips and the good feeling I have dissipates somewhat. Bloody hell, can’t these younger generations treat me with some respect? Uncle indeed. We don’t converse again until the flight is airborne and she is done with wolfing down her dinner, including cleaning up on a massive mango moose for dessert. Mashaa’Allah; quite an appetite. She burps softly, excuses herself, opens a compact mirror, peers at herself, paints her lips a bright red, smacks them several times and gives me a flashing smile.
That was so good, I was so hungry. I wish I could smoke now; that would be a perfect finish.
She breaks into gay laughter as she sees the startled look on my face, showing off a perfect set of teeth and a very pink tongue lightly coated with remnants of the food she just ate.
Oh, Uncle, don’t look so shocked. Women do smoke these days, you know?
This gal is beginning to irk me.
Oh, you can smoke and ruin your lungs, Ma’am, no skin off my nose; I am an ex-smoker myself. Will you please stop calling me Uncle? Don’t let my gray hair fool you; I dye my black goatee different colors.
I see her digesting my jest as her pretty face clouds up in a frown, before clearing and breaking into full-fledged laughter. She laughs robustly for a while; to the point of dabbing her kajal clad koyal eyes with a napkin. The ice is broken and we begin talking. We introduce ourselves and I briefly tell her about my work, something she finds fascinating, since she also grew up in dire poverty under the care of a single mother, ending up without a formal higher education.
MoonMoon, she tells me, my name is MoonMoon.
Eh? This is getting interesting. MoonMoon? Never heard that one before.
Well, my real name is Shabnam, but my boyfriend calls me MoonMoon, so I have stuck to MoonMoon for the last few years. I was born to a single mother; my father disappeared one fine day. Mama tells me he was involved in gang business and they knocked him off because of a dispute over money. It was tough for Mama, raising two kids, my elder sister and I. Money was always a challenge and we had to do without many simple joys of life. I hated that. All my friends in school had loads of rupees. Not I. So I rebelled and dropped out of school and began modeling. People always said I had a great body and a selling face. Don’t you think I am pretty?
MoonMoon gives me a coy smile. A sly smile. I think I blush scarlet and stupidly grin back at her. She wags her head, accepting my silent consent.
Especially my teachers at school, especially the men teachers. They were the dogs. Well, all men are dogs, Uncle, sorry, but you guys are. Maybe you guys can’t help it, maybe God made you that way, but you are all dogs. All you want is one thing. Always.
She goes quiet. There is a far off look on her face, a look I cannot fathom. I have broken into a slight sweat, my heartbeats on the move. Should I be having this conversation? Should I end it and shut up? But I don’t. For some reason, I want to hear more.
My looks worked both as an asset and liability for me. I was offered money to model and with that came aggressive men and agonies of the heart. The money was good, because I could finally have all the luxuries I was denied before. But Mama would have none of it, so I had to leave home. You know how tough it is out there as a single woman? The men, they eat you up and the women, they try and tear you down. Out of jealousy. The only way out is protection. From a man. A big man. A powerful man. A man with money. Lots and lots of money. I got such a man. He is married, has children and lives in Dubai. A big businessman. He flies me down here every two or so weeks. Business class, see? For his entertainment. He has bought me an apartment in Juhu. I have a car and a driver, all the money I can ever want…
She is absolutely quiet again. I want to ask her a lot of questions. What about her Mama and sister? Other families? How will she ever find a husband? What about children of her own? What about religion? Surely there is no future with this man? It is time for the flight to descend; the pilot says we are landing in thirty minutes and for us to get ready.
I am a born Muslim but don’t practice the religion anymore, not with all the sins I supposedly commit daily. My sister is religious. She is married now, to an accountant. I make more money in a week than he makes in a month, even more. But both Appa and Mama will not take a single paisa of my money. My extended family and community have disowned me, will not talk to me, and will not invite me to their homes, marriages or deaths. They are all afraid I’ll pollute their children. But I think they are simply jealous. Jealous of my good fortunes and all the money I have accumulated. Well, they can all go to hell for all I care. Let them burn in envy.
But her defiance is lackluster, lacking conviction. I can hear the loneliness and pain in her voice. This young woman is hurting and is headed for disaster. The aircraft shudders into a landing and heads towards the gate. I do my hujjat.
Well, it was nice talking to you MoonMoon; the time simply flew by. This is none of my business but let me give you some gray beard advice. I cannot say much about your money matters; can’t help or guide you in that matter. However, personally, I am a nobody without my religion, family and community; these are my roots. I strongly recommend for you to turn to Allah for help, for He is there, loves you and will guide you. He must. Never abandon your Mama, for that is the only person in our lives that love us unconditionally. As far as your boyfriend, drop him. He will drop you as soon as a younger face takes his fancy…
MoonMoon laughs out aloud, cutting me off.
My boyfriend will never abandon me. Never! She says feverously, pumping a delicate fist in the air for emphasis. I know too much about his private and business life; I have him in my mutthi. Even if he does, it will be way off in the future. And to his loss, not mine. She gives me that coy look as a sly smile spreads across her bright lips. By that time, I will find myself an elderly man, someone like you. Wouldn’t that be nice, Uncle?
My face turns purple and I break into a sweat, feeling hot and cold at the same time. The aircraft comes to a jerky stop and the seatbelt lights go off. I fumble with the belt, release it in a mild panic and get busy with gathering my stuff. We don’t exchange a single word as we wait for the doors to open, but I can feel her mocking eyes and matching grin burn a hole in my back.