What it means to be a traveler.
By Shahnaz Habib
I hunt down prayer rooms in airports. It began a few years ago, at Kennedy International Airport in New York. After seeing a friend off and feeling at loose ends, I tracked down the airport’s prayer spaces—a synagogue, a church, a mosque, and an interfaith space, wall-to-wall next to each other in Terminal Four. I sat down in the mosque; it was empty. I had not prayed in years. I looked at the calligraphy on the walls, the stack of Qur’ans next to the window, and the wooden screen behind which women were supposed to pray—strangely familiar from the mosques of my childhood, but so faraway in time and place. Perhaps I had forgotten how to pray. What would I say, and in what language? Then I thought of my friend flying off to start a new life in a city she barely knew, and prayer arrived on my tongue.
As I prayed that day for homes and journeys and friendships across distances, airplanes took off and landed on runways nearby. The buzz of flight announcements rose with my words. How could I have not known that, at any given moment, so many people were traveling? That the world was crisscrossed by these journeys, creating an invisible global map of movement?
Where was I on this map? My entry visa to the United States had expired about a year before, and if I traveled outside the country I could not return. I wanted to travel but I also wanted to return—to New York. I was trapped by my own choice, and everyday I rebelled against myself by wanting to be elsewhere. Place-names taunted me—Istanbul, Brittany, Kanchipuram—and most of all, home, the small town in South India where my family waited for me to return. Somehow, that day in the JFK airport mosque, surrounded by thousands of journeys, a brief glimmer of faith arrived. They also travel who sit and wait.
Since then I have kept an eye out for travelers’ prayer spaces. In most airports it is a silent, empty room tucked away in a corner. To me, this bareness that can contain multitudes and mirror yourself back to you is a marvelous metaphor for the core of all sacredness. The air in these spaces is suffused with the hopes and fears and wonder and uncertainty that anonymous travelers have invested in them. Usually I am alone in these rooms. But very occasionally there is someone else. I have heard sobbing; I have seen a hand reaching tentatively for another hand. And I have taken each memory to the next airport prayer room I have found myself in.
Now here I am in an airport again. This time the airport is the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. Once again I am here to see off a friend. I have bought more time in New York, with the help of an expensive immigration lawyer. It is many years since that day in JFK. My Indian passport has been stamped with a new United States visa and I am spending a few days in Delhi before flying back to New York. My friend is on her way to Mumbai from Delhi to spend the weekend with her husband who works in the other city. I arrive very early, she is not here yet, so I wander around the airport searching for a prayer room. Surely in a land of gods and goddesses too many to count, an airport will make space for travelers to pray.
Most airport prayer spaces are silent, empty rooms tucked away in a corner. This bareness can contain multitudes and mirror yourself back to you.
But the airport belongs to India Inc., the India of trade talks and nuclear deals and call centers. It buzzes with ambition and energy. While I was away there has been what is often gleefully referred to as an aviation revolution. There are more domestic airlines than I can keep track of, and corporate houses, with their extra spending money, have been shopping for airlines the way socialites collect paintings. Gone are the days when the national airline, Air India, and its regal mascot, the Maharaja with the oversized mustache, set the standards for air travel. The Maharaja still blunders on—his flight attendants wearing the same printed silk saris that were in fashion 20 years ago. In stark contrast, the young ladies who work for Kingfisher Airlines are in skintight red jeans or miniskirts and sashay through the airport leaving a trail of dislocated necks. Air Sahara has determined that the way to an airline customer’s heart is through his or her stomach and serves up gourmet meals. GoAir is owned by an industrial scion whose wife’s hobby is organizing an annual male supermodel contest and publishing a magazine bursting with photographs of herself flanked by adoring, half-naked young men. A complimentary copy of the magazine is given to every passenger who flies the husband’s airline.
The customer, too, has changed. There is no more sweet awe when the plane lifts off into the sky. The mysteries of X-ray machines and little printed papers with secret messages for the next official are now just boring requirements. Between corporate travelers with consulting gigs all over the map and middle-class tourists with more disposable income than ever before, the lines are long and tempers are high. No prayer rooms as far as I can see.
My friend calls to say she is running late. At least another hour. I buy a cup of coffee for Rs. 50 and remember the days of my childhood when coffee used to cost Rs. 10. I walk around the airport aimlessly. At first this long wait seems to be a test of endurance, but as I wander, I find myself relaxing even amid the hustle and bustle of India Inc. During the last few weeks of visiting my family, there has seldom been an empty hour like this. Every minute, every morsel of food, every piece of pleasantry had seemed loaded with questions and expectations, many of them unanswered, unmet. I opened a closet and found a shelf full of clothes that my mother had gotten stitched for me in the years that I had been away from home. My father walked down the stairs gingerly, holding the railing, and I felt guilty, as if I was the ache in his knees. Like thousands of prodigal children before me, I had expected time to stand still while I was gone. And because it hadn’t, I tried to compress into my few weeks all the loving and listening and cherishing of those missing years. But it was not enough and would never be.
Now here I am in this airport, left to my own devices. No roles to play, no duties to fulfill. I don’t have to be anywhere else. I don’t have to do anything. I am just another anonymous traveler waiting for a delayed flight, drinking bad instant coffee.
At the magazine stall, amid newspapers in four languages and tabloids announcing the latest Bollywood affair, I notice an old favorite. Inside Outside. For years, my father would come home with Inside Outside, a glossy interiors magazine. In our tiny rented house with walls flaking green paint—to this day that shade of green makes me feel small and miserable—we would pore over the pictures because someday we were going to build our own house. Did we want a winding staircase or a straight one? What kind of bathroom mirrors did we think suitable? How about this armchair—was it elegant enough for us? We did not build that house for years. In the meantime, the pile of Inside Outsides grew.
I buy the latest issue and settle down to read the cover story. She is an ad executive in Mumbai and he owns a few satellites and supermarkets. During the week, their black and white and red apartment with the imported Italian bathtub and views of the Arabian Sea is a welcome refuge from demanding careers. But on the weekends they can be found reclining on the verandah of their 12-bedroom cottage in the Khandala hills with a Bloody Mary (for him) and a Screwdriver (for her) in hand. Their friends beg them never to get rid of the cottage.
I think of the child who used to read these stories and believe every word. I think of my crowded apartment in Brooklyn and the lavender plant that is growing against all odds on the fire escape. I picture the words “Inside Outside” in my mind and play Scrabble with them. Insideoutside. Seditions. Destinies. Disunities. Tedious. Snidest. How fertile they are together. What multitudes they contain. And how perfectly they fit together after all this.
A young woman and her father are sitting opposite me in the waiting area. She is radiant in a pink salwar-kurta, her hair carelessly pinned up, thick curls escaping. I know her. I see her everywhere—the independent, well-traveled, urban Indian woman. She straddles multiple worlds with courage and charm and a small well-packed suitcase. I have several friends like her, including the one I am waiting for.
The father is old and wrinkled and has the dignified expression of a man who has worked all his life in a government job, never taking a penny more than his salary. They are holding hands without speaking. There is a flight announcement. Father and daughter look at each other and nod. It’s time to leave. As I continue watching from the corner of my eye, she stands up first and helps him carefully and lovingly to his feet. She picks up the suitcase and they both walk to the security entrance. They stop there and, wordlessly, she bends down and touches his feet with her hands. She brings her palm to her eyes. His hands are on her head and, as she rises, they hug each other tightly. It’s a long embrace and, from where I am sitting, I see how tenderly he holds her with gnarled hands. And then, contrary to the expectation I didn’t even realize I was harboring, she hands him the suitcase and it is he who leaves. It is he who walks through the entrance, toward the X-ray machines. She watches him go and then turns around and leaves. It is she who returns to a home without him.
The pain I feel at this moment is so unbearable, so sweet that it sickens, so bitter that I want to throw up. I miss my parents then, in ways and in volumes that words cannot talk of. The wordless goodbye, the ancient ritual of hands to feet to eyes made new by the charge of intense emotion, the unpredictability of who will leave first—every journey I have made, every goodbye I have said seems to be wrapped up in those moments. It is such pain that it makes me long for God, for a Later where loved ones are reunited, for a world without distances, for order and meaning.
The woman sitting next to me is looking at me curiously. I am not surprised. I have been behaving suspiciously. I wipe my eyes and close my notebook to look at her. A middle-aged woman in an old-fashioned blue crepe sari; she looks tired and grumpy. At first I feel annoyed by her relentless staring, but I know she means no harm. There is a fine line between prying and concern and it’s easy, especially in India, to mistake the second for the first. I give her a tentative smile and her face breaks open into a wide smile that transforms a plain face into a sweet one. She lifts her legs off the floor and crosses them under her on the seat and turns toward me. “Where are you going?”
Lately this question has become something of an existential dilemma. I cut several long stories short and say, “I am waiting for a friend. How about you?”
“We are just returning from Haridwar. You know Haridwar?”
I do. Haridwar literally means gateway to Hari, to the one who steals. “One who steals” may be a strange epithet for God, but what is stolen is the devotee’s heart. Only the most charming of gods can steal from you and still be worshiped, and there is no god in Hindu mythology more charming than the mischievous Krishna. As a child, Krishna would steal butter from the women of the village while they were churning it. Once, when his mother was chasing him to retrieve the stolen butter, he popped it into his mouth. She caught hold of him and asked him angrily to open his mouth. But when he opened his mouth, she saw arrayed in it the entire universe. This is the kind of legend that brings pilgrims to the mountain town of Haridwar, on the banks of the river Ganga.
“Who did you go with?” I ask.
“Me, your uncle, my sister, and her husband.”
My uncle? For the briefest of moments I am thrown off. We are talking in Hindi and she has just said, nonchalantly, “Aapke uncle.” Then I realize that in her modesty, rather than actually say, “my husband,” “Auntie” would prefer to introduce him as “your uncle.” And just like that, I have an uncle. Sometimes it is just that easy to enter a network of affection and protection in India. Staying in it takes effort and sacrifice—this is what I learn and relearn on these brief visits home from New York—but the door is always open. As long as you turn up.
Auntie lives in Kolkata. Her sister-in-law is taking care of her children while she travels. “And I take care of hers when she goes to her parents’ house. Her parents are in Gujarat. So when she goes away, she goes away for a while. Not like me. My parents live in the same city. I grew up there, studied there, married there. See, I am the only daughter. So when they were looking for boys for me, my parents decided that they wanted me married and settled somewhere near them. My mother is no more now. My father is not in the best of health either. But it is no use asking him to slow down. He starts every day with a morning walk. . . .”
After half an hour of Kolkata tales and Haridwar anecdotes, my “uncle” arrives with boarding passes and I am introduced to him. They both issue me an invitation to visit Kolkata and stay with them. Then they are off. I decide to renew my search for a prayer room.
“Do you know if there is a prayer room here?” I ask the security guard at the entrance to the check-in area. The tight lines of his face, drawn into an intimidating mask, slip for a second into surprise and then amusement as he shakes his head. He keeps a wary eye on me as I wander around asking others. The coffee vendor does not know and neither does the woman who cleans the restrooms. She does offer helpfully that there is a changing room for “ladies with babies.” Then, at the Air India counter, the official on duty peers into my face through the cubbyhole in the glass screen between us and gestures behind me. I turn around and look. Behind me, nothing but the teeming airport. A man with a cell phone in one hand and a coffee in the other is running toward the X-ray machine. A tall blonde tourist is leafing through a travel magazine at the newsstand while its proprietor looks on sternly. An old couple with grandchildren in tow are pondering what to buy at the snacks stall. And an airport police officer is questioning a man in a tattered kurta. I don’t see any signs for the prayer room. “Where?” I ask again, and he smiles mischievously. “Everywhere. Anywhere. You can pray wherever you want. No one will stop you.”
I accept defeat and make my way to the least crowded seats in the airport lobby. Then it strikes me. I can pray anywhere. Wherever I choose to pray is the temple. This is what it means to be a traveler—every inch of earth is sacred. All roads lead to Haridwars. Or rather, the road itself is Haridwar. The X-ray machine, the trolleys, the black-and-white flowers on the dupatta of the woman who is emerging from the restrooms, the impossible smiling couple on the cover of the magazine I am holding, the pen with which I am writing this thought, and the thought that I am thinking. They are all connected by a sacred thread. Every thought is a prayer. A mother is emerging from the room for “ladies with babies” and scolding her child, “Open your mouth and let me see what’s in it.” The little girl opens her mouth and it is the universe that spills out. Her baby talk is the unsung choral song of galaxies and orbits and worms and early birds and red miniskirts.
Perhaps this is all there is to prayer. Life turned inside out.
Shanaz Habib is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York.