It was Sid Sriram belting out one of melodious Tamil numbers. My family and I were surprised to hear Tamil songs on the radio. I inquired about it and the driver nonchalantly explained that there were multiple channels playing Tamil and Malayalam songs on the radio. Dubai continued to surprise us, even on the very last leg of our vacation. We had finished a week’s vacation in Dubai and were heading towards the airport in a cab when this incident occurred. I had booked one of those red-eye flights from Dubai to Bangalore and reached the airport about five hours before the scheduled departure of the flight. Since we had ample time, we walked around the waiting lounge to find a place where we could rest for the next two to three hours. Thankfully, we soon found four empty chairs, parked our luggage trolleys nearby and settled into them. My wife and elder daughter dozed off very soon, leaving me to guard the luggage and also humor my younger daughter. She has this knack of inventing imaginative games on the fly and I played along.

All this while, I did not take note of the two gentlemen who were seated beside me. The one seated next to me asked in Hindi “Brother, our phone’s battery has drained out. Do you have a charger and adapter please?” I took a look at his phone; I indeed had the required accessories with me and gave it to him. He in turn gave it to his friend who went around looking for a power socket to charge his phone. I resumed talking to my daughter thereafter. When I grew tired of her games, I asked her to go to sleep. Pretending to sleep was the new game she invented out of this and she found really funny. “She is not going to sleep until she boards the flight” the guy next to me commented. I nodded my head in agreement and told him that I have to keep her busy for another four hours now. “Children are like that brother, the more you force them to do something the more they will rebel”. I could not help giggling at his remark.

With that we started striking a conversation.

“Where are you heading towards” he asked

“I was here in Dubai for a vacation with my family. Now I am heading back to India” I replied

“I guessed that you are from India. But which city in India are you from?”

“I am from Bangalore” I replied, always confident that every decent bloke in this world will know Bangalore.

“Ahh Bangalore. I have only heard about it” he explained.

“Where are you from?” I inquired.

I am not sure if my imagination went into overdrive, but I thought there was a sense of delay in his answer.

“I am from Punjab in Pakistan” he explained.

“Ohh… Pakistan” I nodded and could not get any more words and phrases to follow-up on what he said.

To begin with I am not very good at starting and building good conversations with people, leave alone strangers. Add to this, there was some strange queasy feeling when this guy told me that he was from Pakistan. Of course he looked absolutely normal like anyone else… as normal as me. But still, I don’t know why, I suddenly wanted to get away from this guy. And to make matters worse, I could not get away, since I had this long wait ahead of me. I never asked him anything for a few minutes. Neither did he say anything. A wave of guilt washed upon me reminding me to shed my bias and inhibitions and to stop stereotyping this guy only because he was from Pakistan. I broke the silence by asking “Where in Punjab and how long will it take for you to reach home?”

He went to great lengths to explain the geography of Punjab and where he lives and thus why it will take many hours for him to reach his home. However I was only partially listening to him, since … since… well since he was from Pakistan and I was from India. Why was I even speaking to him??? DAMN!!!!

Once he finished his answer, I forced myself to pretend to be interested in conversing with him. And so I perhaps unconsciously and insensitively asked him “Did you come to Dubai for a vacation?” His answer came as a blow to my stomach. “I guy like me cannot think of vacations brother. I am here to earn for my family. I am going back home after ten months. I am very eager to see my family and children. One my daughter should be the same age as your little one who is playing with you”. There was sea change in my attitude and I immediately felt sorry for this guy. But I still did not know how to react to what he had just said.

He asked me what I do for a living and how I got there. It was a genuine conversion from there on. I explained my background and education and profession. Told him that I had it fairly easy, thanks to my parents who took great pains to give me a good education. Explained to him that all I had to do was recognize the hard work of my parents and hence work equally hard to be good at studies and at work.

He said “You are a lucky guy to have had this education and have a decent job. I threw away my education and now I am struggling to provide a good life for my family and children.” He explained how difficult life was in his village in Punjab, Pakistan. Many of the men there were without jobs and just sitting idle the entire day. He himself had tried many odd jobs before coming to Dubai. He has been working in Dubai as a machinist for about five years now. He said that it was a lucky break that got him to Dubai and was even more fortunate to have a good employer in Dubai who took care of his accommodation and healthcare. In Dubai, he was sharing his two bedroom house with five other friends. He explained how they took turns to cook and even showed me pictures of his friends and his accommodation in Dubai. Just to give an example of how he struggled to save every penny, he mentioned that even though he has been in Dubai for five years now, he had never been to the top of Burj Kalifa, since it was an unnecessary expense for him. And here I was, holidaying in Dubai for a week and seen more of Dubai than him perhaps!

When I inquired about his family, he explained it in great detail. He spoke about his parents, his house, his wife and their children. He had two daughters and two sons. He was very proud of his eldest daughter who was presently studying in tenth grade and was studying very well. He said that girls should be educated nowadays and mentioned that he was happy that his struggles are not going in vain. He even showed me pictures of his children. He was not sure how long he could sustain this life of living away from his family, but mentioned that the alternative of being jobless in Punjab was a nightmare.

I asked him how life was in Dubai. I had seen the tourist hot spots and glamour of Dubai. He explained the underbelly of Dubai to me. He spoke about how migrant workers like him struggled to earn a living. He particularly explained how bad the summer could be, especially for people like him who live with only a fan for comfort. Lengthy working hours; strict rules for migrants; expensive lifestyle; lack of social life; staying away from home; … I could only empathize with this guy for what he was going through. He then explained some of the statistics of Dubai and that Indians form a majority of the population here. Like everyone else who speaks about Indians here, he never missed talking about Keralites [he called them Malwaalis instead of Malyalis :)]. “I see that you Indians are usually well educated and hardworking. That is what makes a difference finally”. I could not help laughing at how he reduced everything to these simple basics.

When we ran out of topics to discuss, he showed me some comic clips on Facebook and WhatsApp. Some of them were really funny. He explained that this is the only entertainment for him since he cannot afford anything else in Dubai. He was a fan of Bollywood movies and IPL. He was waiting for the next season to begin and was following Chennai Super Kinds closely. I sheepishly admitted that I stopped following cricket more than a decade ago and do not watch movies as well. Hearing this, he wanted to know how I kill time at home, but thankfully did not bother to wait for my answer.

After chatting with him for close to two hours, I had to take leave to complete my check-in and board the flight. We shook hands and wished each other well and bid adieu. There was genuine warmth in his eyes and smile as he wished me farewell. I hope he recognized the same from me as well. He smiled and waved at my younger daughter and said “Gudiya, go and sleep in the flight”. My daughter waved him goodbye as well. As we were heading towards the check-in counters, my wife asked me who that guy was. I explained that he was just another traveler with whom I was talking for the past couple of hours.

“Is he also from India?” She asked.

“No he is from Pakistan” I said.

“PAKISTAN huh???” she explained and shook her head. I spent the next thirty minutes debriefing her on his story.