Year 2007. I was in my late twenties. Flying from Zurich to Dusseldorf. In my next seat was a Swiss lady in her middle age. A kind face and a warm nature. She told me she lives in Zurich and is a doctor. She asked me what is the purpose of my journey, what do I do, where do I live. I remember her eyeing my dress. I was wearing a salwar-kameez, a traditional Indian dress. I didn’t mind her curiosity at all…I was happy to chat with her. At some point she asked me if I was married. I was not. She then apologetically asked me how old I am. And then came the surprise: “Are you allowed to remain unmarried till this age, in India?”. The surprise in her voice was genuine, and my surprise was also equally real. I have traveled to many countries and I understand what cultural shock means. But I still can’t imagine one educated person can have such sweeping notion about a whole country. When I told her there are many women in India who are highly educated, hold good jobs, and some of them may have family, while some may choose to remain single, not all women in India marry at a young age and have children….she stared at my face and I sensed she was trying to see if I was offended by her question. I was not. But I admit she made me self-conscious.
Year 2016. Just landed in Frankfurt international airport. In the queue for passport control an Indian family was before me. Father, mother, and three kids one of whom was a special child. I noticed everyone in the family was being playful with him. They were cheering him, joking with him, keeping him happy. He was a happy child indeed and it was heart-warming to see him surrounded by such warm affection and love. Without me knowing, my lips had curled into a smile as I looked on. When their turn came at the counter, they handed over their passports. While the person at the counter was examining the passports, this particular child was looking at his face with interest. The father noticed it and after they got back their passports, before leaving the counter, the father asked the child if he would like to shake hands with the man at the counter. The child happily extended his hands and the man took it, shook it, the family left. It was my turn now. As I stepped to the counter, I found this guy is applying hand-sanitizer in his hands, with a disgust on his face. I remembered the glowing face of the child as he left the counter and the disgusted face of this germ-maniac made me sad. He checked my passport, put his stamp, and slided it back to me over the counter. I suddenly decided to act differently than I normally do. I held the passport pouch in my left hand, and using my right index and right thumb pinched one corner of the passport and put it back in the pouch….as if I would rather not touch the object he had just touched. I made eye contact with him, and left the counter. Did he think I was crazy? Most likely yes. Did he realise I did it on purpose and got mad afterwards? May be, may be not. Did any of this drama have any effect on the happy child and his loving family? Absolutely not.