‘Just me and my aircraft’
As the clock strikes 8, Salva Sidiqui climbs up a rough, open stairway and flops into a plastic chair in her family's dimly-lit rented home in Purani Haveli, a teeming locality in Hyderabad’s historic Old City.
After a day at the aviation academy at the city’s other end, the two-hour commute home spread across multiple city buses is sapping.
But the 19-year-old is on a journey she can barely believe.
Since last March, Salva has been training to be a commercial pilot, the only Muslim in a class of 30. These are youngsters hoping to plug the short supply of qualified Indian flyers that the booming airline industry faces, its rapid growth forcing it to import pilots.
Salva cuts a rare sight, her 5’ 2” frame clad in a starched, buttoned-down, full-sleeved white shirt with black and gold lapels, teamed with natty black trousers — and her bespectacled face framed by the soft folds of a hijab. Her ensemble reflects the changing world inhabited by the city’s young Muslims, citizens of a new Hyderabad with their roots firmly in the Old City.
Salva’s life offers a window to these remarkable changes: she is the first person in her family to complete school — her father Syed, now a delivery man with a bakery, dropped out of school, and her mother Syeda was never allowed to study.
In 2006, Salva’s life took a turn when a local scholarship body, energised by the bright junior college student’s ambition, offered to fund the prohibitively expensive flying course.
“I still cannot believe I am in the academy. Everybody in my class is rich, they come in cars to the academy, they have so much money to spend,” Salva says. “They are different.”
Raising her voice to be heard over the loudspeakers on the streets outside, celebrating the birth of the Prophet Mohammed with songs and religious speeches, Salva says she wants to zigzag the world: “I will join Indian Airlines, so that I can do domestic and international flights.”
Today, more Indians than ever before can afford a flight. Salva’s family isn’t there, yet. The only time Syed took a flight was a decade ago, when he joined South India’s great faceless migration of labour to West Asia, to work in a Jeddah hotel.
Holding up a disfigured right hand, he says, “My hand got caught in a cake-cutting machine, I was sacked and had to return.” Salva interjects, “That incident really shook me. It made me serious about my life, made me burn to be different.”
Syeda hopes that, some day, her daughter will fly her to West Asia for the Haj pilgrimage.
Salva can’t stop marvelling at the “different” road her life has taken, including the long hours of study — “navigation, air traffic regulations, aeronautical maps, weather, instruments in the cockpit... the exams are hard work, and you have to score 75 per cent to pass!” she says happily.
Last September, with her instructor beside her, Salva took off for the first time in a bright yellow Cessna 152-A. “It felt marvellous!” she exults.
Twenty hours into the mandatory 200 flying hours she must clock to qualify, and the teen still cannot get over that first high: “Each time I am up in the skies, the world looks so beautiful. It’s like there is just me and my aircraft.”