My seven year old son and I went out of town last weekend for a quick break. First stop, ticket office at nearby train station, to buy a ticket for the train to our destination. Since there were several lines, I stood in one, son in the adjacent line.
His moved faster, so when he was second in line, I moved over to be with him. When our turn came, I fished out some money and stuck it in the window.
Upon which, a swarthy sweaty moustached fellow behind us pushes my son away gently, saying: "Your Papa has handed over the money, now you go stand somewhere else."
I can't believe this, so I turn and say: "Why are you pushing him away? He's a kid! And anyway he can stand wherever he wants, OK?"
The man says: "Why are you getting heated up? I only told him to go away!" Switching to Marathi, he announces to the lined-up world around us: "I just told his son to go away and he's getting all heated up. Why doesn't he understand?"
Switching to Marathi myself, I say: "I understand a lot, actually." At this, his mouth falls so wide open I'm afraid his lower jaw will drop off. Apparently, he is astonished that I both understand and speak Marathi.
I collect tickets and change and we head for the train.
It's the starting point, so there's not much of a crowd. But only one window seat, the one by itself in second-class compartments. Son takes that one, I sit across the aisle from him. A few minutes later, we're rolling. At the next station, a huge crowd floods in. People sit on every visible bit of flat bench space. In particular, there are two large Gujarati women who come in together, one sits beside me, the other asks my son if she can share his seat and sits down there.
She squirms and shifts and I can see my son getting progressively squeezed against the window by her bulk, until he is nearly standing. I ask the woman next to me, "will you exchange seats with my son, so you can share that seat with your friend?" She smiles widely, says "Yes, yes, next to my friend!", leaps up eagerly, and my son comes over to me.
The two women immediately begin a loud quarrel over who gets to sit near the window. I am not making this up.
Eventually they decide on some arrangement. Peace in the crowded compartment. But not for long. The woman who was once next to me suddenly leaps up again, worms her way into the aisle and stands there, at my son's shoulder. She is muttering constantly in a low disgruntled voice. After a while she can't take it any more, taps me on my shoulder and asks in Gujarati, "can your son go back to that seat? How can two women sit there?"
My son agrees and goes back to where he started. The lady sits down again, between me and the aisle. Not long after, I see my son getting squeezed once more, then he gets up and comes back to sit on my lap. "It's too uncomfortable there", he whispers.
Him coming over is the cue for the lady beside me to resume muttering. She goes on about how little space she has, though I can't figure out how my son sitting on my lap has suddenly left her with less space. But she mutters on, and tells me to move up. Now there are three more people on the bench between me and the window, one of whom has her child on her lap. There is simply no way to move any more, and I tell her so. This is the cue for her to launch into louder muttering. "I've travelled on this train for 17 years," she says to nobody in particular, "and I've never met such rude people. Can't give me even an inch!" On and on.
After listening to this for a while, I say: "Look, it was your friend who drove my son out of his seat. It was you both who began fighting and then you asked to come back here."
She rises in disgust and moves off to I don't know where. Her friend sits in smug splendour next to the window. Son and I enjoy relative comfort for the rest of the journey. And I find myself wondering: why do people think they can push a seven-year-old kid around?