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Life in a Square Inch

Originally Posted on March 16, 2016 by Ishita Shelat

A square inch! That is 0.007 of a square foot! I am not going to talk about the realty scams that have corruption in every square foot. Nor am I talking about the population of India which is I-don’t-know-how-many-millions per square foot. Or wait, it is the result of that.

Travelling is one of my latest hobbies. That is, if I have company. Travelling by car, bike or luxury buses / trains doesn’t count. Travelling by the second class ‘General Dabba’ in a crowded Indian train is what gets to me.

The train was fully crowded and somehow, I managed to squeeze in. I don’t weigh much, anyway. I pushed and nudged a few people here and there and tried to find a place to sit. I wasn’t lucky enough. There was a lot of space to stand though, but the space to sit, even on the floor was fully utilized. I stood there, wondering if I was the only misfit. I looked up to see a college-going girl reading a book in Hindi. Well, maybe not as lucky as me to get a good Convent education. I don’t know the fuss about English mediums anyway. I might as well be learning in Hindi and learning better than those ‘Englees Madams.’

Anyway, the compartment was divided into two and in the next division, I heard a quarrel. It was a quarrel between a Muslim woman and another woman, seemingly a lower caste of Muslims. The second woman had a son, and all the poor woman wanted was to let her son sit in the place where the other woman had kept her bag. But the first one started with an argument and made this statement which definitely made me chuckle. “Roze mein hu toh mai tujhe marungi nahi.” I mean, if you are keeping a holy fast such as that why don’t you do a little good deed and let that young boy sit. Also, she didn’t refrain from using any foul language. Is that what keeping a Roza doesn’t prohibit you to do?

Turning away from the fight, this little girl caught my attention. She was a girl of about five with two pigtails and she had a little brother who was about the same age or maybe, a year younger. She was mischievously playing with him and teasing him. They were eating this packet of ‘kurmura’ each. It had a transparent plastic packet and looked homemade. Sitting not even a square inch away from them was this little boy who had made friends with the girl and he wasn’t even a year old. Yet, he was playfully pulling her pigtails and mumbling something in baby language. My attention went from the kids to the hunger that I was feeling.

I opened a Balaji packet of chips. My favorite ones are Lays, but you get more quantity in the Balaji ones. So, I thought that was economical. I started munching on the chips and the kids’ attention turned towards me. The three of them were looking at me and then looking at my packet of chips. I thought of offering them some but decided against it as I felt exposing them to such outside eatables would just instill bad habits. After all, they were eating their homemade kurmura. Suddenly, the smallest kid put his hand forward. I am more than 5 feet tall and this little kid was lying down with his arm outstretched. I was wondering what the hell was happening when the kid started crying. I felt so bad. I asked the kid’s mother if I could give him some chips. Just then, the lady sitting at the window seat commented. “Colour packet hai na, isliye uska dhyaan jaa raha hai.” I had never thought of it this way. I started thinking about the humble, transparent pack of kurmura and compared it to my pack of brilliantly coloured Balaji chips. Is this packet of chips also a luxury to the less privileged population of India?

I was tired now, and tried to sit down but there wasn’t enough space. I looked behind and found somewhat of a square inch to sit. I was right next to the kids. I started taking their pictures and asking them a few questions. Just, generally. The girl was an inquisitive one, and wanted to know how my phone went about taking pictures. She took it in her hand and was gently trying to figure it out. I let her, though it was a very expensive Samsung Android phone. Immediately, the women next to me started squealing, “mat do usko, tod degi woh”. I let her try and figure it out for some more time and she was delighted. I clicked a couple of pictures of hers and she was more than ready to pose.

Another thing remarkable about her family was her Grandma. She had accompanied the girl and her brother and both of them were travelling somewhere. It so happened that her Grandma got up to go to the loo, and flushed it. But somebody from a higher financial status than hers, asked her to pour water because it was stinking. This angered her, and she pointed out to her 12 Rajasthani bangles and said that people take her to be from the village because of her bangles. She said that those are not a symbol of being from the village but a symbol of her love for her husband. “Pyaar ka nisaani hai.” She had been living in Pune since the past 23 years. Another example of people’s perceptions.

All these stories were unfolding in the square inch of space that each of us had. I felt so close to them. I felt like I was a part of them.

When I got up to leave, the girl with the pigtails smiled at me and said “Bye, DIDI”. Her voice was the sweetest I have ever heard and her smile brought one on my face.

No matter how chaotic, sweaty, cramped it might feel in that square inch of space in the general compartment, I felt belonged more than anything else. I didn’t get those steely cold vibes from the first class ladies putting on their make-up or that nudge when I was invading somebody’s personal space. Heck, I didn’t get a place to sit, but I definitely got a place in their hearts.


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