I met him on the BART, four years ago, one Monday morning. In accordance with the etiquette of my new host country, I smiled a good morning at him, but not the full American version … a more reticent, Indian version. In India we urban types usually sit dourly opposite each other in the public transport, acknowledging no one. To him, my smile was more respectful than buddy-buddy, and his nod back signaled a “namaste beti” rather than a “hi, morning to you.”
He sat bolt upright, refusing the inviting curve of the seatback. Held neatly between thumb and forefinger, was his BART ticket, right side up. One of the lenses of his spectacles magnified one eye…that was the one he used to look out at the station names, every time the train halted. Then he’d trace the name of the station with his finger on the map laid out on his lap, nodding briefly, repeating the name softly to himself. Between stations he looked outside…sometimes silently mouthing “Fremont, Union City, South Hayward, Bay Fair …” Reminded me of a kid on a Mumbai local train swotting last-minute for an exam, feverishly memorizing the names of state capitals in rhythm with the train.
For the next four days, he was there on the platform, waiting for the train, and everyday I got in with him, half hoping he would speak to me, half fearing that once he began, he wouldn’t stop. Our smiles were turning warmer. His BART ticket he would now put away neatly in the top of his shirt pocket. The map lay folded on his lap, but he didn’t look at it much. He leaned back in his seat, and sometimes even shut his eyes for a few minutes.
On Friday he wasn’t there. I wandered up and down the platform; he just wasn’t there. Irrational scenarios raced through my mind. Like when my granddad in Pune went out on a walk and was a few minutes late. He’d return with some simple explanation about who or what had delayed him. But at 12, I would have run through a gamut of ghastly scenarios by the time he came home … so much could happen to an old man in a city of demented two-wheeler riders.
On Monday he was there. No map; a bright pink and green pouch around his soberly clad frame, a bottle of water tucked into it. As if I had asked him a question, he explained a little loudly, “I got late on Friday to get ready so they left. Usually they drop me to BART on their way to work.” But when we sat down, he didn’t speak anymore. He had work to do. He pulled out another map from his pouch. This time it was “BART and Buses.”
Everyday he would get off at a different station … standing up well before the train came to a halt, lurching slightly at the brakes, and nodding briskly to me as he left. One day, as we got off the train together, he said to me, “Good thing I have now learnt is that train can arrive at full halt, then you can get up to go. Not like in Mumbai–you have been there?”
He had lived and worked for over 40 years in that city. He’d lost his wife a year earlier, and had come to his son in California. And quickly his world had shrunk, in this great big nation. He couldn’t drive–though he did in India–”The insurance premiums will be too high … and you will definitely have an accident…adjusting to the left hand drive,” his son had decided. In India as a retired person, he had shopped, and cooked, and met friends, attended weddings, music programs … at his own pace. Here weekdays meant he was prisoner in his son’s home. On weekends, in the early weeks of his coming, they took him to see some of the sights—his bored adolescent granddaughter coming reluctantly along or simply refusing to come at all. Sometimes they took him along to a party, but no one spoke to him much … and if he tried to speak to someone, his son or daughter-in-law would come and stand by “in case I speak some nonsense” he said, laughing.
My work at Berkeley had come to an end. I wouldn’t be on BART for a while. We exchanged numbers. He wrote mine down neatly: “Yours is the first ‘friend’ number I am taking down … others are all ‘in case of emergency,’” he told me, grinning.
I visited him every week after that—sometimes at his home, sometimes riding with him on a new route he was exploring—the AC transit, the Muni, the VTA, Caltrain. At home he would make me a cup of tea, carefully washing the tea things and putting them away. “At first I was keen to keep house—do the laundry, dishes, groceries—but for everything there is some problem … machine I may spoil … that microwave … I am afraid I may just put in a steel bowl by mistake—there will be Diwali fireworks then.” We laugh at the image. “Groceries can’t be bought few at a time and in the store close by … everything is worked out … where they get the best buys, how to buy in bulk to save…etc, etc. So you see, the list of what I can’t do is long.
Some days, I would ride with him on a new route he was exploring—the AC transit, the Muni, the VTA, Caltrain. “I realized, if I don’t learn to go by public transport, then I am going to be dropped at only two places that they think are correct for me. Senior Center and Mandir. What else can they do? They are busy, busy, busy. But you tell me, is it natural.to continuously meet only old people, all talking about same problems or showing off about how much money their children make or watching some silly Hindi film?” He made a dismissive gesture. Then pointing to the large window of our bus, he said, “I like this television set better … different programs every day, different people. Everyone smiling.”
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