Sometimes a simple gesture can be the most cherished lesson of your life. I learned this lesson when for the first time I boarded the light rail in downtown Mountain View.
It was an ordinary day, yet my heart fluttered with exhilaration and anxiety. I felt like a fledging bird taking its first flight.
It was the first time I was traveling alone in this country, where everything seemed antipodal to India, the world I had inhabited for 22 years. I poignantly felt the difference that day, as never in my hometown, Delhi, had I needed a map to reach even the most distant location, because there were always people to guide you on the roads and trains.
Here my only companion was the white VTA map with blue and green dotted lines tracing the train routes. It was my guide to my sister’s home in Santa Clara.
As the white door of the train opened I peeped inside. All I could hear was an eerie silence. This train seemed lifeless, a huge contrast to the Delhi Metro that always pulsated with life.
I occupied one of the blue seats on the train, wondering why the train was so empty. I could even lie down on one of the seats and take a nap till I reached my destination.
The only human presence was the voice of the operator on the P.A. system. Every now and then she announced the station, and I felt reassured to hear even that ordinary announcement.
As the train passed a few stations, I took out a magazine to read. But the words and sentences seemed jumbled up; my mind was distracted, and nothing made sense.
Putting the magazine away, I looked out of the window at cars, shops, and bus stops—things that reminded me of human presence.
As I gazed on, my thoughts transported me thousands of miles away to the Delhi Metro.
* * * *
I reminisced about one of those Sundays when I traveled to my best friend’s place in the jet-like Metro. It was a mere 25-minute run, yet with every tick of my watch I itched to get off that overcrowded train.
Some people leaned against the iron rods, others held fast to leather straps to avoid falling. The fortunate few sat comfortably.
I could hear the chattering of college girls as they munched Kit Kats. Next to them two men sat engrossed in their political discourse—the rising oil prices, increase in OBC quota, Iraq war, and household woes. Some chatted on mobile phones, while some others, like me, stared out of the door and windows.
I stood next to the door, squeezed in a corner, irritated and dismayed at the hordes that made the train seem like a fish market. A middle-aged man stepped on my toes, making me wince with pain. I wondered why the government didn’t raise the fares so fewer people would travel.
I disliked this flock of people, not only because of the noise they made, but because they made me nervous. I always worried I wouldn’t be able to push my way through the crowd to the exit when my station arrived.
As the automatic doors opened and closed, I waited impatiently for Kashmere Gate station to arrive. Usually half the passengers got off the train there. I would then breathe a sigh of relief, stretch a little, and perhaps occupy the corner seat I had been eyeing since I boarded the train.
That seat was my favorite as it shielded me from the noisy crowd, giving me some quiet moments with the insightful editorial writers of Indian Express. I loved reading the editorials and detested even the slightest disturbance.
So whenever I boarded a morning train I would cross my fingers, hoping one of the corner seats would be unoccupied.
As my mind raced through these memorie
s, the operator announced the next station, abruptly yanking me back to reality. I was no longer in Delhi, crammed with people.
I picked up my backpack and anxiously waited for the train to stop, but my worst fears came true. The train didn’t stop; it sped past the station.
Why didn’t it stop automatically at each station, just like the Delhi Metro?
I missed the crowds of people I had so detested. I earnestly wished now I could hear their chitchatting and the hustle and bustle. This desolate compartment made me aware of the bond I had unwittingly shared with those unknown faces. I knew that in that crowd I could find several people who would extend support if the need arose.
But here, in this deserted, speeding train-car I felt completely vulnerable. Just as I was racking my brain to stop the rushing train, it jolted to a halt. The door opened and a woman walked in. Never before had I felt so glad upon seeing a human figure.
As soon as she got on, I jumped up to ask her the secret to stopping the train. To my surprise the answer to my quandary was right next to me. It was the long and slender strip that could be pressed to stop the train.
After I got off three stations past my own, I stood disoriented, wondering how to go back, as cars on the street raced past me.
Shortly, a middleaged Vietnamese woman walked up to me and asked if I needed help. She had been watching me looking lost at the station.
She guided me across the street and showed me where to board the next train to the station I had missed.
The kind woman smiled at me reassuringly and recounted her own experiences about her initial years in the United States. Her smile gave me the same sense of comfort as those strangers in Delhi Metro. In my anxiety I forgot to ask her name, but her face remains crystal clear in my memory.
Sixth months later, an experienced commuter on VTA trains and buses, I still think of that kind woman.
Yesterday when I saw an old couple standing confused, tightly clenching a VTA map in the rear car of the Mountain View train, my mind flashed back to my first train ride here.
I walked up to them.
Anuja Seith is a graduate student in mass communication and journalism at San Jose State University.