Each morning when I left home to catch the school bus, our cook, Rajinder Singh, handed me lunch and a plastic bottle filled with boiled drinking water. I rarely drank the water. Instead, I saved it for the bus ride home through the streets of New Delhi.
One very hot day, I couldn't concentrate in class. I kept checking the clock on the wall. The bell rang, and I ran from the classroom. Tiny Tots school was in a big two-story house and I hurried down a cement driveway and across the rug-worn lawn, past the banana and papaya trees and out the front gates before the crowds of kids made it outside.
I was the first in line when the bus door opened and another boy and I sat by windows near the back of the bus. I removed my water bottle, which was heavy and soft from the heat. It had a nozzle with a cap to it, which I flipped open. The air was stifling with children filing in and chattering and finding seats and I leaned my face against the window frame and caught a humid breeze tinged with the smells of wood smoke and exhaust fumes. It was a relief when the bus pulled out, for the hot wind it created, and each time we slowed, I yearned to move on.
We pulled up to a stop, and I sat tall to see two girls seated in the back of a black ambassador car with the windows open directly below me. The girls, one older than the other, wore the same style of white knee-length dress. They had talcum powder on their necks. The older one by the window glanced at me peering at her and she turned away, looking stuck-up. I poked my water bottle out the window and squeezed hard, squirting a perfect stream directly on her. She screamed and cringed, and raising her arm to block the water, she scooted against her sister away from the window just as the fellow behind me in the bus sent another stream of water through the windows into the car. The water splattered across the black vinyl of the back seat. A fat woman in a sari, the girls' mother apparently, leaned into view from where she sat on the far end of the wide back seat.
"Stop it, you nutkuts!" She yelled, waving a hand. She shouted at her driver, a complaint in urgent Hindi. Everyone on our side in the back of the bus burst into loud laughter. The traffic began to move, and the driver glanced up at us and shouted in Hindi. I giggled when I made fleeting eye contact with the older girl, her eyes filled with hurt and humiliation, and against the spirit of the moment, I stopped laughing.
The bus kept going. Up ahead, a man slept in the road. Since arriving from the U.S. to India many months before, I had grown used to the strange sights on Indian streets, like the cows lounging on the medians of busy roads calmly swatting flies with their tails; or the men who slept on crowded sidewalks, cloth covering their bodies from toe to head like shrouds. But this thin old man had no cloth covering him and he was lying in the gutter. He wore a white dhoti and button up shirt with the sleeves folded up, and a small Nehru hat had fallen off his head. He lay on his side, his body almost fetal, his hands near his knees. As we passed by I leaned and shot a single arcing stream of water at him. It hit him on the arm and splashed, but he didn't move. The sight startled me, and even after the bus rumbled off I still craned my head back for a glimpse of him.
We started up a long slow hill. The road shimmered with heat. Ahead, many men pushed an oxcart of bricks. Four of them pushed from the back and a man in front pulled two toiling oxen. The men in back leaned into the cart, their legs churned in slow motion against the weight. A few had dirty cloths wrapped loosely around their heads. They wore dhotis and chappals and their sweaty skin was the deepest dark brown from the hot sun.
"Raju," I said to the boy behind me. "Look. There."
When the bus pulled up to them, the men grimaced under their labor. I squeezed my bottle, spraying the water. They lifted their chins and broke into smiles.
"Dhanyavād," one called out, and with closed eyes, he raised his face to the sky.