My first memories of trips to India while growing up are of my grandparents, a neighbor girl named Sweeti, and craggy faces of rickshaw drivers. Under these vivid mind pictures, though, is a feeling that loosens something under my sternum. It stems from the awe of seeing my father look taller, more vitally part of each meal, each conversation, like he returns to himself when we travel there, of watching my mother settle into an old routine that I had never seen. Laughter is relaxed, conversation fluid. I feel an easing of a tightly held tension I did not know we had.
I am six and sitting on a black bus seat alone. My legs swing, almost kicking the back of the seat in front of me. The windows have a horizontal bar to slide them open or shut and there is a small wedge open at the top of mine. Ahead of me about five rows are the backs of the heads of my family: wispy hair, surprisingly gray for a 40ish father, flies about through streaks of sun slanting through the windows revealing glimpses of a smooth bald brown pate. This, the very top of my Baba, is a head and shoulders above the tidy bun sitting quietly on my mother’s neck and, stair-stepped down from her, is just the tip of my wavy-haired brother’s head. I lift my chin to watch as others leave the bus to buy papaya juice, a mango, or stroll around the small highway pull-off until the driver is ready to continue on the switchback road up, up, and nauseatingly up through the blue Nilgiri hills near Chennai. My stomach feels queasy from sickness, but I have been told to eat, hence my bully separateness from the rest of my family.
I have a banana in my lap, the small brown Indian kind full of flavor, and have just finished a sandwich my mother packed this morning. A crowd has gathered around the bus and far below me I see a small child standing and looking straight into my eyes. He wears shorts and a buttoned shirt of some indeterminate khaki color and he seems to reach the elbows of the older children near him. No one else in the crowd looks at my window. His eyes stay steady though the crowd jostles him and the ragged hem of his shirt rucks up. I startle as I realize he has seen me eat the last bites of my bread. He has watched me swallow. I look at him more closely and see his hands are cupped.
I suddenly feel the bulkiness of the gummed bread still in my throat and stare at the banana in my lap. I want a drink but do not call out for one. My mother is talking earnestly, using her hands and tipping her head, making a point that causes my father to chuckle. Do not waste your food, Nin, she would admonish and I look back to the boy and lift my banana as if to peel it. But I cannot do it. I feel the black vinyl seat stick to the backs of my thighs as I lift my torso up. Not high enough. I stand and the vinyl pulls free of my skin. I reach the opened top of my window and toss the banana out and it drops and wobbles through the heated air. All else freezes as it makes its diver’s arc end-over-end. The sounds of vendors, of the driver’s radio, of talking tourists, mute. The milling people themselves, in their colorful saris, with their turbans and beards pulled tight under the chin, blur. Then, just before the boy’s outstretched hand can close around the fruit, the smell of the idling bus engine suddenly reaches my nose and I sit back quickly. My grandparents said just last night not to “encourage them” so I glance up to make sure no one saw.
Now, the bread in my throat goes down and I make an audible swallow. I hope I will not be hungry later, and I look once more down to the boy. He deftly caught the banana, though sometimes I imagine it dropped in the dirt first before he snatched it up, and I watch as he takes quick bites through the bitter peel, as if someone might get to it still. I open my mouth to tell him to peel it first and it stays open until I look away. I imagine what banana peel tastes like and what the soft, fleshy fruit would feel like beneath it on my tongue. I rub my tongue behind my front teeth and grimace. Then, I am frantic. What if my mother sees that the peel is not in my trash? Will she ask what became of the fruit? She walks back and never looks into the wilted paper that had wrapped the sandwich. She pats my head, and goes back to her seat as the bus pulls away.
I realize now that I was seeing a child beg for food. I had seen beggars in India asking for money, but none had struck me as much as that boy. During our meals around a shellacked wood table in Kansas, I spent inordinate amounts of time hiding foods that I didn’t like. Peas were pushed under crusts of bread, an Indian vegetable that my father and I called “blood purifier” to indicate its bitterness, I mashed with my fork to subdue. After the parts I didn’t like were sorted to satisfaction, I ate the comfy foods, like potatoes with black pepper, like rice with minced meat, with such relish that I was done in five minutes the meal my mother wanted us to linger over. Every dinnertime, too, my father at exactly 5:30 p.m., ten minutes after beginning the meal, would turn on the national news with Huntley and Brinkley. All conversation stopped so he could hear. My back was to the television so I had nothing to do but look unfocused at the array of foods my mother prepared and rest my head on my hand.
The stories of starving children in India bandied about in Kansas to somehow force kids to finish their peas did not apply in my life until that moment on the bus. Now I see I formed an acute sense of privilege in being born who and what and where I was. My family, it seems lived with this dichotomy all their lives but that’s when I saw it first. My grandfather had a sense that the economy ran by families hiring a cook, a driver, a gardener. They had a sense of keeping order by separating humanity into groups that serve and supervise. In many ways, I think that moment on the bus was the impetus behind my later development work in the Peace Corps, behind my teenage squabbles with my family over politics after I began turning around and watching the news unfold each night on TV. In the end, for me, there was that boy, eating a fruit with absolute concentration and no quibbling. Peel and all.