A Story of Forgiveness
Things were not going well. Ellen was silent, even though the view from the taxi cab window was enough to make even the most seasoned traveler gasp with child like wonder. Ellen’s silence was not one of speechlessness; she was bottled up tight and letting nothing through. Steven stared out the opposite window at the same maelstrom of traffic and humans and carnage that make up the daily flow in the streets of Mumbai. They were both staring out, each in their closed off little world, but both looking within to try and figure out what had happened to them.
How did we get here, thought Ellen, how could we be so close literally, but so far away spiritually? They were down to small talk and minimal conversation between each other, enough to set plans and decide with their local guide what was next. Casual greetings were met with cold, dead responses…nothing enthusiastic anymore. They both knew things were grim, part of the reason for the trip was to try and make amends, but so far nothing had worked, nothing had been rekindled. There seemed to be no spark left to ignite what had once been a passionate and meaningful existence together. Ellen shuddered unconsciously thinking about those days and Steven turned towards her and looked at her. He was looking for something, but Ellen knew he was not looking deep enough.
“Here will be fine…Driver?” The taxi driver was lost in his own little world but stopped for them. They fell out into the human quagmire and Steven stopped for Ellen.
“After you,” he said dolefully. Ellen walked by towards the entrance of the hotel without a word.
As far as Ellen was concerned their troubles had all started with the loss of her father. Steven had been distant from the start…when she most needed him to be there for her he was absent. Her grief had been tremendous, much worse than she had figured it would be. Mostly she felt for her mother and prayed day and night that she would remain strong enough to get through the initial stages of grief. It was a difficult thing. She knew Steven was trying, but at first she thought he just didn’t know what to do, or what to say. Really just being there would have been enough…sitting by her side and holding a hand, or offering a shoulder to lean on. But he had literally been absent, working late; working in the yard; going on ‘errands’…which she knew were just drives to get away from what she figured he saw as stifling emotions. In a way she couldn’t blame him at first; it is an unexpected thing to lose a family member even though we all know it is coming. It takes time to figure out how to react and how to help people who need the most help. So she gave him some room, and figured when he was ready, and when he had decided how to act he would come to her…but he never had. The only thing he did was to try and distract her from the reality of what had been lost. He took her to fancy dinners and shows in the city, and walks in the park with the dog…but he always managed to steer clear of ever confronting the loss. He pushed it under the carpet and out of sight, and in so doing he pushed his wife away as well.
The sad reality was that Steven didn’t know what to do, and as much as he thought it would come to him it never did. Instead of admitting this to his wife however, he just moved on and figured if they could put this behind them everything would just go back to normal. But they hadn’t and now it was too late to go back and dissect the grief and talk about it until their mouths grew tired and their hearts grew lighter. Instead the tension increased and Ellen, feeling that she had been slighted by Steven, retreated from him while Steven, knowing that he had disappointed Ellen but feeling that she should have allowed him more benefit of the doubt, became sullen and hurt. Over time these sores festered and spread, and their relationship became tethered by short strings and highlighted by hot tempers.
The nights were always the worst, when every other couple was lost in the magic of India, Steven and Ellen fumbled their way through another evening’s meal at the hotel. Following dinner Steven would say he needed some air and would ask Ellen if she was interested in a walk. She would have something else to do though; peruse the shops in the hotel; go to the lobby and read and so on. So Steven would find himself alone out on the sweltering streets realizing that, one: there was no ‘air’ to be had in Mumbai and, two: he wasn’t interested in solitary walks. He became annoyed at the beggars and merchants who were always hanging on his arms and bought nothing and gave nothing. Couple’s taking pictures at The Gateway or arm-in-arm disgusted him. He was insolent and downtrodden and here he was in a place that many people only dream of. The dream had to be shared to be enjoyed though, and by himself and with his wife at arms length, it was painful and sad. He thought he was trying, but at this point he didn’t know how to get in to her. The conversation at dinner had been ridiculous, they wondered about family back home and opined about whether the Labrador was behaving badly or downright terribly at Ellen’s parent’s house. They should have been talking about India, and the people, and the smells and sounds, but their battle to preserve their own integrity and pride had made them immune to the beauty all around them. Their armor was thick indeed, if the pervasiveness of India’s charm and allure could not break through.
Steven doubled back along the Colaba Causeway and retraced his steps through the crowds to the hotel. He hoped Ellen was asleep.
The next morning Mohish met them at the prepared time in the bright, busy lobby of their hotel. As usual he was bubbling with excitement at the day’s prospects. To Steven and Ellen, the fact that he never mirrored their sullen countenances; that he was seemingly innocuous to their private struggle; that he never questioned them about their marital problems, he was the perfect guide. Mohish was not dead however, therefore he could not miss the strangled dialogue between them, or the small glances they made at each other when the other wasn’t looking. Mohish was Indian, and so, he could merely laugh and smile and be excitable in the face of such smoldering tension. Not understanding Hindi, Steven and Ellen were clueless when the driver and Mohish conversed about the silly white people and their silly struggle. He turned toward the back seat.
“Today we go to Chor Bazaar,” he said as he rolled the r’s with gusto…”the market of thieves.”
The streets were narrow and crowded, shop goods spilled out store fronts into the road bed. Amazingly motor bikes were allowed on these chaotic alleyways and buzzed by at a hair’s width. Because the Chor Bazaar was in the Muslim quarter of the city, Muezzins wailed from minarets and scull-capped, bearded followers zipped through the mazes toward the Mosques like moths to a flame. There were very few tourists and without a guide, thought Steven, this would be a bad place to find one’s self. With a guide however it was a glimpse into a seldom-visited part of the city. According to Mohish, many of the goods on sale had been stolen in various ways; pirated from ships even. Prices were cheap, but most of the stuff was junk. Unless you had an eye to sort through and distinguish the good from the bad, you would leave here with nothing but kitsch, fakes, replicas.
They walked the streets at first just taking in the sounds and smells and speed at which everything and everybody moved. At some shop fronts there would be a gathering of men out front dealing and shouting with each other. While at others there would just be two old grizzled men lounging on mats out on the sidewalk smoking and gazing. Most of the merchants and residents here were dressed in long white robes wearing scull caps of white lattice-like material and full grown beards. It was a very different feel from the rest of Mumbai.
Mohish led them in and out of a few shops, most seemed to be full of antique ship fixtures and goods. Old sextants and dust covered weather gauges like barometers and wind speed dials in heaps, spy glasses and cutlasses, pocket knives, tea kettles, tin boxes of coins, cleats and cordage, and various tools littered every open space and all was covered with dust so when you picked something up, you would have to blow and brush it off. Most shops had one narrow walkway straight back though the store to a desk or office. So that as you walked in, you could not leave until the people who entered after you had exited. Steven liked the exoticism of this place, the mustiness and the close quarters. He imagined there were some treasures to be found, but knew he would never be the one to find them. Ellen even seemed to be enjoying the strangeness. She was not saying much, but he could see in her eyes that she was as betwixt as he.
They went into shops with mountains of wooden masks, shops with nothing but indistinguishable ancient coins, shops with amulets and shops with certain tools and gear for a trade they knew not. Mostly Mohish whisked them in and out saying this was junk and that was junk, but Steven did linger in the mask shop and bought a smallish, heavily dusted one that caught his eye among the heap. As they were nearing the end of their rope in this place, Ellen caught sight of a small, set-back jewelry shop that she had not seen before. They stepped inside through a glass door that chimed as it opened. The rareness of the simple idea of a door and the fact that it closed off the constant din from outside made this shop special. A wizened looking relic of a man stepped out from an alcove and gave them a simple nod. Mohish was waiting outside smoking. The two of them poked around spinning racks of earrings and looking in glass cases of rings and necklaces all heaped in piles or in boxes instead of neatly placed in felt. Steven was thinking this would be a neat place to buy something nice for Ellen when he heard her ask the merchant about the necklace. The old man sidled over in slippers and a rumpled blue robe and looked at the necklace in question.
“Ah misses, you have chosen a very special piece,” he croaked as he dug into the case to retrieve it. “Please come, sit, I will tell you.” And he slipped into the small alcove from which he had appeared earlier. There was a small desk and some cushions on the floor at which he motioned Ellen and Steven to sit. He rummaged around behind his desk and produced two chipped, earthen mugs of steaming Indian tea. Thus comfortably settled on cushions with hot tea, the merchant began:
“This piece that you have chosen has been here very long indeed and I thought no one would ever notice. It belonged originally to a young girl who was born into the Dalits, the lowest position in our society sometimes called the ‘untouchables’. You see they clean toilets and such. She was a beautiful thing you see, with such eagerness of youth and innocence but her fate was not to let that be. You see she fell in love…”
“Well, what is so wrong in that?” asked Ellen.
“Ah well my dear there is nothing so wrong in that except that is was for the wrong man. A man so out of her reach as to be impossible. You see, such was her eagerness and youthfulness that she saw the barriers of status as nothing more than fences to be climbed. But in this world of ours there are barriers that no one can breach and they are there for a reason. Well this impossible love and desire spread disdain and disgust towards the family. No untouchable could try to climb to such heights as to love a man of such stature. He was the son of a great merchant and had a prosperous future, but would certainly never be seen with an untouchable. Well this young girl was blinded by her wants and desires and began to make more public displays of her feelings towards this man. Humiliation and betrayal of her family were the only results and soon her family was disgraced and shunned in their community to have such a reckless and selfish daughter. The only choice was to cast her away, to banish her from the family before she ruined it so deeply as to threaten its very survival. You see she sacrificed everything that we…that was close to her for what she wanted. She was so blinded by what she thought she deserved and what she thought was her right that she ruined and embarrassed everyone close to her. She had no feelings for the family, or for what they wanted that they were left with no choice but to cast her away. She became a beggar on the streets, and was famous for being the one with the impossible love. She has not been seen for some time now…” and with that the merchant trailed off with a far away stare.
“Well how did you come upon her necklace?” asked Ellen. The answer was slow in coming for the merchant seemed to be lost in a spell.
“Sir?” prodded Steven.
“She was my daughter,” he said at last.
They sat in silence for some time, until Ellen reached in her pocket and pulled out her rupees and gave the merchant whatever he wanted for it.
“To remind me,” she said in needless explanation. Her first instinct was to let the old man keep it, as she knew he had purposefully stashed it in a dark recess of the shop. But if he had put it out at all, then he was ready to pass it on. And if he was ready, then she was just as ready to help him. For the fact that he had lost his daughter in such a tragic way and knew nothing of her fate was dreadful, she thought. Part of her was angry at this old man for ruining his family and casting away his daughter forever but she knew that there was a cultural divide so deep between them that she could never understand. But she could understand grief; she could cross that divide, and see the hollowness in him…and in herself. She knew just by looking at him that the grief was slowly breaking him down, and she knew that he burdened the brunt of that terrible decision to send his daughter away. How had his wife reacted, Ellen asked herself? And she knew without having to hear it from the old merchant that his wife had probably given him the space and air he needed. Exactly as Steven had done, she remembered. Ellen brushed away a tear as they thanked the merchant profusely. They exited the shop finding Mohish out front chatting with the driver. Mohish seeing a change in Ellen and knowing something had righted itself decided to change his plans a bit and instructed the driver to bring them to Chowpatty Beach just in time for sunset.
They arrived and Ellen and Steven walked hand in hand on the beach in bare feet. They were still silent but it was a comfortable silence, like the days when they used to be able to spend a whole day silent and be perfectly happy. Everything looked different to Ellen, colors were brighter, smells sharper and the people were more clearly defined…as if she hadn’t noticed them before. It was like a veil had been lifted from her eyes. Mohish sat against the hood of the car smoking and watching them.
They sat down with the hordes of other young Indian couples who came out every night for the setting of this sun which was always a spectacle as the sun grew into a fiery orb and slipped silently beneath the shimmering opalescent sea. They looked at each other and smiled, Ellen reached for Steven’s hand and he held it tightly against his side.
“It’s beautiful isn’t it,” said Ellen.
“Yea…yea it is,” said Steven as he looked in her eyes.
India after all, had broken through.