Meanwhile, the update landed hard in the inbox of my father, who, back home in Salt Lake City, Utah, had burned the midnight oil in late October wiring money to me when my wallet went missing somewhere deep in Mumbai.
SALT LAKE CITY (8 DECEMBER 2018)
PART TWO: DELIVERANCE
BANGALORE (PRESENT DAY)
The reporter’s call came just as I stepped out into the crowded sunlight. “Hello, this is Chris,” I say, weaving my way through the usual hectic lunchtime swarm of students and scooters that swirls around the office building of Dream a Dream, my host organization in Bangalore.
“Hi, Chris. My name is Shruthi and I am a reporter with the Times of India. I understand you’re an American working in India through a Fellowship.”
“One of your colleagues at Dream a Dream told me about what happened to you and your wallet in Mumbai, but she couldn’t provide all the details. I wanted to learn more about it, so do you have a few moments to talk?”
I turn down a quiet street. A dog lying in the shade watches me as I pass, thumping its tail lazily in the dust.
“Yes, thank you so much for your call. She told me to expect one from you.”
I sit on a nearby bench. The dog rests its chin on its paws.
“I absolutely have a few moments to talk,” I continue. “Let me start wherever she left off.”
PONDICHERRY (8 DECEMBER 2018)
I was somewhere near the Promenade when answers started to arrive. A wallet containing several important and sentimental documents and cards disappeared from my pocket in Mumbai one morning months ago; it had just resurfaced suddenly with a string of mysterious Facebook messages from a self-identified “scavenger worker.”
With the soft roar of the ocean to my side, I learned how our paths came to intersect.
MUMBAI (29 OCTOBER 2018)
“And if you want to take public transportation,” the hostel receptionist explained to me as I checked in, ready and eager to explore the city of Mumbai, “there’s the Bandra Station just five minutes from here.”
“Thank you,” I say, scratching my details and signature into the guestbook. “And how about an ATM?”
Fast-forward through to the next morning, and I’m standing stupefied before the counter of a Western Union, amazed at the mechanisms that allowed me to receive money from halfway around the world, thankful for the small community that had just rallied behind me in a moment of need, and unaware that only a five-minute walk away from where I’d boarded an auto-rickshaw, amidst the vast swaths of people rolling like waves in and out of Bandra Station, someone was discarding the contents of my wallet where they would sit, removed only of the cash, for more than a month until found, by sheer chance, by a “scavenger worker” from whom I would receive a message one warm and lulling morning while I was in Pondicherry.
My natural inclination was to reward the gesture. I found the relationship emerging between the two of us to be oddly vulnerable, perhaps stemming from the awareness that a complete stranger had not only seen, but taken possession of items intimate to my existence – a driver’s license, for instance, displaying my photograph and the details of my physical appearance. He found a part of me that had been rifled through and abandoned; the trust between us was implicit, and I thought it was appropriate to reciprocate.
His use of the word “guest,” however, caught my eye. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d been overtly encouraged to feel accepted, even comfortable, while interacting with someone from India. It wasn’t even the first time in this saga – if you’ll recall, the same was said to me by the manager of the Western Union as he paid my fare for the rickshaw. As is expressed by countless travel blogs across the internet, India has an international reputation for hospitality; I’m reminded of a conversation with a friend in my host city Bangalore on the topic, during which the phrase “guest is God” was proudly pronounced as a guiding principle in Indian households and places of business. Atithi Devo Bhavah – “guest is God” – is taken from the ancient Hindu scripture Taittiriya Upanishad, Shikshavalli I.11.2, the mantras of which acting as “codes of conduct” for Hindu society: “…be one for whom the guest is God” (Mittal and Joshi).
As a result, many stories of hospitality exist in Hinduism. In one, an impoverished, starving man dressed in nothing but rags approaches the palace of Lord Krishna. At first, the palace guards bar him from entry, but Krishna recognizes the man as his childhood friend Sudama, returned after many years. Overjoyed at the reunion, Krishna personally welcomes him through the palace gates and guides him to the throne room. Krishna washes Sudama’s feet and feeds him with his own hands (Vani, “The Brahmana Sudama Visits Lord Krsna in Dvaraka”). Krishna, it follows, exhibited the dharmic principle of Atithi Devo Bhavah and bestowed godly treatment upon the guest, irrespective of all else. With respect to stories like these, the principle seems to have been embedded in society, so much so that the Indian Ministry of Tourism, responsible for attracting tourists and foreign guests, adopted the mantra for a nationwide campaign (Incredible India, “Atithi Devo Bhavah”).
PONDICHERRY (8 DECEMBER 2018)
The appeal went out to my friends and colleagues at Dream a Dream immediately. “Is anyone traveling to Mumbai soon?” I wrote in the WhatsApp group as I strolled beneath the soft shadows of palm fronds between the colonial homes of Pondicherry’s French Colony. “Message me as I have a favor to ask of you.”
As it turned out, several of my colleagues had trips planned. As I received the offers of assistance, each tinged with curiosity, I regaled each, in turn, with the unfolding story. The reactions ranged from stunned amusement to joyful bemusement. “You know, Chris, I’m really happy for you, but just know how lucky you are,” wrote one colleague, Anjali, after reading the tale. “This never happens.”
And so it was arranged that my colleague Khushi, traveling to Mumbai on business later that December, would meet with the “scavenger worker” on my behalf to retrieve the items once lost, but now found. With her we sent a Dream a Dream t-shirt bearing the slogan “Change the Script” to give to him in return, an act of goodwill from the whole organization.
The matter fell silent until, on the day they were deemed to meet, I received this message:
…which brings the story to a close.
BANGALORE (PRESENT DAY)
The line goes silent for a moment. I watch the dog, lazy in the sunlight, climb to its feet and meander away, consumed by other interests. Finally, Shruthi, the reporter with whom I was connected, speaks.
“That’s an incredible story. Your colleague is right: this hardly ever happens,” she says. “I will connect you with a journalist in Mumbai. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.”
We agree to stay in touch, and as we cut the call a thought strikes me. The story of Lord Krishna and his guest, Sudama, doesn’t end with Krishna’s hospitable actions. As it is told, Sudama had brought with him a humble gift, a handful of parched rice wrapped in a pouch. In comparison to the luxury of the palace, the meager offering left Sudama feeling embarrassed, unwilling to present it in the presence of other courtiers. Krishna, however, acknowledged the gift not for its value or size, but for the affection and respect it represented. Krishna ate the handful with gratitude and delight (Vani, “The Lord Blesses Sudama Brahmana”).
As much as Krishna proved himself to be the perfect host, so, too, did Sudama strive to be the perfect guest. As an American living and working in India, I strive daily to be the perfect guest, and I think that comes naturally when taking active steps to integrate. I’ve been welcomed into homes for family meals or chai, and I’ve been invited to weddings and ceremonies; I’ve been at the receiving end of gracious hospitality more times than I can remember. In turn, something as simple as introducing myself and my work not in English, but in Hindi or Kannada; or showing knowledge of household custom or tradition; or discussing culture or politics specific to India and not the West; or simply agreeing to pose for a few photographs, selfies or otherwise, can reveal the graciousness with which I hope to interact and integrate. I think it shows I care, and, like the pouch of parched rice presented by Sudama, even if it isn’t much it comes from a place of affection and respect.
This is why the “reward” I offered in exchange for the contents of the lost wallet was a misinterpretation on my part; rather than gifting something out of respect for the items, the gift needs to stem from place a respect for the person, for the relationship. That’s why, ultimately, it was important to me to send along the t-shirt – a simple manifestation of the grace that exists within us all; or, as an infant Krishna, in another story, revealed when he opened his mouth to Mother Yasodha to prove he hadn’t stolen butter, the entire universe contained within (Matchett 127-137). There’s a dose of the almighty in each of us, and that dose, the thing which makes both guest and host God, I think, is respect.
This story was picked up by the Mumbai-area newspaper the Mumbai Mirror. Their article on my experiences can be found here: https://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/news/india/american-nationals-lost-documents-returned-by-bmc-sanitation-worker/articleshow/68398200.cms
- Incredible India. “Atithi Devo Bhavah.” Incredibleindia.org, Government of India Ministry of Tourism, 2004, web.archive.org/web/20090103003844/http://www.incredibleindia.org/newsite/atithidevobhava.htm.
- Matchett, Freda. Krsna: Lord or Avatara?: the Relationship between Krsna and Visnu in the Context of the Avatara Myth as Presented by the Harivamsa, the Visnupurana and the Bhagavatapurana. Routledge, 2008.
- Mittal, Chitwan, and Kireet Joshi. Taittiriya Upanishad. Shubhra Ketu Foundation and the Mother’s Institute of Research, 2009.
- Vani, Prabhupada. The Brahmana Sudama Visits Lord Krsna in Dvaraka. Prabhupada Vani, 2001, prabhupadavani.org/Bhagavatam/10th_Canto/80.html.
- Vani, Prabhupada. The Lord Blesses Sudama Brahmana. Prabhupada Vani, 2001, prabhupadavani.org/Bhagavatam/10th_Canto/81.html.
All screenshots courtesy of Christopher Scott Carpenter, http://www.facebook.com/messages