The Yellow Envelope

Wendy and I stepped out of a creaky, multicolored boat onto the dust-packed bank of the Tungabhadra River. The river ran dark and lazy as a slough. Three women in colorful saris beat their laundry on rocks near the riverbed. A small gang of boys splashed and shrieked in the sleepy current, as naked and skinny as baby birds. We started a slow, meandering walk along Hampi’s main road. Heat pulsed from the dirt streets and crawled up my legs as we shuffled past coffee shops, tourist hostels and roadside stands that sold tiny Ganesh figurines.

Across the road a teenage boy sat slumped in a black and yellow rickshaw that he’d parked in the shade under an outcropping of boulders. He perked up when he saw us. “HELLO,” he waved. “HELLOOO! YOU NEED RICKSHAW?”

I looked up and squinted into the sunlight. “How much?” I yelled, swiping my arm across my sweaty forehead.

“For you,” he called back, “800 rupees. GOOD PRICE!”

The price he was asking was nothing, really, in the scheme of things, but I knew he was charging more than he should. I shot him my best you’ve-got-to-be-kidding look. During my time in India I’d developed a cat-in-the-bathtub response to being ripped off. Plus, haggling was a way of life in India. He’d double the price, I’d halve it, and we’d meet in the middle.

I shook my head no and tiny beads of sweat flew from my hair and plopped onto the dirt street like raindrops. “Too much!” I yelled. Rule one of haggling: You must be willing to walk away.

But the rickshaw driver wasn’t giving up so easily and I didn’t expect him to. He called after us, “Ma’am, fair price. IT IS FAIR PRICE. I will drive you anywhere you want to go! We go to Monkey Temple and Lotus Temple and Old Town. All day we drive. FAIR PRICE!”

He jumped in his rickshaw to follow us. “It’s true ma’am, it’s true. A very fair price.” His rickshaw bumped beside us on the pockmarked road as he leaned his head out trying to woo us.

I looked at Wendy who shrugged her shoulders, then back at the driver and shook my head in disagreement. “No, it is not a fair price. 600 rupees is what I will pay.” It was true that I wanted a fair price. But I realized with surprise that there was also a part of me that just wanted to win this bidding war. I’d come a long way from my first tentative months on the road.

“Ma’am, okay, okay. I will drop the price. 600 rupees. If you are happy you pay 700.”

I paused for a second, calculating the math in my head. Wendy leaned over. “Kim, you’re arguing over two dollars. It’s hot as hell. Let’s just take the rickshaw. He seems like a nice guy.”

I turned to him and smiled, conceding. “Okay, 600 rupees. If we are happy we will pay 700.”

He smiled back, a white, toothy smile, and his hair flopped down into his eyes. Wendy and I climbed into the back of his rickshaw and together we bumped off down the road towards the Monkey Temple.

The craggy ruins of Hampi spread out before us. I stole a glimpse at Wendy who was watching the rocky geography pass around us. The terrain looked like nothing I had seen in India, or anywhere for that matter, like an ancient giant had dropped boulders the size of houses haphazardly across the open land.

I turned my head towards the sun and closed my eyes. A warm breeze whipped my hair into a cyclone. I folded my hands into my lap and absentmindedly felt at the place on my left ring finger where my wedding band used to be. I let my thoughts turn towards Brian. What was he doing right now? Did he miss me?

I was imagining him somewhere in northern India, stopped at a roadside stall drinking chai, when the windshield of our rickshaw, violently and without warning, exploded into thousands of tiny pieces. Shards of glass blew over our driver and towards Wendy and me in a powerful wave.

My eyes snapped open. Outside of the rickshaw the world was still and silent. Inside, my heart slammed against my chest and the sudden rush of blood made static in my ears. Had we been shot? It seemed like a ridiculous notion, yet something had shattered the windshield. I looked down at my body. It was covered in glass but intact. “What happened?” I finally uttered. I looked up at our rickshaw driver who was still puttering down the road, wide-eyed and blinking, tiny rivulets of blood streaming down his arms and face.

“Stop driving,” Wendy finally managed. She leaned forward to tap our driver on the shoulder. “You need to pull over.”

We steered onto the side of the road and our driver sat silently, unmoving, his hands still gripped tightly to the steering wheel. Tiny pieces of glass were stuck in his eyelashes like snowflakes. His arms were dripping in blood.

“What happened?” I said again. “Did a rock hit the windshield? Were we shot?”

Wendy and I climbed out of the rickshaw. We wiped the glass from our clothing and out of the backseat. After a few moments our rickshaw driver stood too and began to wipe the glass from his body.

“Are you okay?” He asked us.

We nodded. I pointed to his arms. “You’re bleeding.”

Our driver looked down and wiped his bloody arms on his jeans and for a second I thought he might cry.

“This is not my rickshaw,” he said. “I just rent it.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Bad karma,” he muttered, more to himself than to us. “Bad karma.”

We stood in silence on the side of the road staring at the rickshaw like we would a lame animal and watched as our driver pulled the remaining jagged shards of glass from the windshield. The frantic beating of my heart was beginning to slow. We are fine, I told myself. The windshield was just pushed to its breaking point as we bounced over potholes.

Our driver climbed back into the rickshaw and Wendy and I followed his lead. “What is your name?” I asked him. He turned to look at me. “Mahaj,” he said. “And what is your name.”

“Kim,” I smiled.

“Wendy,” said Wendy.

Mahaj raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Windy? So you are responsible for this.” His eyes held the spark of a smile and Wendy and I chuckled.

Mahaj revved the engine to life and steered the rickshaw back onto the road. “These things happen,” he said, catching my eye in the rearview mirror. “What to do? Many things happen in life. Still, we must be happy.”

Hours later I folded 700 rupees, the day’s fee for Mahaj’s rickshaw services, up in my hand. Then I dug through my purse until my fingers found the yellow envelope I had tucked into an interior pocket. Discreetly, I pulled some bills out of the envelope and I folded them up too. It was enough to fix Mahaj’s windshield and a little extra to turn his luck around.

I handed the money to Mahaj. He smiled and thanked me and put it into his pocket without counting. Then he offered to drive us back to the boat dock. But it was evening and the sun had finally retreated below the horizon. Hampi was cooling in its afterglow.

“It’s a nice night,” I told him. “I think we’ll walk. But thank you for the wonderful tour of Hampi.”

Wendy and I walked through the calm flush of evening, our feet crunching over the gravel in the streets. I was thinking of Mahaj and his life in India, of my life back in Oregon and how it’d lead me out into the world. Earlier in the day I told Mahaj that I was a writer. He’d told me that he dreamed of becoming a filmmaker and I’d heard in his voice the same conviction I had in mine when I spoke of my own life of writing. “Mahaj, you must do everything you can,” I’d told him. He’d smiled his wide smile at me and said, “I am.”

The river had just come into view when Wendy broke the silence. “How would you describe the Yellow Envelope money to Mahaj, if you had to?”

I paused for a minute, thinking. It wasn’t the first time I’d pondered the question. In the beginning, I considered typing out a small note to accompany the money when I gave it away. But what would I say? And how could I even ensure that I would have a note prepared in the recipient’s own language?

“I would tell Mahaj that the money I am giving him is not mine but a gift from someone else. I would tell him that it is my job to pass it on to him, that he is supposed to have it.” Wendy nodded, understanding. She knew Michele and Glenn and the story behind their gift.

Behind us, I heard a shout and turned to see Mahaj running towards us, his right hand waving above his head, money clenched in his fist.

He caught up to us, breathless. “Wait, wait,” he said, “You’ve paid too much.”

I looked down at the rupees in Mahaj’s hand and felt a flush of embarrassment. I should have explained the extra money, I thought. But I remembered the words I’d just spoken to Wendy. It wasn’t my money. I was just the conduit. And I remembered too the first rule of the Yellow Envelope: Don’t Overthink It.

I shook my head. “No Mahaj, we did not pay too much. The money is for you. Please, fix your rickshaw.”

“Oh,” he said, taken aback. “But are you sure?”

I nodded and Wendy nodded too. We were as awkward as two dashboard bobble heads. For the second time that day Mahaj looked stunned. And then he smiled his big toothy smile and said those universal words, thank you.