Friday, November 2, 2007

The gold ring

He looked again closely at the piece of golden metal. His hands were still trembling slightly. Whether it was out of fatigue, fear, or the excitement of the first theft, he didn’t know. He looked around once more to make sure nobody was watching. Somewhere within was a voice that still kept trying to tell him something, he shook his head forcefully as though to make it stop.

It was early in the evening. The sun was about an hour from setting on a characteristically warm and humid September evening in Chennai. As he sat there on the brick wall between the beach and the road, the crowd had just started building up on the Marina. He tried hard to shake away memories, but they just kept coming to him. He remembered the evenings he used to spend there with his father. His father had big dreams for him, wanted to make an educated man of him, a man who would do great things in life. And he worked day and night at the harbor, so his son could have a decent education.

He just couldn’t bear college; he didn’t find any meaning to the education it was supposedly providing him; the taunts of his wealthy classmates were too much for him. He still remembered the look on his father’s eyes on the day when he had told him he didn’t want to go to college again. He hadn’t said anything; just put an understanding arm on his shoulder, but the pain and disappointment in his eyes was too evident. They had spent the rest of that evening without talking, just looking out into the sea. When all the dreams set, silently, behind them.

He somehow held everyone around him responsible for playing havoc with his father’s dreams. For making him the thief he had become that day. His mind was filled with hatred for all people around him, the very crowd that filled his vision wherever he looked.

“18 ct”, was etched on the inside the ring. This may not solve all his problems, but for starters, it could take care of an empty stomach, he thought. Half a cup of tea was all he had for two days. The thought of food to a hungry man has the ability to drive away all other thoughts. He had come to realize that guilt and morals and righteousness were feeble adversaries to hunger. With the last traces of guilt erased from his mind, he put the gold ring into his shirt pocket, got up and started walking intently towards the small restaurant across the street.
***
It was a smallish vegetarian restaurant. There were very few customers, as the dinner rush hadn’t started yet. He approached the cash desk where the manager of restaurant sat busy counting money. He waited for him to finish counting.

“Yes” the manager looked up after a while.

“I… err… want to sell…this ring” he managed to stammer.

The manager looked at him suspiciously and said, “Let me see it”.

He nervously handed the ring across the counter. The cashier examined the ring closely and finally said looking up to him, “This is not gold”.

"Yes it is, it’s written on the inside, look at it... It is eighteen carat gold...” .

“How do I know you didn’t etch it yourself?” retorted the shopkeeper eyeing him with more suspicion.

“It’s gold, you can tell from its weight, can’t you?”

“Well, it can as well be something else just as heavy, can’t it?” the cashier replied with a hint of sarcasm, “This is bronze boy”

“Okay give it back to me, I’ll sell it somewhere else”. He said exasperated. He was finding out that being a salesman for stolen goods was not an easy job.

“Now take it easy, I’ll still buy it, for what it’s worth”.

“How much? Make me an offer”

“I’ll give you a hundred rupees for this”

“No!! that’s worth at least five hundred rupees”

“Five hundred for a worthless piece of bronze? Just get lost, here take your bloody ring with you” the shopkeeper shouted, and threw it back to him.

He glared back at the shopkeeper as he picked it up from the floor.

“Hey what are you looking at?”He just kept staring.“Hey you bloody thief, are you getting out of here or should I called the police”
The words hit him like a sledgehammer on the head. A “Thief”, that’s what the world will call him now. He looked around him, a small crowd was starting to gather around them now; their eyes stung his body like poisoned arrows. He felt his heart pounding against his rib cage. He felt his brow streaming with sweat. He fixed his eyes to the ground and started walking away, swiftly, and soon he was running, with all his might…

***

The sun was down; and the Marina lay sprawling across, dotted with beacons of lights from the distant shores. He stopped running and looked behind him. Everything seemed to be back to business. He walked out onto the beach which was now full of people seeking respite from the summer heat. The entire place was lit, albeit dimly, by the oil lamps from the petty shops selling balloons and fried groundnuts. His heart rate was slowly returning to its usual rhythm. He walked toward the sea and sat down on the wet sand which sloped into the sea.
He remembered what his father had once told him…”Son, whenever you feel the problems you face are too big, just lie down and look up at the night sky… Lie down and try to count the number of stars you see son, and soon, you’ll find how big this world is, how big the things you can do are, and how small your problems are”. He looked up; there were no stars in the sky that night.

He had no clear memories of his mother. The sea was the only semblance to a mother that he had ever known. He looked up again into the sky. Would he be watching from up there? What would he be thinking now? Now that his son had become a thief…The sky for a father and the sea for a mother, he thought to himself with a dry smile. His eyes strained to hold back tears. He looked longingly at the sea, as if asking her to take him back into her arms. He dug his face in his hands. The crowd kept moving on, noisily, throwing grotesque shadows all around him…as he wept silently.
***

“Hey you” he thought he heard a voice calling out from behind. He looked around. There, standing across from the small crowd around the kite seller, was a man; middle aged, dressed in a white dhoti, and full sleeved shirt rolled up to the elbows. “Come here” he said in a clear voice. He didn’t usually like being commanded like that, but something in the voice made him obey. He got up and walked hesitantly toward the strange man, his heart was gently picking up speed again.

“Yes...sir” he stammered after approaching the stranger.He was a dark man, quite well built; must be in his early forties he thought. He was balding slightly, had a thick mustache, and was wearing old fashioned spectacles. He held a leather traveler’s bag on his shoulder.
“I was in that restaurant there having a cup of tea, and I happened to overhear your little conversation”, he said pointing to the street which had by now been lit up with shops competing with each other for the evening customers.

"Is that gold? Can I see it?” he went on.

“Yes sir it is, of course, look at it” his eyes lighted up

“Well, I can’t buy it by just looking at it, can I?”

“I swear it is gold sir, look inside its written there, 18 carat gold, see look” he said holding up his loot to the light and pointing at the four letters etched on the inside of the ring.

“Well, yeah but anyone could have written it, right? That still doesn’t make this gold, does it?”

He just looked back with a vacant expression in his eyes.

“Look I’m not saying that you are lying, but I don’t know you. How do I trust what you say?”

“You can check with a goldsmith if you want” he said hesitantly.

“Hmm yes, that sounds like a good idea, know any goldsmiths around here? I am new here.” said the man. Twiddling with the ring and examining it in the dim light.

“I don’t know sir, maybe there are some over in the street” he said pointing to the busy road from where he had come running away.

“Okay let’s go and check” said the man.

He did not reply.

“Okay, you can stand outside in the dark, I’ll check with the goldsmith myself, okay?”

***

As he waited outside in a dark corner on the roadside, he started wondering if he had done the right thing. A good half hour had passed since his prospective client had disappeared with the ring into a crowded jewelry shop. He felt like kicking himself for being so stupid. Being called thief was bad enough, now he had been cheated of his only worthy possession. He thought of venturing out and checking himself where the stranger went, but thought otherwise; what if somebody recognized him?

“Ah there you are” he heard the voice again from behind“Well, the place was a bit crowded, so I had to wait for some time.”

“What did they say?”

“They say this is gold. 18 carat pure gold”

“So you will buy it?”

“Oh yes I would, and I would pay you the full price”

“How much?”

“Five hundred was what you wanted back there right? I’ll give you Five thousand”

He held his mouth agape, unable to believe what his ears just heard.

“Look, I am a businessman, and I believe in doing fair business. Five thousand is what this is worth, and that’s what I’ll pay you.”

“Okay” he could barely get the words out of his mouth.

The gentleman opened his leather bag and pulled out a neat bundle of notes from it. He counted out five thousand rupees form it and handed it to him.His hands trembled again as he took the money in his hands.The stranger took the young man’s hand into his and put the money into them. “Keep it, it’s yours now. I had better leave now, I have a train to catch” he said looking at his watch, “Have a good night”

***

He walked swiftly back to into the beach. He didn’t look back for once, he was afraid that the man would change his mind. The crowd was slowly starting to make its way back from the beach. He walked to a far corner that was nearly deserted and sat down on one of the stone benches facing the sea. He took out the money from his pocket after making sure no one was watching. His hands trembled as he felt the glossy paper again, he wasn’t still sure if he was dreaming. He counted them. Yes, five thousand rupees there were, nine notes of five hundred and five notes of hundred, fresh off the mint.

But, there among the notes was a neatly folded piece of paper. It looked to be the kind of paper used to wrap jewelry. He unfolded it carefully, it seemed to have something written in it; did he slip it in by mistake?, he thought. He put the money back into his pocket, got up and walked over to a lamp and looked at the red piece of paper again. On it was written in neat hand - “I happen to own a jewelry shop in Madurai; and I have been in business long enough to tell when I see a bronze ring. You may be wondering then why I still bought it? I will be here at this very same spot three years from now, and I’ll be coming with this ring you sold me today. That day, you are going to tell me what you did with the money I gave you today, and you better not disappoint me on that day, because if you do, you are going to have to buy this back from me for double this price…and I have a reputation for being quite a ruthless businessman. Yes, I’m going to give you three years to make this ring into gold”.

He ran back as fast as he could to the place where he last saw the man. But he had been long gone, into the vast ocean of humanity, which seemed to graciously smile back at him now. He looked back up at the sky, he could see a few stars there now. His eyes brimmed, streams of tears sparkled on his face, they seemed to tell loudly “I promise you father, I will not disappoint you this time”
***
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