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The Forgiveness Project


Ryon Tanara

HELEN ANDERSON was about to shut down her world for the evening when her phone rang in her Northern California home. Who could possibly be calling me at this hour? It was just after 10:45 p.m. on a Sunday night in April. She made her way across her bedroom. The soft texture of the burgundy carpet below her bare feet softened her heavy steps. She hated the color but had not found the time to change it since she moved in a few weeks earlier. Then she saw the area code: 714. The call could be from her adopted nephew, Mahesh, who attended the University of California, Irvine.

Helen assumed responsibility of the 22-year-old Mechanical Engineering graduate student when she agreed to serve as his legal guardian, enabling him to journey from India to study in the United States.

“Hello,” Helen said in a weary voice.

It was Sneha, one of Mahesh’s closest friends. “Is Mahesh in San Francisco with you?” Sneha asked.
No one had heard from him in over 24 hours. He was not returning any of their calls. The last time Mahesh was seen was in the early hours on Saturday morning, Sneha told Helen.

He probably just needed to get away for the weekend, Helen told herself. Mahesh had become extremely busy the past two quarters, and told Helen that his workload had become overwhelming. Performing research in his field of mechanical engineering, serving as a teaching assistant, balancing his own academic agenda, and being involved with the Indian Student Association and a number of other organizations may have taken its toll. Helen attempted to reach Mahesh the day before to wish him a happy birthday. He had turned 23. The two talked almost every day, but in the last few weeks Mahesh and Helen’s exchanges had become minimal. Only a text here or there, or a brief email checking in. The last time they spoke was a week ago, when Mahesh explained to Helen that he had made an appointment to get his teeth fixed, which Helen had been pushing him to do. His teeth were so crooked it seemed as though they refused to grow in one direction.

Sneha went on. Upon entering Mahesh’s room on Sunday afternoon to search for clues, she told Helen that she found his glasses on his desk.

Helen’s heart dropped. He would never go anywhere without his glasses, she thought. She talked herself out of the worst. He was fine, just traveling, spending time alone. But she could not let go of the image of his glasses on his desk. He would never leave behind his glasses.


Mahesh was an 18-year-old student living in the South Indian port city of K ochi, when Helen, a clinical psychologist, first came across him. In 2004, the two had become familiar with one another through, a webpage which provides websites based on personal preferences, which have been suggested from users from around the world. utilizes human opinions and machine technology to find websites that other users have selected to share with anyone who wishes to view them. Helen and Mahesh found common ground through their shared love of the ancient Indo-Aryan language of Sanskrit.

Classes Helen took as an undergraduate in comparative religious studies sparked her interest in the Indian Hindu culture. Eastern thought answered many of the questions raised by her traditional Christian upbringing. In 1989, Helen started meditating regularly and that same year she received a Jyotish astrology reading for her birthday. The reading told her that a man would eventually become her teacher and explain to her the ways of her unusual life.
She continued to study Sanskrit so that she could read and understand the classical texts without having to depend on the English translations, which are often inaccurate. Mahesh referred her to websites and web videos educating her on the topic and shared with her his own intricate knowledge of one of the many classical languages of his native land.

After about six months of exchanging emails their Internet-driven conversations slowly evolved into long exchanges over the phone. Discussing topics such as philosophy, religion and art, Mahesh and Helen quickly developed a strong bond. His refreshing and youthful outlook on life inspired Helen. She was particularly impressed with Mahesh when he sent her a video of himself imitating a Chihuahua. She thought this video to be particularly endearing in the sense that a boy as brilliant as Mahesh possessed a loose and fun-loving personality. But why did he spend so much time helping her, Helen often wondered. She thought it strange that a teenage kid would offer so much time assisting someone from across the world whom he had never met.
His knowledge of the Eastern cultures captivated Helen. Her window into the Western world enraptured him.


Helen agreed to assume legal guardianship of Mahesh in early 2006 so that he could apply to graduate programs in the United States. She was willing and capable of assuming full responsibility of this young man. He had done so much for her and she wanted to see Mahesh succeed. If filling out some paperwork was what she needed to do, she was more than willing. In August of 2008, Helen would journey to India so that she could finally meet her friend face to face, and discuss the logistics of his arrival in the U.S.

Helen stayed in a small resort in the city of Udaipur, located in the Northeastern region of the country. They had made arrangements for Mahesh to arrive shortly after, and then begin their religious pilgrimage together. She was anxious and a bit nervous about meeting Mahesh for the first time, but more concerned about what he would think of her. Waiting in the lobby of the hotel, Helen thought about everything that could go wrong on their first encounter. What will he think of me? What if he doesn’t like me? Will he like the way I look? Will he like the way I interact? Will my manners be acceptable?

But when he walked through the doors, all her inhibitions evaporated in the humidity of the warm air. She felt as though she already knew Mahesh. This was the teacher that her Jyotish reading spoke of. The white tile floor of the lobby amplified the fervent sunlight that was streaming through the multiple windows surrounding the room, highlighting the green- and- blue stri ped shirt Mahesh wore. This was the same shirt he would wear to exams or important events. Helen would later learn that this was his “special occasion ” shirt. She wore a camouflage- green top and pants. She felt underdressed for such a momentous event, but the airline had lost her luggage, and she had no other attire except for a salwar kameez, a long tunic shirt and loose fitting pants, that she was saving for the pilgrimage.

Helen and Mahesh journeyed through India, visiting temples, experiencing the many cultures, and discussing what the future had in store for them. He would take her to places of worship where no tourists had visited. He was her all- access pass to India. She was his ticket to America.
Before her departure back to the States, Helen would promise Mahesh’s mother that she would protect him. She remembers that conversation. She will never forget it.


Mahesh arrived in the U.S. in 2008, clean-cut, wearing his glasses and a closed smile that forced his lips tightly together ensuring that they covered his crooked teeth. He had on his green collared shirt, a half a size too big, that rested on his small frame. Pushing an airport cart full of his belongings, Mahesh had the look of an anxious young boy who was relieved to finally see someone he recognized. He had only flown one time prior to this trip and that was when Helen had journeyed to India. She wanted to make sure that he had some flyer miles under his belt before his 36- hour journey across the world. He spent one week with Helen so she could equip him to live on his own and to acclimate him to how things worked in America. His mother had already started the independence process by teaching him how to create authentic Indian meals. The rest was up to Helen. She explained roads and traffic lights and taught him how to shop in grocery stores. She had to be sure that he understood that there was no bargaining in the American marketplace. She taught him how to use public transportation and co-signed his own bank account. She took him throughout the city and guided him as they explored this new world. He was so excited to be living on his own, and wanted to impress his family and Helen. After five days in her hometown, they traveled down the California coast and arrived in Irvine. Helen took him on a Bed Bath & Beyond shopping trip to furnish his college apartment and once she had settled him in, it was time for Helen to leave. She drove off that evening with the bundled up emotions of two worried mothers.


The Sunday that Sneha told Helen about Mahesh’s disappearance, she learned he had left his laptop computer behind, too. It sat amidst the clutter of his Palo Verde apartment floor. His nickname for his laptop was Gayatri. In Hindu culture Gayatri is considered a Goddess of Learning. His laptop was part of him. If he wasn’t in his research lab, or long-boarding through the streets of Irvine, he would be sitting in front of his computer returning emails or searching the web. He often joked with friends, calling his laptop his wife. A small table napkin laid on top of the computer with the scribbled words, “See below for instructions.” The instructions led to a message inscribed in pen on the underside of his computer that read: “All Rights Reserved to Maami.”

is the Hindi word for aunt.

He had left his laptop for Helen. Was there an explanation inside of it? Did it offer clues to where he went? She thought back to every conversation they had and tried to find any signs that would indicate a form of discomfort. She remembered one particular email that she received from Mahesh that did seem out of the ordinary. He spoke of how much he had on his plate and that he might lose his research funding. He signed the email “just one tired, red eyed puppy.”

This was the only indication to Helen that something was wrong. She can’t blame herself for not looking further into this. He is a graduate student, and she remembers how busy she was during her graduate years. But she can’t stop thinking about it. Could she have prevented this? He would never make his problems anyone else’s. Was there anything that she could have done?
On Saturday morning, Mahesh would rise early. He would walk out the door of his Palo Verde apartment, leaving his ID, wallet, and glasses on his desk. He didn’t need them anymore. He wasn’t coming back. He would drop off his keys at his laboratory as directed by his advisor after he learned his funding was cut. He would make his way to the UC Irvine Observatory, a place where he enjoyed spending time studying the stars and constellations. He would walk the gravel pathway, just as he did so many times before. But this time, he would leave the trail and make his way through the dry, green brush that surrounded the observatory. He would take his own life hours before his 23rd birthday. Mahesh had a scientific mind. If he saw a problem with something he needed to find a solution. On one occasion, Mahesh and his close friend Pujita planned an afternoon bike ride. Before leaving, Mahesh noticed her bike was not in a suitable condition to ride, so he spent a few hours tuning it up before allowing her to ride it. But on this Saturday morning, Mahesh would solve his problem, whatever that may have been, by committing suicide. He would be found five days later on April 15 at 7:40 p.m. by two hikers who were on an evening walk. Mahesh had a plastic bag over his head, indicating that he had died by asphyxiation. The Orange County Coroner’s Office would officially confirm his death that following day.

There were so many questions but almost no definite answers. But he did leave a note. It would be his final post on the very same web profile where Helen and he first became acquainted. This would be Mahesh’s last words, his final goodbye. For some these words would define his legacy, but Helen knew there was much more behind this final message.  The note read:

Schadenfreude – the term doesn’t really apply when you laugh at your own misery, does it?
The one time you take the huge leap of faith and expect your system (that works too well otherwise) to simply work, it doesn’t. If I can laugh at that, I have reached (going by German word synthesis, also called in German as germanwordsynthesis (if you get the drift)), selbstschadenfreude (now I might have jumped the gun on the rules of German word synthesis, but there’s only so much a man can do for now).
Nevertheless, a tear in my eye gleams at the radiance of this beautiful line that (henceforth) gets preserved here:
I am your clouds; you are my sea, I love you, and forever we shall be!

An anonymous interlocutor replied:
Miss would be a thoroughly insufficient (note the irony) verb to describe what I feel, oh heaven-sent blot of color that made the canvas of my life what it is today! Nevertheless…

And with that, I was not ashamed, but now as quick as I appeared, and played this lovely game, I must now depart, as quickly as I came. I bid you farewell, for you were simply lovely. Now fly towards your new love, like a flock of dovely(s).

We are now separated, but not forever!

This was not a suicide note, but a conversation between Mahesh and someone he had met online. Mahesh would go on various websites and have conversations with individuals from around the world. Helen remembers Mahesh telling her about this particular exchange during his visit to San Francisco in December of 2009.

After reading the message over and over again, Helen strongly believes that Mahesh had become involved with someone and that it may not have ended the way he would have liked. Although it is not certain, she feels that this could have contributed to his demise. But as Helen looks back, she can’t blame herself for not noticing the signs. She is simply angry that Mahesh would kill himself rather than doing something else. He was slowly slipping away and she had no way of saving him. Helen would find out that the body of Mahesh was found on Friday evening, less than a week after he went missing. At this point she was so emotionally drained, trying to balance his search and her own work that she had no energy to grieve. All she could do was think of his family in India. All she could do was think of his mother.


Mahesh was gone. Helen had promised his mother that she would protect him, but she had failed. She tries not to blame herself. She did everything she was supposed to do. She was available whenever he needed to talk, she spent holidays with him, she loved him. Mahesh was like a son to her, but she can’t stop thinking about his mother. Helen was the closest thing Mahesh had to family in the States, and she had failed him. She goes back to that conversation with his mother quite often. It is painful to think about.


She was anxious but ready to have this discussion and understood the level of responsibility that was about to be thrust upon her shoulders. Sitting on the thin cotton mattress that rested on the flimsy wooden bed frame, the two mothers would talk all night. Helen did not fear what Mahesh’s mother had to say, but she had wanted to ensure her that she was capable of taking on this responsibility. They would talk about the hopes and dreams she had for her son. She spoke of his success, of his respect for his teachers and of Mahesh finding a wife and starting a family. She prayed for his happiness and the strength and knowledge to research and discover anything that would help the world. She had entrusted her son with his own future and had approved of Helen as his guide. She would eventually leave the room, her bare feet touching the cold linoleum floor, and make her way to the room where her husband and son slept.


Mahesh left behind a silver Schwinn bicycle, some cooking utensils, his MacBook laptop box, and a clear plastic case containing the items he used for daily prayers. They are stuffed away in a corner near the entryway of the Palo Verde apartment where Pujita lives.

Mahesh would get up every morning to pray. He was passionate about his culture and had great respect for his religion, s o much respect that at one point he got extremely upset when he felt like some people he associated with were disrespecting his beliefs. Helen remembered having a very emotional conversation with Mahesh about his disapproval of the overused phrase “like” in American culture. The level of emotion brought Mahesh to tears and this worried Helen.

At this point the clinical psychologist in her wanted to find the underlying issues fueling Mahesh’s anger. He explained that he felt that those people that used the word “like” w ere disrespecting the Hindu Goddess of Knowledge, Saraswati. It was one of the few times that she saw him this flustered about something. Otherwise he was always the same happy-go-lucky Mahesh that she knew. There was absolutely no way of knowing that this was going to happen, she explained. There were no clear signs.


Helen is angry at religion, but not angry at God. She believes in prayer and a higher power. The twelve days of hell she experienced from the day he went missing to the day his body was sent back to India were incredibly exhausting, but she truly believes that prayer is what gave her the strength to deal with the stress. Earlier in the year, Helen had severely injured her shoulder, and it reached the point where she couldn’t lift her arm above her head. But for those twelve days, the pain was gone. She gives credit to Mahesh’s family for including her health and well-being in their prayers during this difficult time.

            “I know that while they were praying for Mahesh, they included me somewhere in there.             Previously to him disappearing, the pain was unbearable. But the level of adrenaline             running through my body took my mind of my pain and their prayers gave me strength.”

Helen is angry with religion, but she still has faith.


Think of someone you absolutely adore, says Dr. Fred Luskin, the head of The Forgiveness Project at Stanford University. Now picture that person in your head. Helen immediately sees an image of Mahesh’s face with a huge smile. She is in the middle of a continuing education class that she is requiredto participate in every year. This session, held at UC Berkley, is focusing on mindfulness and forgiveness. It has been just under a month since Helen found out about Mahesh’s fate, and she can’t help to think about the ordeal during this particular seminar.

Helen thinks about how angry she was at Mahesh. How could he have done this? She thinks about everything he is going to miss out on. She thinks about all the signs that could have potentially helped her prevent this. She is frustrated, but she is learning to forgive. She must forgive. Whatever the underlying cause of this suicide was, Helen does not want to think about any longer. She sits in her seat as she listens to Dr. Luskin go through the nine- step forgiveness process he has created.

Step 1: Know exactly how you feel about what happened and be able to articulate what about the situation is not OK. Then, tell a trusted couple of people about your experience.

She is hurt. She can’t blame anything or anyone.

Step 9: Amend your grievance story to remind you of the heroic choice to forgive.

Helen has chosen to forgive.