The Goddess of Fortune visited me on a South Indian beach that has since been washed away.
She was not quite thirteen, with Pippi Longstocking braids and a sprightly yellow smock dress to match. Lakshmi (the name of the Hindu Goddess of Fortune) spent her days smiling spryly at European tourists while peddling shells, pens, and other trinkets to the sunburned visitors. Her father, a local fisherman, would send her out among the tourists, knowing full well that his daughter’s charms were irresistible.
I don’t remember how, exactly, we met Lakshmi. I like to imagine that she found us, an exhausted and laughing group of American teachers, playing in the breakers of the Bay of Bengal. Or that she strolled up to us knowingly while we dried off on the steep slopes of the Mahabalipuram beach. In reality, I think she sold us some shells on our way to meeting her father. However she met us, she won us over instantly with her accented English, her earnest smile, and her plucky personality.”Miss, you are so beautiful,” she would say coyly as she sidled up for a hug or to play with my long blonde hair. She would eye our t-shirts, our sunglasses, our flip-flops, trying them on and laughing as she skipped through the sand on her way back home. When we went out with her father’s fishing boat into the Bay, she would protectively watch over our belongings left on the beach. She waited in the same spot for the hours that we were out in the boat, running eagerly down to the water when we finally came crashing back to shore. Walking up to her house after a boat ride, she would nestle herself between me and Karen, holding both of our hands and staring devotedly at us while we walked. She particularly adored Karen, who brought her gifts of t-shirts and lip gloss—and even a hair-braiding session—each time that we visited her.
Lakshmi and her father Ram welcomed us, a straggly group of American tourists, into their lives as friends. Originally, though, our meeting them was all business: we’d been playing along the shoreline for nearly a week, and all the while we’d been eyeing longingly the fishing boats that disappeared on the horizon. We wanted to go for a ride.
Ross, the most resourceful and adventurous among us, arranged a ride and a price. We were to meet at noon at the blue boat in the fishing village just a few hundred yards from our resort. We went armed with cameras and towels and sunscreen. I think we imagined a leisurely ride along the coast, but when we arrived, the gaggle of fishermen laughed and pointed at us as we slathered on the sunscreen and fumbled with our armfuls of belongings. The less we had, the better. We would be pushing the boat into the water. And that was no easy feat.
The Bay of Bengal is ferocious. White caps pound incessantly at the steep beach. Sharks are rumored to prowl the waters. Ram and his shipmates were tense as we launched that first day. Their muscles rippled as they braced the boat against the incoming waves, waiting for that exact moment when the surf died down enough to let us paddle away from shore. They hollered sharply at one another when they started pushing and paddling and quickly threw us a life rope to hold onto. We were pummeled by wave after cresting wave as we launched the catamaran (little more than a few logs roped together). My stomach lurched, salt water filled my mouth, and my hands burned from clutching the rope. When we finally reached the third breaker—a legendary and dangerous barrier between the shore and the open water—we started laughing hysterically. The launch was the most extreme roller coaster I’d ever been on, and we were relieved and adrenalized to have made it this far.
During that afternoon of sailing in the Bay, Ram (the captain of our boat) eagerly shared his world with us. He told us about learning English, about his daughter’s upcoming marriage to her best uncle, about fishing for 36 hours straight and giving all of his catch to the boss. He asked us about being teachers, about America, about our impressions of India. Eventually he must’ve grown tired of playing tour guide, for he dove off the boat as gracefully as any Olympic diver and began splashing around in the waves with us. But while he butterflied and played freely, he warned us about the fierce riptides in the Bay. He urged us, in his simple English, to hold onto the life rope as we swam. There was a real danger that we could be swept away. Later, he laughed hysterically when we couldn’t hoist ourselves back onto the catamaran and his shipmates had to lug us up by the armpits. They laughed even harder when Karen kept slipping through their hands, her soaking pants and t-shirt—modestly kept on for the swim—making her as slick and elusive as catching a fish with your bare hands.
Returning to shore was even more perilous than launching. Once we crossed back over the third breaker, the waves lashed at us from behind, sending us slamming into the beach and then sucking us back a hundred yards. We laughed and coughed as we inhaled mouthfuls of water when we finally stumbled off the boat. We were thankful for Ram’s navigational expertise and marveled that he did this every single day.
Lakshmi, of course, was there to greet us, jumping up and down and then running to hug us and offer us our sun-freshened towels. She gently pushed hair out of our eyes and placed sunglasses back on our heads while we dried ourselves, and then walked hand-in-hand with us back to the Ideal Beach Resort, where we were staying.
Weeks later, after another boat ride and more beachside hugs and conversations with Lakshmi, we were invited to Ram’s house for a post-boat ride refreshment. In the six weeks we had been in India, Ram was the first stranger to invite us into his home, and he did so with tremendous delight. We met his wife, his brother, his wife’s oldest brother (also Lakshmi’s fiancé), even his mother and her dog. We were treated to freshly picked coconuts and bananas; Ram scrambled up the tree while we arranged ourselves on the grass mat in the main room of his little clay house. For hours, we laughed about our boat rides and Ross’s red hair (“This man is sick?!” Ram worried at one point). We compared notes on marriage customs, learning that Lakshmi’s match was the best possible arrangement you could have in Tamil culture. We also learned about Ram’s aspirations for his children: some were married to businessmen, one daughter was a school teacher in Chennai, and Lakshmi was even remaining in school, in spite of her imminent marriage. In fact, the marriage was being pushed back solely for Lakshmi’s schooling. Ram was a proud and fair patriarch, clearly harboring upwardly mobile hopes for his daughters and his family.
Photos were taken, addresses exchanged, and Ram proudly proclaimed us his new American friends. We were leaving Mahabalipuram the next day, and India only a few more after that. It had taken us a whole summer to finally break past the tourist culture we’d been traveling in, and it was Ram who so graciously invited us to do so. And it was Lakshmi, beautiful and clever Lakshmi, who gave us an India of twinkling smiles and enormous hugs, of hopefulness and beauty and friendship. When I tell stories about that summer in India, I inevitably ramble on about Ram, the God who saved India, and Lakshmi, the Goddess of Fortune.
And then I always pause when I remember these images: Ram’s furrowed brow as he worried for our safety in the Bay. Lakshmi looking eagerly for us on the beach each morning. Sitting cross-legged on Ram’s cool dirt floor and toasting with fresh coconut juice to our new friends.
I’m trying to remember these images this week, but I am instead flooded with images I can only imagine. Lakshmi and Ram live only a few yards from the beach in Tamil Nadu, India’s southeasternmost and most tsunami-devastated state. The resorts on either side of their home are reported to have been damaged; one was almost entirely destroyed. With anguish, I acknowledge what must have become of their home, and I shudder to think of them and the oncoming assault of water.
Over 200,000 people have died. That number is enormous, bigger than I can wrap my mind and my grief around. I compare it to places I’ve lived in order to comprehend…like the entire city of Cambridge, Massachusetts being washed away and killed. The numbers stun me.
But it is for Ram and Lakshmi that I mourn. They are the faces I picture with each news blast and disaster update, and it is for them that I am grieving. I have no way of knowing for sure if they survived. Their home surely did not, and so the only address I have for them no longer exists. Without certainty of their safety, I try to imagine the best. Ram’s aquatic skills were as superhuman as his divine name might suggest, and Lakshmi was resourceful and as fortune-filled as her namesake. Surely, they must have out-witted the water. But then I remember the Bay of Bengal on a sunny, monsoon-less summer day: Fierce. Thick. Swift. Perilous. On a sunny, monsoon-less summer day, it was a dangerous and threatening creature that put us in imminent danger. Ram was all too aware of this.
And so today I am grieving, quietly and painfully, for Lakshmi and her father. My grief is not the nameless, faceless grief for the magnitude of a far-away natural disaster. It is the personal grief for the loss of friends. I am mourning for Ram and Lakshmi, but I am also grateful for them, for their generosity and hospitality, for the personal glimpse they have given me of worlds and disasters far away.
Swift boating, plucky smiles, gut-shaking laughter. May the Goddess of Fortune find a way to visit them now, despite a beach and a home and a world being washed away.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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