He was a beggar. Laxman. Just another of the hoarde of beggars who clustered around the Ashram, where they could always anticipate a good midday meal handout, and perhaps a few paise in alms from the pilgrims and devotees of Ramana Maharshi, who passed by in a constant flow.
Like many of the beggars, Laxman had not always been one with his hands stretched out in hope of generosity. He had a history too, of a life far less dependent on others; less humbling.
In fact, he had been a sculptor in the main temple, chiselling out, by all accounts, beautiful and sensual forms from stone to adorn the sacred precinct.
One day his destiny changed. From the stone he was working, a sharp shard broke off and flew straight into his eye, blinding him from that day on. The consequence was that his craft suffered drastically. His perspective failed and, try as he did, he was unable to modify his skill to accommodate the affliction.
He was discarded from the workforce in the temple and when he tried to earn his keep from fashioning stone trinkets for the throngs of temple devotees, he was just another very ordinary artisan competing for a pittance. The final indignity came in the form of a stroke, which completely paralysed one side of his body, effectively laming him, and robbing his speech which became a gurgle of sound. It rendered him useless, another human reject, prey to the injustice of a social support system that relied entirely on the fickle whims of human pity and piety.
Sri Ramanasramam was known as a benevolent font of sustenance. He joined in with the hundreds of other beggars who gathered there, and who fashioned what shelter they were able to along the roadside passing the Ashram gates. Such accommodation was invariably a hotch-potch of plastic and leaf scrounged wherever it was found, sufficient to offer at least some protection from the sun and monsoon rains. Generally the relationship between the colony of beggars was reasonably civilised, and made for a community of some solidarity and mutual support.
That is how I found Laxman the first year I began living in Tiruvannamalai. I had been invited to co-ordinate a reforestation project to regreen the barren sacred mountain of Arunachala, physical representation of the Hindu deity Siva, Lord of Destruction and Re-creation. I was there with a purpose. Since I had already spent significant time wandering through the different lands of Asia, I was quite accustomed to the presence of beggars, and had developed my own strategies for dealing with them. I was invariably travelling on a shoe-string budget, so there was no question of supporting the homeless unemployed ever-present, and very rarely gave any money. Occasionally I would spare a few coins to someone who had managed to use their enterprise to offer some sort of service of whatever kind, and even more seldom to hand over some spare change on a whim of generosity or pity or compassion. No rule though, and quite rarely.
He repulsed me a little at first, as did all beggars with unsightly reasons for their destitution: the lepers with their disfigured limbs; or the limbless through birth or injury on crude crutches or trollies; the malnurished skin and bones; the mentally retarded incapable of independence yet forced to it; the miniature versions of humanity, or the gross ones suffering elephantiasis. They came in a myriad forms, and actually Laxman was by no means in the most repulsive category.
He shuffled lamely along, dragging himself with his functioning half, face twisted in a cruel mixture of animation and mute, one eye functioning and the other a non-existent oozing socket. Yet he was alive and apparently appreciative of that gift of life, in spite of its unfairness. Whenever he would see me, he greeted with his hands clumsily raised and pressed together in a distorted Namasté, half his face smiling in grateful recognition.
He soon realised that I was not a good source of income, yet our mutual pleasure whenever we saw each other created a warm bond. Very occasionally I might give him a very small offering, and if he happened to be passing by when I was at the tea shop, then sometimes I invited him to drink a tea. He accepted now and then, but often simply namastèd and kept moving by. So, ours was simply an open-ended relationship without ties or obligations, yet with mutual appreciation. We each fed a mutual pleasure centre.
One day I was drinking a chai in the tea shop opposite the Ashram when Laxman came shuffling over. He was somehow very agitated. I offered him a tea, but he demonstrated that he was not interested with a babble of noise and negation. Instead, he took my two hands and we simply stood there together, tears of emotion streaming down his face from the one functional eye. I had no idea what the significance of his outpouring was; whatever, it was full of a passionate cause for Laxman. After some minutes of this, he waggled his head in acknowledgement that the moment had passed, bade me farewell with his clumsy namasté, and limped away, leaving me none the wiser yet deeply touched by his heartful expression.
The next day I had to travel to Pondicherry, a hundred kilometres away on the coast. I did my business there, and returned on the bus, a bone-jarring journey made the worse by a combination of lousy or non-existent suspension, and rarely maintained roads. I am blessed by the capacity to snooze in almost any situation, and in this case the movement lulled me into a dreamy doze.
Nodding off, I was visited by the image of a procession. A funeral, with a motley band leading the crowd of mourners in a gay medley of ragged tunes. I moved forward to see who the deceased was, and saw that it was Laxman, and the crowd was largely comprised of the characters from around the Ashram, including many other beggars.
I arrived back in Tiruvannamalai and hour or so later, and caught an autorickshaw back to the Ashram. Flowers were strewn all over the road, a sure indicator of the passing of a funeral. At the chai shop I learnt the identity of the corpse. It was Laxman of course. The previous day in our emotional meeting, I have no doubt Laxman was farewelling me for the last time. Among the many wise and saintly people who are drawn to the sacred mountain of Arunachala I feel grateful to have met Laxman amongst them.