Musical Chairs at Lakshmi Lodge

Olga Pavlinova Olenich

Lakshmi Lodge was once a brothel. This makes sense. The goddess Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth. No doubt the brothel-keepers did a roaring trade in their time. The Lakshmi has one of the best positions in Mahabalipuram. It faces the Bay of Bengal, and the upper rooms and restaurant have an exquisite view over the sea and the Shore Temple. A Dutchman who settled in the Lakshmi as a long-term resident is said to have planted the magnificent garden in which the lodge is situated. This green oasis sets the Lakshmi apart from the other places along this stretch.

The Lakshmi Boys, friendly as they seem, are not of India’s finest. The Lakshmi Boys have been around. They spend the day “looking after” the place in a desultory sort of way. They run a few errands, water a plant or two, and generally loll about. Some of them seem to sleep all day. You come across them curled up on a balcony, stretched out under the staircase, huddled in a chair in what passes for an office. At night they are more alert, looking for an opportunity. They are waiting for some wealthy Western woman to take them on and then, hopefully, take them home to an easy life. In the former enterprise, I have no doubt they’ve had their successes.

The lodge is a romantic place with its restaurant under the stars, its lush garden, its private balconies and terraces. Any newly arrived girl might find the setting and a pair of flashing dark eyes hard to resist, especially after a drink or two. Sadly, The Lakshmi Boys are strictly nocturnal. In the light of day, they are somehow lacking magic and nobody feels like taking them home. On a particularly enchanted evening (the moon was full, the stars were bright, the air was thick with the smell of the sea) my traveling companion, Sophie, stuck up a flirtation with one of The Lakshmi Boys. She was on the balcony, drying her hair. He was on the terrace near the restaurant. They called to each other across a chasm. The subject of age came up. Hers went down, his went up—an agreement seemed to have been reached. That night, we were eating at the restaurant and he joined us at our table. This, it seems, was part of the agreement. Sadly, up close, he was not what he had seemed across the chasm.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she hissed. “I didn’t have my glasses on when I started this!” I laughed and kept a silence as inscrutable as the night, or so I imagined. I looked at the fabulous stars and kept quiet, listening to the sound of those waves rolling into the dark shore while Sophie dealt with the would-be Romeo who had failed so miserably to live up to expectations, even in such an extraordinary place and time.

Obnoxious as they can be, there is a certain pathos about The Lakshmi Boys. It doesn’t take much to turn them from swaggering Romeo to obsequious boy. I can’t claim to have felt any real remorse for having involved this particular Lakshmi Boy in the saga of the plastic chair, but I did feel a little guilt, just a tiny sliver of it and then only for a moment. He was a particularly bad specimen who, despite the evening’s events (or non-events), took to hanging around our terrace and sulking for lack of attention. After a few days I’d had enough and frightened him off by promising a visit from a large and fearsome husband. He disappeared quickly enough, but he was to reappear again, because of the chair.

It had become my habit to take a chair up to the rooftop terrace in the mornings in order to watch the glorious sunrise in some comfort. The chair came down with me to our room and went up to the terrace again in the evenings when the sun was setting. This coming and going meant negotiating a set of narrow concrete steps, and it wasn’t so bad when you were going up, holding the chair in front of you. In fact, there was something reassuring about having the chair as a kind of shield. But coming down was another story. I am generally not good with heights, and something about the angle of descent, coupled with the fact that the chair was occupying my hands so that I could not reach out and grab a rail or steady myself against the wall, made me very nervous, until I solved the problem. My solution was a stroke of genius. It was simple and effective. Before descending from the rooftop, I threw the chair over the edge to the lower terrace. The first few times it hit the terrace on its side with a nice bounce. No harm done. On the last occasion, the night before we left Mahabalipuram, it crashed with an unusual thwack. I inspected the poor chair, only to find a crack along the left back leg. Long periods of exposure to the elements had made the plastic hard and brittle. I sat down in the chair, rocked back and forth, tempting fate, but fate would not be tempted, so I assumed all was well with the chair. In its present state, it was no better and no worse than most of the chairs scattered around Lakshmi Lodge, and I thought no more about it.

In the morning, there was a great fuss outside our door. We staggered out into the light to see The Boy dramatically pointing to the damaged chair and threatening us with the police if we did not immediately pay 500 rupees. He was very angry. My response was ineffectual because, I am ashamed to say, I found the scene quite enticing. I breathed in the sea air and watched the drama unfold, feeling like someone who has secured a free front-row seat to the opera. To my delight, my companion, disillusioned as she had been with the romantic prospects offered by The Lakshmi and The Boy in particular, was ready for a confrontation.

“I will not deal with you,” she said, scathingly, and demanded to see the owner of the establishment. She had scored a point. The price for the chair went down a little, but the word “police” flew about the Lakshmi like an enraged mynah bird.

An audience was gathering. I became increasingly delighted by the scene before me and watched my friend with pride as she slammed her fist theatrically on the little outdoor table and declared that she was about to lose her temper, so that there could be no mistaking her mood. That she could do this without laughing was beyond me. Bravissima! I needed to sit down, so I grabbed the nearest chair and sat on it. Of course, it was the chair in question. The Boy took this as a direct challenge. He had never quite believed in my “husband,” but had erred on the side of caution. I am sure he held a grudge, feeling that he would have had a real chance with Sophie but for my presence. With a dark glance in my direction, he stormed off down the stairs to fetch “the owner.” Soon, he returned, accompanied by someone who was clearly not the owner, but was certainly higher in the pecking order of the Lakshmi. He was a pleasant enough man in a clean dhoti with the religious mark on his forehead. We recognized him as the man who had met us when we jumped off the bus from Chennai. It was he who had led us along the back paths of Mahabalipuram to the Lakshmi, making sure we were not tempted by any other guesthouse on the way. With his beard and his beads, he had the look of a sadhu rather than of a Lakshmi Boy.

“I want to settle this pleasantly,” said my friend.

“I want to be friendly,” said he.

So far, so good. I rocked a little in the chair. And then the negotiations began.

“I cannot see,” he said gently, casting a sad look in my direction as if he knew the real nature of the wrongdoing and where the blame lay, “how the wind could have blown this chair down from the roof of your room.”

Sophie had explained that the chair had been the victim of natural forces rather than of any willful act of carelessness. His dark eyes looked skyward, and I felt he had made a point and that perhaps his silent pact with God would lead to my undoing. But, unimpeded by my spineless weakness, Sophie straightened in her own chair and managed to look particularly haughty. Above reproach. Queen Victoria would have been proud.

“It was a gale,” she said firmly. I tried to show no surprise at this interesting turn of events. “We were afraid for our lives,” she said dramatically. I admired her excess and tried to look suitably timid, like a woman who has just survived a hurricane.

In the meantime, The Boy had switched from rage to whining. I watched him with something bordering on compassion. Somewhere in the back of my mind, the realization dawned that the reparation for the damage would not come out of the owner’s pocket, no matter how old the chair was. It would be extracted from The Boy’s meager salary, in one chunk or bit by bit, like rotten teeth from an old mouth. But I also knew that it was very unlikely that the damage would be reported to the owner or ever found out. It was a simple matter of exchanging the damaged chair with the one propped in the darkest corner of the room, where it would remain unused and unnoticed unless the Lakshmi reverted to being a brothel again. And then, who knows what might happen to the chairs, or to The Boy, for that matter! In any event, time was moving on, we had a bus to catch, and we settled the matter amicably and rather generously, considering the hardship we had suffered during the night’s tempest. Later, in the markets of Pondicherry, we came across the plastic chair, a new version, of course, and it cost around 200 rupees, and that before bargaining! We had handed over a cool 300 to the Lakshmi Boys. When all was said and done, the negotiator and The Boy had done very well out of my vertigo. Or perhaps the negotiator did have something going with his God, after all.

About the Author

Olga Pavlinova Olenich is a widely published writer from Australia.