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Published: December 18th 2015
We each checked out the other's biceps. Ramesh diplomatically said I had some. His were far more impressive!
I marched through the gate between the beach and the posh resort at Mamallapuram, seeking a fancy restaurant experience. Having just adopted a tortoise, I needed to celebrate.
My baggy pants, casual blouse, floppy hat, and lack of gold jewelry must have given me away as an outsider. A voice behind me called, "Excuse me madam, can I help you?" I turned around, and there was Ramesh, a man whom I would come to know in this small coastal city.
"I just wanted to have lunch here," I said.
"Where do you want to eat? We have two restaurants," he said, then added, "the entrance from the beach is just for resort guests."
I appreciated his polite tone. He asked where I was staying. I named my guest house, then asked him in Tamil if he knew the place. Speaking Tamil usually disarms people right away, and it seemed to work this time. He told me his name, grabbed my hand, and warmly shook it. He said he was the lifeguard.
"You look like you would be the lifeguard," I said as I surveyed the size of
A quiet backstreet in Mamallapuram's Fisherman's Colony.
his biceps. Although short in stature, he looked very strong. He flashed a brilliant smile, then directed me to the restaurant.
After I ate, I decided to walk out through the beach entrance. Since I had met Ramesh already, surely he wouldn't mind. I found him looking at a big bag of flowers, the discards from a wedding from the previous day.
"A waste, really," he commented. Then we talked, and talked, and the more we talked, the more I grew to like this man. Ramesh had a story, as everyone has, but his story touched me deeply. Maybe it was the way he told it, in a reserved, humble fashion. Or maybe it was just knowing that here was indeed a very special man, with a heart probably bigger than his biceps.
Soon into the conversation Ramesh told me he had rescued 40 people in the eight years he had worked there. Swimming in that area can be treacherous, due to strong currents.
"Were you trained as a lifeguard?" I asked.
"No training. I am a fisherman," he said. "I know the waves, and the currents, and the behavior of the ocean, I know
all this, and that's how I can be a lifeguard." For 18 years he practiced the skills of a fisherman, passed down to him through generations.
The tsunami of 2004 changed everything for him, as it did for most of the fishermen in Mamallapuram. He lost everything--his boat, motor, nets--his livelihood was gone. Then donors contributed fiberglass boats, replacing the wooden boats that the fisherman had used. There weren't enough for each fisherman, so five people shared one boat, a scheme that did not work well.
Ramesh decided to seek a job as a lifeguard at the resort, and his days as a fisherman were over.
"I miss fishing. I miss the boat. I am bored with my work at times." He grew wistful, then continued, telling me more about the rescues. He told me of one man that he pulled ashore, still alive and talking, but who laid down and died before medical help arrived. It bothered him, I could tell, but then I thought of all the others who owed their lives to his knowledge of the ocean and his actions.
At 38 years, Ramesh is proud of his work. Six days a week,
nearly nine hours a day, he watches for the tourists, resort guests or not, who stray too far from shore in the ocean.
He invited me to his home to meet his family, wife Bhavani and four year old Sadhana, and his mother. The next evening I visited his small home in the Fisherman's Colony again, and savored delicious fried fish and a fish curry prepared by Bhavani. We talked and talked, and Ramesh and Bhavani were warm, open, and shared much about their lives. Their marriage was arranged, but they grew to love one another and seem happy. Although Bhavani does not speak much English, she writes it, while Ramesh speaks English but does not write. They've worked it out.
There are some people whom you meet and forget in a second, even though you may have chatted for an hour. Then there are people like Ramesh. He has found a special place in my heart. I knew him for less than 48 hours, but when we parted, I told him I felt as if I had known him for a long time.
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