I arrived back from a holiday in India to tragic news. Nelson Mandela had died. The next few days at work were laced with jet lag, sleep deprivation and constant news updates. Many of them, no, most of them involving the verbose sentiments of the current government which spews forth the notion that everyone needs to live up to Mandela’s legacy. His legacy of idealism, honestly, trust, truth. Hypocrisy seeped through their tragic tributes — I was unable to ignore it. When and how would our current leadership ever achieve even just a fraction of this? The truth is, I have met more ordinary people, who will never face the accolade of publicity, that have more of what the former statesmen stood for carved into their DNA than anyone who currently stands on any state podium and waxes lyrical. The Mandela gene is not for leaders, it’s for everybody.
Lakshmi is 29 years old. She is a beach dweller in Goa who makes her money from offering the odd foot massage and henna tattoo to the Russian tourist-terraced shores of Bagga beach. She also makes the odd anklet and bracelet from silver. She doesn’t show you these until you ask to see them, for fear of being arrested. After all, Lakshmi does not have a traders licence and has been haggled by the police many times. The very day I met her, she mentioned that the police had taken her printouts of henna designs she offers as a portfolio to picky customers. This was another thing Lakshmi couldn’t show me. But she showed me her smile. And as I watched this mother of three, who has been married for 10 years, pass from person to person, clad in a purple sari in the 37 degree heat, I realised she was the same in her interaction with everyone and everybody got the same smile.
A friend of mine who had the pleasure of interviewing Madiba during his presidency said the one thing she remembers is that he didn’t care where you came from, only what was in your heart. And in hindsight, this very thing resonates when I think about Lakshmi. Much like Madiba, she didn’t care where you came from, or what you did, only what was in your heart. And just in case you didn’t get that from a passing hello, she made the effort to stop, and talk to you. “All villages are different. But it is what it is,” she said with a smile after doing another round and stopping by. She meant countries. All countries are different, but I got that, somehow and it didn’t matter her word choice. Because it was her heart that spoke to me. Lakshmi and I are the same age. Her husband also gives beach massages and this is how they provide for their three children. “We are the same, but we are so different, every place has its own ways, but we are the same,” she smiled. It was the biggest, brightest smile I had ever seen. Thinking about the weight of compassion and level of endearment between those pearly whites, still gets me to this day. Lakshmi, so content, so happy, so at peace with knowing and not knowing.
I don’t know about her struggles, because she never made them obvious. Much like a post-1994 Mandela whose struggles spoke for themselves and while we were all aware of them and continue to be, it’s the spirit of the stories he chose to share in spite of them that stick with us most — and they should. Shedding the bitterness and holding onto the triumph of overcoming with humility, and in this way and in his own words: letting his own light shine, and thereby giving other people permission to do the same. The only bit of information I had about Lakshmi’s personal walk to freedom is that soon after she was married at the age of 19, she and her husband moved from Bangalore to Goa, where they could set up as traders at a more bustling tourist market, and hopefully make it. Did I know if they had actually achieved this? No. But by the pure energy of it all, Lakshmi had achieved so much more.
Lakshmi in Hindi is the goddess of prosperity and fortune. And she was wealthy in love. Without ever needing to say so, unlike the two cents a dozen leaders of a falling and flapping South Africa, this ordinary person with every reason in the world to be bitter, angry and false just wasn’t. With no means to cash in on some government spend, with no access to loudspeakers that amplify her struggles or opinions thereof, with no bone in her body wanting to get back at someone or something for her lot in life, with no ability for seeing differences in colour and choice and country and creed, with a total lack of comprehension of this notion of the haves and have-nots was more like Mandela than anyone else, the many, many people in her position and also far above, I have ever met.
Lakshmi is every South African, she is every person, who leads, in their own life without need for applause and attention and revenge. Lakshmi is everyone. And every Lakshmi has the Mandela gene.
“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.” — Nelson Mandela.