“Garnier, have you seen Lakshmi?”
“No, Doudart,” I said. “I haven’t. Who is Lakshmi?”
“How can you possibly not have seen her?” Doudart asked. “She walks the compound all night. The most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen!”
“Doudart, my friend, Lakshmi is an Indian name. We’re in China, in Yunnan. Don’t you remember? This God-forsaken place is called Tong-Tchouen. You have had the fevers for days…”
“Garnier, I’m confused but you’re right. Lakshmi is an Indian Goddess. Now I remember. But I saw her, Garnier. She was climbing on top of one of the Buddhas of Bayon.”
“In Angkor, you mean? That’s better. Do you remember the Buddhas in the jungle, Doudart?
“Yes, my dear friend. Wasn’t that the most beautiful sight we ever set our eyes upon?”
Lieutenant Francis Garnier’s log. Yunnan. March 10, 1868.
We have reached China. After months of efforts. We started off in Indochina 2 years ago under the command of Capitaine de corvette Doudard de Lagrée. Our objective was to go North up the Mekong river to find a waterway to China. (And stop the English advance from India to China.) We probably failed on both counts. The English are moving around by sea from Singapore towards Shanghaï. The Mekong can’t support ships upstream. What will probably stay in History is our “discovery” of the temples of Angkor. I’ve never seen such beauty gathered in one place. Though I was then sick as a dog, I remember it vividly. We will bring back to the world the first photographs of Angkor.
Doudart helped me then. He saved my life from the wretched fevers of the jungle. I don’t know whether we can save him now. He’s had fever for days. Will hardly eat a bowl of rice a day. He delirious. Claims he sees Lakshmi, Vishnu’s wife I’m told. I don’t know enough about Hinduism. Why is Doudart “seeing” her?
“Come on, Doudart, you must eat. Sorry we lost the silverware a while back, has to be with those chopsticks. The rice will settle your stomach. Tell me, who is Lakshmi?”
“I don’t know, Garnier. Never been to India. I don’t even speak Hindustani. Know close to nothing about the place. Yet, when she comes at night and speaks to me, she soothes me. Her four arms must be a sign of my delusion, my delirium, but she makes sense.”
“What does she say, my old friend?”
“She says the word ‘lakshya’, which I understand is ‘goal’. Don’t ask me how I know. She says that there are many goals. Seven or eight, not sure. She says I have reached mine.”
“Your ‘goal’, Doudart?” I asked. He looked very weak, but spoke quite clearly. “What do you or whar does she mean?”
“Fame? Glory? Abundance? Success? What do I know? I only know we failed in our mission. Couldn’t really find the “passage to China”, could we? But we ‘found’ Angkor. And, perhaps, that is enough.
Lieutenant Francis Garnier’s log. Yunnan. March 11, 1868.
Doudart is weaker by the hour. Our Chinese guides have sent for herbs and remedies. They say they know an ‘old witch’ in the village. I hope they come back on time.
“I wish you could see her, my dear Garnier. She is beautiful. The four arms notwithstanding.”
He laughed. Made me smile a bit. Then he coughed. A raking cough. The two doctors of the expedition are ill too. What can I possibly do?
“Here she comes, Garnier. She is wearing lotus flowers in two of her hands. I’ll be all right. Make sure you reach Shanghaï.”
Lieutenant Francis Garnier’s log. Yunnan. March 12, 1868.
Capitaine de corvette Doudart de Lagrée died peacefully in his sleep, before dawn. I take command of this expedition with a heavy heart. We will pursue our goal, Doudart’s mission. We will reach Shanghaï.
(s) Lieutenant de vaisseau Garnier, Francis.
Angkor, c.1866. Possibly on the elephants terrace. Far left, Navy Lieutenant-Commander Doudart de Lagrée is in command of the expedition to find a route to China, sailing up the Mékong river. Previous expeditions had re-discovered the ruins of Angkor, but Doudart is the first to bring a photographer. He dies, of tropical illness, in 1868 at the age of 45 in the south of China. Francis Garnier, far right, takes over the expedition. They do reach Shanghaï in June 1868. Yet, the Mekong is not fit for navigation in the North. The route to China eludes the French. Garnier stays in Indochina doing a brilliant career in the French navy. He is killed in combat in 1873 by the Black flags pirates in Hanoï.
Thank you for flying Equinoxio’s Time-Space shuttle. This sketch had been half finished for a while. About time to wrap it up. My Lord Buddha is inspired by our recent trip to Angkor. Lakshmi, by a small statue my parents bought in India, ages ago. The other members of the expedition on the photo are: Louis de Carné, Clovis Thorel, Eugène Joubert, Louis Delaporte. Brave men.
A special mention to the photographer who brought back this picture and the first photographs of Angkor: Émile Gsell. Just imagine the equipment he carried. One – or several – wooden camera(s) with tripod, glass plates… As always, the photographer is not in the picture…
Obviously this is a work of fiction based on historical facts. The B&W photograph belongs to the Archives of the French Geographic Society.
May you all accomplish your ‘lakshya’. 🙏🏻