THE CLAY BOWL’S DESTINY – K. Lorraine Kiidumae

“We are trying to find out what is happiness and whether happiness is something of which you are conscious. The moment you are conscious that you are happy, that you have much, is that happiness? The moment you are conscious that you are happy, it is not happiness, is it? So you cannot go after happiness. The moment you are conscious that you are humble, you are not humble. So happiness is not a thing to be pursued; it comes. But if you seek it, it will evade you.” – Krishnamurti

 

Were you to ask me where I’ve been, I would have to say there came a time, there, in the streets of Udaipur, when my destiny was like that of a clay bowl, tossed up into the sky, with no one to catch it. The clay bowls fell and smashed against the stone wall—the broken, shattered pieces landing in a heap along with the others. 

“It is less costly to make new cups than to funnel water and make soap to clean the old ones,” he said. He was our guide; a rather tall, be-speckled man, with dark glasses, slender, with longish shoulder-length dark hair, and so we followed his lead, this Mister Uri Singh, tipping the hot liquid back into our mouths, tossing our cups into the earthen graveyard. Our tour group had stopped for tea, and the spicy masala chai was served to us in those little red clay cups, dipped into a large, boiling black pot that sat upon a stack of smouldering cow patties.

It somehow seemed like such a violent thing to do—smashing those little clay cups against the stone, those perfectly shaped little triangles with sculpted edges. All that time, that effort, all that labour of life. Just ended.

This image came back to me, later in the week, there, in Udaipur, in the region of Rajasthan, when, dazzled by sunlight on stone, my foot slipped out from under me, as though in slow motion, across the shiny marble on the upper floor of the Taj Lake Palace Hotel, when my elbow cracked all the way up the bone as it landed on the tile. The white paint on black soil that is used to etch in the Sanskrit or Sufi writing on the edges of the cups, came to me like little stars of light in my eyes as I crashed onto the tile, and I thought again of those splintering cups, hitting against the wall.

He was there once again too, this Mister Uri Singh, rushing to my side to lift me up and carry me down the stairs, to hail an auto rickshaw to the hospital. But there were none to be seen, and so Mister Uri Singh lead me gently to his motor cycle parked out front, and I slid in behind him, holding onto his shoulder with my one good hand. In the scuffle, my cream silk scarf slipped from my neck and was trampled. He came to offer me his—navy blue, white, and yellow, long, narrow silk. I accepted, and he tied it like a sling, as he cradled my arm. We had to wait for some time for the doctor, with me holding my arm in place to alleviate the pain. He held beneath my elbow, to relieve some of the pressure, and his warm, brown hands radiated through me.

Afterwards, with my arm in a cast and sling, we mounted the motorcycle and went for tea. We turned a sharp corner and I leaned to the right and felt as though I might fall onto the roadway. I screamed a little.

“No, no, lean left!,” shouted Mister Uri Singh. More, more, yes, that’s it!” I felt a little nauseous then, from the pain killers and was woozy, as though I was a little drunk, and giddy as a school girl.

“What was that?!” I asked, when we dismounted.

“That,” he said, “was centrifugal force. Newtonian mechanics. Quite simply, it is an inertial force. You were fighting against the natural flow of where we wanted to go. You have to lean in the opposite direction when you are on a curve, or the bike will drop to the ground.” And he laughed a gentle laugh, eyes twinkling.

I looked closely then, for the first time, at this Mister Uri Singh. I saw a handsome, shy, intelligent, rather reserved man, with a bit of a hesitancy in his manner, as though he were not sure whether to step forward. He was wearing a white nehru shirt, open at the collar, that looked well-worn, and was carrying a small tattered brown and black book in his right hand. On the cover read “J. Krishnamurti, The First and Last Freedom.” He was not very old, but his face looked to be one of history, of suffering, of recovery; and I felt him at once someone already familiar, as though his face, his deep, warm brown eyes, I had known for the whole of my life before.

“Tell me,” I said, “why do you carry around that little book?”

He smiled broadly then, and our shoulders brushed by accident. He opened up the book and read to me. His voice was warm and gentle, soft and reedy. I thought I detected a slight trembling there.

“’In oneself lies the whole world and if you know how to look and learn, the door is there, and the key is in your hand. Nobody on earth can give you either the key or the door to open, except yourself.’”

And I wanted to believe it. I thought, somehow, that I’d be (or feel) differently in India, that I would somehow be a different person. The disconcerting thing was that I was not.

Afterwards we strolled and marveled at the colourful hues at sunset, and how they created the soft warm pink on the stone of the Lake Palace Hotel, and how the silvery cobbled alleyway was made golden by the sunlight. Mister Uri Singh told me he was born right here, in Udaipur, and never grew tired of its beauty. He spoke of how magical it had been during the monsoons that year, the torrential rains pouring in like a sieve from the Indian Ocean. He said he was studying Philosophy at the University, to earn his PhD, and how he worked as a guide…I said very little, other than to say I was born in Port Arthur, just outside the snow belt, in Central Canada, that I had settled in Vancouver, and had been married for nearly twenty years; that my husband was dying, of cancer, that I would stay another month in Udaipur. 

At dinner that night, upstairs in the Lotus Café & Restaurant, just at the edge of the village of Udaipur, we were served some delicious local dishes of dum aloo, gajar halvo, and gatta curry; and after we finished eating, Mahesh, our other guide from the bus, came up to ask, in a treacly voice, the whereabouts of the lovely Pravina. He was, to me, a not very likeable man—short and stocky, with a puckish face and bulging eyes—and his hair was freshly barbered with a wave to the side that looked not so much groomed as sculpted. 

Shasti, one of the organizers of the tour, had told us all about Mahesh already; that the beautiful Pravina, who was the daughter of the owner of the restaurant, was in love with him, and that he was already living in an arranged marriage (an apparently toxic one), with an infant son, and so Pravina was not able to marry him, but was willing to let him live with her, at her apartment above the restaurant, when he was in town on a tour. 

 “What constitutes a good marriage?,” said Shasti, “and what Pravina sees in Mahesh, I will never know. Why she does not choose to love somebody who is more worthy, someone of better character, like herself, someone she can have a future with? Mahesh is not only unfaithful to his wife—if he is unhappy, one can sympathize. But he heads for the first bar as soon as he arrives in town. And don’t think Pravina is likely his only one. She refuses to allow her parents to arrange a suitable marriage for her. “Look at Mahesh,” is all Pravina says whenever her parents persist, “look how unhappy he is. Why should I want to subject myself to that fate?”

One of the ladies at the table, from the tour group, spoke up then and said, “there’s no better guarantee when you make your own choice in love, of whom to marry. Most people take a chance on someone, because, really, who is to know? I wish my parents had chosen for me. It was all about his good looks, for me,” she said. “But when that wears off and you’re looking across the breakfast table every morning, better to have something to say.”

“I completely agree,” said Mister Uri Singh. 

He rose then, Mister Uri Singh, from where he was sitting at the other end of the table, and walked across the room and sat next to me. He was still carrying that small, brown and black book in his hand.

 “You look very wise,” Mister Uri Singh said, turning towards me, the tattered book sitting next to him on the table, “do you mind me asking your advice?”

I was flattered, of course, but felt shy and unworthy. What could I possibly advise this intellectual man, who came from a completely different background and culture than my own?

He looked at me earnestly, his eyes soft and humble.

“Yes, I suppose so,” I said. “I can try.”

“Well,” he said, “it’s like this. I’m over thirty now, thirty-two in a few months’ time.” 

His English was very good, but I wondered where this was going. I felt suddenly guarded.

“I am the eldest in my family,” he said, “a family of three children, and thus have been fortunate to have been the one to go to University.”

His eyes and his whole face seemed to light up at that, and I could see that this was a source of great joy. I listened.

“The thing is, after I finished my undergraduate degree in Philosophy at the University of Mohanlal Sukadia, I wanted to continue. And so, I took on this job, as a guide, to earn extra money in the evenings, and I began working on my PhD.”

I nodded, listening intently. He had told me much of this already. What was he going to ask me? When making their clay cups, the potters use a simple stick as a tool and instrument to fashion the design into the clay cups before they are fired. This has to be done while the clay is still soft. I felt prodded and poked, like that soft clay.

“At first, my parents were supportive and supplemented my tuition in exchange for my agreement to be presented with potential wives, in an arranged marriage which is common here. You see, my parents, (or more particularly my mother), are very traditional. The first woman was presented to me when I was at the age of twenty-six. She was the daughter of a neighbour, and a favourite of my mother’s. But when we went for chai tea in the market to become acquainted, we had nothing in common, nothing to say. She wasn’t interested in discussing ideas at all, she only smiled dolefully at me and looked into my eyes, expectant.

“The one woman who is smart and whose company I do enjoy is plain—weak, passive, a scar deep on her right cheek, just below her eye, sallow complexion, and she wears loose fitting clothing as if she was heavy, but she is not. My mother went off wailing when I suggested her.

 “There were two more attempts by my mother to introduce me to a wife, all of her choosing, with her preferences leaning towards domesticity and care-giving. But I’m not interested in a wife like that. What I want is a wife I can talk to. Attend philosophy readings with. A friend to share ideas with. And so, it was then, after three attempts, that I requested of my mother that I be allowed to choose my own wife. My mother went into hysterics, sobbing uncontrollably. It is her tradition. And I had gone against her. A tradition and an honour, passed down through the decades, centuries, for her to be able to choose the wife of her eldest son. Because the parents will live with the eldest son.

“What can be told from a photograph? I enquired of my mother with the last one, when it isn’t only physical appearance that matters to me. There could be a bad temperament, an irritating voice, a difference in views and beliefs, or moodiness, and how could I tell?” 

 “She made me feel like I had done something wrong and I left, walked out on her, down to the café, and I was very angry. I knew that we had reached an impasse and that I could no longer honour her wishes. If I could not choose my own wife, I’d have none at all.”

Mister Uri Singh looked down at my left hand then, at my empty ring finger. Indian men are (or can be) rather reserved, and polite, but at once I detected the look of interest in his eyes. I was suddenly guarded.

“And now, you see,” he continued, “my entire family is angry with me. It is a tradition in Indian faith that the younger children in the family cannot marry until the eldest child has married first. My sister has met a boy and my mother has approved of him as a match. So you see, she was able to make her own choice! And now she has been waiting, waiting for almost five years, to marry him. And my youngest brother, he is twenty-four already, and wants a match so he can marry too. He wants to leave home. They both want to leave home. But me, I am content. I am content to live at home. I like everything the way it is now. My mother cooks my meals, my father, he shares my love of ideas, and we sit and smoke and talk after every meal. And I have my studies and my friends at University, and I have my work. 

“I am serving my duty—I am supporting my family, so my brothers and sisters can go to school. Must I give up my dreams as well? My journey began as a solitary one, and that is how, I believe, if I cannot marry a woman of my own choosing, I would like it to end. So, you see, I don’t know what to do. This is what I would like to ask you. I know it is different here than in your country, different than in Canada. In Canada you are free. Free to choose.”

He placed his hand on top of Krishnamurti.

“But tell me, what do you think I should do? What would you do? What would you advise me to do?”

I was overwhelmed at the responsibility of his question. What was I to say? What should I tell him? How was I, a married woman from America, with all the freedom in the world, to tell this educated man that my purpose for being there was something as nebulous as a cough. Every morning I awakened to that blood curdling deep throated cough and listened as the sickness of life was spit up from deep within his lungs into a soggy handkerchief. A grey would come over everything then, whether, or despite, the fact that the sun was shining. I could feel it then, this settling in beneath my scalp and into the recesses of my mind; depression. It was the morning I saw it— death itself—pronouncing itself, laying itself bare in the blood-specked sputum deposited into the handkerchief. I knew, or I know, that it is not his fault. And, what woman runs away, leaves the side of her faithful husband in his hour of need? But I’d had to do it for myself. To save myself.

And now, if you were to ask me where I am, I would have to say, at a crossroads. I would say that, before this, my life was a Nirvana. 

The first time I’d met him, my husband, there in the Bacchus lounge of the Wedgwood Hotel in downtown Vancouver, it was at a time when I thought how true love was everything, superseded everything. We’d both been there on business, were both married to someone else, and I’d had the clear premonition that I was going to marry him. And then, inexplicably, the thought had occurred to me, or maybe I even visualized it; I pictured him in a wheelchair. And I’d thought then too that I would love him enough to be able to see him through anything. 

It had never come to pass—the wheelchair—and perhaps it was only a metaphor for the debilitating cough that crippled him into his green velvet chair as he sat coughing outside my bedroom door. That incessant violent coughing. “The ship you are riding on, look where it is heading: your body’s port is the graveyard.”

The chemotherapy medication was making him overly emotional and I’d found a letter he’d written me and slipped into my purse, tucked into the envelope with my plane ticket:

If you want to make love to me, I will make love to you, if you want to hold me, I will hold you in return, if you want to drink wine and I drink Absolut vodka, I will. But if you only want to hear me say I love you without saying it in return, then if you want me to stroke you and make you feel safe, I will do that too.

For whatever your pain, and whatever pain you have inflicted on me, I will always answer you. For I have loved you more than anyone I have ever known, and I love you still.

The letter should have made me cry, or turn and go back, but it did not. Loneliness took hold from almost the moment I landed in Mumbai. I’d never travelled anywhere without him and if felt strange, standing alone in a hotel room, over seven thousand miles away, looking out the window across the Ulhas River, west, towards the Arabian Sea.

And so, the first thing I’d done after I’d checked in, after I lay down across the bed, my forehead mottled with perspiration, I’d felt a panic first. My heart beat a little faster and then it skipped a beat altogether. I picked up my cell phone and called him. He was always better in the afternoons and I’d felt a pull then, wishing I was with him. I missed his warm body lying next to me, his deep kisses, his pleasure at my touch, before sickness crashed through and broke into our lives. I heard the smile in his voice and I’d teared up, to think he’d really be gone for good in a matter of months, a year at best, and yet I’d left him already. Temporarily at least. And he had understood. But the sound of his voice had reassured me. Strengthened my resolve. And so, it was really an almost involuntary reaction when I slipped my wedding rings from my left index finger and into my pocket. It was theft I’d thought of then, nothing more, I tell myself now. And then I got myself ready to go down to the lobby to meet the rest of the ladies on the tour.

 “Well,” I asked, “could you leave home? Can you, are you allowed to leave home and marry no one at all? So that you would be free to live your own life as you choose?”

  “No, it is not permitted. Besides,” he said, “I have lived in Udaipur and been studying for a long time, “and ever since I have been in the University, with my employment as a guide, my only source of income, there is a big debt owing on the tuition from when I started there.”

“And, even if it wasn’t so, he said, “my mother would be very unhappy, were I to leave. I don’t know what she would do. She might banish me from the family. A tribunal might be held. I might be given a second chance, but I would have to go back. Besides, I don’t want to leave, I’m content now. Content with the way things are, with my family. I want my mother to ignore tradition, to let my younger siblings marry if they wish to. They have found the right person. I have not.”

I felt the pressure of his predicament.

“Well then, could you go and live abroad, in Canada or some other country for a while? Go travelling?”

His eyes looked sad, momentarily lost and away.

“No…no,” he said. There isn’t enough money for that. He went quiet for a while and then he asked again. “So, what do you think I should do? What would you do?”

I sat and thought for a long time. I tried to put myself in his uncompromising position. To think ‘what would I do?’ seemed to put me in an untenable place.

“Well,” I said, finally, “for now you are happy. You are happy because you have your family still, your mother to cook your meals, and you have your school. But if you don’t make a move, if you don’t marry, eventually, some day, when your parents are no longer alive, you will be alone or alone with your siblings, who will be unhappy too. If you marry and have your own family, you will still have what you want. A home. A family. The ability to read at night and keep learning. And your parents will be happy. Your siblings will be happy.” 

“Are you saying that one should live for the benefit of others?” he asked.

“No, not entirely. I was thinking more of a person who has a philosophy of life in which collective happiness prevails over individual happiness, so that his or her personal happiness in not his goal in life. Can you really live peaceably knowing that others are snapping at your heels? In the society I live in, I would not have to make that choice in such an obvious way. My parents may not like that I choose not to marry, but I can overlook their disappointment. In yours, in your society, the attainment of your happiness really does affect your sister’s happiness, as she is unable to marry.”

He clasped his hand around Krishnumurti and said nothing.

“’You want to love a man just enough, but not too much,’ my mother always told me”, I said. Perhaps it is true, for women too, for wives? You want someone you love just enough, but not too much? In that way, you have more freedom.”

“Yes,” he said, after a time. He nodded his head that he had understood. It didn’t seem to be what he had wanted to hear. 

“All I want is to be able to choose. Is that such an ignoble thing to desire?”

 Mister Uri Singh had raised his voice to me, a little, for the first time. But what could I say that might offer him some solace, to appease him, when it is his entire culture he needed to defy, not just his mother or his sister. And I wondered then whether there is such a thing as free will at all, or whether, ultimately, we need to live for the benefit of others in order to find our own happiness. That, even in his suffering, he could find some freedom to do what he really wanted to do. Was this Krishnumurti only an idealist, thinking of how things should be, could be, if the society in which he lives, if it were different than it really was. True wisdom, it seemed to me, was to learn how to live in the society you are born into, in the best way possible. But then, I was not a fighter. I avoided conflict. I was not the one who had no freedom to choose. 

Sometimes, I thought, it might be better not to have the freedom to choose. When my husband and I came to the question of whether or not to have children, I never felt I wanted it enough and couldn’t make a decision. I procrastinated, and kept putting it off. I wanted other things more. Work. Freedom. A close companionship with a man was all I really wanted and needed. I never thought I would find myself alone in the world, with nothing to look forward to, and my loins ached for want of a child. But now it was too late. Here, in India, I would not have had to make that choice. Someone would have made it for me.

“It is society that needs to learn to not be so autocratic,” Mister Uri Singh continued, his face reddening, his voice becoming even louder. “We are men! In other cultures, it is the women who are kept down, to cover their bodies, not able to work or drive or stand up for themselves. Here, in India, I am a man and I am being told what to do by women. There is nothing in our religion that prevents this—it is not a sacrilege. It is a basic human right. I know of many toxic relationships where people have been forced into a marriage with someone they did not choose. What is the sense in this I ask you? As men we are the head of the household, and yet, it is our mothers, not our own hearts who rule us.”

“Will that…I mean, is that what you truly need in order to be happy?” I asked.

“Happiness? What is happiness? What is the good of happiness, when all around you”…his face flushed red…

“Does one step over and simply say, “no matter the suffering of others, I am happy?”

“It is purpose, a sense of purpose, that will sustain one through a lifetime.” He held up his little book of Krishnamurti and shook it. “One needs to ask oneself, “what is this life asking of me?!”

I asked him then—“what happens when words are not enough? Don’t you ever fear that someday, that will no longer be enough?” Pointing to his little book I said “Those words that mean so much to you—words, they are only words. Someone else’s words. Someone else’s dream. Don’t you fear…I mean, if that’s all you have…what if, someday, words, those words are not enough?”

“Then,” he said, “that is the day my life will be over.”

On the walk back to the hotel, through Udaipur, it was getting dark and we ambled through the dusty night, falling in step, our sandaled feet against the tickling grass, neither of us able to think of what to say. He looked a little sad, and beaten, and in time his long gait fell out of step with mine. I could see him ahead of me, and pictured those dark, thoughtful eyes behind the glasses, his bony hands clutching at Krishnamurti, grasping the small tattered book like a preacher would a bible, as though it held all the answers, the key to let him out of his trap.

A week later, in the evening, at sunset, there was a photography tour to the Ambrai Ghat, located directly opposite Udaipur, and we sat down to view the lights of the City Palace and Lake Palace Hotels. I looked, and there was Mister Uri Singh sitting beside an old man with a dog; and my heart lifted at the sight of him, his smile, his warm brown eyes, that same feeling of having known hum for the whole of my life, as though we came from the same place. I saw him there, with Pravina, guiding her by the arm and, waving flippantly, Krishna in his hand, and smiling, opening it and reading a little verse, as he had done when he was alone with me. He rose and came towards me, when he looked up and saw me there. We sat side by side, then went for a walk along Lake Pichola.

“I haven’t seen you for several days,” he said. “I hope that I didn’t upset you. After all you’re going through, and I selfishly unloaded my own problems onto you.”

“No…no. I’ve had nausea in my stomach, from something I ate at a street market, and in this hot weather I can’t sleep. “I’m sorry,” I said. “About the other day. I don’t think I told you what you wanted to hear.” 

“It’s all right,” he said. “I’d rather thought you might have given me some hope.”

“Maybe it’s like centrifugal force,” I said, trying to make him smile.

“How do you mean?” he asked.

“You’re working, or fighting, against the natural flow of your life, the natural direction you need to go in order to get to where you want to go.”

And he smiled. “Ah, yes. Lao Tzu’s philosophy was to have discipline in life, to follow the flow of life, and have everything balanced. It is usually you Westerners who are accused of being guilty of not following this life style. We Indians perhaps are becoming under the influence of the Western culture.”

“It’s not as though India is a country that conjures up images and feelings of romance and leisure,” I said. “There is passion, yes, but there is a culture of religion and prayer and family and honour, of goodness. Perhaps these demands…this stimulates a desire to flee a life of discipline?” 

            It had begun to cloud over and we heard the crack of thunder. There was nothing left to say, and so we turned back. Not a bird, or a heart stirred. 

He clasped his hand around Krishnamurti, and said nothing. And still nothing moved, not the wind in the trees, not the cows on the hill, not the clouds in the sky. 

I thought of a time, when I was younger, when I wondered whether dreams come true. Everyone said that going to India would change my life, and so I kept looking for it. Waiting for it to happen. For that key, that door. And now, suddenly, I wanted to go home.

And I thought now of how place, the whole of your life adds to your happiness, beyond who you love and it’s not always that one great person. At some point you realize that your life is bigger than one person, and that some people can stay in your heart but not in your life.  

For years afterwards, I would wonder whether I had served him, whether I had said the right thing, given him the right advice, and whether he had followed it, or done what I suggested. 

Still, if I had known it would be the last time I’d ever see him, would I have paid more attention? To every moment, every nuance, the ray of his smile, how good it felt to be there next to him?

If you were to ask me where I am going I would say—I didn’t want anything to end. I wanted to be able to hold it, just the way it was.

“K. Lorraine Kiidumae is a graduate of the Simon Fraser University Writer’s Studio, fiction cohort, and the Humber School for Writers. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Emerge, RCLAS: Wordplay, the anthology “Emails From India”, Bandit Fiction (UK), the Nashwaak Review, The Scarlet Leaf Review, and The Maple Tree Literary Supplement. Lorraine works from her home in Nanoose Bay, B.C. on Vancouver Island, where she is currently completing her first book of short stories and a novel.”