My story begins at the end of my tale as I’m settling into my seat on flight SQ403 from Delhi to Singapore.
It’s almost 10pm at night and the plane is packed, but for the first time in over two weeks of travel through Rajasthan with a group of potters, I feel like I’m on my own.
The airline has assigned everyone’s seats, and families and friends have been separated throughout the plane and they’re not happy about it. There’s seat swapping going on everywhere.
It’s dark outside except for the flashing lights of the ground crew manoeuvring expertly beneath my window. I slowly shuffle through a small stack of potter’s business cards, ticket stubs to marble tombs and red forts that I have stuffed inside my diary. I thumb its pages and open to read the scrawl and a heaving orchestra of horns, colour, rubbish, and dust jumps from the page. Looking across the tarmac I at once feel the thrill of being amongst the throbbing organism that is India, and aware of my privilege that allows me to leave it.
The Singaporean stewards in their batik glide through the cabin snapping the overhead lockers shut. A young woman assigned to the seat next to me is standing in the aisle bargaining with two men to swap seats so she and her girlfriend can sit together. But neither will budge.
‘I can move.’ I offer and the deal is done.
The stewards smile, and I gather my things and move to the other side of the plane taking in my new flying companions. One is already curled up in the window asleep, and the other greets me with a smile tilting his head. His name is Haripal and he’s chatty.
Haripal lives in Jaipur and is flying to Singapore for work. He tells me he’s an engineer on off-shore gas and oil rigs around the world. Big job, I think. He asks me if I’ve been visiting his country for work or a holiday, and I explain that it’s been neither of those things really, but probably more holiday than anything, an adventure if you will. And I tell him I’ve been visiting traditional potters’ communities throughout Rajasthan.
His mouth drops open.
I’m not completely surprised by his reaction because potters aren’t exactly rock stars in India, but live and work among some of the poorer communities and villages.
‘Why? Why would you want to visit potters?’
I suddenly feel a little defensive, protective even.
‘Well, because I’m interested in pots, and … because I am a potter.’
He’s staring right at me now and I wonder if this might be the most uncomfortable flight home that either of us will ever make.
A small smile appears at the corners of his mouth, he leans in and whispers conspiratorially,
‘I am a potter,’ he touches his chest to make sure that I understand him, ‘I too belong to the potters caste’.
The hairs stand up on the back of my neck, I make a weird cry and clap my hands as we hurtle down the runway and leap into the sky.
For the next three hours we trace maps with our fingers and Haripal paints his childhood making and decorating earthy water pots known as ‘matka’. I can see him with his father and grandfather stacking hundreds of unfired earthenware pots and covering them with cow dung for firing. We talk about our firing disasters, making curd, and how a potter came to be an engineer advising on the oil rigs of the world.
We talk ourselves to sleep.
It’s early morning and we begin our descent with sweeping arcs into Singapore and Haripal reflects that it has been 30 years since he has made a pot, but he can still feel the clay, and his hands remember how to make the matka, and I nod, because I know this is true.
We’ve landed and the strangeness of our meeting hovers above us like a spirit.
‘This is a wonderful thing that has happened. And we will never forget this…just like my old village, you and I are connected in this way now.’
The seatbelt sign lights up and dings above my head, and to a chaotic chorus of unfastening and clacking, I am adopted into the potters caste.
Mai kumhari hu.