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 10 at night and although the plane is packed, 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.
It appears the airline has assigned everyone’s seats, and there are families and friends who have been separated throughout the plane, and they’re not happy about it. There’s seat swapping going on everywhere. My two friends, Sue and Vicki, are also on this flight and through a stroke of luck, Sue has landed a place up front in the luxury of Business Class. Vicki’s down the back somewhere, and I’m on the wing, wondering what the flight gods have in store for me. I scan the menu card and I’m hoping I’ll score the Asian option for dinner rather than the English roast.
It’s dark outside except for the flashing lights of the ground crew manoeuvring expertly beneath my window. I slowly shuffle a small stack of potter’s business cards and ticket stubs to marble tombs and red forts that I have stuffed inside my small hand-stitched diary. I thumb its pages and open to read the scrawl from my first day in Old Delhi, and ‘an otherworldly, heaving orchestra of horns, colour, rubbish, and dust’, jumps from the page and looking across the tarmac I am thinking of the thrill of being amongst the throbbing organism that is India, and I’m aware of my privilege that allows me to leave it too.
The Singaporean stewards in their beautiful batik glide through the cabin snapping the overhead lockers shut, while the young woman assigned the seat next to me is still standing in the aisle bargaining with two men to swap with her girlfriend so that they can sit together. But neither will budge.
I ask if I can help. Would she like my seat? The deal is done.
The stewards smile, and I gather my things and move to the other side of the plane and quickly take in my new flying companions. One is already curled up in the window asleep, and the other looks up at me and we smile tilting our heads in recognition the way Indian’s do. I take the aisle seat. His name is Haripal and he’s chatty, so we start talking.
Haripal lives in Jaipur and he’s flying to Singapore on business. He’s an engineer and an advisor on off shore gas and oil rigs that are dotted throughout the oceans of the world. He’s often in Australia. 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 really 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 and offer, ‘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,’ and 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 our craft hurtles down the runway and leaps into the sky. For the next two, or three hours we trace and mark maps, and he paints for me his childhood in the village with his father and grandfather, spent making and decorating the rich earthy ‘matka’. As he tells his story I can see his family stacking the unfired earthenware directly on the ground and covering them with cow dung for firing. We talk about our firing disasters, making curd, and how a traditional village potter ever came to be an engineer advising on the oil rigs of the world.
We talk ourselves to sleep.
It’s only 2.30 in the morning but we’re woken by the stewards to straighten our seats. We circle and descend with sweeping arcs into Singapore and he reflects that it’s 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 as we fold our blankets and taxi to the terminal.
‘This is a wonderful thing that has happened,’ he says, ‘and we will never forget this…like my old village, you and I are connected in this way now.’
A sign lights up and sounds above my head, and to a chorus of seatbelts unfastening and clacking, I am adopted into the potters caste. Mai kumhari hu.