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AMONGST THE PEOPLE
Siddhartha's job interview with Kamaswami turns out to be a question-and-answer exchange rather like the posing of riddles and their solutions. For example, when the merchant says that as a Samana and a beggar Siddhartha has lived on the possessions of others, Siddhartha replies that a merchant does the same. Asked what good fasting is, Siddhartha answers that it is useful when a man has nothing to eat.
Notice that in all his conversations at this stage of his life, whether with the Buddha, Kamala, or Kamaswami, Siddhartha is like a bright, quick-witted student, very sure of himself and always ready with an answer. These dialogues are entertaining, but remember that the Buddha warned Siddhartha not to be too clever. What do you think is still missing in Siddhartha's character, apart from the fact that he treats all this as a game?
A commentator points out that the title of this chapter in the original is "Amongst the Child-People," and that the translator has left out the modifier child. Siddhartha uses the term later in the novel, but in this chapter he describes the people in the city as childish, concerned with trivial things.
Siddhartha is soon doing business for Kamaswami. When the merchant rebukes him for staying too long in a village where he failed to buy a harvest, Siddhartha acknowledges that he travels for pleasure, makes friends, learns much, and does no harm. Siddhartha treats everyone-his employer or a beggar-as an equal. He has no anxieties, no driving fears or ambitions. This life is still a game to him.
He visits Kamala daily. She teaches him the arts of love, and she thinks she will have a child by him someday. She tells him he is incapable of love, and he says the same is true of her. This is a provocative observation. Why can't Siddhartha and Kamala love? What is missing in their characters? If they don't love each other, what is the nature of their relationship?
Samsara, in Hindu philosophy, means the life of the world endlessly repeating itself. Siddhartha is living this life. He is rich, with servants, a town house, and a garden by the river. People like him, but only Kamala is close to him. He has not entirely forgotten the Brahmin and Samana disciplines but he has learned the pleasures of the senses. He enjoys fine clothes, delicate foods, scented baths, watching dancers, and gambling for high stakes.
At first Siddhartha felt superior to the ordinary people who enjoyed these things. Now he is like them, but he also envies them. They feel that their lives are important. They feel joy and sorrow. They have the pain but also the happiness of love-for their children, their goals, themselves. He formerly scorned riches, but now riches have trapped him. He is suffering the discontent and idleness of the rich. To overcome his boredom he seeks the diversions of wine, dancers, and reckless gambling.
He recalls his meeting with the Buddha for Kamala, who can't hear enough about the holy man. Kamala also seems weary of a life with no joyous goal. Siddhartha sees in her face the fine lines of approaching age. He is now forty years old.
That night, after giving a party at which he mocks his guests and drinks too much wine, he has a dream. In it he finds Kamala's little songbird dead in its cage. He takes the tiny body and throws it away, and suddenly feels he has thrown away all that was good and valuable in himself.
He sits all that day under a mango tree in his pleasure garden, recalling the ways of life he has known, remembering the inner voice that led him on. It is a long time since he has heard that voice. He has spent these years sharing the life of the child-people-but without their aims, without their joys and sorrows. Kamala alone is dear to him, but do he and Kamala still need each other? Aren't they, too, playing the game of Samsara, a game that might be enjoyed once or ten times but not endlessly?
That night Siddhartha walks out of his garden, leaving everything behind. Kamaswami searches for him, fearing he has been taken by bandits. Kamala is not surprised at his disappearance. She expected it, especially after their last meeting. Grieving at the loss, she lets her little songbird go free. From then on she closes her house to visitors. Soon after, she finds that she is pregnant with Siddhartha's child.
In his long day and night of self-examination, Siddhartha for the first time acknowledges that ordinary people have things in life that he misses, things of value. What are these things that he envies? Are they of value? What do you think are his causes for despair?