Wishing for different moral to story

ONCE UPON a time there lived a poor weaver, who wove beautiful cloth but only eked out a pitiable existence. He decided to try his luck in the city and succeeded in making money there to save for the future, but the cash disappeared from his hands as he walked back to his village. This happened over and over again. Fate explained to him that he would forever live in his current state, eating just enough to live and never getting ahead.

The weaver's wife submitted to Fate willingly, arguing that all their discomforts were simply punishments for misdeeds done in their past lives. But the weaver would not be convinced. Finally, two mysterious figures representing earnings and secret wealth appeared to the weaver. Money is for using, not hoarding up, they said. Greed only leads to more greed. They persuaded the weaver to be happy with his lot, since no one gets more or less than his Fate. He and his wife returned to their village, where he gave to charity and enjoyed his simple life.

I just read this Indian fable for the first time recently in an anthology my mother gave me. What the heck is going on there? I don't live in castedivided India; I feel tremendously uncomfortable with the suggestion that the working class should just give up on getting into the middle class. The moral of the story doesn't seem moral to me at all. I have read and loved so many Indian folktales that this one felt like a slap in the face. What happened to the clever, entrepreneurial youngster who used initiative and perseverance to get ahead? What about the plucky widow who conned Death into giving back her husband's life?

The folktale is where description meets prescription. Here is a story about what happened to virtuous and wicked people; based on those consequences, do as I say. I could tell a hundred different stories about the weaver, in which his wife killed herself, or he moved to the city altogether, or he performed an extraordinary prayer and Fate rewarded him, telling him that it had all been a test. Based on those different descriptions of what happened to the weaver, I could waggle my finger at the children and say, "Be careful what you wish for," or "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," or "Keep your nose to the grindstone," or "God helps those who help themselves."

The opposite of one cliche is another cliche, another bite-size grand truth. But I like some grand truths better than others. Yes, there are hucksters who want to deceive you and bad company comes to no good and

meddling can lead to disaster and strong leaders get things done and reasoned argument can lead to destructive bickering and the poor we will always have with us.

But "some circumstances you can't control," to me, does not lead to "be resigned to your fate"; that viscerally bothers me, because it does not jibe with the way I want to live my life. I'm an American; I believe in social mobility. Is it not fine to seek comfort? Must the edge of poverty be a state to which people resign themselves?

A slight modification to the tale makes it more palatable; I don't mind the story of the eight jars of gold. The king's barber lives on the edge of poverty and worries about money. A mysterious voice gives him eight pots of gold; but the last one is half-empty. He develops an obsession with filling the last jar, but despite a raise from the king and no matter how much he sells or pawns, the jar remains only half full. Finally, the king finds out, and tells the barber that the only way to stop the spiral of greed is to get rid of the jars. The barber gives them back, and though his family is poorer, they suffer less because he has renounced his excessive desire. Desire does cause suffering; Fate and the king both imply that.

Here, though, the barber wants to get something for nothing, and his fascination with the eighth jar is irrational. That's why I'm fine with him giving up the gold and not so fine with Fate yanking hard-earned cash out of the weaver's hands. My ideals define the narratives I tell myself; the tale of the weaver, and the anthology it's in, remind me of the alternate narratives, full of suckers and thieves and inexorable destiny, that resonate unpleasantly in the darker corners of my mind.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can ask about the very strange tale of the donkey and the dog by writing to