We were walking through the village and I had just talked to a woman about the load she was carrying on her back. It was a fairly innocuous exchange, a salutation, a few questions from me and her responses.
So I couldn't understand when my son (who is a citizen of Singapore and currently a resident of Switzerland) commented that I had treated the woman as a lesser person. Had I? That not my intention. And she certainly hadn't looked unhappy talking to me. So was it something in my tone that he had noticed?
He said just the fact that I had stopped a total stranger and asked her random questions was an act of superiority. As if I had a right to engage her. Would I do something like this to a person like myself in a city? He also noted that no villager had stopped me to ask me about my day or life. It was always coming from me.
I listened to my son's observations deeply, as I always do. He is one of the few people who has challenged my convictions successfully.
His comment stayed with me for a long time. Years actually. Everytime I spoke to village folks, I observed my words and their reaction. I noticed that indeed they never initiated the conversation, but once I did, they were very comfortable and extremely happy to talk.
Then last month, after having spoken to another woman from a village while out on a walk, I finally brought it up to Sonu.
She didn't think my initiating conversations was an act of superiority. In fact, quite the opposite. That I have conversations with them, according to her, is a sign of my interest in them as important human beings whose lives I find interesting. That is not an insult, she said, but a compliment. As to why they didn't initiate conversations with me, she said they were wary of city folks who are quite often snobbish.
Not fully satisfied, I asked her "So, you mean, if I didn't look so obviously an outsider, they would engage with me? Is it only because I look different that they hesitate? Do they normally engage with a stranger they meet, provided the stranger looks like one of them?"
Her response, which took some time coming, had me floored.
"Puja, there are no strangers in a village!"