Hello, stranger!

By Suma Varughese
In my head and heart, there have been scores of people I have been prejudiced about, had an issue with, or wrote off. I judged them and found them wanting. Slowly, I have been mentally going over this ledger and asking myself if I could possibly get over the grudge, hurt or prejudice and take back the relationship. This reflection has been provoked by my realization of how much damage all these grudges were doing to me. Did I really want to be stuffed with the stinking carcasses of old hurts and wounds?
And who was I to judge another? In the journey of life I too have hurt many people with my impulsive anger. With this in mind, I have been slowly erasing these injuries, and embracing their perpetrators in my heart.
And with that, a whole new ease at being with people has manifested. I always felt it ought to be possible to be at ease with anyone and everyone, just as we were when we were children. How easily we embraced everyone in our fold. We played with everyone, and pushed no one away.
I have always loved the little glancing contacts we occasionally have with total strangers. It can be a smile, a kind gesture, or a small conversation that fills us with warmth and satisfaction. On a recent visit to Chennai where I stayed with my friend, Sampoorna, I experienced this vividly when she took me to see a lovely place called Dakshin Chitra, which has real-life models of houses of different communities and classes of the four Southern states, as well as craftsmen and crafts reminiscent of Dilli Haat.
As we went around, Sampoorna, and occasionally I, struck up conversations with some of the craftsmen and visitors and just for that little time, we glimpsed their world. I recall a coconut seller who told us that her name was Kumari. When Sampoorna called her by that name, her delight was inexpressible. “Amma, you have called me by my name. No one calls me by my name,” she exclaimed joyously. It was a moment of intimacy, no less.
I wondered why I did not have these soul-nourishing exchanges with the hundreds of strangers I meet everyday in bustling Mumbai. Strangers at the park where I take my morning walk, strangers in my neighbourhood I pass and even recognise, but do not talk to. Strangers in the train I commute by. What is this skin of alienation that we shroud ourselves with in the metropolis, and why is it so hard to penetrate?
Part of it may be sheer self-protection. Cities have too many people, and in defence we rear back and retreat into our shell. It may also have to do with our own struggles with self-esteem, boundary setting and other psychological armory. And of course, there is the egoic need to put down, define and compartmentalize.
I always felt it ought to be possible to be at ease with everyone, as we were in childhood. How easily we embraced everyone in our fold. Slowly, I am finding that this skin is becoming more permeable, and is permitting me to gradually admit strangers into my life, without my feeling vulnerable or defenceless.
I recently went to the place of my childhood, a remote place called Sunabeda in Orissa, which houses the HAL factory where my father worked. I was making this trip after 45 years in the company of about 25 of my former class mates and township mates who also I had not met for as many years.
I was amazed at the ease with which all of us picked up the threads and became friends. For the first time in years I felt that I was back in that childhood space where
I could receive strangers with openness and trust. And take them into my heart.

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