Robert Hirschfield finds no easy answers when robbed by poor villagers in India.

I THOUGHT THEY were praying. What else would they be doing in rural West Bengal, hands pressed palm to palm in the moonlight? This was India, after all.

But the row of men slung across the road left us no room to pass. I was too busy hoarding the night smells of ponds to be apprehensive at first. I don’t drive a car, or often ride in one, so inhabiting a vehicle puts me in an odd state of remoteness from the world.

Vinay, 26, brings solar energy to rural villages, and I bring my squares of writing paper. What did these gentlemen bring, hands fallen to their sides now, bodies pressing against glass and metal?

In their loose white trousers, the face of the night was darker than it had been a minute ago. Their spokesman’s voice was tense, not angry exactly, but held by an angry shadow that held me.

Vinay’s car was suddenly a bubble between villages. And I was a hive of tingly atoms known as fear.

Vinay did not raise his voice when he spoke to the head in the window, but he did not lower his shoulders either. The man was a poor villager, and Vinay was a friend of poor villagers.

“I try to follow the path of Gandhi,” he told me.

Really?” That is not something you hear many young Indians say these days.

“Really.” He shrugged, as if to say that if that made him a rare specimen it was fine with him.

Watching Vinay trying to keep ahimsa afloat in the darkness, I saw a man walking an invisible tightrope whose altitude pulled itself around him unseen. He just knew he had to keep walking.

“Give me the money in my bag,” he called to his driver sitting in the back.

Vinay handed the money over, and the circle of thieves fell away.

“Weird,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“It was a request.”

My fear fell away, as if, like the robbers, it had been dreamed.

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