Love thy neighbour: Why have the people next door fallen out of fashion?
Today I’m filled with love for humanity. The next-door neighbour has been kind enough to share a smashing sorpotel, and a confusing homemade tomato wine. A few months ago, the absentee landlord’s sister, who lives in the next wing, invited me over to her son’s holy communion. I even did the hokey pokey with aunties and uncles while sipping homemade beer. And when the same kindly lady spotted my face on a website devoted to Goan beach rescues, she called in panic asking how things were. (Do look up ‘rip tides’ online.) Contrary to the stereotype of anonymous lives in big cities, my recent neighbourly interactions leave me with a pleasing sense of community.
It wasn’t always like this. Growing up in an offbeat family in a two-storeyed house with neighbours downstairs, the tendency was to keep to oneself. Even in those strained times, with complex adult entanglements, my sisters and I would be invited to the Punjabi aunty’s ground-floor home on Ashtami. We were each offered a pretty thali with kala chana, puri, halwa. And a 10-rupee note! Too young then to question any rituals involving good food, the treats made us feel incredibly special. Festive treats are still special to my sceptical grown-up self. And may no ideological dilemma ever compel me to refuse a hot bowl of sooji halwa.
In that friendly Christian neighbourhood – with Easter pageants at the church, pao wallahs on cycle and the gymkhana blaring music till midnight – the house across from us was endlessly fascinating. At the head of the family were twin sisters who never got along. One of them had two grandsons, the other two granddaughters, all in the general vicinity of my age. The low wall that separated our homes was a border that was only ever crossed by the kids, from their side to ours; we had a larger compound. Mostly we played our own version of aati-paati, where one team guarded lines drawn in the ground while the other tried to cross them. The older boys, of course, were cruel in the manner of older boys. “Do you even know what ‘smooch’ means?” asked one when I flaunted my love of Archie comics. How stupid, I thought. Who cares about smooching when one can laugh along with Jughead Jones?
Coveting the neighbour’s Wi-Fi
The part of the world we live in is a political tinderbox. No one would ever confuse our South Asian neighbours for family. As generous as we tend to be with the flaws of family, so are we critical of the failings of our neighbours. Luckily there are cross-border sensations like Coke Studio and Kumar Sangakkara that keep subcontinental bonhomie alive.
Living in Goa for a few months, I realised what it meant to have good neighbours when you’re out of your comfort zone. Luckily, friendly faces popped up everywhere. The next-door neighbour’s jazz and blues wafted in through the thin walls. Another allowed my housemates and me to use his Wi-Fi in the early days – a blessing for us remote workers in transit. Community dogs adopted us. We felt like locals in no time, enjoying two-hour long naps and first flush feni. Car pools and pet-sitting, meal exchanges and WhatsApp gossip – the world felt small and limitless all at once.
Pyjamas and ice cream
Keeping all the Biblical love aside for a moment, neighbours are the first respondents in emergency situations, such as an Amazon delivery when one is away, or change for a 500-rupee note for a late-night auto. (Though these days I’ve begun to rely on Ismail, the resourceful coconut seller on the pavement outside, for all such purposes.) In my previous building, an evening with friends was interrupted by a very worried looking middle-aged occupant of the flat above: “My brother’s pyjamas have fallen on your ledge,” he gravely announced. Of such mishaps are city evenings riddled. It’s best to stay on friendly terms with the folks around you. Sooner or later, the pyjamas will be yours.
My sister often says regretfully, “These days people don’t take their neighbours’ kids out for ice cream, like they did until the ’90s.” I haven’t investigated this strange claim, but in a world where everything is complex and divided, and society meetings explode over the smallest issues, friendly neighbours do seem a thing of the past. I agree it’s difficult to get along when flat renovations and leakage issues threaten all peaceful intentions. But all in all, it’s worth making an effort to be nice to the people we share electrical boxes and gas pipelines with. I think it’s time to take the kids next door out for ice cream.
From HT Brunch, January 20, 2019
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