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The lost neighbours of our childhood

When I think of neighbourly love, I only think of those we lived beside as children. Beyond the occasional request for safe-keeping of keys, I haven’t known my current neighbours for years.

Mamik had his breakthrough in the 1992 movie, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar.
Mamik had his breakthrough in the 1992 movie, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar.

There were a few essentials to growing up in the Bombay of the early 1990s in a building complex. All doors would be open during waking hours—especially on weekends and holidays. Badminton, roller skating, cricket or “dog and bone"—we would play after school every evening until various mothers started calling out from windows like cuckoos in a clock. The children were unsupervised; the parents weren’t nervous. When the outdoors were out of bounds for rain or heat, we had indoor group projects. Decades before Lounge, I was the editor of a building magazine my brother and I published for a brief period. Colour photocopies were for 10. There was a 5 black and white version. It had ads. If you paid an advance, we personalized content.

When I think of neighbours and neighbourly love, I only think of those we lived beside as children. Now, beyond the occasional request for safe-keeping keys, I haven’t known my current neighbours for years. They seem like artefacts of the past.

There was a bhelwala who would come to the building almost every evening. My parents, following the same line of thinking they did in banning new Hindi films—until DDLJ released, after which everything changed—had banned the consumption of bhel (and gola on Juhu Beach). They were from Delhi and Kolkata and had little patience for “Bombay junk". They might only be learning today that I had every treat from the bhelwala’s portable tin carrier as often as I could. Unbeknownst to my mother, some neighbour aunty or the other was buying me an evening snack.

In what can only seem like real life imitating Amar Akbar Anthony, our immediate neighbours were a Muslim family with three sisters, my closest friends; a Catholic family with one girl and two boys; and a Bengali-Japanese one with a girl my age. The variety of food on offer was staggering. Obviously, everyone else’s food and everyone else’s festivals are always better than our own. There was not just the firni on Eid, I was also privy to the daily iftaar, my favourite memory of which is a tall glass jar of Rooh Afza with sabza seeds floating in it like magic beads. The Japanese home had an inventive range of sweet potato dishes. The Catholic family made their own wine, which would be gifted to us before Christmas. Since it was “home-made", it passed parental controls. To my parents, wine was a lesser evil than the corrupting influence of Hindi cinema.

Unfortunately for my parents, they picked the wrong neighbourhood. At the time, our neighbourhood in suburban Andheri was becoming a hotbed for Hindi film and TV folk, and, with it, models and advertising folk. I remember being scandalized at having spotted one of B.R. Chopra’s Pandavas smoking outside a grocery store like he didn’t have a massive war to prepare for. Our building complex contained one of the seven bungalows that gave the area its name. It was popular for movie shoots (I wouldn’t recommend watching film shoots as a child. You watch water being poured over sloping roofs to make rain and Manisha Koirala being rude to the spot boys and movies lose some of their magic).

Neelam Kothari already lived in the next building. It was a landmark for home deliveries and autorickshaws. The Bollywood-ization was happening fast. One day, a didi from my building got cast in a music video while she was sitting in the ice-cream parlour opposite our gate. And then, Bollywood started moving in.

Our new neighbours included Pooja Batra, Khalid Siddiqui and an American man who was in all the washing machine ads those days. None was as popular with the younger lot as Mamik, who had just starred as the virtuous and objectively handsome older brother of Aamir Khan in 1992’s Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. In the movie, Ratanlal Sharma wore chaste white kurta-pyjamas but real-life Mamik went for topless runs on the beach, which was just behind our building, in red running shorts. He had a beautiful dog that ran with him. But the true reason for his popularity among nine-year-old girls was more bare-boned than that.

Another essential of an early 1990s childhood was school children being enlisted to raise money for various causes: old age homes, the blind. The teacher would hand out a blue form annually, we had a week to give it back, with donations from neighbours—I am certain parents today would shudder at the idea of children knocking on random doors. But we knew most of our neighbours back then. Though, sadly, even the bhel-buying aunties were limited in their contributions. 2 was the usual, and we were lucky if it was 5.

Mamik was rarely home. But his young male caretaker really upped the game with 20 contributions, reassuring us that Sir had specifically given him a fund for “building activities". We were also given chocolates and (then imported) Tang. Needless to say, tales of Mamik’s largesse flew far and wild. To return the favour, we even took his autograph one day while he was returning from a run. Mamik never did reprise the glamour of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. But to us, the children of my building complex, he already had the most treasured role of all: Best Neighbour.

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