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How well do you know your neighbours?

I can't help feeling I'll never really know my neighbours until they are faced with the choice of joining the mob or displaying their humanity

Nimrat Kaur, in the movie ‘The Lunchbox’, had an intimate relationship with her neighbour who lived on the floor above her. The two women spoke through their windows.
Nimrat Kaur, in the movie ‘The Lunchbox’, had an intimate relationship with her neighbour who lived on the floor above her. The two women spoke through their windows.

Like them, a neighbour had moved to India during Partition. One day he showed up at their house in Shimla, and said he was headed back to Rawalpindi to recover a stash of money hidden in the wall of his house in Pakistan. Then he asked them: Do you want me to bring anything back for you? That’s how Sumitra Kapur’s family recovered the Guru Granth Sahib that her mother had always cherished. When author Aanchal Malhotra asks Kapur in her book Remnants Of A Separation if her family is Sikh, Kapur replies: “No beta, we were Hindu. But before Partition, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim…how did it matter? Everyone mixed with each other and visited the mandir, gurudwara and masjid without any problems." Partition overflows with tales of neighbourly love and neighbourly terror.

Before I got married, the only neighbours I had ever known were the adorable Tamilian men down the corridor from my apartment in my graduate school days. They enveloped me in their pepper rasam-fuelled lives when they discovered I was a fellow vegetarian.

After marriage, in Delhi, irksome things involving neighbours happened quite frequently. Irksome only by my stand-offish south Mumbai standards, the husband happily provided all the personal information that north Indian landlords believe is their right to extract from tenants. When a mango tree fell on our Maruti Omni after a particularly rough storm, I was the only one upset that the neighbours seemed more concerned about collecting the fruit than sympathizing about the damage to our vehicle. At least they gave us a bottle of the pickle, the husband fondly recalls.

Now we live in a church-mosque-temple neighbourhood where everyone seems so perfect. I envy many of my fellow residents.

I wish I were more like her, that woman who swishes past me every morning in her floor-length skirt, pet poop scoop in one hand, leash of her silvery, adopted two-year-old retriever in the other. The canine is not a fan of morning walks but comes along because she loves people. I’m not ready to take responsibility, I tell Babyjaan every time she pleads for a dog.

I wonder about his story, that young man who lives in a battered Maruti 800 on my street and carries water in a 5-litre Saffola can to bathe by the side of the road. These days he looks happier. He’s started exercising and on some mornings I’ve even seen him walking a neighbour’s hound. I’m a writer, I should find it easy to get his story, right? But eye contact still hasn’t progressed to a, “Hi…Why do you live in a car?"

I’m a huge admirer of her ability to give, the lady who glows with goodness. These days she’s working to rescue 20 senior citizens from hell. They are shackled so they don’t escape from the old-age home. If you can bear stench and sadness, come with me some day, she tells me. I’m not sure I can. Oh yes, she also caters biryani, and fights with mullahs to educate little girls.

I’m a diehard fan of the dashing, chain-smoking old gent who will soon have to shut down the last circulating library in the neighbourhood because he can’t afford the rent. He has a better fix on the crime thrillers I like than my husband of 17 years.

I admire the two or three women I know who will always be in attendance at every gathering that seeks to solve a civic problem. “Attention residents: There’s a meeting called by the inspector for law and order. Now’s your chance to represent the neighbourhood." From terrorizing the illegal pani puri vendor and nagging us until we segregate garbage, to getting the requisite support to fight a new zoning rule and cutting low-hanging cables, they are at the forefront of everything that improves our little community. I feel exhausted just looking at their to-do list.

I love the Parsi baker who delivers mixed-flour sesame sourdough to my doorstep, sliced if I want. He may be my most valuable neighbour. Six loaves going today, he messages on a WhatsApp group at any time of day. I feel an intense sense of achievement when I reply in time. He deserves a separate column.

I toast to the neighbour who repeatedly reminds people to remove all the Chinese manja (kite-flying thread) they can see from their terraces. And who rescues and relocates the Brahminy kites when the manja gets tangled in their wings.

A special shout out to the smiling stranger who rang the bell and invited us to dinner. “There will be lots of Muslim people," she said almost apologetically. “But I’m sure you will be comfortable."

Cheers to the enthusiastic gent who buys organic goodies off farmers and then distributes them in the neighbourhood. The clinical psychologist-Bharatanatyam dancer-trekker-co-conspirator who said to me today: “I realize I’ve never hugged you." Love always to the owner of my favourite Bengaluru book store. Welcome to the hot-shot entrepreneur who moved in six months ago. Keep it up to the badminton boys who meet every day. How can I forget the actual next-door neighbours who are lovely enough that you want to hang out with them socially.

I can’t imagine life without Babyjaan’s bestie’s extended family. Christmas is when their building suddenly acquires a festive air. No party is complete without the singing sisters.

In this progressive community, my neighbours seem perfect. Like all the parts of a jigsaw that make up my idea of India.

I wonder if our relationship will ever be tested. I wonder what they will be like then, these perfectly friendly neighbours. I can’t help feeling I’ll never really know my neighbours until they are faced with the choice of joining the mob or displaying their humanity.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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