Too close for comfort

Too close for comfort

How well do you know your neighbour? If you’re scratching your head without a clue on that one, you’re part of a growing tribe of street strangers that populate our urban spaces, says  Soumya M Nair.

January 2012. The phone rings and it’s my mother, her voice shaking in shock and partial denial, to inform me that Mohit Uncle is no more. That there will no longer be the friendly neighbour who used to usher me to after-class tuitions, swimming lessons, and chip in with car pool.

I can tell that it’s not going to be easy for my parents to come to terms with the death of a dear friend, who has been suffering from a deadly form of cancer for over six months now.

A month later, on my visit home, I’m sitting on the verandah overlooking the front yard that shares a wall with Mohit Uncle’s property when mother tells me in a tone that is heavy with sadness, “I can still see him walking out onto the lawn, carelessly holding one end of his mundu, waving at us and mouthing a greeting. It just isn’t fair.”

In the colony where I grew up, neighbours became your extended family, always eager to babysit, walk your dog, keep a watchful eye when you’re out of town, send over food if you’re ill, or even reprimand you if you’re caught doing something sneaky. I grew up with the belief that all neighbourhoods functioned on these principles and gestures.

I arrive back in the city early and try to catch a few hours of shut eye when a loud noise breaks through my walls. I’m jarred out of my deep slumber, fearing an earthquake has hit us. It’s a heavy boom that resembles an ominous thunder, loud enough to scare the daylights out of any sleeping dog. The noise registers and I realise it’s no life-threatening natural calamity but a woofer the size of a boulder that’s screaming religious songs. I check my watch. It reads 5.30 am.

I guess that explains my displaced sense of neighbourliness. While I am thankful for having grown up in a cosy housing colony that housed like-minded, nuclear families such as mine, I am also very close to calling the police on my hair-raising neighbours. But don’t worry, I’m not about to make yet another generalisation of changing communities and the lack of sensitivity and warmth in current neighbourhoods. But it definitely worries me to learn about words such as hostility, annoyance, fist-fights associated with the word ‘neighbour’.

“The door bell gives me a nervous tick. Ten years ago, neighbours never rang the bell. They would holler out my father’s name as they got closer to the house or simply helped themselves to the front door. Visitors these days either text or call, and rarely come over unannounced. I’m thinking of getting rid of the bell,” says 24-year-old Amrit Murthy, a resident of Indiranagar, Bangalore.

“Once a finger presses down on it, it means 10 minutes of unnecessary banter by the doorway, shifting from one foot to another, smiling till you know your smile is convincing no one, speaking in a tone devoid of concern but bordering on irritation,” he adds.

It is these kinds of comments that have led me to my earlier statement. And what I have come to discover is this: Where once there was an “enfolding community” providing a dependable collective resource, now the practice of looking out for a neighbour falls to a few or into neglect. So why do we dread the doorbell, or more precisely the neighbour? Why do we not factor in their opinion while making decisions that could affect their day-to-day existence?

To put things in perspective, I spoke to a mix of renters to understand why is it that we’ve turned into an unfriendly society and here’s a list that contains at least one reason why you don’t talk to your neighbour anymore:

*Get out of my way - Blocking a neighbour’s access to property or driveway may start off with a funny note asking you to move your car and probably end with a lawsuit that leaves you physically, mentally and financially exhausted for the next five years. Why go through the trouble, I ask.

*Turn it down, you freaks - The most common reason for neighbourly friction. Refer to paras above. 

*Hush now, dog - Letting your dog howl and bark all day is not an expression of how lenient you are as a master, but a call for angered neighbours taking matters into their own hands to quieten your dog.

*Mind your children — Not too many care for how cute your kid’s antics are, especially neighbours. Children making faces, running into the neighbour’s living room, screaming and waving a toy in their hand is not cute anymore, I’m told.

*Ignore thy neighbour? — This is a fine line that you must tread with caution. While it is best to keep the chit chat to a minimum, do not ignore a familiar face if you spot them elsewhere. It’s a sign of snobbery. You will immediately be targeted once you’re back home.

*That brings us to unnecessary chit chat — At a time when you could be making money playing a game or trading stocks from the comforts of your home, does it surprise you that nobody wants to be greeted or asked about their job? Smile a little, and mouth “See you around,”. Leave it at that.

*Watch your words — Phone etiquette is a huge deal breaker. Not while talking to your neighbour, but whilst standing on your balcony for better reception. Your neighbour’s son may just be at the age where he is repeating everything!

“I once hid under my bed when I saw my neighbour coming over with a bright-red pamphlet. This meant two things — extortion or a wedding invitation. Both make me uneasy,” says Narrain, who prefers to live in isolation, shying away from any kind of societal involvement.

Are we fractured?
A recent study conducted by HSBC seeks to explain why problems with neighbours might be escalating around the world. It explains how urban set ups have come to be a collection of “street strangers,” as many of us are peripatetic renters. But Stuart Beattie of HSBC, South-East Asia market, makes an important point: “Just because you do not own your own home does not mean that you cannot get to know those living around you.”

Srikumar, a resident of Indiranagar, Bangalore has lived on the same street for over 35 years. He has seen many a truck unload and pack up furniture over the years. Many came, some left. And the others sold their property for lands far away. “To be honest, I blame our virtues. We’ve become increasingly selfish, arrogant and insular in nature. The street that I live in is packed with hostile neighbours, ready to slap each with law suits. This was not how we conducted ourselves 15 years ago,” he says with deliberation.

Unruly neighbourly behaviour may be non-negotiable and this has led us to become more discretionary when it comes to choosing friends. Building a symbiotic relationship requires deliberate effort. Where connections between neighbours are thinly-spread and less visible, it is not surprising if we experience a vacuum of responsibility in our neighbourhoods. So step forward and acknowledge your neighbour if you believe it is important to love thy neighbour. It’s a small step.

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