Collapse of the Indian neighbourhood

Last Updated 08 January 2010, 11:31 IST

When AG Gardiner wrote a humorous essay called, Those People Next Door, on the British neighbourhood where people would not interact with each other except in the case of a fire or a similar emergency, Indians had read the piece wide-eyed. Little did they imagine that the future generations of their own families would barely exchange a word of courtesy with their neighbours!

Urbanisation and modernisation have taken a toll on everyone’s social life. The changes are more clearly visible in big cities than in small towns. The immediate neighbourhood — once considered an extended family — is no longer a relevant feature in the lives of many young Indians. High rise apartments may offer physical proximity, but emotional proximity is light years away.

Those good old days
The Kalyanasundarams, who are in their late sixties, say they were neighbours before they became a couple. “Thanks to the elders in the family who arranged our marriage, good neighbours turned into affectionate relatives,” says Alamelu Kalyanasundaram.
Theirs is not an isolated case. Until a few years ago, marriage proposals were routed through trustworthy and well-meaning neighbours. “This speaks volumes of the faith one had in one’s neighbours,” says Kalyanasundaram.
Such faith does not blossom in a trice. It is cemented over the years and bound by strong ties of affection.

A popular FM radio station recently encouraged people to ‘know thy neighbour’, and it was heartening to hear the RJ being bombarded with messages from all over the City. But a closer examination revealed that most of the messages came from people who had been neighbours for over two decades, which begs the questions: Do the young and the upwardly mobile know their neighbours?

Lakshmamma migrated to Bangalore from a small village in Tumkur as a young bride to join her husband who worked for HAL. The frenetic pace of city life was unsettling at first. Yet her friendly nature won over her neighbours, particularly a middle-aged woman called Shyamala, who became her friend, philosopher and guide. Though Lakshmamma moved to her own house in another neighbourhood years later, her friendship with Shyamala is going strong. “My friends from the old neighbourhood are there with me on all important occasions in my life,” she says with a warm smile.

No time to stop & say ‘hello’
Poornima and Pooran Burman, techies from Raipur who moved to Bangalore five years ago, have little time to socialise with their neighbours but Aditya, their three-year-old son, knows everybody in the vicinity. “It’s hard to take a walk with Aditya because he stops at every step to speak to the uncles, aunties, didis and bhaiyyas in the neighbourhood,” Poornima says, clearly not too pleased with the demands such unscheduled stops make on her time!
Rania and Ahmed, a young couple who shifted from Marathahalli to Devasandra in the City, confess that though they vowed to stay in touch with their previous neighbours, the phone calls have petered out and the emails have become few and far between. “We do miss our neighbours, but friends for life are usually friends from our childhood,” says Ahmed.

Blame it on busy work schedules
Clearly, most young couples have neither the time nor the inclination for either a quick cup of chai or a leisurely meal with their neighbours.
Constantly on the move because of their demanding jobs, they are simply too engrossed in their own world. Long weekends are reserved for the family and festivals mean trips back home, leaving them with no time or scope to forge ties with people who stay around them — not even to exchange the customary platter of Diwali mithai or the tray of Christmas goodies.

The elderly, who set great store by neighbourhood relationships, choose to visit their old neighbours in the neighbourhoods of their youth, rather than bond with their new neighbours who live in the mostly-locked apartment next to theirs.
“Everyone here is very busy and we hate to intrude,” says Colonel R Singh (88), who lives in an apartment complex in Dollars Colony.
“Nevertheless, it’s heartwarming to find that children have no such inhibitions. Before you know it, they are attending birthday parties of their new pals. Such parties turn out to be occasions when the adults also get to catch up with their neighbours,” he says.

Cricket buddies
Teenagers who move into new neighbourhoods usually make friends quickly with those of their own age at hobby classes and coaching classes, on the cricket pitch, at movie theatres and malls. Vishal and Sathya, brothers and students of engineering who moved into a new locality recently, are overjoyed that they are getting the best of both worlds.
“We have been able to form a decent cricket team because friends from our old neighbourhood and new neighbourhood have come together. Besides, it gives us the perfect excuse to stay out longer and do fun things together,” they say.
Saraswathi, a home maker who lives in Banashankari in the City, explains that neighbourhood friendships are not limited to the good times — parties, picnics or movies. “Pitching in when your neighbour is ill or taking care of their pets or plants when they are out of town is equally important,” she says.

Subramaniam never fails to invite anyone who moves into his neighbourhood in ITI Layout for a cup of filter coffee. He puts them in touch with the newspaperman, milkman, grocery and vegetable vendor, local music teacher and so on — no wonder he is such a popular person in the neighbourhood! His singular lack of interest in the personal life of his neighbours has won him everyone’s respect and affection.

Nosey Parkers, watch out!
But it takes all sorts to make the world. Nosey, noisy and interfering neighbours are as much a reality as thoughtful and helpful ones. Ram Rao, a bank officer, recalls a particular neighbour from hell. “He would stride into my house and help himself to the newspaper, the telephone, the bed sheets or even the pickles! Once he slept in our guest room because he had guests at home,” he says with a shudder.

Monisha Pal, who lives in an apartment in Girinagar, is hoping to shift to an independent house because she is fed up of the demands made on her time and energy by her cranky, elderly neighbour. “She wants to know everything about my family, friends and relatives, and my guests are subjected to her interrogation!” There can be no entity such as the perfect neighbour. According to Gardiner, “The chastening truth is that we are all being judged, and generally very unfavourably judged, on evidence which, if we knew it, would greatly astonish us. It might help us to be a little charitable about those people next door if we occasionally remembered that we are those people next door ourselves.”

(Published 08 January 2010, 11:31 IST)

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