The other day, I was on video chat with my brother who lives in Coimbatore, India. I could hear a small boy’s voice fill the room. My nephew was away in Bangalore and so I was curious to know who it was. My brother held the little boy to the screen by way of introduction and said, “He is our neighbour’s kid, he comes to our house every evening to play and have a dosa.”
How sweet! And it was then I looked at the locked door of my flat. No one was at home… and there was no neighbour I knew on the floor that I could go to for some chatter, not a single door that was left open, not even by accident. Moreover, after a long working day, where was the time for chatter when there are a million other things to be done… one got into the same routine day after day, almost believing too hard in it.
At times like this, when I am alone and the loneliness of being away from extended family gnaws within, I wistfully remember my childhood days. Where we spent most of our days in and out of the homes of our neighbours. Plucking jambakas, (rose apples), that pinkish fruit that could burst into sweet juice in the mouth, eating sour mangoes, a tasty titbit shared at one place or enjoying a lively cricket match at another’s. We often screamed across the walls when not sitting on them and there was generally camaraderie all around.
But then that was not only what neighbourliness is all about, isn’t it? It’s about being there in both good and bad times… and as I pointed out to somebody recently, “You don’t need blood to make relationships. A loving heart will do.”
The instances of neighbourliness were many. When my mother was in hospital, I remember our neighbour taking care of us while she was undergoing treatment. They forbade me to cut my long hair and for more than four years, painstakingly oiled and plaited it every single morning before school. No questions were asked and we were not allowed to hesitate if asked to stay for lunch or dinner.
Another neighbour would take me to school before the beginning of every school year to buy the books if my father couldn’t make it. Yet another accompanied my mother for her chemo treatments. And there was Teacher, our stoic and always forgetful neighbour who let me borrow from her enviable collection of Reader’s Digests that dated back to the 60s, and only me, because according to her, no one else knew their value!
It was a given… we were a part of their families. And it was on the laps of these neighbours that I cried my heart out when my mother passed away.
Looking back, years later, sometimes I realise a part of my strength comes from these formidable women… they had very little education, but definitely hearts of gold. Compassion, empathy, the ability to love without any barriers or boundaries… I don’t know how else I could put it… neighbourliness to me are these families… good-hearted men, women and children who touched my life in a million different ways. These maamis, maamas, annas, manni, chettans, chechis, and bhais of my childhood were indeed very dear to me!
I do sometimes meet some of my old neighbours. Years back, I remember visiting one of them who now stay close to where we have a flat. There was ice-cream waiting for me, and a huge party pack at that! When I joked I was 32, maama said that I’d always remain a child for him. Others pinch my cheeks and bemoan the loss of my lovely tresses all the while exclaiming that I’ve become ‘so fat’. While some others to date, remember what food I liked to eat and what song I used to keep singing, like on extended loop! And thanks to the internet, a lot of us are still connected, happy to relive old days and meet up again, whenever an opportunity comes up!
In 1997, when my husband and his family came to ‘see’ me, I remember my Gujarati neighbour, mausi, who came over to ‘check’ how the proposed groom was. And we hadn’t even told her anything. She just guessed and hopped over! We jokingly insist that it was the whiff of ‘Gulf’ perfume that wafted over the ‘neighbourly walls’! And wait, ‘Teacher’ travelled all the way from Kodungalloor to Cochin on October 24 instead of November 24 for my marriage, getting the date wrong. She laughed at herself and yes, came back to Cochin again to attend the wedding.
I may never meet some of my neighbours again for its long since they and I have moved out of the neighbourhood but they will continue to hold a very special place in my heart…
Why? Because some memories are never meant to be forgotten. For who can forget love… It just passes on… and on… this circle of giving and receiving.
P.S. (Maami will be back soon… this one was on my mind for a long, long time!)