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There was a time when the people next door were part of the 'extended family'. Now, they're just faces that you politely smile at in the lift.
Is the famous Indian curiosity dimming? Have we stopped poking our nose into other people's business? Fifty per cent of the people quizzed in a recent survey had no idea who their neighbour was, let alone if the neighbour was having an affair. An 18 per cent said they had no neighbours, owing to the fact that they never, in their entire habitation of said address, met anyone coming or going. The new generation has begun to believe that a social life involves logging on or going to the nearest cafê. Strictly no borrowing a cup of milk from next door.
Till about two decades ago, those living on the same floor tried to get together once a month. They would play cards or tambola or games of antakshari and go back home and gossip about the others, enjoying their alone time all the more for the raucousness of the previous hours. The wife would say that Pinki can't bake to save her life and the man would say, "hmmm", because Pinki had asked him coyly to sing "please-ji, just two lines".
Then there was setting one neighbour off the other. Preferences, backbiting, delicious secrets you were told not to repeat to anyone, not even yourself. Facial inputs - surprised, downright shocked, amused, tch-tch - were a vital part of good neighbouring. I remember someone begging the hostess for a recipe and the latter relenting. After the former left, the recipe-giver locked the door, threw me a smile and let on, "I have not given her the secret ingredient, which I shall now give you. It is..." Well, I have the secret ingredient!
But not having listened earlier, I only have to find that woman who has the rest of the recipe and together we can make the world's best something - I don't know what!
Suffice to say favourites were selected, favours asked and done, movie dates where one parent would take all the others' kids, picnics and booze sessions organised. And the smaller your house, bigger your heart so that anyone passing through your town bunked in with you. You'd declare 'athithi devo bhava' and just take over the guest's life. If possible, even arrange his marriage and prepare yourself to be thanked profusely all your life for interfering. Meddling, prying, intrusion were positive words, implying at their core such deep caring.
All this muted friendly bonhomie would bloom forth into something meaningful if one of them was to fall sick or pop it. There would be a military-like strategy on who will be at the hospital, who would provide food, who would babysit the bereaved kids and who will organise the funeral. Then the widow, after a decent pause, was recommended for that unmarried uncle in the US. Nowadays it is the domestic help who tells you that the young saab in A block came back 'finished' in an ambulance. And you frown, trying to recall if you've ever seen him. Only death makes a page-3 person out of anyone in his immediate vicinity.
You can play loud music, throw your cat out of the window, scream your lungs out and no one - no one! - will come and knock on your door to say, "keep it quiet please". In fact, many a women beaten black and blue by better halves are told point-blank, "It is a family matter". You meet folks in the lift now and then, and throw a polite semi-smile at all equally.
Of course, a big crisis can up sociability to a degree. A murder in the building, for instance, can make 'Pushkar Villa people' out of any bunch of strangers. A bomb blast, cyclone, garbage accumulation can bring a colony together. In quakeprone areas often people in an edifice hobnob freely with each other while rushing down the stairs simultaneously after a jolt or two. That's the time one meets every single person living in that flat and, owing to the panic, some of them at their most informal. Thus, you could spy a stern-faced lady in a towel or an entire man without clothes. This man will stand at the bottom of the stairs, having raced out blindly at the first quake, albeit not in too social a condition, trying his best to get back home but unable to do so for the steady downward stampede. In such times, though the ice is broken, no one has the time to stop and chat.
One might say twins are neighbours in the womb;the elderly prefer to have roommates in old-age homes. That it is only before the sperm meets the ovum and after-life support is switched off that we are truly on our own. That in between some handholding is mandatory. The clichê goes: no man is an island. But look into any crowd - not a single person is talking to another. He is plugged into some machine or the other, tapping his foot to music only he can hear, smiling at a smutty forward on his phone, mailing his boss in the US... Man today chooses his own company, regardless of proximity. Eye contact is impolite unless invited.
I am heartened by the fact that a little girl rings my doorbell at odd hours and then stands nonchalant before the lift, hands in her pockets, when I open the door. After I have duly looked to the left and the right, she says, 'Did someone ring the bell, auntie? You can see there is no one here.'
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