Thursday, September 3, 2009

Love thy neighbour

Every evening at around 8 pm, I get off my cab at the main road, and walk the half kilometer to my apartment building. (My concession to everyone’s view that I’m too fat and should do all sorts of fancy exercises so that people don’t lose their lunches looking at me. Protestations that I don’t have time to exercise is met with a “If you really wanted to, you would’ve found the time.” Which is patronizing yet unfortunately true.)

So I start the rather enjoyable walk homewards by the lake, and occasionally look over my shoulder because the lights don’t work half the time and a dead man had been fished out of the lake 2 years ago; so slightly shiver-making. I walk for a vigorous 3 minutes or so, occasionally passed by a whooshing car or a rotund neighbor in evening-walk gear. I think of this and that: about the day at the office, how pretty my building looks twinkling across the lake, whether I’m stepping in poo in the dark and whether I ought to leave my shoes on the doormat because of it. I listen to the frogs croaking and the lake lapping and it’s always nice to be outside for those fleeting 5 minutes in the entire day.

Then casting a last glance over my shoulder, I gain the building compound full of more neighbours out for a stroll. (My neighbours are very big on strolling; one particular couple is there when I come in and is sometimes seen by my husband when he leaves for work the next day. I have my suspicions if they’re a new breed of bums posing as walkers; they might actually live on the front lawn: jumping up and strutting about vigorously the moment they see anyone coming, so as not to be evicted from the vicinity. Dunno where they change their clothes though; they're always fully clad when we see them.)

This is where things become trying because – I’m a terribly un-neighbourly person. I’ve lived in this building for 2 and a half years now and don’t know a single neighbour’s name. (I believe there are some 60 families in our complex.) My neighbours for their part (especially the housewives; poor things, they don’t need much to interest them.) find me endlessly fascinating, and appraise me through the corner of their eyes which slide away the minute I turn to make eye contact.

It’s my fault as well; if I had been smiling and approachable from the first I’m sure they would’ve been telling me their secret idli recipes (handed down for generations) by now. Sometimes I try to undo the damage by smiling broadly at them but most of them give me the hard-eyed up-and-down look typical of certain kind of people. Expected in a small town in a backwater somewhere, but startling when you face it in an upper middle class housing complex.
I dare say, if that decomposing man had been fished out any later my husband and I would’ve been the prime suspects.

Everyday in the papers they write about serial killers: “Police apprehended the suspects and have released an official statement. The couple had been murdering morning walkers and storing them in their closet for the last 20 years. They are still investigating how one ended up in the lake. Neighbours have stated that they kept aloof, except for cooking gas or plumbing emergencies.” More than the 19 bodies in the closet, it’s that last line which is most damning.

I often wonder why we are this way.

I don’t think we’re particularly unfriendly as people in general. I mean, we’re not gregarious party butterflies either, but I don’t think people who mix with us socially think we’re serial killer-ish at all (Do you? You can tell us the truth, we won’t hurt you…we have a nice roomy closet you’d die for...) Even at work, I seem to be on smiling and talking terms with a surprising number of people. And I know for a fact that my husband is much more of a people-person than I.

But when it comes to our building: it’s awkward silences in the lifts, questions whether we’ve just moved in at the store, and on good days weird do-I-smile-don’t-I-smile-do-I-look-don’t-I-look moments. And it’s entirely our fault for not being neighbourly, because everyone else, as far as I can tell, get along like a house on fire.

I can honestly say we’re improving because in the first home we moved into together we’d left the faucet on by mistake and went out for an entire evening. We returned with guests to a building in an uproar and the family in the adjoining house desperately trying to save their carpets and furniture from the water flooding into their house from under the connecting door.

One of the guests we'd brought with us ("Come and check out our new place! It's nice and DRY") sprang into activity and after shutting the tap off, starting sweeping the water into every available drain; while I stood in a corner, ashen faced, and babbled about always checking taps and doors and switches 42 times before I left the house, how could this happen?

Our neighbours were nice people (maybe we should’ve asked them what their names were, now that I think of it.) and grudgingly forgave us after we nagged them silly with apologies.

We can't say the same about the watchman, who had a proprietary air about the building. Till the day we left several months later, he would watch and listen to us through windows and ‘alert’ us if we’d left taps on even if it was only to wash our dishes or brush our teeth.

I sometimes toy with the idea of introducing myself to our neighbours and telling them this story, just so they know how lucky they are that we’ve improved over the years.

On the other hand, maybe somebody’s TOLD them already. It would explain a lot.