My parents always placed great emphasis on neighbours. They are your ‘first’ family, they would say. By first, they meant that in a time of crisis, they would usually be the first ones to respond, and by the virtue of your proximity to each other , you would see them more often than your relatives.
I tend to agree. I also believe that the art of neighbouring is something that needs to be revived in urban cities. I understand that it can be a game of Russian roulette in terms of who you end up with as your neighbours. But with a little luck and a little love, we can have some really good experiences and friendships.
‘Do you need tea, coffee, sugar or bread?’
I had my back towards the common passage, when I heard someone calling out to me – hello neighbour.
I turned around to a really nice, smiling face.
Hi, I am ****, he said.
Hello, we moved in a few weeks ago.
That’s why we haven’t seen you around. If you ever run out of anything – tea, sugar, coffee, bread or potatoes – just feel free to knock.
Thank you, I said.
When my husband came home, I told him about our new neighbours and their kind offer. It’s just such an Indian thing to say to your neighbours, I said to my husband. I didn’t know it was something the Irish would say too. Not that I am going to knock on his door for potatoes or sugar, but it was so nice of him to say that.
Over the next few months, we came to know our next-door neighbours better. We sent them a plate of home-cooked Indian meal. They explained why North and South Dublin appears and feels so different, their Mams, about places to go to on the weekend, about their favourite Indian restaurants. We chatted about the rental prices in Dublin, about our time in the UK.
Next year, perhaps I would like spend more time with them, get to know them even better and to taste the stew that they say is a big part of their childhoods and the one they have offered to make for us.
Most of all, I am happy that when we meet in the lift or in the common grounds below, we always have a conversation going. And that when I am walking on the pavement and a car honks at me, it is not because I have done something wrong. It is in fact, our Irish neighbours trying to get my attention, waving to me frantically out of the car window, huge grins in tow!
‘If you ever need any help when your husband is away, just call‘
That’s our neighbour who lives two floors above us. Like us, she’s Indian and has moved to Ireland this year. We bonded over food, over the trials and tribulations of starting over in a new country, over grocery shopping, books, and walks and other hundred little things.
We belong to different regions in India. She’s from South, while I am from the Western part of India. We send each other our food – often they are little discoveries for both of us. This is because though we share India as our homeland, regional cooking varies and there’s so much variety that you need seven lifetimes to try and sample the food from India’s different states and regions. She sends me rasam, pongal, pork curry, sambhar. I send her chole, pav bhaji, chicken curry, sheera and handvo.
Last Friday, the husbands went out for a drink. They bonded over a love for Kerala beef curry, Metallica, beer, whiskey, trekking and the masala peanuts served in Bangalore pubs.
Since the husband travels a lot for work, last week when he was away, she came over and told me that I could call her and her husband any time if I needed help. She knew I don’t sleep well when my husband is away, and the four days he was out of Ireland, she texted me before going to bed and again in the morning the next day. She checked up to see if I was okay.
I am grateful beyond words.
Then, there’s another Indian couple on the floor directly above ours. They are friendly and really nice as well. They had us over for tea and snacks.
We recently had a potluck where five of us – all Indians shared a delightful evening together. We all live in the same gated community.
This weekend, all of us are going to the North of the city to attend the celebrations for the South Indian festival of Onam.
I can’t wait for us to wear our colourful outfits and take the bus! If you see us, do wave to us!
Reading, United Kingdom
‘Is that a Christmas card?’
Our immediate, next-door neighbour in Reading, Berkshire was a British lady in her late sixties. She was not very friendly to begin with. Part of the reason was that she was the only apartment-owner who lived in the maisonette, the other owners had all rented their apartments out. Which meant she didn’t have steady neighbours but tenants that came and went.
She could also be a little difficult. She had the gardener put up a trellis and plant honeysuckle to climb over it so that she didn’t have to ‘see the faces of those noisy, young girls who shared the garden with her.’
As our first Christmas in Reading arrived, and we were getting ready to head out for a holiday, I decided to write my X-mas cards and put them in the letter boxes for our neighbours.
As I was about to slide her card through her door, her car pulled in in the driveway. So I was like, can I give you this card instead?
Is that a Christmas card, she said.
She looked stunned and fell silent for a few moments. Then suddenly she dropped her grocery bags, put her arms around me and gave me a hug.
After that Christmas (card), she always said hello, asked after my husband when he sprained his back, offered to take me in her car to buy groceries, helped my husband with the keys when he was planning a surprise birthday party for me. We would have conversations, and she was never aloof or indifferent.
We always received a Christmas card from her from then on and when we were leaving the UK, she came over to say good bye and said she was sad to see us go. I will email you if I am ever in Dublin, she said.
‘I have been waiting for you‘
I moved to the United Kingdom a couple of months after my husband moved (from India.) I was waiting for him to get an apartment and such.
The first week I arrived from India, I heard a knock at my door.
I am Shilpa, said the young Indian lady, and I live upstairs.
And I have been waiting for you, she continued with a huge, huge smile.
So she explained that she was very happy when my husband moved in in the apartment downstairs. Finally, she said to herself, I have an Indian neighbour. But then she was sad. I was sad, she said, because there was no wife. I thought your husband was a single, bachelor guy. I so wanted an Indian neighbour that I could talk to.
One day, she said, she overheard my husband talking on the phone in the common area. From the way he spoke to the person on the other end, Shilpa came to the conclusion that there was a wife. There was no doubt, there was a wife somewhere – not in the UK as yet, but somewhere.
And so, I waited for you to arrive. I am so happy you are here, she said.
I laughed. Over the next few years, we shared many important events.
I welcomed Shilpa home with the ceremonial aarti thali when she came back from the hospital with her newborn son. I was there when we celebrated his one-month birthday and then, his turning one. She always included us in her parties – the ones she threw at home (she was a very good cook) or the ones outside.
When my husband was away one year on Diwali, Shilpa and her husband took me out to festivities and Indian community events with them so that I won’t be left alone on a festive day.
When they moved to Canada permanently, we were really sad to see them go, but we remain in touch.
‘Is that your cat?‘
Peter and Danuta were Shilpa’s next-door neighbours and we met them first at Shilpa’s place.
But what really got us talking was Ginger the Tomcat. Ginger was a stray who had adopted my husband and me.
He came to us one afternoon during our initial months in Reading. My husband was airing out the laundry in the garden and suddenly, he called out to me.
Prerna, come here quickly.
I went outside and what do I see? A most gorgeous Ginger cat rolling on my husband’s feet. From that day on, he came to our place every day. We had been adopted.
Unknown to us, Ginger also went and visited Peter and Danuta as they were making dinner one day.
A week or so after, they asked us, if he was ours. Well, we didn’t know where he came from, but he came everyday but he wasn’t legally or technically ours. We loved him a lot and hoped that he loved us back too.
Soon, Peter built a house for Ginger so that he could be protected from the cold. My husband helped settle him in in his new house as Ginger was hesitant at first to sleep through the night in his new, wooden comfy home that came with a lovely blanket.
We soon had a WhatsApp chat group titled ‘Ginger’ because Ginger would eat at ours and then eat at Peter and Danuta’s and vice versa and was getting very fat. So we decided to tell each other every time had been to either of our places and had a snack or a meal.
A couple of months passed and Peter and Danuta took him to a vet, had him checked for a chip and after being told that he was a stray, they adopted him legally.
Ginger continued to come and visit us even after he was officially adopted.
And soon, Peter and Danuta and my husband and me became friends. Danuta introduced us to Polish food and a lovely Polish pub. We introduced them to Indian food beyond the butter chicken and my husband, Danuta and me teased Peter that there was nothing really that could be termed as British food other than fish and chips.
We went out for meals together. Had a lovely barbecue. Grieved the unexpected death of Ginger when he was struck down by a car just a little before Christmas. We grew to love the baby kitten Simba that they adopted and looked after him when they were away on a vacation.
We had tea and snacks at each others’ places. Danuta and I discussed hairdressers and rolled our eyes when the men went on to have in-depth technical discussions. (Both my husband and Peter are IT professionals.)
Last week, we exchanged texts on how Simba was a teenager now and how can we arrange a meet up – can they come to Dublin or do we go and visit them in Reading?
‘Are you his sister?’
I am only including the Indian neighbour that we had when I moved to Bangalore (from Baroda) to be with my husband. The reason is that I have had such a beautiful and interesting set of neighbours growing up that they would make for a novel or a collection of short stories.
It was quite funny, actually, meeting my Bangalore neighbour for the first time.
I was coming down the flight of stairs from the common terrace, and in my hands was the laundry that had nicely dried and aired out in the summer sun.
I met, who I thought was one of our neighbours. She was heading to the terrace to collect her laundry.
Hello, she said.
Hello, I replied back.
I haven’t seen you before.
I moved in last month. I stay in the flat below.
You mean, where Nandan stays, she asked.
Yes, I said.
Are you his sister?
Well, no, I am his wife.
Nandan got married?
It so happened that my husband never told anyone that he had been to his hometown, got engaged and then married and now had a wife. I don’t know what happened to the boxes of sweets from the wedding that my mother had given him, as tradition called for, to distribute to his colleagues and neighbours.
And that is why, no one knew that he now had a wife. Not even his landlord, who was equally taken aback when I answered his call one day.
And so after this hilarious first meeting, my neighbour and I started meeting more often. She was from Orissa and she introduced us to her cuisine.
On some days, the husband would come home and there would be kheer, idlis stuffed with jaggery and coconut and kurma and he would look at me questioningly. They are from didi (I addressed our neighbour as didi, that’s Indian for elder sister.)
I never got these treats, he would say. And I have lived here for so many years.
Well, it’s a start. And a start it was.
It’s not just about food. Good neighbours are so much more. They are an antidote to loneliness, they give you an opportunity to experience a little of their culture and most of all, it about the sheer pleasure of having a sense of friendship and companionship. Much like marriage.