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Nosy Neighbors

January 2008
Nosy Neighbors

“Your next-door neighbor... is not a man; he is an environment,” said an early 20th century English writer. In the context of where we stayed in Mumbai, surrounded by a colorful potpourri of neighbors, each possessing a unique, flavorful disposition, our environment was more a jungle.

News traveled through walls, and gossip was like a strong stench that floated relentlessly in the air, refusing to drift away. Even the slightest movement in your house was detected. Be it a new washing machine, a refrigerator, or a cabinet, anything that required a grand opening of the creaking gate, a large truck, and four sweaty people, the gossip mill was bubbling and frothing. Within the next few minutes, you’d get g-mails (gossip-mails) that cataloged Mr. X’s new purchase: he bought it second-hand, heavily-discounted, from the store of his wife’s nephew who worked for an underworld goon.

I used to wince every time I saw this oily haired lady standing at the building entrance. She lived on the ground floor and I was definite that she’d seen me from her kitchen window, quickly put on her footwear and run to the entrance to ‘accidentally’ bump into me, to ask me about this girl who, two days ago, was seen with my mother in the car. I was sure she worked religiously on a list of creative extrication methods because she asked me veiled questions that she hoped would glean something juicy out of me.

“Your mother is taking yoga classes?” (This probably meant, ‘I see your mother come back perspiring and tired every afternoon.’) “Isn’t Ram’s dad looking dapper these days?” (‘Did he undergo a hair transplant?’) “I heard your sister-in-law isn’t taking tuitions nowadays.” (‘Is she pregnant?’)

Any new member who moved into our complex would have felt elated at the rush of friendly faces clamoring to help. He wouldn’t know that his new microwave had been meticulously examined by the sociable lady who brought him some welcome bananas, or that his buying price for the house was being fed into the gossip press by the lively guy who leapt out of his house in a tattered undershirt to help with lifting the mattress.

Actually, even if I missed the lady at the gate, I was in trouble. En route to my house on the third floor, I had to pass a cartel of chatter-hungry ladies who gathered on the second floor every day. They probably wrapped up their household chores quickly, and killed time, sitting at their doorways and teasing apart every buzz that floated.

My impish side got the better of me, one day, and I casually planted the flawed news to one of the gossip-mill workers that Ms. Oily Hair owned a pet snake. I couldn’t suppress my shock when, in less than 24 hours, my friend’s mother who lived several miles away called up my house to tell us about a pet snake that inhabited our complex.

The kitchen is often a woman’s inviolable domain. You can enjoy its products and appreciate its fittings from afar, but don’t you dare try to manage it. That throne is taken. However, in the meddling neighborhood that we were in, the kitchens in some of the apartment blocks were terribly positioned. The construction was such that the windows of all the kitchens on the floor were facing each other. This meant that the lady standing in her kitchen could easily see, smell and even opine on the activity around her. The best views, akin to watching football from the club level, were from the kitchens on the higher floors. You could see the last drop of oil that went into the potato curry or count the cockroaches that spouted from the crevice next to the sink. In this encroached environment, the conversations and questions could range from mildly annoying to outright obtrusive.

“Didn’t you make cabbage curry two days ago?”

“So much oil? My husband would kill me!”

“If I were you, I wouldn’t stir the milk so much.”

“Do you smell non-veg? I think Mrs. Murthy on the third floor secretly cooks chicken for herself.”

This neighborhood babbling is not restricted to our city. My friend in the U.S. who just moved into a new house knows everything delicious about his immediate neighbors. Kim is trying to have another baby, Roger poisoned his earlier neighbor’s dog, Frank means something else when he invites you to his backyard to check out his fish pond, and Irene hits her husband often with a garden hose.

Peyton Manning throws a touchdown now and Yahoo is updated. Why am I not really surprised at the speed of information travel today? I probably marvel at its unreal speed of transfer in those Internet-less days. And ponder over the condition of the lady at the gate who never steps out of her house nowadays. She still avoids endless questions about a nonexistent snake.

By Ajay Viswanathan

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