One morning, a few weeks ago, I got into the elevator at work and smiled politely at the guy sharing it with me. He smiled back, pressed the button for the 6th floor, then turned to me, asking, “What level?” It took me a few seconds to get over my disbelief, during which I just gaped at him, before I composed myself, scoffed, and replied, “Dude, I’ve been working next door to you for a year and a half now.”
Now, you have to understand, I work in a three-person office, which means we rent a tiny room in a co-sharing building. Everyone in the building works in similarly small offices, and because of the co-sharing nature, you have to get out of the room and roam the common spaces to use literally everything from the toilet and the water dispenser to your phone (because the rooms are so small, you’re likely to disturb someone if you talk aloud). In a situation like this, when this guy was likely to have walked past me countless times in the corridor, it felt crazy that he didn’t remember that I worked on the same floor as him, let alone right next door.
I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt – maybe he just doesn’t have a memory for faces. But this isn’t an isolated incident. A few days ago, a similar situation occurred at home (I may have to consider the possibility that I just have a really forgettable face). This one didn’t shock me as much – in the year and a half I’ve lived at my current place, I can count the number of times I’ve seen my neighbours on one hand. There are two other houses on the same level as mine, and I still am not completely sure how many people live in each one, let alone know their names.
You can understand how, having grown up in India, this may be a slightly strange situation for me. In India, neighbours are as good as family. Like family, you can’t really pick them – you’re stuck with them. If you’re lucky, you get neighbours you like, but even if you’re not particularly fond of them, there’s pretty much no way to avoid them. Whether it’s a bowl of yoghurt, a new breakfast recipe, the latest gossip or unsolicited advice – everything is shared with neighbours. The time between moving into a new place and sitting in your neighbour’s living room, having a cup of tea and sharing your life story, can vary between a couple of hours to a full day, but usually not any longer than that.
Within a few weeks, you know everything. Everything. Entire life history, knowledge of extended family, full details on current drama in the family, and possibly a spare key and the combination to the Godrej safe containing all the family jewellery. And then, of course, there’s the food. We once lived next door to a couple who had two sons, so the woman took to chatty, girly me immediately, often referring to me as her adopted daughter. She was a great cook, and so whenever she made something new and/or special, I was one of the first few recipients. Me being a food lover often made my response to her food more enthusiastic than her own son’s, which meant I got even more stuff to try.
Even apart from the food, neighbours have always been a big part of the good memories of life in India. Maybe it’s because I don’t live as part of a family (I do feel that kids foster neighbourly behaviour), or because I’m not in the house during reasonable hours of the day, but it just doesn’t feel the same here. Yes, I see familiar faces around my condominium all the time, and we smile politely at each other, but there’s still no neighbourly feeling about it.
I hope it’s not too long before I get a proper life-sharing neighbour again.