Thursday, November 23, 2006

There goes the neighbourhood

There goes the neighbourhood
The Hindu

Remember the time you practically lived in your neighbour's house, eating what they did and playing with their kids? ANAND SANKAR wonders whatever happened to Bangaloreans who now entomb themselves in their homes with the front door closed

All it took was a call from an old neighbour. "How are you?" the voice at the other end shrieked. "What, you have forgotten us after you have moved? You used to come over almost every other day when you lived here and now there is no sign of you at all."

I rattle off one mobility-challenged excuse after another till the good soul hung up. After recovering, I idly wondered who my new neighbours were. Hmm... There is a an Oriya family next door, two Tamilian families in the floors below me and the couple who are supposed to work day and night at a call centre. I can't remember any of their names. True, they were all there for our housewarming, but we never seem to have progressed since then.

I blamed myself for moving into an apartment, which cocoons people into their own private cells. Then along came a friend who was from a part of a city that still has something resembling a neighbourhood. I asked her how much she interacted with her neighbours. Pat came the reply: "A smile here and there... That too if they and I have the time."

She went on to say she knew her neighbours for 19 years but didn't know their names or precious little else. So much for my theory on apartments. Wasn't there a time when we knew neighbours like they were a part of family? Wasn't there a time when you could just pop next door and be greeted by a steaming cup of filter coffee? Looks like days such as those are just reserved for trips down memory lane we bore our children with.

Sayonara to those days

"Back during my childhood days, anything at home would see a horde of neighbours drop in. Even if a neighbour's relative was getting married, a representative from our house would make it a point to register our presence. I still live in the same house today, but somehow I have not managed to forge the same relationship with the same neighbours," says Vijaya Sunder, 26, a resident of Malleswaram.

Sudha Sitaram is a Professor of Sociology at the Government College of Arts and Sciences. She says that people-to-people interactions have plummeted dramatically over the last few years. "We used to earlier define communities in face-to-face relationships, but it is now within four walls. The scene is not as bad as it is portrayed as the community today has a different kind of orientation. People do still care for each other and civic sense still prevails. People do help if you fall on the road. But the community today is different from its old description. It today depends more on the telephone and email."

I asked her how often people land up at their neighbour's unannounced these days. "The absence of this behaviour comes with lack of time. How often do you have the time to knock on someone's door today?"

But Jayanth Kaikini, Kannada writer, who has written extensively on strong neighbourhoods in Mumbai from his experience of living there for 23 years, says that it is not just about time. "It's also about your inner world, your mind. Society — be it a neighbourhood, state or a nation, it's all in your mind. Your interactions depend on how much space you have for others. Today's man is like a telephone diary. You have so many people and in an emergency you don't know which number to call."

Kaikini says that Mumbai, from an outsider's perspective, appears very methodical but the real secret of the city is the togetherness that bonds its citizens. And that togetherness was on display when the city was marooned by rainwater in July 2005.

"When something happens, everyone is together in Mumbai. A collective mind is operating there; the reason is the work culture. It is a working city and they sense that they are all connected. Bhai chara, you can call it. In fact, Mumbai talk only has singular, no plural. It builds a different kind of a neighbourhood which is very important for society."

When compared to Mumbai, Bangalore still has a small-town mindset, according to Kaikini. He says our city is cosmopolitan only in small pockets because the work culture hasn't bound people together. "Mumbai has always transcended class and caste. In my 23 years there, no one has ever asked me my caste, religion or language. But here people ask me in different ways. The neighbourhood is there here but the divisions are more."

Time and spaces are in our own mind, he adds, while saying that in Bangalore we are more interested in ourselves. "If there is no time, it doesn't take away a neighbourhood. A good public transport system is very important for the collective mind to work. If you have good public transport like in Mumbai, people are together more, and it's not about my scooter, my helmet or my car. If you don't have community interaction, then it is like being a soap in a soapbox. You are clean and smelling fresh but you are always diminishing."

Children undeniably are a big part of society and play a big role in neighbourhoods. Kaikini says the spread of the apartment culture might actually benefit them. "In apartments, children play more together because everyone is there. But in a layout you tend to pick and choose. And over-cautious parents take away something that is natural. A child is a child and children will have a childhood in any place. They are innocent and non-judgmental."

The good Samaritan

Yasmeen, a reporter married to a fellow media professional, calls her neighbour the "rarest of rare cases". Leading a life typical of a mediaperson, finding time to take care of little things like being at home when her eight-year-old comes — her only child — from school is tough for Yasmeen. This is where her neighbour Vasantha is a lifesaver.

"She is so helpful. When my son comes home from school, there is no one at home to receive him. She has our house keys, so she lets him in and serves him lunch. If I have not prepared lunch, she serves him at her place. Then there are tuitions in the evening. The tutor comes home, so she is there at that time. Were it not for her I won't have any peace of mind," says a grateful Yasmeen.

Vasantha moved into the neighbourhood only about three years back from Davanagere and she and her family have already become quite a part of the community here.

Bangalore neighbourhoods have made their way into www now. Someone has created a wiki page ( with all the major suburbs in the city listed. Each comes with a small description of its location and character. Not all suburbs and neighbourhoods of Bangalore are listed but what are you waiting for go ahead and add the place where you live to the list.


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