The biggest thing that has struck me over the last week is the insularity of apartment life. For someone who has never experienced living outside of an apartment complex (and I’m not talking about the fancy-shmancy self-containedness of todays buildings), my life has done a 180 degree turn.
I feel that apartment living is designed to foster nuclear set ups, where every one keeps to themselves, venturing out of the comfort zone only in times of need. Boundaries are stark and common areas are nobody’s concern, specifically. (Unless you are one of those enthusiastic and concerned citizens who is willing to take an initiative)
While one usually has a few people one can depend on, the general vibe is to-each-his-own. Maybe this is my a narrow view, and I don’t mean to generalise, but this has mostly been my experience. It is also closely tied to the Indian tendency to worry about what’s inside the threshold of your home, and ignore the speck of dirt that lies just outside, that comes out strongly in apartment living. Of all the apartments I have lived in, the last one in Goa was probably the strangest. We lived four floors up, and the building didn’t have a lift. We didn’t have covered parking for our poor little car that has now braved four monsoons out in the open. My next door neighbour hated me without reason. On day 2 or 3, when I rang her doorbell to ask if she could help me find domestic help, she opened the door, just a tiny crack poked her eyes and nose out, gave me a firm ‘no’ even before I could have a conversation and shut the door. That pretty much set the tone for our “relationship” in the months to come. For the 3.5 years that we were there, I never spoke a word to them. If we happened to exit our homes at the same time, they would quickly retreat into their home, slam the door shut and wait for us to leave before they left. But that was not the worst of it.
As a newcomer to the city and the apartment complex, I wasn’t aware of the garbage disposal systems. With nobody to tell me to separate my wet and dry waste, and to put the two out on separate days, I had unpacked my kitchen and left a pile of cartons out in the hope that they would be taken away by the garbage collectors. The trash disappeared from my doorstep, only to reappear strewn all over VCs bike a few days later. After a few hours of elimination we deduced that it was the next door neighbour, when we returned home to a post it stuck on our door. It had the details of garbage collection and a sarcastic “Let’s keep our building clean.”
I found it odd that the woman preferred to leave me a stern note, than knock on my door and have a civil conversation about it. I found it odder still that someone who had filthy dustbins that looked like they hadn’t been cleaned in years (with layers of garbage crud lining the insides of it, and no garbage bags to speak of) and had taken the trouble of littering the parking area and a vehicle of a fellow resident, had the audacity to talk to me about keeping my building clean.
I wanted to confront her, but given her behaviour of never wanting to look me in the face, I decided to let it go and not give her reason to pick on us ever again. A part of me hated the apartment complex we lived in, for this disastrous welcome that we had. It turned me off from speaking to anybody else, and I have gotten through the last 3.5 years without knowing any of my neighbours. And yet that home gave us some of the fondest memories. I think the open, green view, the two airy balconies and the relative peace and quiet helped us tide over most other things. Until the construction site came along and made moving inevitable.
I came here expecting nothing. I came here wanting to lie low and do my thing and not get in anybody’s way, least of all invite the wrath of garbage spewing neighbours. Instead, I was blown out of my mind by the warmth I have received. And over the week, it came in small packages, every now and then, when I needed it the most. Most of all, I have been overwhelmed by the different vibe. Where apartment life was all about staying within the boundaries of your home and shutting doors to keep the outside from getting inside, living in a residential area seems quite the opposite. It seems to be about community and opening your home out rather than keeping it closed in.
Several moments had me stop and soak it in, this feeling of experiencing something new. I didn’t think it would ever be difficult to get used to smiling faces, a wave from the home across the street, an elderly man who shows interest in welcoming you.
The women from around the street are friendly and chatty, and had gathered for a cup of chai one evening. They looked up into my balcony where I was standing, said hello. Completely proactively. Welcomed me to the neighbourhood and asked me to pop by if I ever needed anything. My next-door neighbour hooked me up with the doodh-wala who now delivers milk to my doorstep, another new development form the last home. She also introduced me tot he fish-wala who brings a van full of fresh fish to our street twice every week. On the other side is a bunch of scientists, who live in their official quarters. In the evenings they come out to take a walk. The uncles with their mustaches and salt and pepper hair, and the aunties with their heavy sneakers hidden beneath salwar kameezes. They welcomed us to the neighbourhood too. One even took care to come and inform us that his coconut tree leans into our driveway, and that we must keep an eye out for falling coconuts.
My list of thank-you cakes to be made is slowly growing.
Of course all is not rosy. Just when I was beginning to think its so awesome to live on a street like this, one particular neighbour showed up in my face one morning, angry as a hyena. I apologised for the issue, and quickly jogged my mind to think of a way to solve it permanently. But digging a little deeper, we realised that he has actually festered unhappiness about the very existence of this home and the renovation work that went on for the past 5 months. He’s just pissed. Period. And rather than take up the many issues he has, with the owner or builder or the forces that be, he’s waited five whole months festering his frustration, waiting to catch just anybody willing to listen, and lash out at every chance he gets. The git doesn’t understand that some of his issues are not even things we can resolve for him.
Is this another Indian thing? To avoid confrontation so much, that you’d much rather throw your hands up in the air and be frustrated till the cows come home, than get up and do something to sort out your issues? What lies just outside ones home is never ones business, is it?
Or is he just an apartment dweller stuck in an otherwise very homely neighbourhood?
Either way, no thank-you cake for him.