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Better Together

They dry our tears, watch over our children and make life better. Here, 15 remarkable true stories of perfect neighbours - our family next door

By Our Readers  

 

Our Extended Family

I rang my neighbour's doorbell with a small request recently, for her to keep my flat keys for a couple of hours. My husband had forgotten to carry his set, and I would be at work when he returned. As I saw her quickly run in her head possible excuses she could offer, I retreated with whatever grace I could manage. Later, I remembered times when neighbours, even in big cities, would open doors with big smiles.

It's late Sunday morning in springtime Thimphu, Bhutan, and the peach blossoms look supremely content, while I start feeling hungry reading Enid Blyton's description of a picnic lunch. When you're 10, even reading about hard-boiled eggs can do that. Suddenly, beyond the peach trees, I see a figure heading towards our gate. It's Ms Chhetri who lives across the road. I can see she's holding a tray: There's a plate of crackers, topped with cheese and scoops of marmalade. There's also a jug of orange squash. "I thought these would feel nice sitting in the sun," she says with a big smile as she places the tray on my lap. How could she read my mind?

Ms Chhetri had this way of popping over with piping hot parathas and sabzi for breakfast on Sunday mornings when the parents were too tired to face the world with three hungry children. When we were going out of town, she always met us with a packet of her perfectly flaky parathas. And the doorbell would ring, 15 minutes after we'd returned, with Ms Chhetri holding a tray of hot tea and snacks.

There was a sense of your neighbour being extended family, even through bad times. Like when Ms Chhetri received the telegram of her mother's death and could only leave for her hometown the next morning. I remember spending the night with her, holding her as she wept. I don't know if it helped - I was only 11 - but I wished I could bring comfort in her moment of grief.

We continued to find friendship and affection in neighbours even decades later. And today, I live in a building where I ask a person which floor she is going to and she replies, "Ninth". The same as mine.

Irene Dhar Malik, Mumbai

 

In Search of an Ally

I have always been surrounded by generous neighbours, but only realized their importance after I married and moved to a big city. That feeling of isolation mounted after relocating to Oman in mid-2013. Then, in January 2014, I met the perfect neighbours. From regular cups of tea and heart to hearts, to the time they dropped packing for their vacation to rush me to the hospital, they are now an integral part of our lives. They are family.

Neha Geel, Oman

 

The Nosey Man

On Sunday mornings, as soon as I called a kabaadi wallah to quietly clear out my empty bottle collection, the man would open his door across the landing and stand there, negotiating on my behalf, even counting bottles - ignoring my coldness. I had just moved into a new building in Gurgaon, and ours were the only two occupied apartments on that floor. Single and singed by inquisitive neighbours, I was wary.

He seemed to be omnipresent, materializing at the lift or the car park, always ready with neighbourly help. What's worse, he would somehow be there to witness when I got home from late-night parties. His wife kept to herself, though - smiling only when smiled at, responding when spoken to. But the man carried on, disgustingly cheerful and verbose.

This went on for an entire year, until, one day, my house was burgled. It turned out to be a nightmare as the police put out the story of an inside job: a single woman and a home with a bar, it went around like Chinese whispers. The guards and building staff leered each time I passed by.

The next day the doorbell rang. It was Biswajit (yes, that was his name), looking concerned and agitated. He brushed past me and sat down, without an invitation, and exploded, just like a family member would.

Why hadn't I called him? How dare anyone malign me in the building? He was going to deal with those disrespectful security guards.

I watched perplexed. How could he be so concerned for a woman who had been nothing but rude and aloof? His wife Nandini also joined in, and I finally offered them a drink. It was the start of a long and beautiful relationship. They have moved since, but the ties remain strong. Biswajit, the high-energy, lovable pest. And Nandini, one of my best friends.

Pritha Sen, Gurgaon

 

Strangers No More

It was 1971 and Diwali was around the corner. My wife and I had left Bangalore for my new posting at the Kalaikunda Air Force Station in West Bengal. We had been warned against staying in town as the Naxalite movement was at its peak. Thankfully, a friend had offered his spare room at the Officer's Colony. When we reached his house after a long journey, we found it locked. Their neighbour informed us that he had gone on a holiday.

Stranded with all our belongings, we walked through the colony hoping to find a familiar name. Spotting a south Indian surname, Squadron Leader Shankaran, we rang the bell. We explained our predicament to his wife, who called her husband and, with a broad smile, offered us a good cup of coffee and hot breakfast. They helped us unload our luggage and opened up their spare bedroom. We went on to become great friends and neighbours and, even though we have lost touch, never will we forget how they opened up their home and hearth to us.

Squadron Leader (Retd.) K. K. Moorthi, New Delhi

 

The Perfect Cake

My parents moved to McCluskiegunj from Ranchi when I was around eight. Our spacious bungalow had an orchard that bore juicy fruit all year round and there was boundless space to play. However, there was no hospital or public transport nearby. None of that mattered - all I wanted was a pretty birthday cake with my name embossed in creamy icing. That, in McCluskiegunj, was like asking for the moon. Even though my mum baked yummy cakes, I ached for a 'special' one for my birthday. It was a craving only my brother Ryan shared.

Alice McGowan, Auntie Alice to us, lived across the road in a pretty cottage. We were barely acquainted with her, until the morning of my birthday, when I saw her walk up to our house for the very first time. She looked immaculate, her bright lipstick enhancing her soft smile. She was holding out a crystal dish with a lid. "Have a look," she told me gently. I took it, thanking her. I slowly lifted the lid while looking up tentatively - she was nodding encouragingly.

Before me was the most beautiful birthday cake ever. It was covered in white frosting, decorated with colourful Gems, with a row of pink roses around the base and - best of all - my name was decorated in pink icing!

I called out to my parents excitedly, even as I gave Auntie Alice a big hug. I could tell from the way she put her arms around me that it warmed her heart too. And that was the beginning of many happy memories together and, of course, several extraordinary birthday cakes for my brother and me.

Lesley D. Biswas, Kolkata

 

The Support System

In November 2005, we moved to Noida. I was frantically juggling my life as a doctorate student and a mother of three, with the youngest aged one. There was no time to socialize so I became the loner on the top floor. One day, while I was in the bathroom, my four-and-a-half-year-old, Ria, ran to me to show her drawing. She slipped and hit her forehead against the bathroom door. Hearing the loud thud and shriek, I rushed out to find her bleeding from her forehead. My husband was out of town, I had neither an ATM card nor enough cash. I panicked.

I called the Singhs, who were casual acquaintances in the building. Amarjeet Singh had just returned home from work, but he promptly offered to help. Leaving my toddler with my eldest daughter, I rushed out with an ice pack held to the wailing Ria's forehead.

Singh first dropped me at the hospital OPD and went on to handle the paperwork. He then called my husband to reassure him. Singh was at the hospital for three hours before driving us home. Through it all, he was a pillar of strength. Meanwhile, his wife fed dinner to my children.

My eyes brimmed with tears of gratitude, as I thanked him later. He simply smiled and said, "Tussi kyon fikar karde ho. Koi bhi hota to aisa hi karta (No worries, anybody would have helped)."

Though in my heart of hearts, I know we were blessed to have neighbours like the Singhs.

Rakhi Jain, Mumbai

 

Giving Back

Kanittha Sarkar embodies good neighbourliness. Originally from Thailand and married to an Indian, she runs her Delhi home super efficiently, manages two young daughters and takes part in every community activity.

She holds free classes for underprivileged children, is the first to contribute for them and even chips in when she's not in town - like the time we organized a clean-up drive. Kanittha was travelling that day, but sent two huge boxes of gloves and masks before the event.

I once mentioned that I wanted to learn how to fold momos and she called a few days later asking me to come over to learn from her husband. Recently, she organized a Halloween party for the children and distributed a sack of sweets to less fortunate kids the next day. See what I mean? She's easily our most friendly, helpful and conscientious neighbour, someone you can always rely on.

Sonali Chander, New Delhi

 

Sound Advice

My husband and I married young, despite opposition from our families. We were fresh out of college and keeping house was taking its toll. I found myself in a new city with little support, as my husband travelled on work frequently.

In 1986, we moved into a rented accommodation next to the Konsams in Guwahati. The genteel patriarch, also our landlord, had four children, but I had never heard him raise his voice. One day, after a particularly harrowing day of housework, studying for my degree and looking after our new baby, my husband and I got into a nasty argument that ended with him walking out in the middle of the night.

Next morning, our landlord came over to play with the baby as usual. As I offered him a cup of tea, he sat us down for a talk. He reminded us that we were friends first and equals in every sense and that we were equally responsible for building a marriage and a home. Most importantly, he said, we had to remember to treat each other with respect and dignity before expecting and imposing on each other the socially defined notions of a 'wife' and a 'husband'. It was the best advice I have received. It was especially powerful to a 24-year-old woman, who had been hearing well-meaning people parrot gendered notions of wifely duties and was feeling lost.

M. Renu, Guwahati (As told to Naorem Anuja)

 

All You Need is Love

Hate has always been like an overbearing tree. One that gave me more shade than I needed to survive the scorching relationships in my life. I cocooned myself inside walls, gradually sensing hatred in others too. I believed everyone I cared about loathed me. One day, I watched as my five-year-old neighbour drew. It was the sketch of a dog and a girl.

"What is she doing?" I asked.

"She's hiding the dog's bone under a tree," she replied.

"But why?"

 "So other dogs don't find the bone and take it away."

 "Wouldn't your dog feel sad about his bone being hidden?"

"Noooo," came the emphatic reply. "The dog would feel happy that someone hid away his bone and kept it safe."

Her conviction startled me. What was she thinking? After chasing the idea down a rabbit hole, I realized, you have to be able to see love, feel it. My fears of being hated came in the way. Perhaps I was the dog brooding in bitterness, resentful of all my hidden bones. I failed to see the protective intent in people, underlying their acts.

I began noticing the subtle messages, seeing love for what it is - a bunch of random acts spread across your day. It was right there. It needed a little girl's nudge to show me how to receive it.

Namrata Suresh, Mumbai

 

Second Family

The Kakkars have been our neighbours in Delhi for over 20 years. During this time, five-minute stairwell catch-ups have become impromptu dinners, the kids have grown, I've been married - twice, but their support remained steadfast. I get a lump in my throat when I think of how they have always been there.

In 2003, while lighting a sparkler after Diwali, my mum caught fire. My stricken dad tried to save my baby nephew and mum from the engulfing flames. Bharat bhaiyya and Annu bhabhi heard him and came rushing from next door. They dragged mum to the bathroom and poured a bucket of water over her. This saved her life, even though she had suffered severe burns already.

I will also never forget how the Kakkars accompanied my parents to my ex-husband's home late one night to bring me back and helped me get out of a bad marriage. Who knows how my life would have turned out to be if it wasn't for them? I have found love again and moved to the UK with my husband, but knowing that they are there, close to my ageing parents, is a huge relief.

Kathakoli Dasgupta, Lancashire, UK

 

Helping Hand

When I was eight we lived in a township, in the port town of Haldia, West Bengal. After the Shuklas moved in next door, their son Aatish and I became friends, as did our mothers. One day, I was sitting at my study table next to the window, sharpening my pencil. It had been raining all day. Suddenly, there was a crack of thunder that startled me and the pencil slipped and poked my eye. My mum heard me crying and rushed to my side. She immediately called Deepa Auntie who remained calm, and took us straight to the hospital, standing by us as the doctor examined me. We left after being assured of no lasting damage. As my mum thanked her profusely, she just smiled. It's only today that I realize what her kindness meant to my mother.

Richa Sharma, Indirapuram, Ghaziabad

 

Across the Balcony

Our house in south Calcutta overlooked that of 'Daktar' dadu and Daktar ma. It was in their balcony that I noticed Daktar ma's nephew - a shy bookworm who spent his vacations with them. We'd make eye contact across balconies sometimes, but our common connect was AD, the landlord's son.

I was often in AD's study with the bookworm, discussing books, music and life. One day, AD took us to see the Russian Circus. Please note, the bookworm was (apparently) nonchalant about the company and focused entirely on the event. But after a couple of years, he mustered up courage to write me a billet-doux, in his impeccable hand, clarifying that the nonchalance was just a charade to cover up what he really felt, but couldn't tell a 14-year-old. Thus began our love story.

During his next visit, we got even more adventurous. I pretended to go on morning walks - undoubtedly the healthiest ones ever - and AD's study continued to be our 'official' meeting ground. Of course, we sneaked out for ice cream by the river and went for movie dates, only to be spotted by a relative, who wasted no time in informing Herr Himmler, my mother.

Our love story carried on with weekly billets-doux for four years. Then, as often first loves do, this too ended tragically. I must confess, though, that it's been the one closest to my heart.

Priyadarshini Basu, Bengaluru

 

Into the Fold

I am an only child and a few traumatic experiences made me go into my shell. Until 2004, when I turned 13 and we moved to a new home in Guwahati that brought with it the best neighbours ever.

The Boros were a bustling family of eight that included four siblings - three girls and a boy. The girls and I were around the same age and I felt like I had walked into an extended sleepover. Theirs was a home filled with screaming matches, laughter and merciless bullying, but with the deepest sense of belonging. And best of all, they made space for me. They teased me, made me take sides, even fought with me, while including me in their circle of trust. They did what all siblings do - never let me take myself too seriously. From discussing crushes to sharing our first heartbreaks and even being chased down a mountain by an elephant, we have shared some great memories. We moved to our own home in 2011, but stayed friends.

I relocated to Delhi in 2013, as did Mayalu who is now in the same hostel as me. Another of their siblings has just moved here as well. It's like the old gang is back together, bringing endless laughter and love into my life.

Anuradha Sinha, New Delhi (As told to Naorem Anuja)

 

Like One's Own

I was a child when we moved to Kolkata and Sanjay Deo helped us pick a flat near theirs. Our families became close and I would spend days at their home. Soon we had to return to Mumbai and when the movers did not arrive, Uncle Sanjay calmly suggested we go ahead as planned. He specially took leave to dispatch our belongings. They have since moved to Mumbai and the best part is that they still pamper their 'Shona'!

Sonavi Chitale, Mumbai

 

Courage Under Fire

It was the day after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, and schools had been shut in Delhi. We were going for lunch to my maternal grandparents' home in Jagatpuri on my father's autorickshaw. His mother, our dadi, opted to stay behind at our home in Lakshmi Nagar.

My uncles and aunts were in deep discussion, as we children (I was seven then) ran around the house, making as much as noise as possible. Around mid-morning, the phone rang and my father looked worried. He asked us to be quiet. That's when I noticed the eerie silence around us. Suddenly, the stillness of the street was shattered by a loud commotion, punctuated by a round of gunfire. We heard screams, haunting screams.

Then the iron gate at the entrance rattled. My father opened the peephole to look through, but shut it quickly. There was an angry mob outside, demanding we come out. Suddenly, we heard footsteps coming down the staircase from the roof. I held my breath, hiding behind my mother's dupatta.

It was Shuklaji, my grandparents' neighbour. He gestured for us to follow him quietly. We tiptoed across the roof and climbed over to his house. Across the neighbourhood, towers of black smoke raged towards the sky. For two days, 12 of us hid in a makeshift loft, a cement slab meant for storing suitcases. Later, my aunt's neighbour Ved Prakash sheltered us in his house for 15 days. On our way to his home we saw that a mob had burnt my father's autorickshaw. The smell of burning rubber lingered in the air. Dogs fought over charred remains. Trucks were being loaded with bodies of victims who had been killed in the carnage that raged through Delhi that week.

It was there that we learnt how our Muslim neighbours in Lakshmi Nagar had patrolled the area and looked after my grandmother who was alone. We returned home about 17 days later. Those images will never leave me. Yet, what helps me sleep today is the courage and kindness of our neighbours and how they risked their lives to protect ours.

Inder Jeet Singh, New Delhi (As told to Gagan Dhillon)

 

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