We all share a kind of a complicated love-Hate relationship with our neighbours – we loathe them at times and yet secretly agree that they’re most likely our first option when in an emergency. In the wake of the burning ‘intolerance’ debate going on in the country, the art of being neighbourly is something I wish that were taught as a subject in schools!
Whilst visiting my mother’s place in a quiet little suburb near Thrissur in Kerala after many years, I was in for a pleasant surprise when I realized that not much had changed in her town. Coconut trees still dotted the skyline, the quaint row houses still looked charming, the temple bells tolled, noisy kids lounged under shady trees and womenfolk went about their chores diligently as the men left for wherever their work took them. Life here was typically the way it was years ago albeit for a few modern touches here and there like the new shopping complex, a few offices and a Pizza hut at the town centre that oddly looked out of place in this idyllic town that had an old-world charm to it.
It felt great to be in the midst of such tranquillity after my stifling city life. As I sat on my grandfathers’s well worn yet cosy armchair, sipping granny’s cardamom chai , soaking in the serenity of my surroundings and ruminating on life’s myriad mysteries, I happened to see a strange sight – Mr. Nair, who lived across our house and Mr. Paul his next door neighbour, walking along in solidarity making casual conversation. To any other regular observer, there couldn’t be anything wrong with the scene of two old friends out on their morning stroll, but to me this came as a real shock, knowing full well the intense hatred they mutually shared and the sordid history of their fights.
I remember all so well, the infamous summer vacation where I was witness to their shocking hatred of each other. Mr.Nair on his side of the wall brandishing a Kitchen Knife and Mr Paul safely on his side of the compound screaming bloody murder. The crux of the issue was that Mr Paul had chopped down a few branches of a neem tree that grew on Nair’s side of the wall.
‘’You’d think he would’ve been happy for the shade that it provided,’’ Mr Nair screamed, ‘’ but no, he complains that it was planted too close , it obscured his view and darkened his rooms.’’ He was beyond himself with anger. After hours of mud slinging and name calling , the storm subsided when a few neighbours including grandpa intervened.
The peace that ensued was brief as a few days later we saw the duo at each other’s throats again, this time over Mr.Paul’s dog that had decided to make Mr. Nair’s compound as his unofficial toilet! A few days later it was the ladies of the house who were hurling ‘you-dumped-your-waste-in-my garden’ abuses at each other. It was a battlefield of sorts everyday. Interestingly, none of the neighbours did anything to stop it – some were simply embarrassed to get involved and others were secretly enjoying all the drama. Years passed and everytime I visited my grandparents, I’d get to hear voluble descriptions from grandma of the intense fights that Mr.Paul and Mr.Nair had the previous year.
So it was indeed with shock and amazement that I ran back inside calling out for grandma asking her to see the miracle that was happening on her street. Grandma calmed me down with another steaming cup of her aromatic tea and said – ‘’ Yes. Paul and Nair have patched up, my girl.’’
‘’ That’s impossible. But How, Why?’’ I was simply astounded.
‘’Last summer,’’ she said “There was a fire that broke out in Nair’s compound – it started from all the wood he had in his storage shed and quickly spread. There was clamour and confusion everywhere. Nair literally went into shock seeing his place burning down. As the entire neighbourhood watched helplessly, too scared to get any closer to the raging fire, the only person with any presence of mind to act was Paul – he yelled orders, got a few people to bring out their garden hoses, connected them all together and started hosing down the fire, all the time barking instructions to the neighbours to fetch more water and asking them to call the fire services,not bothering for a minute about the danger that he was in. The fire service had trouble finding our ‘off-the-map’ location and took forever to reach – by then, the blaze was under control, all thanks to Paul’s quick thinking. The rest is history, now the two of them are as thick as thieves – always together.
I was astounded by their unexpected Fellowship. Despite all their differences and tensions, what ultimately prevailed here was humanity. People are almost always better than their neighbours think they are. Just like the people who lived here and the houses they lived in, their neighbourliness was ‘old –fashioned’ too, in a nice way. I realised that while it’s easy to build fences and draw boundaries around your houses, states and even countries, it isn’t all that easy to build a fence around your heart that ultimately believes in love.