Some weeks ago, Mishti, my older one, went missing. There was another girl with her; together they had gone to collect money for a raffle and had not returned until late in the evening. The other child's mother called me to check if I knew where they had been. Although I had no idea where they were, I was confident they would be fine. What could happen to them inside the confines of the housing complex? But the other mother was worried: they are girls, what if something happens to them? The girls are, by the way, only six years old. But I cannot blame her. With how things are, it is only natural for one to worry about a child's safety.
Mishti came home about an hour later - happy and excited. I found out that she had been in a neighbour's house for the past one hour getting her nails painted, having Maggi and indulging in her favourite chocolate. The lady, who I don't even know, had found the girls so interesting that she had insisted they stay, gave them things to eat and painted their nails. I wanted to admonish her for being irresponsible and greedy. But then I remembered my childhood.
As a little girl in Kanpur, I spent most of my time at our neighbour's house. I called the lady of the house dadi, and her children bua and chacha. I ate with them, played with them, even slept at their house. And I was not an aberration; it was natural to do that in those days - at least for children.
When I was growing up, neighbours were family, a set of people always available for you - and you for them. Women spent long afternoons at each other's houses, kids spent all evening with each other. You watched TV together, borrowed space in their refrigerators, shared utensils, ingredients, even clothes sometimes. Your more affluent relatives called you on their number, your friends spent evenings at their terrace. Then there were the weddings, or deaths or births, and the neighbours would not only lend you a hand, but also their homes.
During my wedding, we solely relied on our neighbours to lend us their rooms, halls and terraces. As a new bride I spent the week at my hometown-in-law living at the neighbour's house, sharing the bedroom with their scooter. (But during my brother's and sister's weddings, which happened recently, we had to book plush guesthouses for our discerning guests lest they be embarrassed to share beds, rooms or bathrooms).
When we shifted houses - and we shifted an awful lot of houses - our new neighbours gave us food and shelter. There would be a steady flow of tea and biscuits, even meals, until the kitchen was set up; post which we were invited - or would invite them - home. With every house we changed, our friends multiplied.
And then something changed. Neighbours became nameless, faceless people who we knew nothing about.
They might live next door, but we cannot knock at their door to ask for milk, or sugar or potatoes - we now have home delivery. We no longer need to borrow their dosa tawa or oven, for we have everything of our own. We don't need them to pick up our children or look after them, because we have live-in house helps. Their houses, beddings or folding cots are not needed for our guests, nor are their scooters for running an errand, or their fridge to store our ice cream. We don't get to know if there is a wedding, birth or death in their family. We might share the corridor, or the lift, but we no longer share our lives with them. For that we have our Facebook friends.
P.S. I just met the lady who hosted my daughter in the elevator. I have seen her many times before but never knew it was the same person who indulged my girl so. While she was animatedly talking with the girls and inviting them home, all I could manage was a polite smile, and a thank you for holding the door of the lift for us.
First published on New Beginning.