By Riddhi K
Fidgeting with her walking stick and fumbling for words, she nervously asked me who I was. I had the same question for this fragile old woman standing at the door next to my house. But I stopped myself from blurting out, “Aap kaun?”, since she was the one who answered the doorbell.
I had no idea that an old woman lived along with the family that had moved in six months ago. How would I know? I have no interaction with my neighbours. And that day too, I was in no mood for small talk. I had rung the doorbell with only one intention – to hand over the letter and dash.
That night, I lay in bed thinking about my lonely old neighbour. What if she needed something when her children were away? Whom would she ask for help? And what if something happened to her? We’d never know because we’d never bother finding out why the newspapers were piled up outside her house for days. For a country that prizes the idea of community, how did we get to a point where we’ve isolated ourselves from the people we are in closest physical proximity to?
I remember when we were growing up, we knew the people around us better. In that old society where I spent 15 years of my life, our neighbours were like our extended family. So when the aunty living on the third floor got a surgery, mum would cook dinner for the family, while the other neighbours chipped in with breakfast and lunch. And when the didi next door was taking her Class X exams, we made sure we lowered the volume on our TV. We looked out for each other. In fact, when my sister was five it was an alert neighbour who spotted a child abductor and saved her. On birthdays, we’d go door-to-door distributing chocolates and on festivals, we exchanged sweets.
Most of us today would be hard pressed to remember the surnames of the families we’re living next to, without the help of a name plate. Gone are the days when you’d walk into the neighbour’s house to borrow some cheeni, or ask them to babysit your little one while you ran an errand.
As a society, we’ve become less trusting and even less tolerant of others. And our increased obsession with privacy has pushed us into the arms of loneliness. “Erratic schedules, lack of meaningful relationships or break-ups, increasing workload, long commuting hours and the pressure/need to prove one’s worth through materialism, too, have resulted in people distancing themselves from others,” Madhumita Ghosh, clinical psychologist at Fortis Hiranandani Hospital in Mumbai, said in a Mint report on urban loneliness.
Loneliness is indeed a modern-day disease, right up there with diabetes and cancer. Researchers claim that it can kill you 30 per cent faster and is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is a global crisis, to the extent that a few months ago Britain appointed a Minister for Loneliness. In Japan, the level of isolation has reached epidemic proportions, where an ageing population dies silently in their flats without being discovered for months. If we continue like this, we might not be too far behind.
It’s ironic – or perhaps fitting – that all this should happen in the golden age of the internet. A New York Times essay “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” points out, “Why is it that in an age of cheap long-distance rates, discount airlines and the Internet, when we can create community anywhere, we often don’t know the people who live next door?”
You enter a building elevator and you notice everyone’s eyes and heads are inside their smartphones. Who then has the time to look up, smile, and exchange pleasantries when you still have 10 Good Morning WhatsApp forwards to respond to? And why borrow cheeni from a neighbour you’ve never spoken to, when you can just order it online? Heck, even society meetings today are held over concalls or WhatsApp groups. Those who make an effort, like the woman who attempts to inquire about where you work, is branded nosy, and the man who smiles at you in the elevator, will most definitely be labelled creepy.
But it’s important that we let go of our inhibitions and make time for those living around us and that people living the same community check in on each other and share their concerns. Of course, we have our friends and family too for that, but consider this: If you were alone at home and you choked on an apple, your next-door neighbour will be your best shot at saving you. When a similar trend was observed in the US and the UK, tech companies started developing apps similar to Tinder and Facebook to help you connect with just the people next door. The British conducted surveys and social experiments to make neighbours talk to each other, and the result was the falling crime rate in the area.
We too need this network of protection of well-meaning neighbours around us. We need to be the Seinfeld to someone’s Kramer and the Penny to someone’s Sheldon. And like the writer Franklin P Jones once said, “Nothing makes you more tolerant of a neighbour’s noisy party than being there.” I’m not ready for parties yet, but I’m going to start with checking in on the neighbouring granny once in a while.
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