It's like a scene out of a DC comic book. My flat is located right beside a chemical warehouse. That in itself is an ominous sign that something is not right. The matter became prominently more ominous as one fine day some of the chemical drums caught fire and in a few minutes there was a blazing inferno.
I didn't wait for the DC comic plot to take place where the chemical fumes mutate me into a super hero character. I grabbed my child's hand and scrambled out of the building along with the rest of the neighbourhood. We all stood there watching helplessly as the flames soared higher and closer to my home. Most of us standing around were silently saying goodbye to all the worldly possessions left behind. The flower pots and plants in the balconies of the nearby homes started to char. You could literally see all the dreams going up in smoke.
It started at around seven in the evening. A couple of hundred drums would not be doused very easily. It took the firefighters, along with the aid of many neighbourhood people more than three hours to bring the situation under control. But this article is not about the fire, fire hazards or even DC comics. It's about all the people who came out together to help each other.
Yes, it's the neighbours who supported each other through this time of desperation. They are the ones who grabbed water and buckets of sand to try and douse the flames before the fire brigade reached the spot. They made sure all the elderly as well as the children were safely brought out of the surrounding houses and kept out of harms way. They tried to save as many of the personal belongings as possible in case the fire spread further. Ultimately it was the neighbours who consoled us and assured that everything would be alright after the night is over. During such a traumatic event when the closest family members were living far away, the neighbours became the pseudo-family.
Living close together we invariably shared each others hopes, fears and happiness. There's the regular exchange of smiles as we meet as well as the simple chats or walks we take. Neighbours make up a good 'adda' in the evenings followed by copious amounts of tea. Of course, the opposite scenario is also true where neighbours cannot stand each other. They would more likely than not keep their windows closed so as not to see your face.
When I was young the neighbourhood people made a deeper imprint on the memory than close relatives. It's so much easier to remember them as they were always around especially when needed. Father would sit with people of his own age and start of heated albeit friendly debates about the daily news. The women folk would lay a mat on the rooftops at night and gossip for hours about nothing in particular. The neighbourhood kids were my friends many of whom studied in the same school as I did. School vacations were sometimes spent having picnics on each others rooftops along with rowdy participation in games like kabadi and badminton. Games of tag, skipping etc with the resulting wins or losses provide the building block of sweet memories. Children of different households married off their dolls. Bicycle races ended up in squabbles that were worked out the next day. The girls would team up to go watch a matinee show featuring the then hit stars Rajjak and Kobori. The men would rally around the television while the Muhammad Ali versus Jo Frazier boxing match went on.
The neighbours back then were an integral part of family life. It was difficult to imagine sitting down to lunch without sharing something from the house next door. Portions of special dishes had to be sent off while at the same time pickles and sweets invariably found their way back into our house. Small occasions became the source of large get-togethers where the neighbours ended up doing more than the blood relatives who were invited. It was the same case during times of need when neighbours were the first ones to offer a helping hand.
Friendly or nosy?
Here's a Romeo and Juliet situation that goes further than the original but has a death of a different kind. Simi and Tipu were two youngsters who decided to elope. Naturally that was because their parents disagreed in the match, made not in heaven but in a neighbourhood setting. They ran away and got a court marriage. Tipu's old neighbourhood friends helped him settle in this arduous and dangerous journey. They helped him and his new bride find a small flat. The couple was given gifts of many items they would need such as bed, bedding, utensils etc. This was a blessing for the newlyweds because now they could concentrate on love solely. Of course, amour does die down, to some extent, for everyone and that happens when the loving wives become the nagging ones and adoring husbands start ignoring them.
The rift in this couple's case were Tipu's old neighbours who Simi felt were an interfering bunch. 'Why do they have to be involved in his life so much?' was her concern. Tipu was very surprised and felt this was a sign of great ungratefulness on Simi's part. According to her she used to live in an apartment complex where neighbours maintained their distance just sticking to 'hellos'. This was a sign of politeness. Tipu considered that as a lack of intimacy and friendliness. This difference in neighbour culture became the topic of regular arguments and hence we have the death of Romeo and Juliet.
Everyone wants to have a house to live in. But it's a major hassle to plan, design and build. Not only that, there is the matter of making money which is difficult indeed whether you do it legally or have a laundering business. Flats are much easier to acquire especially when developers are hell bent on making all of Dhaka including all its water bodies and parks into an apartment jungle.
An estimated 15-20 lakh people live in flats. A typical six storey building houses about 12-18 families most of whom hardly know each other. People from vastly different backgrounds live together yet hardly know what the other person does. Many prefer it that way leading their own private lives. So it is a small wonder that Simi and Tipu have such varying opinions.
Of course, there are always variations. When Shayla resided in Greenroad it was in a four storey building filled with very friendly neighbours. Working couples could simply leave their kids with other families and go off in peace. The children were well looked after by the neighbours and they could all play together.
For a couple of years though Shayla has moved to a new flat in Lalmatia where the neighbours are very polite but not very outgoing. They maintain a distance, part of which is due to status consciousness. Shayla finds it difficult to go up to the neighbours even for a chat after a days work. Her husband works out of the city and so she is alone most of the time. Her children cannot play with the other like they used to and stay holed up within the confines of the apartment.
In most cases flat residents have formed such a tight schedule revolving around wealth that they lock out everything else surrounding them. Status becomes a major obstacle. Everything ends up falling into a rigid categorization. This way they maintain their privacy.
Love at nearby site
A first love or crush is a poignant point in memory. For many people it happens in the neighbourhood where opposing windows or balconies provide the first glimpse and rooftops become an ideal meeting place. Teenagers grow a fondness for that someone special after seeing them day in and day out.
In the sixties and seventies Bangla movies had similar plots where the heroes and heroines would be introduced into the world of amour across neighbouring building. Celebrity couples like Uttam and Suchitra, Rajjak and Kobori, Babita and Farook were icons for the love struck youth. Of course, most first loves do not last. In most cases it is because of opposing parents. Even in the face of such adversity love continues unabated with the couples exchanging letters in secret and flowers being thrown up at open windows. Then there are meetings on the way to school. Love does give way under pressure and that's when teens can understand heartache. But that's another story.
Nowadays neighbouring teens may not believe so much in love but their clandestine activities carry on albeit in a different guise. A simple SMS or a missed call on the cell phone is enough to get things rolling.
Children often become good friends no matter what the setting. Whether they live in flats or not older children come out with cricket bat and ball in hand to take advantage of empty roads during hartals and weekends. They also run away together after shattering someone's window. Others form teams to play football. The younger children hang out in the ground level parking spots to play tag, catch or simply pedal away on their bikes. Sometimes they just go to another flat and simply sit there playing games. As children they grab each others hand in a gesture of friendship. As they get older, just like us, they will be letting go to limit the interaction to simple hellos.
There is no end to chattering about neighbours. It's true that if personalities do not match to some degree it is close to impossible to freely talk to someone else. But we have to keep in mind that if ever, something bad happens it would be difficult and maybe pointless to expect a helping hand.
The root of the problem seems to lie with the human nose. People either poke it too much into other peoples business or they act as snobs and keep it very high in the air. If we can avoid these sort of activities, relationships with neighbours can only become stronger and more enjoyable.
By Sultana Yasmin
Translated by Ehsanur Raza Ronny