Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Good neighbors, better friends.........सखे शेजारिणी.****.(अरुण दात्यांचे गाणे ऐका...to listen to Arun Date's famous song, scroll to end of post.. )

They would often go around to watch the new building coming up. There was a good chance they would make the list, when flats were allotted. Two of them would soon be three, and any increase in domestic space was more than welcome.

And so it happened that the monsoon of that year saw them move into a flat. Shifting from a furnished dorm to a 5 room flat, with kitchens and bathrooms that were all yours. You could have folks over to stay. No furniture ? Never mind. Throw mattresses on the floor, and chat away the whole night amidst endless cups of coffee, and abnormal hunger pangs at weird times, fanned by a sense of being a pseudo-pioneer, finally moving into a house you could call your own; (but isn't).

For a long time they didn't know who their neighbors would be. People were shifting into flats over a week. Everyone else had so much furniture; they were shifting there from older and/or smaller flats. She would watch the various moving furniture fashions with interest. Old, modern, heirloom, expensive,tacky, sometimes everything together. Every one was much older than them, with college going children. And so there was much coming and going of young folks in all the neighboring flats.

Naseem and her husband were their new neighbors. Much senior to them in age as well as designation, they had one son , who had just started college, and she would see Naseem standing in her balcony , early mornings , as she waved her son goodbye, and watched till he turned the corner outside the gate.
Naseem , of course, didn't work, she was a housewife. In a culture, very typical of Moslems, (which they were), she was the queen of the household, and did not involve herself in stuff outside the house unless it was to accompany her husband somewhere.

Her family hailed from Hyderabad, and one day there was a telegram.

Those days, it was an achievement to have a telephone; you had to wait several years for it. In those email-less days, the Institute operator passed on emergency messages through the neighbor's phone, if it existed. And so it happened that the young couple(who had inherited a phone connection) , rushed over to Naseem's house to call them when the phone call came.

Their grandma was sick, and the adults would have to leave to go see her. Late evening saw them dropping by to the young couple's flat, to say that they would be away, but that their son Hamid, would be staying because of his college stuff. Reassured by the younger couple, they left, for a long overnight train journey, no reservations due to this last minute travel; and all this very worrisome, as Naseem's husband had a heart problem...

And so the young couple called Hamid over for dinner that evening. Naseem had arranged for someone to come and cook for him, but he felt more comfortable with "uncle" types, who were much younger than his parents, and he hankered for someone to talk to, as he worried about a grandma who lay sick, and imagined things. The next day , Hamid left for college, after waving to his young "aunt" neighbor, a bit taken aback, as she packed sandwiches for him. He was a non vegetarian, and they were not, but tomato,cucumber and mango pickle was heaven between two pieces of buttered bread....

No one knows what he told his parents after they returned a week later, but Naseem came over to see her neighbor and just stood there, eyes full, as no words escaped her mouth.

Communication was complete.

They became friends, and it was a new experience for Naseem to have a friend who was not only from another religion (Hindu), but young, expecting, and working.

It was interesting to observe their household. Formal visitors almost never got to see or meet Naseem. Her husband, a devout scholarly Moslem with an Engineering doctorate, handled that. When families visited , the women came into the family area to visit Naseem with their children and the men sat in the study.

Then one day Naseem's husband was in pain. She came running with a phone number of their doctor in a big city hospital, and asked her friend to call. She herself would get tongue tied talking to a doctor, but she trusted her friend. And so there was this three way conversation where her friend translated the neighbor's pain and described it in detailed medical terms, locationwise to the doctor, with gestures that the doctor couldn't really see, but could probably telepathically understand, such was the intensity of the communication. The ambulance came, and Naseem and her husband sped off , knowing that they need not worry about their son . who would check things with the neighbor couple, when he got home.

They returned home that evening, Naseem's face wreathed in smiles, as she recalled her husband's face when the doctor demanded to know who was the young lady who described the symptoms on the phone so well ....

In all these events, what the younger couple considered totally normal and Naseem thought totally amazing , was the communication that developed between the old Professor and the young couple, particularly, the wife, as she was home more than her husband.

Years passed, and there was now a young child in the younger couple's house. Grandparents would visit, worry as grandparents do, and go home, asking the older couple to keep and eye on the young child. Naseem and her husband treated him like a favourite younger son, and all their friends and relatives also did the same.

Hamid had now graduated, and was planning to go to the US for his doctorate. Naseem's relatives started hinting that Hamid should get married and then go. It was easy for a young chap to get attracted to the good life, with some of its dicey aspects. Proposals were pouring in and Hamid settled on a wonderful educated Moslem girl, a doctor , a rarity in those days.

Naseem's husband had just one request. They attached great importance to the "ring ". They attached even greater importance to grandparents blessing the event. Would Naseem's neighbor friend accompany her to purchase the ring ? Of course. So a trip was made to a Mumbai suburb where the younger couple's parents lived, and a wonderful ring was bought at a reliable jeweller's, and followed up with a celebratory visit to the younger couple's in laws, who were only too delighted , to have Naseem come by with such great news..

They got home, and the young girl asked, if Naseem had a little box or something, say, in silver, with some religious Koranic inscriptions on it. Naseem was completely dumbstruck ...

"Why do you ask ? And how did you know, that I had such a little box? " she asked.

"I didn't really know," her friend said . " But in our religion, a special gift gets even more special when enclosed in something which has a blessing on it . So we sometimes enclose little things in boxes with pictures of Ganesha and so on.."

Naseem went in, and came out with a lovely little box with something like blessings from the Koran inscribed in Arabic on it. Her mother had got this for her on her pilgrimage to Mecca several years ago.

The engagement was duly conducted at the girl's parents' place. As the marriage date neared, in typical Indian style (regardless of religion), some relatives of the super conservative type would enjoy commenting , where none was required. Discussions amongst themselves, so designed that they would get back to Naseem and her husband. Her husband was a respected elder in the mosque, and no one dared say anything in his presence.

The marriage happened, the neighbor couple and their 3 year old son, were accorded the honor that is normally reserved for the best-man-and-maid-of-honor type folks.

Then one day after the guests had left, and the Hyderabad grandma was spending a relaxed few days at Naseem's, they were having a cuppa of cardamom-mint tea and the young neighbor and her son were visiting, in a typical rehashing-the-events session.

"You know, I have been wanting to tell you. " Naseem put her cup down, and proceeded to shell some pistachios she would be using that afternoon.

"My husband thinks your behaviour is actually a correct Moslem behaviour !

The younger woman suddenly paid attention . Grandma adjusted her scarf comfortably across her shoulder, chewed on a clove, and smiled an indulgent smile.

"You are educated, you work, but you are very dignified when you communicate with people you don't know, particularly with men. No airs. No coyness. You are so free with me and grandma, and you behave in so naturally helpful and respectful a manner with my husband, yet unafraid to ask questions that would help solve any problem. And at the end of the day, he was really impressed by you thinking about the box for the ring..... not just any box , but one with a Koranic inscription . It didn't strike any of my relatives, you know. ...."

The young girl watched her son playing nearby with Hamid's old toy cars, making revving noises amidst a spray of spit. He hadn't perfected that yet.

She didn't know what correct Moslem behaviour was supposed to be. She grew up with the same opportunities her brothers had, and had to compete for everything. All she knew was that people were people, religion was incidental, but there had to be respect.......

And she thought back to her parents who brought her up with deep respect for all religions, her school where she had best friends who were Jews, Moslems, and Christians, and her in-laws, who by virtue of having lived in another state , were so open to the various customs and rituals of other religions, and learnt to enjoy them with neighbors in those days...

People to people, the problem was so simple. Be a good neighbor. Help as you would, someone in your own family.

If only the countries listened. And followed the same rules.

The world would be such a wonderful place.......

**** Click the play button below to hear the marathi song "Sakhi Shejarini" made famous by Arun Date

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  1. Wonderfully put into words. Sincerely wish the world would be one but alas... really loving reading your blogs and just understood your id, at first i thought its some name... but its marathi and it means just some one rite??

  2. Recently I read a phrase in a book that said : "perhaps love was not invented in India but it was certainly perfected there" (or something like that).

    You story is very moving to me.

    And you are so right, people to people, it is possible to find an understanding. This is why blogland is good in my opinion ; we meet people we would never otherwise meet, and we share. We share what we love, and what makes us mad. We try to understand other perspectives, and so, we all grow, as individual and as a collectivity. Our planet becomes a village, and we refuse to be manipulated again by those who are mainly driven by power and money.

    With warmest regards,


  3. Lovely post as always. wouldn't our lives be much simpler if we treated people as individuals rather than members of a particular sect or religion. When did people's religion become such an important factor in determining if we wanted to be friends with them or not? This really worries me.

  4. A beautiful story well told. Brotherhood, as practiced by tolerant people, should be an example for all nations. Sadly, the thirst for power gets in the way.

    The thirst for power also fuels some individuals and sects in religions, such as Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and right-wing Christian zealots. They are not really religious, but use their religion to hide behind.

  5. These events are so typical of middle class neighbourhoods ! Atleast the ones to which i belong to !

    We were taught that is important to respect, and hence were not allowed to call a gardner or a household help by any other name other than a respectful 'anna' or an 'akka' (elder brother / sister) We werent allowed to talk-back !

    We were strictly told that all religions were equal and the basic element of ones life is to respect another individual. That was the start point...!

    And many years later, when i donated blood to a christian mother in dire need, she said, i was a Jesus incarnate ! I told her that i didnt have to be Jesus to help her !

    And she replied, lying sick in bed, with wires all around : 'in that thought, you are God' !

    I shifted uneasily. Very uneasily.For some reason, your smooth and lovely narration takes me back to that lady !

    I wonder how many of us have resident Gods within us. In deep slumber.

  6. It used to be that we knew all our neighbors and they were like family. Most mothers stayed at home with the children when I was growing up and they all visited back and forth, exchanged ideas, recipes, babysat for each other, etc. Today, most women work, take care of the children and the house and don't have time for anyone but their family. Since I am retired, I am home all day but I don't know many of my neighbors because they are so stressed and busy. Times have certainly changed.

  7. Your stories are always so beautiful and such a delight to read! It would indeed be wonderful if our world today were more like the stories you tell. But it all seems to be about power and it is very sad. Thank you for a glimpse of something lovely for a change!

  8. hitch writer Thank you. And you are right about the name :-)

    helene h Thank you. Appreciate your sentiments . (Wish I could say that in French....)

    Usha Thank you. People today are just getting good at rabble-rousing. Give them a leader and their brains go for a toss. I wish they just listened to their parents when they grew up....

    Darlene Thank you. And I agree completely with your sentiments...

    Kavi Thank you for the lovely thoughts. Yes there is a God dormant within all of us. Its just that today, the wrong sort of folks are are mis-motivating a confused generation .....

    Judy You know, ringing the neighbor's doorbell and stopping by for a cuppa , is still possible here. (When I first went to the US as a grad student in 1969, one of the things i was told was that in day-to-day life you dont just go ring someone's doorbell and go chat. Eveveryone thought that was "progress". Funny isnt it ?

    But thanks so much for your comments....

  9. Hi Suranga, It's me again. I just wanted to thank your for your comment on my daughter's blog for their birthday and on mine also. I just saw an episode on Oprah here about the women in India that sell their hair and it is then made into extensions and sold to American women for large amounts of money. It was very interesting to me and I did not know this. You all have such beautiful hair. I would love to see a blog post about this from you sometime???
    Thanks again.

  10. There were so many sides to your post Suranga - it is such a privilege to enter another's culture for a time. There are many question marks to our global existence, but our freedom to communicate today is precious. Familiarity with each other's point of view will aid easy understanding. The internet is a conduit and if we use it wisely long term harmony may blossom. And those who would foster corruption and inequality will be unmasked.

  11. Judy and June Greatly appreciate your comments. Thank you.

  12. Hi Suranga,

    Thank you so much for the birthday wishes on our birthday. Your blog is so intersting!!

    Thanks again!


  13. Oh, Ugich, what a beautiful story and what a multi-faceted and thoughtful blog you have.
    I always come away from your writing with a smile on my face.

  14. This couldn't have been written any better. I could imagine every interaction as well as how the faces must look like.

  15. Brilliant as usual - sensitivity, nostalgia, anecdote and analysis blended with your unique touch. nd so relevant in these religiously-fraught times.

  16. Beautiful story! We are all actually so similar beneath the customs and traditions! Its only when live close to or meet each other regularly in an informal setting that we realize that. Otherwise, the stereotypes are off-putting. But Mumbai is getting ghetto-like these days I hear, so such opportunities will be rarer each day. A vicious cycle, this.

  17. Leigh thank you. And i enjoyed your blog too. You have such interesting activities with the horses. I was just wondering, why do you and your Twin Anne have different last names?

    Pearl Thank you for your smile and comments...:-)

    Anil P Thank you for the comments. Am looking forward to your next travel/picture blog...

    Sucharita Thank you. And I have realized that memories from 20s and 30s keep coming back in the late 50's :-)

    Devaki Thank you. And your comment about all of us being so similar beneath the customs and traditions is so apt....

  18. Dear Madam,

    I have been following your previous posts but have only not commented on them. I would not like to comment on cricket because I follow it very passionately and my comments would be misconstrued. Otherwise in life I'm a very rational person !!!!

    This and some previous posts have been brilliant. I still maintain that you should take up writing formally. The complex art of story telling is gifted to only a few in the world and you have it in ample quantities. Your stories have moral, ethics, philosophy and a good dose of every day life along with the main story line and yet those are presented in a very subtle way without appearing to preach the reader.

    I won't comment on the content and morals of the postings because we appear to concur on almost all issues. Therefore I'm content with only giving my opinion on your writing skills.

  19. Hi, Ugich.
    I hope you are listening to what "Ganesh" is telling you.

  20. Hi, I haven't read this post, yet, but will do so soon...Am writing to let you know that I will be visiting Mumbai next month. I would very much like to meet you, if it's ok with you. How should we go about it?

  21. Ganesh : Anyone who can be so succint in his comments needs to have a blog himself, (so we can all comment). Please think about it. And you can even call Ganesh Prasad......:-)

    Having said that, I am very grateful for your encouragement and fantastic words that you use to describe what I write. Writing formally requires a lot of time. It also takes the fun out of writing. But who knows what the future holds ?

    About the cricket, we have some very serious cricketers in the family who blog only cricket, and like you, have considered opinions and passion for the game.

    Occasionally one likes to remind them that its ONLY a game, to be enjoyed differently (in its different aspects), by people of other ages and sex .

    Needless to say, I have great practice in disagreeing with these folks at times.

    But am very grateful and appreciative of your interest in my blog.

    Thank you.

    Pearl I hear, I hear. :-)

    Rajk have sent you mail.

  22. Dear Madam,

    I sometimes think I should end up addressing you as Suranga as June does, but my Indian upbringing prevents me from addressing elders by name. I'm at that odd age where I can't let go of traditions.

    Well, thanks a lot for you kind observations regarding my comments. Regarding starting a blog, I believe apart from language one should also have a wealth of experience to share, so that I have some topics to write on. Currently I don't know whether I have that prerequisite in enough quantities.

    The name you have suggested seems interesting enough and tempts me to start blogging. Let us see.....

    Well sport ignites such passions in men that it ends up making fools out of otherwise very rational people. I think I fall into that fool category when it comes to cricket. I makes me have very strong biased opinions ( Sachin is god when it comes to cricket / Sehwag should be included among India's greatest cricketers, etc, etc !!!) which others would not necessarily agree with. Therefore it is best to keep ones opinions to oneself and avoid controversy. I regularly follow Cricinfo and after having read readers comments about columnists opinions it has reinforced my belief. Whatever one has to say there will always be an opposing opinion in sport.

    About writing formally, I know it takes up a lot time and sometimes one loses interest. Think about it the other way that you would be sharing your considerable experience with the rest of the people.

  23. Pearl,

    Ganesh happens to be my formal name in real life and not my cyberspace identity.

    Ganesh is the name of one of the most important gods in Hindu religion. ( It is a different issue that I don't have any god-like qualities). Ganesh is the name of the elephant headed god. You could google 'Ganesh/Ganesha' and you will find hundreds of results. I suggest you read the the 'Wikipedia' entry to know more.

  24. This story illustrates what I've long thought: men and women of good faith (no matter which one they espouse) can work together in peace if they open their hearts and minds.